I recently helped a friend come to the difficult decision of leaving her full-time teaching job and choosing a profile musician’s career (read about it in this post). After you make that sort of decision, you live in this weird, floaty dream period when all you think about is time. How much control you’ll have over it, how much more of it you’ll be able to enjoy, to spend exercising, with friends and family, or collecting pet rocks.
Then a little gnarly Reality demon rudely interrupts that perfect bubble and you’re left quasi-frantically crunching numbers, sort of sweating, and legitimately solving systems of equations to figure out how many sets of students at x-rates you need NOT to fall down the Ramen Hole, Land of Broken Dreams.
I have maintained (and always will) that the universe works in weird ways. Every time I’ve needed a student, I’ve had one. I’ve never had trouble filling slots. Every time a student has left, I’ve easily been able to replace them. Every time I’ve thought “man, one more student this semester would pay for my plane ticket to Cancun,” someone has (literally) shown up at my door. I attribute 80% of that to old-fashioned toiling: marketing, making myself visible, networking, all that stuff I generally hate, but that I do because it’s necessary and funds my expensive cheese habit. There’s the usual suspects – a lot of my business comes from word of mouth, referrals, other teachers, my various networks. The other 20% happens mysteriously.
Here are some straight-up wacky ways students have fallen into my lap:
I Donated My Hair
I almost never cut my hair because it grows like redwoods on steroids. About every two years, I chop it all off and donate it, and since hairdressers have PhDs in guerrilla conversations, I ended up walking out of a salon once with a new student (and some rocking bangs, which promptly disappeared after two weeks).
I Trolled Craigslist
Judge all you want, but some of my best, most consistent students have come from craigslist. One CL candidate took lessons from me for over two years. I don’t really use the website anymore, but with the right balance of caution mixed with negligent decision-making, you too can make the List work for you without ending up on America’s Most Wanted.
I Sold my Stereo (on Craigslist) I had an older stereo set that wouldn’t sell, but that I couldn’t bring myself to give to Goodwill, so I put it up on craigslist. I’m pretty sure I was wearing paint-stained shorts and no shoes when the guy showed up at my door to buy it. I ran inside to get change, he saw my piano and ended up putting his two kids in lessons.
I Wrote a Blog In recent years, I’ve aimed to be in a more sharing place. Building people up is essential. It’s how we get by. So I’ve written a few blogs reviewing local musicals (like this one or this one) and I try to name individuals that catch my eye. One such person was so flattered he contacted me for lessons (he also goes to school with one of my current students). Score one for sharing the love.
I wanted to take drum lessons. He wanted to learn how to sing. It worked out for both of us but mostly me because I like to hit things. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Yes, you may not always get what you want, but you’ll always what you need….
A few days ago, I made a mistake, a horrible one. I had all this leftover bread. I buy it when I’m hungry, only to end up in a staring contest with my calorie tracker. Everything in moderation. So I eat one or two slices and then a week later am left with 18,000 loaves of once-buttery, now-crusty stale goodness that not even my dogs will eat if I “accidentally” drop it on the floor.
I haven’t the heart to throw it all out. Starving kids in Africa, you know. So I decided to make a bread pudding.
What does bread pudding have in it?
Eggs. Those devilishly, conniving little sacs of gelatinous protein-goo.
If you remember, last summer I developed an intolerance to eggs. I did, however, discover that I can consume them if they are baked into things, like breads or cookies (ahem…protein bars and healthy carbs), but NOT by themselves. So I thought I was safe.
As it turns out, this bread pudding was a little undercooked. Whoops.
Four hours later, my (frequently recurring) bile looked like something out of Night of the Living Dead. When this happens, I’m done for. Useless. The only remedy is sleep. Pure, unadulterated, uninterrupted slumber (not to be confused with sweaty, feverish bouts of stage-1 drowsiness mingled with intermittent night terrors, which is what my sleep more closely resembles in these situations).
So sleep I did. Right through all of my obligations, which included a worship planning meeting with my pastors and about 11 private lessons (7 in the evening, 4 the next morning).
How does a private music teacher recover financially from this? We don’t get paid sick days.
…or do we?
I have no shame in being totally transparent in this process, as my tuition policies are posted on my website, but I’ll disclose that some people get a little irritated over this. About once a year, the planets align and four or five students in one afternoon will cancel their lessons, leaving me with a nice stream of free time. I made the mistake once of posting about this on Facebook. Something to the effect of “good thing I have a rock-solid studio policy and will now enjoy some paid time off.” A parent saw it and told me they felt it was unprofessional and came across as gloaty. While I’ve since seriously reconsidered what I share on social media, I took the time to explain my policies and why I have to protect myself financially. If a student cancels, it’s pretty hard to collect on that lesson, even if they have paid in advance for it, and especially if they haven’t. For years, I reserved unpaid days for makeup lessons, or was ridiculously lenient on missed events (including giving a credit to a family of three siblings who wanted to trick-or-treat on Halloween instead of attend their lessons, which occurred at 4:00, 4:30, and 5:00). In 2009, I came down with swine flu and missed an entire week of lessons and classes. That was 25% of my income for the month. My “salary” varied by several hundred dollars each month and was too erratic and unpredictable to plan for the things I wanted, like a house and a car (you know, the things for which normal people with normal jobs can plan).
