From the November/December 2020 issue of Acoustic Guitar | By Pete Madsen
For musicians in a struggling economy, teaching can provide a welcome financial supplement, along with great flexibility. You can schedule lessons around gigs and recording projects, decide which days of the week are best for teaching, and work remotely with online lessons wherever you have an internet connection. As your own boss you can decide how much, or how little, to teach.
Well-respected musicians in the community will almost certainly have no problem acquiring at least a few students. Name recognition does goes a long way, but you don’t have to be a known performer to be a good and respected educator. Whether you want to recruit a few students or develop a full teaching schedule, here are a few suggestions to get the ball rolling.
REFLECT ON YOUR MOTIVATIONS AND SKILLS
These are difficult and uncertain times, but you shouldn’t go into teaching out of financial desperation. Building a teaching practice requires planning and brain power that can keep you away from playing and performing, if that’s what you really want to do.
If you consider yourself primarily a performing artist, then it’s important to realize that time put into teaching is potentially time taken away from booking, rehearsing, and playing gigs. And you might be a good player—but are you a good teacher? These are two distinct roles requiring different skill sets. The mistake a lot of really good musicians make is believing that because they are good at what they do, they can teach. Often times this leads to frustration for both teachers and students.
Not only do you need to communicate effectively through music, you also need to have effective verbal skills in presenting ideas, laying out expectations, establishing lesson policies, and setting up payment schedules. The clearer you are with your students, the more professional you will appear, and the more successful you’ll be as a teacher.
FIND A DEDICATED SPACE
Hooking up with a music store has long been a tried-and-true way to get new students. But with the decline of retail spaces, those gigs are becoming harder to come by. As an alternative, you could set up a room in your home where you can teach—it’s cheaper than renting a separate space, and it’s possible that it can qualify as a tax write-off. Another option is to reach out to music schools in your area to see if they need teachers or can recommend other opportunities. Note that many teachers offer the service of visiting students’ homes for lessons. If you go that route, you should factor travel time as well as vehicle maintenance and mileage into your pricing.
You should also consider virtual lessons. Because of the coronavirus, my teaching studio has moved exclusively to online for the time being. This has both advantages and disadvantages. I have found that students can be more focused in the cyber environment; it’s easier to direct attention to specifics in music notation using online tools. And you obviously have a greater number of potential students.
Keep in mind that teaching multiple students online can be challenging. Latency issues make it nearly impossible to play together. Most of the time I find myself muting the attendees while I present songs and phrases. And some students have told me they like being muted while they practice the examples without being heard by others.
CONSIDER YOUR SPECIALTIES
It’s good to have a specialization that not many people offer in your area—a lot of folks come to me to learn fingerstyle blues and slide guitar. That’s not to say that you should go out and learn a new style just so that you can teach it. You should work with the music you honestly want to play. But think about your approach to the guitar and how it is different from that of other players working in a similar style. There may be some aspects that are uniquely yours and can make for some valuable lessons for students.
Regardless of your style, be sure to offer beginning classes, as there is always a group of eager students who want to learn guitar. Classes are great for newbies who don’t want the focus to be on them and feel safer in a group of people who have never played the instrument. Speaking of beginners, are you patient? Do you remember what if felt like the first time you played an F barre chord? You will be reliving that moment over and over again, so it’s pretty important to be able to empathize with your students. Few of them will be as advanced as you, so you will want to have plenty of material that will cater to their needs.
PREPARE TEACHING MATERIALS
In order to make a reliable living teaching music, you will need to put a lot of thought into how to teach. Too many instructors ask students what they want to learn and then go online and find some tablature, but for the most part it’s preferable to use materials that you’re already familiar with—whether method and transcription books or your own materials.
Understand that people learn in different ways: Some respond to written materials; some prefer to watch and listen; some need time to adjust and absorb the material at a pace that works for them. In this day and age, a teacher should be able to hand (or email) a student a sheet of music and demonstrate how to play it, give the student an MP3 recording to listen to and practice with, and possibly film portions of a lesson on a smartphone or tablet. Given all the media at hand, you should be able to connect with students across may different platforms.
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SET YOUR PRICING AND MARKET YOURSELF
Part of pricing depends on your experience, education, and background, and part of it is dependent on your regional cost of living. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, one of the most expensive areas in the country, so I need to charge an amount that reflects that economic reality. Do some research into the local going rate. There can be a wide range here—generally speaking, from $20–50 per half hour to $40–100 per hour. If you are new to the teaching game, you should probably charge a little less; when you have established yourself and have a healthy roster of students, you can increase your fees.
To get students in the door, you will benefit from a little marketing. This can be as simple as posting some flyers or offering your services on Craigslist or other local message boards. Consider offering a one-to-two-hour workshop, which can not only get some needed income but also attract new students who can try you out before committing to multiple lessons.
If all this sounds daunting, keep in mind that you don’t have to figure everything out before you start teaching. I’ve learned gradually over 25 years of giving lessons in multiple studios and formats. But the more thought you put into the details of your teaching practice, the more rewarding it will be for both you and your students.
Pete Madsen is a San Francisco Bay Area–based guitarist, author, and educator who specializes in acoustic blues, ragtime, and slide guitar. petemadsenguitar.com