“A mind is like a parachute. It doesn’t work if it is not open.” -Frank Zappa
How open-minded are you?
It’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t say they’re open-minded. But in reality, it seems very few teachers are.
Look at the glacial pace of change in education across the world. Every other field is experiencing massive disruption and great leaps forward due to the embrace of new ideas, new ways of doing things, and new technology.
This is costing our very livelihoods as educators. In school systems, music and arts are being cut everywhere- it’s seen as non-essential. For those lucky enough to keep a classroom music teaching job, they are now being asked to cover lunchroom duties or schoolyard monitoring- non-teaching administrative functions!
And in private lessons, it’s not much better.
Students are looking to learn to play music because they listen to it everywhere. But when they go to their first lesson, they are given complicated, boring exercises only useful for prodigies. It’s no wonder so many students walk right out to never return!
The problem is that many of these old guard teachers believe that there’s only one way to teach. It’s a traditional model that has lasted for hundreds of years! Just think of it, these traditional methods are the same method books that were being used when we were wearing wigs!
It’s a big disconnect.
Everywhere we turn, there’s music. Every hip new restaurant has a hip new playlist. Every retail store has a designed music ambiance. Even political candidates have a playlist. Did you see the recent NY Times article that details each Presidential hopeful and their playlists? Fascinating.
And yet, so many teachers can’t seem to deliver lessons that connect with the continued love and enthusiasm for music.
So what’s the solution?
Give the people what they want.
And that begins with opening the minds of music teachers.
I’ve been interviewing teachers for my school. One of the questions I always ask is,
“What are you listening to these days?”
It’s a simple question, but if you ask many music teachers, it seems their playlists got stuck on their old Victrola.
It’s fascinating how many say they are open-minded, but upon further digging, it’s like they could be living in 1819, not 2019.
A simple way to start cracking open the door of your mind is to start listening to other types of music.
I read on another music teacher forum recently a teacher saying, “I have no time to listen to music!”
If music has lost its spark for you, how can you light the candle of your student?
I encourage you to reinvigorate your musical life. Listen wide, deep, and often. Subscribe to streaming services. Did you realize how much music is available in your pocket?
And if you need some inspiration, here’s some recent listening according to my playlist history:
Bomba Estereo – Ayo
Harry Belafonte – Angelina
Eric Whitacre – Lux Arumque
U2 – Sunday Bloody Sunday
Jeff Beck – Goodbye Pork Pie Hat
Louis Vierne – Messe Solennelle – Kyrie
Steel Pulse – Earth Crisis
Louis Prima – I Wanna Be Like You
Johnny Cash – I’ve Been Everywhere
Sebastian Yatra – Un Año
MC5 – Kick Out The Jams
Santana – Soul Sacrifice from Woodstock
Pedro Capo & Farruko – Calma remix
Benjamin Britten – Peter Grimes
Listen to something different today.
I’ve been mentoring music teachers and business owners for years. I have a few openings. If you’d like to book a free breakthrough call with me, click here.
It’ll be the best 45 minutes you’ve ever spent on your business. It’s free.
As a private music teacher, you want to teach music to children. You know they love it and there seems to be a plentiful supply of them asking for your help. Besides, lately all your adult students seem to be canceling at the last minute while your teens are more interested in their social media feeds than practicing. Maybe you should teach younger kids?
But Teaching Young Kids Is Hard
It does seem hard, doesn’t it? Young children have limited attention spans, some lack fine motor skills, and some can’t even spell their names, let alone read a simple word. How do you present the many complexities of music, technique, reading, and playing songs they like in a way that’s simple, fun and won’t drive you crazy?
What About A New Age Group?
But what if you could take a 4 year old as a student? What if you could successfully take on a whole bunch of them and keep them for years? Your studio would be instantly full and overflowing for a long time with this group. You might even have a waiting list. But this would only happen, if you were effective, and fun!
So, what is the #1 secret to teaching young children music?
The secret is a term that we usually associate with construction. Here in New York City, I see it every single day. It’s “scaffolding.” Scaffolding is the temporary structure that assists the workers in building the building. In the western world, most of it is metal, but in Hong Kong, where I lived for years, it’s still made of bamboo!