Here’s what I learned from the books (which all say the same thing) and what works for me.
I charge my students a flat monthly tuition rate for their lessons. This rate is calculated by figuring out the number of lessons in a 16-week semester, taking into account a week off for Thanksgiving, Spring Break, and a considerable amount of time off for Christmas and New Year’s. I add extra for recital fees, group activities, and a makeup lesson. I add up what I want to charge for each event, and call that their semester tuition amount. Then I divide that amount by the number of months in each semester (usually 5; August – December and January – May). That flat amount is what each student pays me per month. If they pay up front for the semester or year, they get a small discount. Some months they may get five lessons, others they may get two or three, but they don’t have to pay extra for anything (recitals, group events, etc). I reserve one week at the end of each semester that I call the “Flex Week.” This is a flexible week of makeup lessons. If a student has to miss a lesson for any reason during the semester, they get one makeup lesson during this week, no questions asked.
Enter in Night of the Living Eggs.
If I consume undercooked bread pudding and am bedridden for 48 hours, I have a few choices:
1. Cancel the lesson; if they have taken their absence already, I offer a credit on the next month’s invoice. If the student has paid for the whole semester up front (and many do), this credit will roll over into the next semester.
2. Cancel the lesson; if they themselves have not taken their absence, they get a makeup credit to use during flex week. If they have to use their absence between the time I cancel and the end of the semester, then I either
Offer them a credit on the next month’s invoice
Offer them two back-to-back makeup lessons during the makeup week (or an hour’s lesson).
So how does this work, in the long run? Surely there’s not enough time to offer all my students double lessons in one week of makeups?
Enter the magic of statistics.
When the end of the semester rolls around, a few beautiful things happen:
1. Some students are done, mentally, and don’t care to use their makeup lesson, even if they are entitled to it. If you do the math on this, they have paid less than a dollar more for each of their lessons / events throughout the semester, which is justifiable if they feel they have gotten their money’s worth (i.e. be good at what you do, teachers…karma is real).
2. I set parameters on my flex week. They have to notify me by a set date near the beginning of the month if they want to use their makeup (I e-mail everyone letting them know they are entitled to one). Once that date has passed, I do not hunt people down, and if I haven’t heard from them, they know they have forfeited the lesson because I document like a fiend.
3. Because my teaching load is usually reduced to half during flex week, I can allow double lessons to certain students that need/want that to make up for days I have missed.
4. During flex week, the regular teaching schedule does not apply in order to avoid gaps in my teaching. Some people are totally willing to work with an altered lesson time, others are not. The ones that are not say “thank you, see you next semester,” and I can then fit in the ones that are are flexible enough to accommodate a different day or time. There are very few that don’t fit into either camp here, but because there are so few (I’m talking 2-3 out of 35) that will not leave without their makeup(s) and cannot change days or times, I can usually accommodate them without a problem.
5. Flex weeks almost always occur the week before Christmas and my birthday (May 21), so it’s like getting a paid holiday and personal day, which I’m fairly sure most of the “regular job” population gets, if I’m not mistaken.
I’ve also found the universe to work in magnificent, splendid synchrony, which I will demonstrate using a case study from
A Typical Monday vs. The Day The Eggs Wouldn’t Die
7:30-10:00am: Busywork, e-mail, exercise, and course catch-up for my online class, Fundamentals of Arts Management What really happened: I slept fitfully and dreamed about my grandparent’s house having a secret tunnel full of balloons (what does this mean?)
10:00-12:00pm: worship planning meeting and preparation at the church What really happened: I woke up with enough time to send a highly detailed text to my understanding pastor. Fell back asleep by managing to find justtheright position to alleviate 10% of the nausea.
12-3: lunch, studio planning & prep work What Really Happened: more ridiculous sweat-lodge-style sleep under my down comforter, complete with hallucinatory visions of things that surely don’t exist in waking life. Hopefully. Woke up at one point to brush my teeth, drink some water, and recoil in horror at the wretched person-thing staring back at me in the bathroom mirror.
