Thursday, March 19, 2015

Determining Lesson Rates

One of the most important decisions a music teacher will make when beginning to teach privately is their rate. It is also one of the most challenging because of the multiple issues that must be considered.

  • What is the average rate for private lessons in your area? While this will not be the final consideration in setting your personal rate, it is vital information to have. This ensures that you are not underselling yourself nor setting a fee so high that you seem unaware of your competitors' rates.
  • What is your level of education in the field? How long have you taught privately? There are some wonderful piano teachers who have had very little formal training in music. However, advanced degrees in music bring with them higher levels of skill and pedagogical knowledge. Your rates should reflect your advanced training. Similarly, an experienced teacher brings more to the table than a neophyte and should expect to garner a higher tuition.
  • Where are lessons being conducted? If you are commuting to your students' homes, a higher tuition is expected to cover fuel and vehicle maintenance. It's also important to consider other lessons that cannot be taught as a result of your commute. Remember, you are being paid for your time as well as the service you are offering. Many parents are willing to pay a higher fee for the convenience of having the lessons brought to the home.
  • What studio expenses and fees are included in the tuition? Decisions must be made from the outset about how you will handle the acquisition of music and other teaching materials. Don't forget to consider things like printing expenses, recital rentals, and instrument maintenance when setting your fee as well.
What other things do you consider when setting the fee for lessons that you teach? What lessons have you learned over the years that would be helpful to new teachers entering the field? Share your thoughts in the comments section below.

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Piano Teacher Institute

I fervently believe that it is essential that musicians seek out opportunities to improve their skills as performers and teachers. Professional development can come in many forms: attending conferences and seminars, reading recently published books and journals on the topic, as well as participating in web-based events. As 2015 got started and I found myself returning to private piano teaching, I decided to take advantage of the opportunity to enroll in Joy Morin's online Piano Teacher Institute.

PTI is a 6-week course that addressed topics from the business matters related to the piano studio, to selecting student repertoire, and conducting the initial lesson with a new student. In addition to weekly reading assignments transmitted as PDF files, the course also included multiple writing assignments that would generate feedback from Joy and a weekly video chat with other students enrolled in the course.

Before I begin my personal reflection on the Piano Teacher Institute, I need to be very transparent. I opted to participate in the winter session because it appeared that I would have much more time to devote to the class. As soon as PTI began, my schedule changed sharply and did not permit me to be as active as I had hoped. Having said that, I still found Joy's course to be informative and very beneficial.

In my personal opinion, the PDFs that accompany the course are worth the price of enrollment. They present material in an approachable manner that is well-reasoned and carefully researched. I also appreciated the "For Further Reading" lists that are found at the end of each chapter; these lists have contributed to my professional reading list as I continue to explore the area of piano pedagogy. Because the files are PDFs, downloading them was very easy and ensures that I will be able to consult them again in the future. My only complaint about the readings provided was that they did contain several typographical errors -- mainly related to spelling and grammar -- that seemed to slightly diminish their professionalism, although they did not significantly impact the message that Morin was conveying. (I know that PTI is a relatively new offering for Joy and anticipate that the documents will be revised in the near future as she continues to make improvements and adjustments.)

The weekly writing assignments offered opportunities to think about a wide range of topics. Some focused on the theory of pedagogy while others allowed students to reflect on how the concepts discussed were reflected in their own studio and teaching. With at least 6 assignments of varying lengths each week, I found them to be very time consuming and was not able to complete any of them. I would have liked to have had the opportunity to receive feedback from Joy, but the magnitude of the assignments as well as my personal schedule created an overwhelming situation that I couldn't get past. However, in the weeks since completing PTI, I have found myself completing several of the suggested writing tasks and have seen the benefit of the exercises in my personal teaching.

