Sunday, January 15, 2017

Music Lessons, the People Who Teach Them, and Those Who Pay for Them

This is not I. We don't have an early picture of me playing the piano.

I've taken a lot of piano lessons in my day, and I've given a few as well. The vast majority of the lessons I've both taken and given have taken place without money changing hands. My mother taught me until I was twelve. She was skilled enough, and our relationship as piano student and teacher was pretty much free of rancor,  that I didn't really need to upgrade to a new teacher.  It was just that, from her experience, at a certain point a student learns most of what he or she will ever learn from a given teacher, and there comes a time for change. We were, fortunately, living in a university town. The university had a sufficiently high-quality music department that a decent piano teacher was easy enough to procure. I wouldn't say that the new guy was any better than my mom (he had essentially identical credentials for the job, which would have been a PhD in piano performance. It was a lateral move for me. The new guy didn't hold me back, nor did he necessarily accelerate my progress. It was, if anything, probably good to hear someone else saying the same things my mom had said, thus reaffirming basic principles.  It was also a break for my mom. We didn't have conflicts during my piano lesson, but passing the burden of  my lessons off to someone else might have freed us up from the necessity of being civil to one another for thirty consecutive minutes out of every week, which might have been more of a strain than either of us could have borne.

Incidentally, it's been strongly recommended by several of the gurus of education that there are three things a parent should not attempt to teach his or her own child: reading, swimming, and playing the piano. I learned to read independently, but my mom taught Matthew to read. My dad taught both Matthew and me to swim. My mom taught me to pay the piano, which I, in turn,  taught Matthew. This leads to one of two conclusions: A) the educational gurus do not know what the hell about which they are talking; B) we are one fucked-up family, and our failure to follows these basic directives as given by leading experts in the field of education only served to make us even more fucked up than we otherwise would have been. I'll leave it to each of my thirteen or so readers to form his or her own conclusion.

I taught Matthew to play the piano. At somewhere around the time we were five, after I had already been playing for a few years and could play simple Mozart compositions, Bach Two-Part Inventions, and anything that didn't required large hands, my mom decided that it was time for Matthew to learn to play the piano. She was patient at first, but it soon drove her to distraction that Matthew did not master the basic concepts of piano as easily as I did. At some point after a month or two of lessons, she concluded that she couldn't teach him any longer. I don't know if she considered hiring another teacher for him, considering that the parent-child relationship might be interfering with her ability to teach him, but she didn't rush out to find another teacher for him. Then, before long, she noticed that he was playing the simple tunes and scales she had tried to teach him. "Where did you learn to play that?" she asked him after hearing him play a two-octave B-flat scale with both hands.

"Baby Lexus showed me," he answered her. She was shocked but decided to leave well enough alone. Matthew's level of piano skill never quite approached mine, but he played better than most of our peers who studied piano at the time. He ultimately moved on to guitar as his primary instrument, but still plays simple classics proficiently. 

My other experience in teaching piano came when I was receiving in-patient treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder. A requirement for high school graduation at my local high school was to devote 100 hours throughout the final two years of high school to community service. Prior to my senior year, i had completed over forty of those hours. Once I was in the facility, my options for service were limited. I suppose I could have scrubbed floors or emptied trash cans, but assisting others with their academic studies and teaching piano to those who were interested seemed  great deal more appealing.  Because the nature of the service was "volunteer," again, no payment was involved.

A friend of mine is now attempting to complete her master's degree in vocal music performance. She has a few grants and is receiving a bit of help from her parents as well, but she would prefer to teach music on the side as opposed to taking on shifts at Starbucks or flipping burgers at In & Out or wherever else burgers are flipped. She is qualified to teach voice lessons to an undergraduate college student or lower. She is also qualified to teach flute lessons to from high school level down, and is qualified to teach basic piano lessons, as in to anyone who has mastered less than five solid years worth of piano curriculum.  She has printed flyers and business cards, and she had posted at actual venues and on-line sites where her prospective clientele might be found.

My friend has had numerous inquiries, but  the point at which she loses clients seems to be over the cost for lessons.  She is requesting a flat rate of  $25 dollars per half-hour lesson. I've told her I would consider it to be a reasonable rate, and it's what everyone I know pays for starting level music lessons.  For some reason -- maybe because of Internet tutorials or other things available elsewhere -- people do not seem to want to pay the going rate for piano lessons. Some people get around paying the going rate by just a bit in signing up for (in my opinion) slightly funky group lesson formats. Again, just in my opinion, kids spend a lot of time standing around in lines waiting for their turns to play, and instructors spend as much time disciplining as teaching. I see this as neither an efficient way nor a cost-efficient way for a child to be taught music.  If others are having success with this manner of piano instruction, more power to them, but I'd love to see this model taught in a way that it actually works.