But the term scaffolding has been appropriated by educators to mean a similar thing. In education, you offer support while the student learns a new concept or skill.
The Balance Bike
This reminds me of the time I was teaching my son to ride a bicycle.
When my son was a toddler, I began seeing beautiful handmade two-wheeled, push bikes without pedals. The concept was that the child could focus on balance before learning to use pedals.
It was a phased learning process.
But why not training wheels?
Well, these have been proven to be more of a crutch than a scaffolding.
So, I bought a $30 kid’s bike and adjusted the seat as low as possible without adding the pedals. As soon as my son began to develop balance, which he demonstrated by lifting his feet while rolling along, I knew he was ready. So, one day, when he was 4 years old, I pushed him down the slope of our Brooklyn sidewalk with the pedals turning. He grabbed my hand saying,
“Papa, do NOT let go of me!”
I began to push and run alongside him, holding on as I had promised. Before we had travelled twenty feet, he began yelling, “Let go! Let go! I can do this!”
And sure enough, he pedaled down the block with the most triumphant smile on his face.
Applying Phased Learning & Scaffolding to Music
In teaching music to preschoolers, I realized that there needed to be something similar. I needed a phased-learning process, some kind of thoughtful scaffolding so the student does not get hit with a multitude of new abstract concepts at the same time.
A Limited Data Set
I started kids with a limited data-set, just five notes on the keyboard that match their five fingers. For the guitar, I taped off three of the strings and just used the three higher strings, using one for melody and the others as drones.
Use of Color
I began to use color as a temporary scaffolding. By directly labelling the keys, the fingering and the notation, I could work on playing songs which they loved while gently correcting their technique over time. Then I could start sneaking in some music theory through games. Eventually, we would start tackling learning to read music on the staff.
My teaching started to break down into these separate but parallel tracks.
1) Playing comes first – but with a limited set of notes that match the middle of the human voice frequency range. This allows the student to engage their voice in the process.
2) Technical facility is gradually developed over time in service of a song
3) Reading of music notation is taught in a 6 stage process from simplest to traditional music notation.
4) Conceptual and abstract music theory is gradually delivered in small gradual steps, usually through games.
Here’s a video of one of my students at a holiday music party after only a few weeks of lessons.
In my ten years of specializing in teaching children, I have consistently had a full roster with a waiting list and the results have been amazing. Last Fall, I began teaching a few other music teachers this method and they too have been experiencing great results. In a few weeks, I will be launching the online course for the Musicolor Method™. If you want to be on the early bird list for notification when it’s ready, you can click here.
Growth Mindset of Children “I Can Do Anything”
One of the greatest joys of teaching kids music is that young children have complete self-confidence and belief that they can do anything. They truly embody the growth mindset. Unfortunately, it seems they begin to lose this the older they get, so starting music lessons at this age dovetails perfectly with their confidence.
Music Is For Everyone
I believe that music should be for everyone. It is in our very core – we are all vibrating at frequencies. Let’s share the joy of music with as many people as possible.
I would love to know your thoughts on scaffolding and if you have any similar techniques? Please share in the comments below and thanks for reading!
Wendy and I connected on a LinkedIN Music Teacher’s group and got to talking. She has a successful music studio and will soon launch an online training program. She is a wealth of information and so I have broken up our interview into several parts. This is the first of three. Enjoy!
What do you think makes you unique as a teacher?
Writing my own teaching program is something that not many teacher get around to doing and mine covers currently 6 instruments with more underway.
What frustrated me early in my teaching career, was firstly the number of children or adults I saw who wanted to learn to play an instrument who were being turned off learning music because it was too hard for them or too boring and so they dropped out of lessons. Secondly they weren’t being taught to read and understand making music or exploring improvising,creating and the other facets of music in an easy to understand way. When I started teaching, it was very traditional. So I ended up putting together my own method. The method encompasses reading and playing technique, theory, performing, improvising,listening skills. But it’s put it together in a structured system so it’s very easy to follow.
So what makes it different than other methods out there?
The simplicity and variety of activities that cover all the different areas of musicianship,listening,playing, reading,creating,understanding,technique and so on. I broke down every musical concept beginners will use in their first two or three years of learning and structured a lesson plan that works with every concept. Both students and teachers have an easy to follow and interesting routine of activities on which they can place more or less emphasis as needed or according to their interest.
