The Income Quilt: Making a Living as a Teaching Artist

Feb 2, 2016

by Eric Branner.

My wife is an actor and I am a musician. We’ve been supporting ourselves through these endeavors for the last 20 years or so. It hasn’t always been easy, but it has definitely been worthwhile.

We like to call the patchwork of teaching, gigs, shows, tours and sessions that make up the fabric of our living an “income quilt”.

Teaching private lessons is the foundation for my income quilt in any given month. I also get a few performance gigs, hopefully a recording session, sell a few copies of The Blackforrest Music Guitar Method Book.(now available as a free download at get some donations from my YouTube page and sell some digital copies of my music. I may even sell some firewood so I can make room for new rounds to chop. I love chopping firewood. I wear quite a few hats, and this diversity is awesome.

My wife, Alyson, makes most of her income quilt with industrial film shoots and commercials. She also performs in regional and local theaters, occasionally tours, shoots television pilots and appears at trade shows. I looked up at a 20-foot likeness of her on a billboard every time I crossed the West Seattle Bridge last year. That was cool.

Spontaneity, open-mindedness and creativity can and should all feature on an income quilt business model. When making your income quilt, it’s important to have an anchor. Teaching, whether through private music lessons or in the classroom, was the anchor of my early career. I taught at a private high school and a local music store. I found that I could make five or six times as much money per hour teaching than I could working at a grocery store.

That’s not to belittle the grocery store. I actually got my first private student working there. I’d practice my recitals while working at the counter and soon folks started asking about lessons. I went on to make more money teaching two guitar lessons than I did in an entire shift of scooping ice-cream or a day of baling hay.

From then on I put all my energy into building a studio of 20 students, so I could work three days a week. On the other four days, I’d double my practice routine, take lessons, play gigs, network with other artists and continue writing my book. My income quilt had the anchor that it needed, and I could put energy into other areas I was interested in. I haven’t had a day job since those early grocery store days.

Take a day off

For years, I worked every day to create an income quilt that could support a simple lifestyle. No one can work 24/7 though. I got some great advice from a successful writer — take a day off to do nothing related to your craft. He argued that you become more effective, creative and make more money by taking one day off a week. He was correct. I chose to take Fridays off, unless I had a good gig.

Sure enough, I got more done and made more money. You have to work really hard to thrive in the creative, self-employed workforce. You also need to take a break to avoid burning out and resenting your beloved passion.

Patience and positivity are the threads holding together an income quilt. It takes awhile to get a good quilt going and sometimes a desk job will sound pretty appealing. You’ll feel pretty lame when your corporate friends go on vacations, buy new cars and wear fancy clothes (that would look better on you!).

Your time will come if you hang on in there. I promise you won’t regret the struggles you had to endure to live a life that is meaningful to you.

Whether you are an artist, private teacher, coach or trainer, you can make a good living doing what you love. You must be willing to learn how to operate a business and fully commit to making it happen. Then you will succeed and thrive. Let me know about your income quilt. I’d love to hear how you patch it all together.

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