I have a friend who is a recently retired California public school teacher. Her pension and savings are such that she isn't in any grave need of supplementing her income. She is a virtuoso pianists and has been asked for many years about giving piano lessons.  She has always said that she would consider taking on a few piano students when she retired, but that the money she earned had to be worth tying up an afternoon ir two  in her week in order for her to consider teaching.piano. She, too, has announced the $25.00 rate, with a family rate of $20.00 per lesson for two or more children in the same family provided that the lessons are on the same day and are consecutive. She will teach the lessons at the client's home for an additional five dollars (the five dollars is applied only one time for families with multiple students on the same day).  This friend of mine is highly qualified. She has the right, and she has utilized that right, to use the university's logo in her lesson flyers and on her business cards.

 She has had many inquiries but few (as in zero)  takers once the fee schedule is announced. She even offers to give the child's or family's lessons for free  for the first month as sort of a trial run. Still, that $25-dollar-per-lesson fee scares people away.

My friend, the retired one, said that much earlier in her life, she gave lessons free of charge to children in families where to money might have been a hardship. What she found was that families took the attitude that what they got was what they paid for. Because the lessons weren't costing them anything, they were far less likely to see to it that their children practice. children, to, valued the lessons less because their parents did. She saw next no no progress in those students who received free lessons.

(On an only mildly related note, my mom considers the same principle to be at work in private education versus public schooling. When parents are shelling out their own hard-earned bucks for their kids' education, they A) think it's a superior product because they are paying for it. They hold their children accountable both for meeting academic standards and for meeting behavior standards; and B) they believe that because they are paying for it, it must somehow inherently be superior to that which is provided gratis by the public schools around them, and they, again, insist that their children apply themselves to their work and take advantage of what is offered by those private schools.)

When I took cello lessons briefly, I paid $35.00 dollars for each 1/2-hour lesson. I am in an area where the cost-of-living is higher than it is where my friends are proposing to teach, which could account for the accelerated cost of the lessons. Still, I thought nothing of paying the $35-per-hour fee. Music lessons - except for the group lessons public schools provide -- are not free. If a person wants his or her child to achieve at a high level in musicianship, private instruction is essential. A person may labor under the illusion that his or her child is a modern-day Mozart whose skills will turn into glorious music without outside intervention, but that person is, for all intents and purposes, a fool. Furthermore, even Mozart received instruction in basic music skills. The concepts may have come more easily to him than to most, and the instruction may not have continued for as long as it was continued with most musicians of his calibre, but suffice it to say that  Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was not entirely a self-taught musician. 

Furthermore, if one intends to take music to a higher level, fees for various services are going to pop up on a regular basis. Methods books, even in public school music programs, must usually be purchased by students' parents. Instruments may need to be rented or purchased. (The easiest way around this is to join choir, as no one can charge a person rent for his or her own voice; not quite, but almost equally automatically free, are the use of a school's baritones and tubas. Hardly anyone wants to play baritone or tuba, so many schools have a few baritones or tubas lying around, available for student use free of charge. The methods books will still need to be purchased, but those are minor charges in comparison with actual instrument rental fees. If your child plays clarinet, saxophone, oboe, or bassoon, reeds will need to be purchased, The reeds seem to split on a regular basis, usually at the worst possible times, so extras need to be kept on hand. My friend Megan admits to having had a fascination with her older brother's saxophone reeds when she was about four years old, and single-handedly shredded dozens of the things with her bare hands before anyone figured out that it was she who was doing it and told her to cut it the hell out or else . . . Strings of violins, violas, and cellos are similarly lacking in sturdiness, and seem to snap regularly in the hands of inexperienced players attempting to tune the instruments.