My usual teaching schedule / What Really Happened
3:00: a retiree, usually fine with canceling. I credited her lesson. 3:30: this student happened to break his hand last week. His mom e-mailed me to let me know he was going to miss today. Hallelu. 4:00: Happened to need to switch this week. Tacked her onto the end of the day. 4:30: My regular 4:30 had a college interview. She’s missed a total of two lessons in the two years she’s taken from me. She’ll make it up during the flex week. 5:30: Had canceled already because she was in tech week for a show. Will also make up during flex week. 6:30 – 7:30: Two siblings. Had originally planned on moving them to the 4:30-5:30 open slot. I credited them, though probably could have waited until flex week to see if they needed.
All in all, this sickness cost me the price of three lessons. That’s not too shabby, given that the tradeoff would have been losing an entire day’s work OR involuntarily teaching with a trash can strapped to my neck. If you’re interested in the cleaned-up, highly succinct version of this tuition policy, you can visit my website.
I do love my life, and I hope this helped you, because I sure disclosed a lot in this post.
Let me preface this post by declaring that I live in the Bible Beltof America. If I lived anywhere other than the 13th-highest-educated municipality in the US, I’d probably pull my teeth out in aggravation, and even then, there are some days when I feel like doing nothing but that.
In one of my recent chats with a musical comrade, someone asked me if I taught on Sundays. Interestingly, I don’t anymore, even though I’ve spent the better part of a year in the “Sunday is a workday” mentality. I’m not hellbent (no pun intended) on that philosophy, but I do have to consider the practices and habits of my studio families. I stopped scheduling things on Sundays a while ago because at one point in time, I had no less than six Mormon studentsstudying with me, and they don’t do any overly rambunctious activities on Sundays. A few families would make exceptions sometimes for studio recitals, which are formal and somewhat reserved. I appreciated that, but stopped expecting that they attend because despite my pragmatism, I think it’s important to respect people’s choices and lifestyles, no matter how much I may disagree with them. Plus, even my non-churchy students have a hard time dragging themselves out of the house for Sunday events.
Indeed, I have developed a strangely disproportionate Morman representation in my studio. I know absolutely nothing about the Latter-Day Saints denomination, aside from what I’ve gleaned from the musical, which I’m worldly enough to thoroughly enjoy because I relate to an inappropriate sense of humor, but that I totally understand to be one crude-ish (albeit creative) parody of a lifestyle and set of values.
“I Believe” references Jackson County, Missouri (4:05)…no further than a drive away from where I actually live. #BibleBelt.
So I got to thinking about what all those students happened to have in common, besides their religion: they are some of the best students I’ve worked with.
Don’t get me wrong, I work with some great Lutherans, non-denominational folk, and atheists, and to be honest, my students’ respective religions really have no bearing on what we do in studio, other than the fact that they bring their own worldview and life experiences into things like characterization, expression, and emotion, and I have to work to appeal to all those. But I feel like we only ever hear about the weird, cult-y LDS outliers that give the organization a bad rap. Really, this happens for most religions (Westboro Baptist much?), and I want it known that I’ve had some really positive experiences with Mormon students.
It could be that I happen to notice these characteristics because, like I said, I appear to be a Mormon magnet of sorts. Just take all this with a grain of salt and don’t use this post as permission to go start your own religious sect (and if you do, leave my name out of it), because this isn’t an endorsement for the LDS movement, just my observations. Here’s what I’ve noticed:
They Lead Admirable Lives
I don’t know what it is, they just have their lives together. They’re honest, hard-working, they value their families and friends (including their private music teachers), and they’re not afraid of a challenge. Every LDS student I’ve had over the age of 14 has been encouraged to develop their own creative and financial independence in and outside the church. My fourteen-year-old accompanies some of my younger vocalists and has started playing piano in her church. I had a seventeen-year-old who worked multiple jobs to sack away money for college while maintaining a good high school GPA. One of my high-school pianists is so completely in touch with how she learns that she commands her education, and maintains enthusiasm despite a surprisingly realistic perspective on the issues of public education. They’re just so…with it.
They’re Good Communicators
I can count on one hand the number of instances of late payment, scheduling, or attendance snafus within my Mormon families. There’s something very real about the way they approach communication and honesty. Something very…heart-on-your-sleeve, which jives very well with me. Before I even get a chance at any sort of confrontation, they usually head me off at the pass, which makes my job easier and altogether more pleasant.
They’re Organized as All Get-Out. I rarely have to remind my Mormon students to practice, or of their impending deadlines. If I even dip below the Level of Happy Normalness to insinuate that I’m slightly disappointed that something isn’t prepared or memorized, they work like crazy to reinstate themselves on the A-list. The parents are the same way; they’re organized, yet not helicopter-y, which I adore. I say “recital,” they say “how high?” That kind of thing.
They Don’t Force Their Religion It’s not all door-to-door evangelism, folks. I’ve never once had to explain myself, my repertoire choices (sacred or secular), or my personal views to my Mormon families, which is less than I can say for some of my other jobs. Alternately, when Sunday events occur, they either quietly choose to participate or not, and I’ve never had anyone thump their chests with their religious text of choice while defiantly declaring that Sunday is the LORD’S DAY. My Mormon families are also some of my biggest musical supporters; they attend my performances, support my creativity, and even donate money to some of my educational endeavors, and they do it without the expectation that I give them preferential or special treatment because of their religion. That’s pretty cool, in my opinion.