The weekly video chats were amazing! Housed in Google groups, the video conferences were easy to access. Since it is expected that students may have a conflict with the scheduled chats, videos are uploaded for later viewing as well. The conferences are conducted in an open-discussion format. Joy begins the discussion with topics in the week's lessons and the conversation follows participant interests. Occasionally, a conference can be dominated by an out-spoken participant (or by the fact that some of the others are too shy to jump in); Joy was quick to gently bring others into the discussion without putting anyone on the spot. Sometimes I think I would have liked a few more directly posed questions -- "Kennith, what are your thoughts about....." -- especially in the early weeks to help pull some of the more shy students into the discussion and assist with the creation of our online community.

I highly recommend piano teachers consider enrolling in the Piano Teacher Institute. Whether you are a newbie to the teaching profession or an experienced pedagogue, I am confident that you will be energized, challenged, and encouraged by the content as well as by Joy's gentle personality. If possible, participate in a session of the course when you have a little more time to devote to it. I would estimate that in order to really glean all of the information contained here (and to complete the written assignments adequately), a teacher would want to allow at least 10-15 hours weekly to interact with the material.

To learn more about PTI's upcoming schedule and tuition costs, visit While you are there, make sure to check out Joy's piano blog, Color in My Piano.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Adventures in Improv

Improvisation has never been one of my strengths as a performer. I would much rather read from a score -- even sight reading difficult material -- than make material up in the moment. I prefer to stay with my strengths. Sadly, it's not always possible to avoid improvisation. I have a humorous story to share with you that happened last month.

I received a phone call from my former church employer asking if I would consider "serenading" the youth group at their upcoming Valentine's Banquet. While I wasn't excited about going back to the church to play, I have fond memories of working with these students and thought it would be a fun way to connect with them briefly without making a long term commitment. My understanding of the request was that I would play 2 or 3 songs for the students before moving on to other aspects of the program. I was certainly in for a major surprise when I arrived at the site.

Upon entering the festivities, the coordinator gave me an agenda for the evening's event. The outline showed that I would begin playing upon the students' arrival and continue until the arrival of the entree! I would break for the meal and then resume playing for the remainder of the night. In my current line of work, I am not committing a large amount of repertoire to memory. For this particular event, I opted to load a few selections into my iPad rather than bringing multiple books. When all is considered, I had six pieces of music with me ---- and I needed to play for nearly 2 1/2 hours! I'm suddenly realizing that I am going to be doing a lot of improvising!

Now that I have found myself in this situation, there is no other choice than improv. It wasn't as painful as I expected (although it's still not something I want to repeat any time soon), but I also learned a few important things about successful improvisation.
  • Maintain an awareness of harmonic structures. Before launching into anything TOO creative, I found it helpful to establish a key clearly in my mind. I would venture to the relative minor briefly and lay the groundwork for the use of secondary dominants. It was important to always know what key I was planning to work in and how things moved within that key.
  • Keep the harmonic progressions simple! Since I am not an experienced improviser, it was important for me to stick to very basic progressions. Even though I used most of the same progressions throughout the night, I still found that I could achieve a variety of sounds by alternating the meter, tempo, and style of the music while repeating familiar (established) progressions.
  • Allow the melody to guide your movement. As I played, I wasn't thinking about composing everything at once. I focused on a melodic line and allowed the tune I was hearing in my head to find its way to the keyboard. Since the basic chord progressions were simple, I found it fairly easy to provide harmonic support for the melody since I was employing pentatonic melodies for the most part. (Using pentatonic scales just made it easier to avoid unintentional modulations to other keys unexpectedly....a lesson I learned the hard way!)
  • Relax and enjoy the music. I had to accept the fact that I didn't know what the music was going to sound like in advance. I couldn't be overly critical about fingerings or execution. I simply had to breathe and let the music flow. Once I convinced myself that I had enough information about music in my head to improvise successfully, I found it was actually rather fun.
Since I'm the improv novice, I welcome your comments. What are some of the most important things you tell someone as they begin to experiment with improvisation at the piano? How did you first discover the joy of improv as musician? Post your stories and ideas in the section below.