For example the first notation reading a student learns is the semibreve or whole note. This squashed circle or egg shaped symbol which tells us to “make a sound” and hold that sound for 4 musical heart beats. Play – hold-hold-hold.
We start with rhythm on its own, without pitch or staves and not using traditional counting with numbers as they are just too confusing!…..
So we don’t count in numbers like 1-2-3-4 for a four beat note.
So what do you say?
We say “play”, as they play it and make a sound and then they hold and hold and hold. Then they go on the next one. And when they do a two beat note, it’s just “play” and hold. And a rest is “rest” or if it’s a two beat rest, it’s “rest rest.” This simple language is actually describing WHAT they have to do.
Students usually learn one concept each week such as the semibreve or whole note and we do exercises together in class exploring the concept, then they have some tunes they go home and play with backing trax. Each concept has a flash card, a homework theory or writing page and we have some creative improvising they can do to backing tracks. It’s a package of different activities all related to semibreve. And then the next week, after their homework review we’ll do the same activities using the minim or half note concept.
These are all private lessons, one on one?
Currently I do shared lessons as well. Two students coming to a class together. In the past, I’ve also done small group lessons of 3- 5 children.
In the next part of the interview, Wendy shares some great tips on running a successful music studio and the business of administering and managing employees. Stay tuned.
I’ve been talking to a lot of music teachers all over the world. A common complaint is that there’s “too many distractions” in students lives nowadays. They blame the Internet, or the video games, or soccer or Instagram or other social media.
In my 8 years of running my kid-focused music studio, I have rarely experienced anyone quitting due to distractions or other things. Maybe it’s because I interview the parents and make them know what the expectations are. Maybe because I charge more than a lot of other teachers.
What I think it really is, is having a plan. Having a clear plan of what to teach each and every child every lesson.
Because I focus on such young children starting at 3 1/2 or 4, I really had to invent a lot of my own methods. Over the years this method has grown and my teaching lab of daily lessons has honed it to a codified, powerful, and engaging system of teaching.
This is the second part of an interview with music teacher John Gardner. John is also an avid technologist and able to be a virtual assistant with music arranging/composing and general office skills through his company Virtual Music Office. You can see Part 1 here.
Technology for Teaching Music
Andrew: Do you use any technology or software in your day to day running?
John: Yeah, I like that question. I use Skype some when I’m doing the remote lessons. I use Finale notation software. Some students are working on something specific. There is a weakness that they have and I’ll write an exercise for them. I want you to do this or I’ll transpose something for them or for someone else. I use SmartMusic. Are you familiar with SmartMusic?
Andrew: The practice software?
John: Yeah, it’s a practice software. We’re trying to get the school to let us put enough subscriptions in that we—see, our school has, every student has an iPad and we’re trying to get the school to put SmartMusic on all the iPads but that’s a subscription. They don’t want to pay for it but I use SmartMusic to, if they’re working on a solo, I can provide them the accompaniment to practice with. Sometimes when they come in to a lesson, I can’t do this with the remote people, but I can on the local level. I can use SmartMusic and we’ll play scales with accompaniment or we’ll practice. It’s got a site reading component where I say, okay, I want to find the difficulty level. I want to find where your brick wall is, then we’ll work from there. Scales and exercises, it’s got rhythm. I like SmartMusic a lot.
Andrew: How much is the subscription?
John: It’s about $40 a year.
Andrew: Oh, okay, not so bad.
John: No, it’s not.
Andrew: But the student has to also pay the same price or the teacher—
John: If they want to have it on their iPad to go home, take it home and do it at home, they have to buy a subscription. Actually, we buy an educator’s license at the school which I think is about $150 or thereabouts and then additional subscriptions. Right now, we have one educator license and four, what they’re calling practice licenses. We can put four copies on computers that we have there at the school, so I can send a student back to play something. One of the things that it will do is we can take a piece of their music that they’re practicing on, put it into Finale, Finale transfers to SmartMusic and then they can go back and practice with SmartMusic and SmartMusic will actually record them including marking for them what they missed.
