Finding a Private Music Teacher

I’ve been thinking about writing a post titled, “What to Look For in a Cello Teacher,” but thought (read: was absolutely sure) it would be interpreted as, “Why His Royal Highness, Dr. Justin Dougherty is the BESTEST Cello Teacher In the Whole Wide World.” I thought this because, obviously, the things that I would encourage students/parents to look for when searching for a teacher are the same things I care about, work on in lessons, and attempt to embody when teaching.

Next, I thought about changing the angle of the blog to focus on what to avoid when searching for a cello teacher, but that led me to a cynical and negative place. Sadly, that’s where we are now. I’m feeling cynical. I teach cello for a living. I care more about teaching students the skills they need to become excellent cellists and less about the results of auditions, the fancy repertoire other students are playing, or (most especially) the amount of money I can make doing what I do.

Others aren’t so keen on this thing, that “making students smarter and better” idea. In fact, there are many, many, MANY teachers and studios who would rather collect a check each month than worry about student progress or overall music education, and these days I’m feeling a bit peeved about those people and places. Specifically, there's a small handful of music stores/schools/teachers in my area who have no business being in the, umm, business of music teaching. These are places whose proprietors are business people first, music teachers second (or third). They charge fees far beyond their credentials, capabilities, and knowledge, but because of the convenience of their location(s) or their well-cultivated and deceptive perception of expertise, they swindle promising music students (and their families) out of money and time. I’m all for businesses making a profit, but not on trumped up or phony promises of musical excellence.

Perhaps I’m irrationally upset with these other music schools and music teachers who sacrifice quality education for a buck. I have ideals that don’t necessarily fit well with the mentality needed to be a successful businessman, namely that (while I like making money) I’d rather sacrifice my income to pursue loftier musical goals with more willing and motivated students. I’m somewhat horrified when I see the owners of music store/lesson shops driving a new Audi out of their gated, country club community, especially when I know that the product - lessons and teachers - they are offering is not just substandard, but snake oil.

It’s hard to find a good music teacher for a young student, especially if one isn’t a musician themselves. The primary means of search for cello lessons seems to be typing “Cello Teacher” into Google and clicking the first result. Others may ask a neighbor or the school orchestra teacher (who themselves may not be up to date on the quality of available teachers) for recommendations. Few will check resumes and credentials, have a sample lesson with multiple teachers, and figure out for themselves whether the teacher is a good fit for the student - and vice versa!

So let’s talk about music stores, schools, and academies.

How do they work?

First, there’s an owner, in some cases they are musicians themselves and teach lessons in their own establishment. In other cases, the shop is owned by a corporation, national chains run by a local manager who may or may not be a musician. In both cases, they staff their lesson outfits with local musicians who seek to teach, either as a primary source of income, or as a side gig. The teachers are almost always being paid as independent contractors, not as employees (a big difference come tax time or when heading to the doctor).

When it comes to fees, don’t be deceived. The lesson rate that is advertised by the music school is not the rate that teachers are being paid. Shops and schools take a commission, a cut, anywhere from 10%-50% (or more!) of the fee that you will pay. This cut is used, ostensibly, for facility maintenance, advertising, administrative fees, and other costs of running a business. In the event you are interested in lessons at one of these schools or stores, I’d recommend asking the owner/manager what their teachers are being paid out of the fee. You might think that it’s incredibly fair for a music teacher to make $30 per hour - after the school’s commission - seeing as how that’s about four times the national minimum wage. Keep in mind that music teachers don’t usually teach 40 hours per week. Personally, I have a studio of 30+ cellists and teach around 25-30 hours each week, about 40 weeks per year, which is more than most musicians that I know. If I were making $30 per hour, teaching 30 hours each week, I’d make about $36,000 (before taxes), not as little as someone making minimum wage, but not exactly raking it in, and certainly not enough to cover the debts from my years of education and the purchase of my instruments.

As an example, a colleague of mine was offered a job teaching Suzuki violin/viola at a local music school. In the past, the school had mostly hired teachers without many professional qualifications, and the owner admitted to my colleague that her resume (which includes a doctorate with a concentration in her instrument, Suzuki training, and significant professional experience) “intimidated” him. Despite her extensive credentials, the owner of the school offered to pay her $24 per hour when they were charging students $60. She would get a raise only if she recruited students (herself!) and managed to retain them. In other words, my colleague would lose 60% of the fee to the school, which in turn wouldn’t even help to bring in students for her new studio.

She turned them down.