As the skills of a musician build, likewise do the opportunities for him or her to spend money in honing his or her craft. Master's classes, in which an individual musician appears with two to ten other student musicians to be briefly instructed by the expert or "master," but also benefits from the pointers the master gives to his or her peers, happen multiple times each year and  may be a required part of a musician's tutelage. Solo performance festivals, at which musicians play in the presence of a panel of experts and are critiqued and given pointers, but sometimes given honors as well, are also a regular part of a young person's musical education. Perhaps a musician plays an instrument for which accompaniment is needed. Do not delude yourself into thinking that those accompanists crawl out of the woodwork and beg for the honor of accompanying your young musician just for the pure pleasure of the experience and for the bragging rights of having done so. The accompaniment for a senior recital to fulfill that portion of a bachelor's degree typically costs $400, payable (usually in cash) either on the night of the rehearsal, or, at the very latest, on the day or night of the rehearsal, prior to performance. Accompanists are not expected to resort to small claims court to recover their fees, which is why they payment typically precedes the performance. And accompaniment fees are  one of many fees related to the senior recital. The hall must be rented. If the hall is not in pristine condition following the recital, a fee covers cleaning the cleaning. The programs must be printed, adjudicators in many instances must be paid. Even ushers and an M.C. in many instances have to be compensated. A fee covers the estimated cost of the utilities used for the building during the evening. The accompanist fee for a master's recital is even more, though if the musician for whose musical education you are footing the bill has reached this level, by now you're well aware of the costs, both overt and hidden, connected to a high-calibre music education. you know even about the post-recital reception that the music student and/or his cash cows are expected to cough up the money to cover. The reception need not be  elaborate, but your music student does wish to be the one everyone talks about each time there's another recital, as in, "Remember the girl who served generic Oreos and Kool-Aid after her recital?"  Beef Wellington isn't required, but it's best to stay at least a cut above popcorn and powdered lemonade, with paper towels purloined from the staff restroom serving as party napkins.

Music instruction fees start out small, though $25 dollars apparently doesn't seem all that small to some, and grow commensurately  as a musician's skills grow.   Thus the need need for an instructor of greater skill increases, and with that greater level of skill in an instructor, the size of the fee will logically increase. Ultimately these fees are paid as part of university tuition. Still, university students who pay thousands of dollars per semester for private music instruction would laugh at parents who grumble at having to shell out a mere $25 per half-hour lesson.

The piano teacher who is asking for a mere $25 per lesson had to shell out a cast-of living-adjusted version of that $25 fee himself or herself doe several years a long time ago, along with countless hours of practice. The piano fairy obviously didn't just visit his or her room and sprinkle magic dust on him or her one night,  declaring,  "You shall be a great pianist and have all that goes along with it, including the necessary method books and sheet music, an adequate instrument on which to play, and free music lessons."  The piano teacher obviously had to pay for all of those things himself  or herself, usually with the help of others - namely, parents.  Now, not only is he or she, the music teacher, asking in that $25 piano lesson rate, for a return on all the costs he or she incurred through the years, but for the opportunity to put bread on his or her own table, and perhaps  even for the opportunity to give his or her own child opportunities to study in fields the piano teacher is not qualified to teach. Perhaps the piano teacher's child would like to study gymnastics.  Is the gymnastics instructor willing to give the piano teacher's child a cut in  tuition rate because many parents think $25 dollars is too much to pay for a piano lesson?  I haven't asked any gymnastics teachers about their policies lately, but my guess is no, they're not willing to be flexible.

Perhaps your child has no interest in piano lessons. If such is the case, great. The world probably already has too many people who were forced to take piano lessons as kids who had no interest in learning. If your child expresses an interest in learning to play the piano, however, and purchasing a new or used piano is within your means, do considering picking up a piano and making arrangements for lessons. Also require a minimum commitment from your child, which may be three months, four months, or a year, depending upon your family's finances and other logistical considerations. Please, however, do not let the $25 or $35 lesson fee be the deciding factor against you child's having lessons.  Allowing the piano teacher's  fee, which usually amounts to far less than what your family pays for cable television, for manicures and pedicures, or for pizza in a given month, would seem to me to be an imbalance in a family's priorities. I'll discuss this on another day, but even if a child never approaches mastery the piano, just by virtue of having a piano in a child's home and by his or her been given a few months of lessons, both his or her verbal and performance IQs will have been raised by roughly 5%. That number rises dramatically if the child  actually achieves some degree of musicality, but even if the piano remains essentially decorative furniture -- played by a child a couple times a month when he or she has tired of video games, it is serving a constructive purpose.

Moreover, while not every child will grow to be the next Vladimer Horowitz (quite frankly, hardly if any of them at  all will be), your refusal to adjust your family's budget  in order to pay a piano teacher a measly $25 per week  (or, God forbid $30 or $35 if that's the going rate in your neck of the woods), will, in the end, cost you more than whatever it was that the  piano teacher  requested for his or her services. 

                                         I do not own this video.

No comments:

Post a Comment