Andrew: Wow, so you actually can hear what you’re—
John: Yeah, you put them, it comes with a microphone where you use the microphone on your iPad or your Macbook or computer and so if they’re practicing a scale or they’re practicing sight reading—green notes were good, red notes you missed. If you’re slightly off, it shows you that. It’s not 100% so not comfortable sometimes at school using it if I’m actually giving the students a grade because sometimes the software will make a mistake but it’s good for letting them practice and a lot of band music, they’ve got the actual band that compliment and so I can send the kid back there to work on their 2nd trumpet part with the band sound coming at them.
Andrew: And it doesn’t cost more to add arrangements or something?
Andrew: Oh, wow.
John: No. That’s all part of what you get, so it’s a good tool for individual practice and I usually encourage my students to do it because then even the remote students, I can give them an assignment, they can record it with SmartMusic and they can send me the file.
Andrew: Wow. You know, I’ve heard about it but I just never explored it, so I’m very excited about that.
John: It’s a fun tool.
Andrew: Does it work with Sibelius as well because I’m on Sibelius.
John: I have not—My son is a music teacher and he loves Sibelius and I know the local university loves Sibelius. The other band director I teach with loves Sibelius. I guess my—you know, I use Finale more because it interacts with SmartMusic.
Andrew: And they don’t do that with the—
John: SmartMusic and Finale are part of the same family. So it’s like two products from the same company. I use it mostly for that. Sometimes I use some online theory programs if I’m working with somebody and I’ll have them go to Musictheory.net and there’s exercises. The only downside is I can’t have them do an exercise where I know how they did it. It’s just the kind of thing where I can say go practice, listen to this interval or these intervals.
I use Google docs sometimes for collaboration, communication. I use Google sheet.
Andrew: That’s with the student?
John: Yeah, sometimes usually with the parent, like this morning right before you called, I’m at home working on a Google doc with the band director who’s over at the school, we’re compiling a list, so we’re both able to type on the same list at the same time. It’s good for that kind of thing but I also use it for surveys and homework. I can use the Google—it’s not Google sheets, I guess it’s Google forms that allows you to create questions, multiple choice, or paragraphing insert, and they do that and then I get their answers back, so I can get various kinds of homework or listen to this piece and I want you to critique it—What did you like? What did you not like? Even themselves, listen to this recording of you playing your solo with the accompaniment and judge yourself on your form and then I get copies of that.
Andrew: Do you actually embed the audio in that form?
John: You can. You can put it. Well, you can put a YouTube link in there. You can do that sort of thing. I do use YouTube for recording and playing back, letting them hear who they’ve done or in the case of marching band, we’ll actually video a rehearsal and let students see that. We use our iPads at school. A couple of years ago, I took the whole—for basketball season, I took all of your basketball music that was in three-ring binders and I scanned it and uploaded it, so they can download it onto their iPads, so when they go into a basketball game now, they just take their iPads and I just say #25 and they punch in 25 and it pulls up the piece of music.
Andrew: Are they actually mounted on a little music holder?
John: We don’t have the official iPad stands but the iPad, it’ll sit on the music stand. You just have to make sure you don’t kick it over but we haven’t lost any of them yet from that way. We thought we would. We thought that it would be risk especially at a ball game but we haven’t had a problem with that.
Andrew: What apps are on that iPad that are being used?
John: When I scan them, I usually just put them in a PDF format and then I post those. Our band has a website, I’ll post those on a page and then they can download the PDF into ibooks in their iPad and when they download it, every title has a number and so I do everything by number because in a ball game, they can’t hear you talk to them. There’s a lot of them there, so I can just pull up a little #15 and they can find that. And then iPads also make it easy in their concert band. We don’t allow students to take their folders home because inevitably they take them home and then they’re sick the next day and their stand partner doesn’t have any music but they can take pictures of the music with their iPads and they can take the iPad home and practice that way. That’s probably most of the technology. With their iPads, they have access to metronomes and tuners.
Andrew: What about when you teach the students, do you keep notes for the students anywhere?
John: I probably should do better at that. I know there’s a trumpet teacher that comes in every week—well, several times a week to work with students and he always writes down everything they do but then he gets it to them. Here are your notes from today’s lesson and he hands it to them and then they’re supposed to bring it back the next week for him to review which is a good thing to do. I don’t do enough of that because I’ll usually just mark some things in their book or make comments but then I have found that if I don’t remember what I old them to do, they don’t remember either. What did I tell you to practice this week? So yeah, taking notes is a good thing.
