Feb 8, 2017
After three years of teaching in an amazing space, I’m currently searching for a new studio, and it’s got me thinking about all the ways independent teachers can work.
Over the years, I’ve taught in schools, student’s homes, music stores, my own storefront, my home studio, and sometimes online. Each scenario has its benefits and challenges, and they are important to consider as a professional instructor.
Cost, travel, commitment, vibes, customer experience, taxes, and risk are all factors to take into account when choosing where and how you’ll teach.
Here the deal:
When you first start up as an independent teacher, you probably don’t have many students or much experience. I got my first student when I was working the register at a small, neighborhood grocery store.
I’d take my guitar into work, and practice Albeniz during lulls. A regular customer asked if I taught and, of course, I said yes. I offered to teach In-Home lessons after my shift one day a week. That went pretty great, except for when there was laundry piled on the piano bench! Soon, I had my first handful of in-home students from word of mouth.
Travel time became an issue as my roster grew, and I started getting students from other parts of town. Teaching lessons in students’ homes cost me one or two students a day in lost time due to traveling.
I really enjoyed teaching, and got a job teaching for a school run by a local music store. Most of these spots will either charge a rental fee for a room, or take a percentage of your teaching revenue. They also can provide you with students if you don’t have any, which really helps. I loved having other teachers to hang out with and a (somewhat) clean practice room stocked with teaching equipment. Oh, and there was a copier there too, that was a big deal.
Teaching for a school is a great way to get started, and perfect if you don’t have much time to devote to marketing and admin. However, there comes a time when it makes sense to go out on your own!
*I’m not including working for universities or salaried positions here.. once you’re on the payroll, you’re technically not an independent teacher.
For me, I decided to open my own studio, Blackforrest Music School, right around the time I became a father. I found an amazing space in downtown Seattle. A street-level retail space with a live-in apartment connected above.
I had a pretty large base of customers at this point, and had been teaching for the nearly a decade. I signed the lease, built out the space, and had a few of the most successful teaching years of my career.
My visibility brought in plenty of new students to keep me busy. The cost was obviously high, but I kept all of the money, got a ton of deductions for tax time, and had a great space to practice my craft.
After our lease was up, we decided it was time to move to a home. We found a home that had a separate, mother-in-law unit in the backyard! We bought the home, converted the mother-in-law unit, and created the home studio. I’d never have to rent a space, go to a student’s home, or change out of sweatpants again! (unfortunately for me, my wife imposes a hard, no-sweatpants rule. She believes “life isn’t that casual.”)
This scenario worked wonderfully, until it occurred to me that all of my customers lived in another part of Seattle. They were trying to make things work by making the trip to our house, but it was a major inconvenience for them. I’d have to either focus on building a new clientele in the new neighborhood, or find a place to teach closer to my students. I ended up doing both.
The home studio was not the perfect solution for me just yet, so I briefly returned to doing in-home lessons. I perfected the mapping, time slots, and imposed a pretty strict cancellation policy since everything had to run like clockwork.
That really was a pretty stressful situation. I was racing around to lessons, always feeling behind, and not bringing the great vibes to lessons that I wanted.
Then, the perfect solution for me surfaced. I began looking for a new studio space, and the parent of one of my students asked if I’d be interested in teaching at her house. She had tons of space (truly one of the most beautiful homes in Seattle), a separate entrance, and the location was exactly in the center of all of my customers. We gave it a trial for a month, and three years later it’s coming to an end as they have sold the house.
Everyone won in this case. I got an amazing space to teach, my customers loved coming to this location, and the family that hosted us got some great music and energy in their home..the vibe was just tremendous! Finding a creative space is a wonderful way to solve the “where to teach problem.”
Internet-based lessons have seen quite a bit of growth recently. There are many benefits to online instruction, such as being able to see a specialist from afar and avoid travel altogether for customer and teacher.
For me, online lessons are not really awesome unless you’re studying with a really high level teacher that cannot be replaced locally. I think there is great value in communicating with real-life people in the same room. I also like to shake hands and hi-five.
I do love web-based lessons for snow days and reschedules! Again, that’s just me… I know some folks that just love teaching over a web cam!
It’s important to remember, where you teach is not as important as how you teach.
I’d love to convert an RV into a teaching space, travel around, and teach in a new town every month! I can’t do it now, but I look forward to a time that I can.
The perfect teaching situation can and will change depending on what’s happening in your life.
Maybe you’ll teach at home, online, for a school, or in the corner of a car battery warehouse (my first guitar teacher did and it was awesome).
You can make it work for you. We’d love to hear about where you teach.