I recently had a conversation (over fatty food) with a friend of mine, another profile artist who has jump-started a respectable and promising career in vocal performance. We were discussing some mutual friends of ours, a married couple, both of whom earned their PhDs in music-related fields. One of them recently accepted a tenure-track position at a university, and the institution gave an adjunct position to the spouse. Fairly standard practice.
The conversation meandered on to earning potential, and my friend said, “I’m going to tell you how much she’s making (meaning the adjunct spouse) and you have to promise not to yell and throw your food…it’s like $40,000.”
As fate would have it, later this very same day, I was clearing out my bookmarks (who uses those anymore?) on my ancient (5-year-old) mac laptop and ran across this post over at musicianwages.com:
Which is a very real perspective on how to make a living as a “profile musician,” a term that friend and colleague of mine recently used to describe me, meaning I source my income from various opportunities.
This isn’t necessarily about comparison. My friend’s salary is more than decent for a non-tenure-track position in academia. I’m also fairly sure she’s being groomed for a department position to begin next year. But if we’re going to compare, she’s an apple and I’m an orange. In all fairness, though, $50,000 is about what I’m making in my respective profile career as a musician. Every year around tax hell time, I take stock to determine where and how I’m making my money. I even put it all in a pie chart because I’m a visual person and I enjoy colors. This little exercise is a good reminder for me to prioritize the income that gives me food and shelter, enabling me to not eat Ramen. It’s really quite simple. Here’s what I do:
Lessons: 25-30 students @ $86/mo = $25,800 – $30,960
Church music job: $600-700/mo = $7200 – 8000
College instruction: 8-10 private students @ $220/semester = $3520-4400
College courses: 2-4 courses per year, $2100/course = $4200-8400
It’s a big range, but respectable (I like to think), given my age (28), especially considering the fact that I probably have not yet maxed out my earning potential in my particular geographic area. There’s still room for growth and other avenues of “profile musicianship” that I have yet to explore, like commissioned composing, self-released albums, and book sales (my five-year plan/dream).
Words to the Wise
This self-made “salary” is only possible with an incredibly supportive spouse who will ride the ebb and flow of the Self-entrepeneurship Rollercoaster. Every time one of us experiences an income dip (like during the summer months, when I make 1/2 to 1/3 of what I make during the school year), the other naturally sort of steps in and supplements, a trait for which each of us really loves and appreciates.
Also, these numbers are specific to my life and area, where the median household income is $40,000 and my entire mortgage for a 3-bedroom/2.5-bath house is about $700 a month. I know other church jobs in town pay more, but I work this specific job knowing the time commitment is less (no bell choir or double services for me), and the tradeoff of having access to a beautiful facility for recitals and other events, plus an incredibly supportive network of people, is well worth it to me. I also know that some other theater companies in town pay their music directors more (and some pay less…ick). I haven’t quite broken into the high-paying circles yet, and perhaps that will happen organically, but until then, I’m content working with directors who honor my schedule and respect my contributions.
The starting salary for first-year teachers in my school district is $34,350, which means I’m making more than I ever did teaching music in public schools, which is not where I’m using my two degrees in music education, ironically. This is NOT to belittle the efforts all of my esteemed and respected mentors, friends, and colleagues who are fighting the good fight. It just isn’t for me and never was.
Have you gotten sick of seeing pictures of my cat?
I promise that 94 percent of the time, I’m a normal human who’s not entirely obsessed about my pets. In fact, sometimes I need my pets not to be around, so much so that we’ve worked out an understanding, the animals and I. I’ve trained them to respond to the word “out,” and I use the command in everyday situations. For instance:
“OUT.” I’m cooking and I need you to untangle your bodies from my ankles and stop eating every savory morsel of food I accidentally drop on the floor (unless it’s grapes or kale, which pets will not touch).
“OUT,” :::lays down on floor to do sit-ups, gets bombarded in the face with with cat ass and dachshund tongue:::
“OUT.” Get outside and attend to your business ::they pee for less than 4 seconds and demand to be let back in:: Uh, no. You’re not allowed back in until I see actual, steamy turd (this only works with the dogs, obviously). Out.
Sometimes, though, I have to have a nice version of “OUT” for Spike. I use “up, up, up,” (phonetic: “uh-pup-pup”), which means “you’re not doing anything wrong, but I need you to move your ass right now.
…because he is ALL OVER EVERY SURFACE of my studio. All the time. I shot these photos less than an hour apart:
He’s around so much that he’s become a sort of saucy little studio mascot, the wily little minx.