Andrew: Is that something that you think to be served by some technology that you already have?
John: I could do that with Google docs. I probably should do it with Google docs and share that with the student but I haven’t but now that’s probably a good idea.
Andrew: And then you can probably send it to the parent too just so that they can check it.
John: if they can have access to it.
Andrew: How do you keep your roster of your students? Do you have any kind of way of tracking who’s coming when?
John: Well, I use Google’s calendar and that integrates with my phone, and so yeah, that what I use for scheduling.
Setting Policy For Remote Lessons
I’ve got some requirements before I started working with a 14-year-old girl on Skype, I have a conversation with mama—mother or father or somebody and I ask especially if we’re doing this at their home, that there be a parent there. They don’t have to sit there next to them but—so, I get parental permission in advance but just because of all the stupid stuff that you hear whether it’s in the public school, teachers and students, and you just got to be really careful.
My son administers a school of performing arts that’s actually in a church and he tells me some of the things they go through just to avoid any kind of accusation that there’s something inappropriate going on with—because most of their teachers, they’re in a college so a lot of the teachers or college students, a lot of the students or elementary and middle school kids, so they’ve gone through windows and all the practice rooms. They have a staff member physically walk into every lesson every time. Sometimes during that 30 minutes, somebody’s going to walk in and parents have to sign the students in and sign them out. It’s all about making sure mom and dad know you’re here, they know what you’re doing, they’re here they know what we’re doing, here’s how it work, things like that.
When I used to do lessons in my home, I would strongly encourage a parent to stay. Go sit on my couch and read a book. I’ll take the student to the dining room, not all of them did, but that’s always one of those things, so I don’t do it my home anymore. And that’s part of the reason, other than my Skype lessons, I’ll do those from here. I’m here and there or somewhere else. But I like the Skype lessons where I’m working with a student who’s in a band office because now there’s an adult at the other end or somebody around.
You’ll see that I put that on the website. I require a conversation with the parent. Now I don’t, with this high school because I’m dealing with a teacher who’s working with this student and I’m working with them but when I have someone that I don’t know contact me and want to do something, I do make sure I have a conversation with the parent. I make sure I have at least some kind of an email interaction back and forth where I’ve got something in writing from them. Here’s what’s going on and it’s just a protection. I mean, you got to be so careful because in today’s world, you don’t have to be guilty. You only have to be accused.
And you could be ruined. My son tells me about one of his teachers who is a college student and it wasn’t one of the lessons in his school of performing arts. It was a guy giving lessons at the college to, I think he said, she was a middle school student accused him of touching her. Well, the university kicked him out. They expelled the kid and then a month or two later the girl confessed that she made it all up but in the meanwhile, here’s a kid that’s lost his college education. And so the university there now requires their students who are giving private lessons, video of the lessons which is an excellent idea.
Every once in a while in the summer time at school, I’ll have some students who want to come in for lessons and there’s not a lot of people in the school building. Once I make sure mom knows where they are and I have a lesson out in the big ensemble room when I open the door—there’s always somebody in the building, a custodian or somebody walking through, just try everything you can do, just try to eliminate the possibility that somebody can say something.
Trends in Private Teaching
John: The positive for private teaching is that a lot of public schools are cutting. They’re cutting budgets, they’re cutting personnel, some are actually cutting music programs that seems to happen more in the elementary school where they’re completely cutting something out or they’re cutting it way back but even in some public schools where they’re cutting it, the school of performing arts that my son works with, that has helped them thrive actually because the parents in the area where the schools are cutting back are saying, “Well, we still want music education and so they’ll work with that. That’s probably the biggest positive or in rural areas where there’s no teachers around for Skype lessons or Facetime or some remote way of doing things.