Most teachers can make more money teaching in their homes than in these schools and shops, and those who are qualified and good enough to recruit students and build a studio that way, do it. Because of the lower-than-the-average fees that musicians make teaching at these schools, in many places you’d be hard pressed to find consummate professionals. The result is a school staffed with un- or under-qualified “jacks-of-all-trades” who have no business teaching many of the instruments they purport to teach. If you are searching for violin lessons at a music store/school, and the teacher you have been paired with plays the drums in a band, has a degree in string bass, or has been playing the violin for only a handful of years, I’d recommend you leave. It doesn’t matter if the bass degree is from Juilliard, you’re looking for a violin teacher and that person does not play the violin.

To boil it all down, in some cases, the owner of the school is offering under-qualified teachers an endless supply of students - students the teacher would be unable to recruit on their own - at a highly reduced hourly rate with a promise to keep the students coming, especially if the teacher agrees to teach instruments they may not be qualified to teach. The owner takes a (sometimes exceptionally large) cut of the lesson fee as a commission for offering the teaching facility and the recruiting service, and the student is taught by someone who is not necessarily invested in the student’s future, or may be unqualified to be teaching the instrument in the first place. It is my personal opinion that this is good for neither the student, nor the teacher.

However, not all of these schools are bad. For example, (ALERT: SELF-REFERENTIAL PLUG APPROACHING), I teach at a music academy in Atlanta, and I believe - I think justifiably - that the academy that I teach at is of the highest caliber. Unlike some places I’ve taught at in the past, and those to which I’ve referred above, the academy that I teach at has a strong belief in hiring the best teachers, specializing in string instruments and piano, and (while it is a business and students pay a premium rate for the premium level of teaching) avoiding the “Money Now; Music Later” mentality of many business-first music schools. Teachers are paid well and are supported in their musical and teaching decisions. I’ve never been asked to teach another instrument because I don’t play another instrument. This academy should not be an anomaly.

Now, I have recommendations for parents and students looking for music teachers.

First, and foremost, one should consider the level of dedication that a student has to learning the instrument. If the student is a beginner and/or a small child, it is incredibly important to find a teacher who works well with beginners and young people. If you’re on the lookout for one of the many excellent Suzuki teachers to start with, make sure that this teacher has had not only training from the Suzuki Association of America, but is a competent player in their own right. (Spoiler: some Suzuki teachers take the training to be more marketable private teachers. Just because a teacher claims to have the backing of Suzuki Association of America, a "certification," or taken training courses does not mean that they are an excellent teacher, nor a good player. Check with the Suzuki Association of America to read about teacher training and qualifications.) Any teacher of a beginner should place a great deal of importance on instrumental basics, including proper setup and technique. If the teacher doesn’t care how the student sits/stands, holds the instrument, or other basics of playing, it’s probably best to find another teacher.

It is my opinion that teacher qualifications matter, and not all qualifications are created equal. I think that I am more qualified than some cello teachers in my area, including some with similar academic bona fides, and less qualified than others. I have three degrees in cello performance and a pretty extensive performance resume. This means that I spent the majority of my education in a practice room getting better at the cello, working toward perfecting music for hundreds of performances. I’ve struggled through many of the same things that students will struggle through in lessons, and I’ve learned the proper way(s) to overcome these struggles.

That said, because most of my education was spent practicing, and I have the same standards for my students as I have for myself, I may not be the best teacher for some students (specifically less-serious students who aren't interested in putting in the practice time that I expect). Teaching is an art form that also takes practice, and it wasn't until I was out of school five years ago that I started working on my teaching. Someone with a music education degree has spent more time in school thinking about the art of teaching than I did, and many are more well-rounded teachers, better suited for many different types of students, including those less-serious students. Music educators have also (almost certainly) spent less time practicing their instrument than I have. It’s a trade off, and it’s up to the parent/student to decide which kind of student they are and which kind of teacher they'd like to work with.

Lastly, no matter what, if you are even a remotely serious student, DO NOT select a teacher who does not really play your instrument. If the school (or teacher) that you are researching lists teachers who teach multiple, unrelated instruments, run away. As a cellist, I would never consider teaching string bass, much less violin, piano, or - god forbid - ukulele. Just because a teacher plays the trumpet does not mean that they can teach all brass instruments. Just because someone took a piano class in college or lessons as a teenager does not mean that they can teach piano.

This is a telltale sign that the school cares more about bringing in many students than it does actually educating them. Volume of students over quality of teaching.

(The only exception to this rule is with violin/viola teachers - especially for younger students, but only if the teacher has actual, serious training on both instruments - and instruments that have natural doublings, such as tuba/euphonium.)

One year of study with an unqualified teacher will take me two years to fix, so - if you’re moderately serious about your musical pursuits - don’t waste your money at a school or with a teacher just because the price is a little bit lower or the location is a little more convenient. Most of the time, you’ll see better results, faster, if you seek out (and potentially pay out for) the best, most engaged, and most qualified teacher for the student.