The Surprising Secret to a Flourishing Music Teaching Business
Giving my students great experiences on stage is the most important thing I do as a music teacher. Once they tap into the magic of making honestly good music for an appreciative crowd, the crappy aspects of teaching music evaporate.
You know the crappy aspects I'm talking about:
- Sure, they'd like to practice "Norwegian Wood," but they're just so busy playing Battlefield 4.
- They'd rather shove bamboo under their fingernails than practice "Norwegian Wood."
- They're not at their lesson, and they're not answering texts. Pretty sure they're not practicing "Norwegian Wood."
And the huge underlying worry that fuels all these other problems:
- How am I going to take my three boys to Florida to visit Harry Potter World on this income? No matter that they're still potty-training and don't know who Harry Potter is yet--they will know him, and they will love him.
The answer to these problems, it turns out, is to give my music students the thing that 95% of them secretly long for: A chance to entertain an audience with their music.
If those frustrations listed above resonate with you (at least the first three), and you don't offer student concerts--or your concerts are un-fun (hey, don't feel guilty--I've been there!)--please, before you spend another dime on a new theory book or ear training app or your website redesign or Facebook ads or logo-emblazoned polo shirts, do this instead:
SET A CONCERT DATE
We hold our concerts on the third weekend of May, and the second weekend of November, which avoids U.S. holidays and vacation times.
If this is your first student concert, give yourself at least three months lead time to figure out logistics and prepare your students.
You'll at least need a venue, ideally with a sound system if you're playing amplified music.
Beyond that--keep it simple if you're starting out. Your focus should be on preparing your students.
If you're already giving student concerts and want to enhance them, consider one of these big upgrades: An inspiring venue, hiring a professional videographer, or collaborating with other teachers to form student bands/ensembles.
PLAN STUDENT PREP
Three months before the concert, I start helping students choose songs (usually two) to perform.
Learning these songs is the focus of our lessons for the next two months. I usually sneak in theory, skill building exercises, and other foundational lessons when it's most meaningful to the student: When it supports the student's song preparation.
During the final month before the show, we switch focus to stage skills: Developing stage presence, reducing stage anxiety, etc.
But That's a Lot of Work!
Yes, it takes some work. But it is so, so worth it.
Not convinced? Let me share the story I tell at the end of my book, Rob's Totally Awesome Guitar Teaching Handbook, about MY all-time favorite stage experience, and show you the video of those wonderful 3 minutes. If you're still not convinced, you have a heart of stone.
When my 9-year-old student Emma came to her first lesson after the winter break, there were still a few patches of snow in my backyard, the remnants of a massive storm that delighted kids, and mortified their parents, by closing schools for a week. Emma arrived full of stories of sledding on city streets and walking to the grocery store in Arctic gear.
Suddenly, interrupting her own story, she burst out, “I want to write a song!”
“Great!” I said. “What do you want to write about?”
“Um…I don’t know.” The muses had arrived at her doorstep empty-handed. I knew the feeling.
“Well, usually people write about things they feel strongly about—something that makes them really happy, or sad, or angry. You seem in a good mood. Want to write a happy song? What’s something that makes you really happy?”
A brief fermata, and then Emma’s eyes widened. “SNOW DAY!” she boomed. Yes, the girl boomed.
I knew from past songwriting sessions that Emma prefers to improvise singing parts while I play guitar. I grabbed my Les Paul—she insisted that the song should rock—and, with my audio recorder on, I played power chords while Emma shaped her snow-joy into words, rhythm, and melody. A few minutes later, she had her chorus, simple yet perfect: “Snow day, the best day ever.”
Over the next few lessons, she dictated verse lyrics while I typed, and then fashioned them into pleasing melodies while I played chords. Once the song was finished, we worked on stage skills in preparation for the spring Coffee Shop Jam.
Emma practiced singing into the microphone, moving her body with the music, and counting beats to help her know when to start singing a tricky line in the third verse. She wore a racetrack around the perimeter of my lawn by running while memorizing lyrics. I stood in the middle of the lawn, prompting her when she got stuck and, as I often do these days, marveling at what a strange and wonderful job I have.
Now check out the performance she gave. I still get goosebumps watching it. She's so nervous, so excited, and she's having an absolute blast. The crowd is loving it. And I'm floating on air the whole time.
When I told Emma at the end of her performance, “That was the best song ever,” I wasn’t exaggerating for her benefit. It was one of the most powerful teaching moments of my life.
It's so worth it.