You have on your list one of the biggest threats—the two biggest, the safety issue that we’ve talked about, have to deal with not getting yourself in a position where you can be accused of doing something improper with a teenager or even a child, somebody starting lessons. It’s just something that you have to be really careful about and I think some parents, I’ve never had somebody tell me but I just wonder are there parents who won’t let their kids study privately and that’s part of the mix. I’m not going to let my kid get—because if you’re doing private lessons, with instrumental lessons, a lot of times you’re in the music library and the door is shut or in a practice room and the door is shut. And there’s not always going to be a lot of people around. I think some parents, whether they admit it or not, that’s a little bit in the mix and then the other big threat at our area is just the economics of it. I can’t afford it. I can’t afford lessons. I can’t afford to get my kid step-up instruments. Some won’t even get their kid’s instrument repaired. No, we bought that instrument—I’m dealing with high school kids that are playing on the instrument they got in 6th grade that was designed for 6th graders. Now that trombone student needs a bigger trombone, not the little peashooter that they started on and the parents are like, “We already bought him one. We’re not going to buy him another one.” Economics are an issue.
Andrew: Do you see anything about the change in how much interest there is in music lessons?
John: There’s a lot more competition for kids, a lot more opportunities for them to be involved in different things. Some of them tells us that, I want to be on the tennis team and I’m doing this with the honor society and I’m on the math competition team and so mom and dad just say that’s enough, I can’t do something else.”
Andrew: I mean, that probably has been not always the case, right? But is it increasing or decreasing?
John: I think it’s increasing. Our high school has now—there are 40 extracurricular clubs for them to be a part of—
There’s a lot of competition for the kids and then more and more of them feel like they have to have a job. They have to get a job because they have to get a car because—and they have to pay the insurance. It’s hard to compete with them sometimes.
An interview with John Gardner, band teacher, entrepreneur
John and I connected on LinkedIN and we got speaking about teaching music, the new technologies available, trends in music education and safety precautions when teaching children, both for the child and the teacher. John also has a business supporting other teachers and musicians called Virtual Music Office where he offers virtual assistant services, copying/arranging, marketing and tech support.
John is full of great wisdom from years of experience. I’ve broken this into 2 parts.
Andrew: I saw from your profile that you’ve been a band teacher in high school, is that how you first started in music teaching?
John: I graduated with a degree in music ed and I started in a public school, a small school, rural school. I did that for a few years and then I got out of education. My wife and I were both teachers.
When we decided to start our family, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and I didn’t want to go to half income, so I went to work for a fundraising company that did business with me while I was a band director and I worked with them for a few years and then I went off and started my own business which still operates but it’s a little more dormant now, so I was doing sales for 25 years.
And about 11 years ago, the local school system called me, a band director called me because they were cutting staff and he wondered if I’d be interested in helping him part time, just come in for a few hours a day, and so I kind of went at it with the idea that “it’ll be like a hobby.” I’ve got my business. This will be my hobby.
And so I have been doing that for the last 11 years and then for about 15 years, I’ve been teaching as adjunct faculty at a local university. It’s a small school, so they don’t have a lot of full time music faculty. So when they have clarinet or saxophone students come in, I work with them. I play in some of their faculty ensembles and their orchestra and things like that, so I’m still actively performing and teaching individually. I have a few Skype students which is kind of interesting. I’ve learned the hard way you can’t play duets on Skype.
Andrew: Interesting. You said you have a business as well. What is the business?
John: I have a couple. The one that I got out of education for was with a fundraising business, working with schools and daycares, and church groups, and little leagues, selling products to raise money. The people that come to you—chocolates or gift wrap or candles, cookie dough. I’m fundraising distributor and I supply the products and services that go along with that.
That business though, as I got back into the schools, I’ve kind of let that slide a little bit, but what I’m doing more and more of now because technically at the high school, I’m the assistant band director which means, I’m the one who gets to do all the fiddly stuff around the office. All the background stuff and I would say, you know what? I bet there’s other people out there in smaller schools where they’ll have multiple staff even part time. I’ve kind of set myself up as a virtual assistant specializing in music and I can write out parts for somebody or transpose parts, do a lot of the things that happen in a choir or band or office.
