Managing a Private Studio: Back to School Tips

JD Little

Returning to school after a three month break brings excitement in many different ways to teachers, students, and parents.  As teachers begin work on their lesson plans, coaches on their playbooks and band directors on drill for the upcoming marching band show, there is another group of specialized individuals who are also excited that back-to-school time is finally upon them; private lesson teachers.

After a summer filled with vacations and cancellations, private lesson teachers are excited to once again build up their studios and consistently work with their students on a regular basis. Today I’ll share a few  tips to help you successfully manage your private studio as the school year begins.

In some areas of the country, building and maintaining a private studio is quite easy! Some programs are setup where each new class of incoming students knows that private lessons are simply part of the curriculum, especially if they are playing in the top ensembles. Unfortunately, for a majority of us private teachers, this is simply not the case. A lot of hard work, planning, and promotion is required to find students to teach each week. This leads me to my first point:

Make Yourself Known

This may sound easy enough, but sending a resume to a band director’s school email address will not guarantee a handful of students, or even one. Depending on the size of your community, directors may receive many resumes each week. In addition to sending your CV, also offer – or even insist on – an in-person meeting with them so you can go over your experience and passion for teaching face to face. It has been my experience that directors are much more likely to recommend their students work with a specific teacher if they have a face and personality associated with the name. Many people may look good on paper, but it’s your personality that can set you apart from others.

Also be prepared to play something. It could be anything that demonstrates your talent as a musician and might set you apart from other potential candidates. It might be a brief excerpt of a piece that you just performed, or simply something that demonstrates your tone and technique. You may not even get your instrument out of the case, but always take it with you when meeting with a band director for the first time.  

As you are making connections and setting up meetings with various schools in the area, my next point may help solidify a few interested educators and/or students:

Do One Thing for Free

Most band programs are just now starting to heavily immerse themselves in marching band and this is a great time to offer a free sectional coaching session on the student’s marching band music. You can even allow the director to watch so they can observe your teaching style.

If possible, ask for a copy of the music in advance and go through a couple of the challenging spots so the students can hear how the passage is supposed to sound. They are often impressed by the tone and technique of an advanced player and will most likely be talking about you for the rest of the day. If you are ever unsure of a passage, or not sure if you can sight read it, DO NOT play it. The kids can pick up on negative things just as easily, or easier, than positive things, and they will not hesitate to tell their band directors what they heard.

Lastly, don’t make a habit of offering free services. You want this to be a one-time thing so you can get into the schools and allow the directors and students to get to know you. If additional services are requested, be clear about your rates. It’s important that they understand that your expertise does come at a cost.

Once you are able to acquire students for your studio, it is obviously important to keep them. Below are a couple of basic points that I have found useful when maintaining students from year to year.

Keep Your Schedule Consistent

This may actually sound fairly simple but can often be difficult to do. Gigs may come up. An opportunity may arise to lead a sectional at a different school. Whatever the case, try to keep each student at the same time each week (or at least the same day). Parents may understand that you are trying to make a living by being a full-time musician, and that your time is spread across many different things, but their schedules often require consistency. They may not mind if something comes up once in awhile, but when it happens frequently they may start to question whether or not you are the right teacher for their student. Remember that parents are often trying to juggle many different activities – often for more than one child – and may not always be able to shift their schedules easily – or at all.

Always Assign Something

When teaching, always make sure to assign something to each student. Whether you have three students or seventy, your lessons will be more effective if you have something to work on. The students can often tell if you are making things up as the lesson goes on; they are quite perceptive. But if you assign a few scales, an etude and a short piece each week, then that gives the student something to work on so they can improve and gives you the ability to have something to talk about throughout their lesson.

I just have one final point to mention and may be the most important:

Enjoy Your Time with Each Student

Teaching can be an extremely rewarding field for both you and the student. Private lessons are unique because it is a one-on-one teaching situation so try to make it fun for both of you. Just recently, I had a beginner saxophone student come in wanting to learn the bass line to a song that he heard on the radio. Even though I had scales and etudes assigned for him to play that week, I did not hesitate in helping him learn the bass line. I spent the first few minutes figuring it out on my saxophone then taught it to him.

It was a great situation because it involved notes that we had not learned yet and more advanced rhythms, so it forced us to discuss new fingerings and different rhythmical possibilities. He had a good grasp of the song by the end of the lesson. Try to make each lesson individualized like this and have fun while doing it!

I hope you have found this post helpful. Good luck with your fall semester and beyond! 

JD LittleDr. JD Little completed his DMA in saxophone performance and pedagogy from the University of Colorado-Boulder. He earned his M.M. in sax perf from the University of North Texas and B.M. in sax perf from Ohio University. He has studied saxophone with Tom Myer, John Gunther, Eric Nestler, Jim Riggs, and Matthew James; flute with Ana Laura Gonzalez and Valerie Estes-Johnson; and clarinet with Jessica Vansteenburg and Daniel Silver.

JD performs in pit orchestras around Denver; has performed with the Boulder Philharmonic, Colorado Springs Philharmonic, and Fort Collins Symphony; and has worked extensively with jazz combos and big bands in Colorado, Texas and Ohio.

An adjunct saxophone instructor at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne, WY, he also teaches privately.

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