Once somebody is willing to say, Okay I can’t get it all done, I’m falling behind, can you help me out. That’s a new thing, still trying to get it going, but I think there’s definitely a need for it if I can find a way to get the word out. Andrew: Yeah. Is that what you call the virtual music? John: Yeah. Probably if I started now because I’m actually—more of my work is with non-music people where I’m doing some virtual service work for just a hodgepodge of people, I might have tried to come up with something a little more generic than virtual music office. But yeah, that was my intent, whenever I’ve had enough of public education and I walk away again or they retire me or whatever, we’re always in a flux of who can we cut and what can we do without. I want to have something else that I’ll be able to fall back on and work out of the house.
Andrew: That sounds like a common theme. I was talking to another professor recently. He’s an adjunct and he’s saying there’s so little chance of getting tenured track anywhere.
John: Nobody’s doing that anymore because they don’t have to. There’s enough
people that want something to do that don’t take anything. I know at the local university they’ve even cut people who got doctorates, and they’re saying, “Well, you can do some adjunct work now but you’re no longer full time faculty.” Andrew: I guess this is what you’re most excited about right now, is your virtual music office.
John: Yeah, getting to work with individuals. I really enjoy getting to work with individual student too. Around in the high school, I’ve got a couple hundred band students but they’re coming in, in droves, you get 40 or 50 of them at a time coming into class but getting to work with them this time of year, we’re almost done with that. I’ve been working with them doing their college auditions and trying to get into music schools and applying for scholarships, all kinds of things, that’s pretty much done. We’re coming to the end of our school year.
Andrew: Is that something you do as part of your job at the school or is that like you do separate private lessons?
John: Both, both. I have with people at the school and then I have always had a private music studio. Students, they just study with me, they have—the only difference is now instead of doing it at my house, I’m doing those one on one lessons either at the high school or over at the university where I’ve got a room or a studio.
Andrew: How many students do you have individually though?
John: I’ve never let it get more than 12, 15. Fifteen is probably the most I’ve ever had at a time where I can still do all the other things that I’m doing but those are people who’ve come to me or people that I think, “You could really be good” if somebody were kind of a combination of giving you some higher level advice and keeping your feet to the fire because they’re pretty intimidated if they come for a lesson and they’re not prepared. I’m not very easy on them.
Andrew: Tough love.
John: Well, when I was in high school, I had a guy that taught me clarinet lessons, I couldn’t afford him, so he made me a deal where I would basically—he was an older guy—he had a bad heart, I took care of his yard, I tend his grass, I shoveled the snow. I was kind of his on-call—whatever—and his deal with me was you do those things for me and I will give you clarinet lessons until the day you show up here unprepared. That was like, “Wow, okay” but I learned from that. I could blow this on any given week. I could blow this whole deal and so I know what that did for me, so I kind of do that with someone my students. I fired some students before. Sometimes they come back a whole lot better after they realized, you mean, you’re not just going to take my money? I’m not going to waste your time or mine. If you’re not going to work, I’m not going to work with you.
[box] “I will give you clarinet lessons until the day you show up here unprepared. “[/box]
Andrew: What age group are most of these? Are these high school mostly?
John: Yeah, most of them are high school students. I have right now working with a 7th grade girl. She will be going into 8th grade. I’ve worked with some home school students. In a way they don’t have an ensemble to play in or whatever and I’ve got a few of those where they’ve searched me out. Sometimes the middle school teachers in the county will call me and say they’ve got a student, can I help them out, things that way.
Andrew: How do you get most of your students? It sounds like mostly word of mouth then, right?
John: Locally, word of mouth.
Andrew: Do you do any marketing for that?
John: Not too much. I try to on my website put out that I’ll do music coaching or music critique. Some of the people I work with they’re just wanting to get ready for something specific. They got solo contest coming up in a month and so I’ll spend three or four sessions with them just trying to get that one piece of music ready to go or they’ve got a college audition coming up and they want some special help with that. My preference is to work with somebody ongoing, kind of systematic study, but there are people who will say, “Well you know, I’m not going to do it all the time but I need some special help right now.” I do some of that too.
Andrew: You said you want to cap it at about 12 to 15.
John: Well, while I’m still teaching. If I get out of the public school business, I could probably do more than that although we’re in a town—the community I’m in is not a real big community. The whole county has only got about 30,000 or 40,000 people. The city’s got about 20,000; one high school. There’s not tons of students around.
[box] “It’s a combination of being a decent musician, if they know that you know what you’re talking about. I demonstrate what I’m talking about.”[/box]
Andrew: Why do you think that you’re so successful as a teacher and a music entrepreneur?
John: Well, I think it’s a combination of being a decent musician, if they know that you know what you’re talking about. I demonstrate what I’m talking about.
The sales training that I’ve had over the years helps me with communicating with people, clarifying questions, somebody comes in and says I have to quit, why do you have to quit and we kind of go—okay so here’s the real problem, and then we address the real problem. That’s the kind of stuff I learned in sales school or if I’m recruiting or I’m trying to convince mom or dad, your son or daughter needs a better instrument or they need ongoing study, I’m basically selling that and I’ve been trained in sales technique, so that helps me there too. But I think that combination of being a good musician, (I was trained in music ed so I get a lot of the education training), the psychology of learning, knowing how people learn and how to accommodate different styles of learning as opposed to a teacher, here’s how I teach and this is what I’m going to do to everybody.
I‘ve got some students if I were not careful in criticizing them, they break down and cry. I’ve got other students who want me to be hard.
A few years ago, I had an exchange student. He was in the area. He wasn’t at my school but he wanted private lessons. He was from South Korea and I learned a lot from him. He would come into the building with his instrument already assembled and I ask him, “Why do you that?” And it was because, “I don’t want to lose any of my lesson time putting my horn together.”
Okay, “I ain’t thought of that. That makes sense” and then he would leave and he would not take it apart. “What are you doing?” “Well, I’m going home to practice. It’s a waste of time to take my instrument apart and put it back together.” And he would not let me—he almost would not let me compliment him. I use “good” a lot in terms of “okay, that’s better.” It’s not perfect but he wouldn’t let me compliment him, “No, that wasn’t good.” He would disagree with me. You know, I can do better than that and there’s different people whether it’s a cultural thing or their own internal—how they do—their own personalities but learning how to read those and find out, okay, here’s what this person needs, here’s what this person needs—that’s the education training I think, being perceptive and then just being comfortable with teenagers.
[box] “It’s like, they say animals can smell fear, teenagers can too.” [/box]
A lot of people are scared to death of teenagers. We have people come in every once in a while to talk to the band and we have 70 teenagers. Some just can’t handle that. And the kids pick up on that. They could read that. It’s like, they say animals can smell fear, teenagers can too. And if they smell fear, you’re done because they’ll chew you up and spit you out.
I’ve been talking to music teachers all over the world to learn and share what their best practices are. One of my standard questions has been “What would be your best advice for a new music teacher – someone just starting out?”
It’s Just Business
Music teachers are creative folks and artists, so we are sensitive types for the most part. We want to hear the good stuff and the hard to hear comments too. But it can affect us. One of the common pieces of advice that I’ve heard is to take it all in, but don’t take it personally.
I used to fret and worry and feel personally slighted if I didn’t get a response to every single email. Or I would actually feel like someone was avoiding me for some unknown reason. Talk about insecure!
“Parents are busy. It’s not that they don’t like you if they don’t respond right away.” says piano teacher Mary Farrell of Mount Kisco, NY. “They are not ignoring you or mad at you. They’re just…parents. They’ve got a million things going on.”
Mary started out over 30 years ago, as a local piano instructor at a music store, after graduating from Wichita State University with a degree in Piano Performance and Pedagogy. While this was great for finding her first students, after a while she felt the need to branch out on her own. She negotiated a flat fee per student to the shop owner and started teaching from home.
What Makes Your Student Tick
“You need to figure out what makes your student tick?” says Mary. “If after asking and trying out different things and they don’t know, just pick a direction for them – they may not have had enough music exposure yet.”
Because I start my students at 4 years of age, I usually just start with my own original compositions which are really exercises in disguise. They have funny words and are designed to get kids having fun playing and singing while sneaking in the technical and theoretical. For older kids, I need to start to get a sense of their tastes. While this definitely creates a lot more work personally, it does have the magic effect of creating instantly focused, engaged and excited students. After all, they don’t want to take music lessons, they want to play their favorite songs. And, you can start to collect a pretty great stockpile of songs that other students (current and future) will also want to learn. So it’s never wasted effort.
Here’s one of my students performing these early “exercises-disguised-as-songs” at a recital.