Category Archives: Business aspects of teaching

Time off

Today, one of my piano parents made an interesting comment. When I reminded her that she didn’t have to wait until the next lesson to find out whether her daughter had practiced something correctly but that she could take a video of her daughter’s playing at home and email it to me for review / feedback whenever she needed, she said, “I don’t want to bother you in your spare time, during your time off.”

With very few exceptions – like the parent who texts at 10:30 p.m. – my piano parents are very respectful of the fact that I have a family, and I appreciate that they don’t take for granted that I am available outside of the actual lesson time.

This parent’s consideration and respect for the fact that I have a life outside of the piano studio felt very good but it reminded me that I need to educate my piano parents better:

I don’t work on things related to piano studio in my spare time. A university professor does not spend all of his/her weekly 40 hours teaching – a full-time position assumes 18 contact hours, the rest goes toward preparation, evaluation, research, etc., but you wouldn’t call the 22 non-contact hours “spare time” just because the professor is not with a student.

Likewise, I spend some of my business hours teaching, and some hours researching, preparing, evaluating, viewing and uploading lesson and performance videos to YouTube, communicating with parents and students via text or email, practicing, etc.  Every so often I go to the piano store to check out a piano for a student, texting and emailing back and forth with the parent, sharing my thoughts on the piano, answering questions. This is not done in my spare time, it is part of my job.

The difference to a 9 to 5, true 40-hour week is that my hours are very flexible. Most days I spend several hours on studio related stuff (in addition to teaching lessons), occasionally perhaps just 30 minutes, catching up on email and uploading a video. I work a lot in the evening after dinner, and most weekends, but I don’t consider those hours my spare time – I just happen to work well in the evening and on weekends.

New York!

After a full day of traveling from Manhattan, KS to Manhattan, NY, we arrived this evening (Friday, March 23) at our hotel, the Hilton New York. Registration for the MTNA Conference closed at 6 p.m. so registration will have to wait until tomorrow morning. The first session tomorrow, a piano master class with Nelita True, starts at 8 a.m.

Breakfast will have to be early …

Saturday, March 24.

First things first.  I don’t do mornings.  I especially don’t eat before about 10 a.m.  Cup o’ tea, yes, fine, but oatmeal has to wait until my stomach is awake.  And my stomach, like me, doesn’t do mornings (I get physically almost-ill when I force it).  So.  Having to somehow fit in the registration process and some kind of breakfast and getting to the Grand Ballroom in time to get a good seat before 8 a.m. would be a bit of a challenge.  Even though Mark and I splurged and got a room in the conference hotel, thereby minimizing / eliminating any kind of commute, we got up shortly after 6:30 a.m. to allow enough time to find our way around on this first morning.

Just in case there would be a line at the registration table closer to the 8 a.m. Master Class, I went through registration first, then breakfast.  My hunch was correct:  when we walked past registration at 7:50 a.m., there was a long line.

There is a “Marketplace Cafe” which serves breakfast and lunch in the hotel but you certainly pay for the convenience of staying in the hotel … Breakfast buffet is $30 which I suppose is ok if you have two hours to sit and nosh and sit some more and eat and go back to the buffet several times because, you know, you have two hours.  We didn’t, so we carried out some fresh fruit and an egg-and-bacon sandwich both of which were excellent.

My stomach survived food at 7:30 a.m.  and at 7:55 I was seated in the Grand Ballroom, eagerly awaiting Nelita True, whom I had seen, heard, witnessed some 17 or so years ago.  I also have the four videos “Nelita True at Eastman” which give you a taste of her teaching which defies superlatives.  Her master class this morning was outstanding, of course.  I was again blown away by her wit, her humor, and her warmth. It’s such a tricky task to work with a student you’ve never met, in front of hundreds of people, on camera, finding the things that matter most and which you hope you can address (successfully) in 45 minutes …  Among the many favorite quotes from this morning:  “your mind was ahead, you threw that away”  –  “could this have more drama? You’re being so nice …”  –  “offbeats must be like a nudge in the ribs – don’t be too polite!”  and  “… could you make that just a bit more evil?” followed by her observation that composers like to use chromatic scales when they want something to sound sinister.

After the master class, at 9:30, I had to choose from four different sessions, two of which were of particular interest to me:  “A practical guide to fingering – breaking free of tradition” and “Approaching Anna Magdalena and the Two-part Inventions”.  I started with the fingering session and caught the tail-end of Bach.  I particularly appreciated that Scott McBride Smith and Steven Spooner (the fingering session) not only had a hand-out at the door but that they offered to email the hand-out to anyone who didn’t get one at the door because they had run out.

At 10:40, there were again four sessions to choose from.  I was equally interested in “Dancing the Baroque Suites and Romantic Dances” and “Lecture and Clinic: Basic Technical Principles / Troubleshooting the problems right away”.  I chose Technique and learned that especially with teenagers, the reasons for poor posture (slouching mostly) differ between girls and boys.  Teenage boys very often grow awfully fast and their bodies can hardly keep up, so Theresa Bogard recommended that boys work out and strengthen those new muscles to get stronger and feel better about this new body.  Teenage girls on the other hand often pull their shoulders forward, arms close to the torso, because they feel the need to protect themselves – Theresa reminded everyone that as teachers we must make sure we provide a safe (emotionally safe) environment for them.  Much talk about wrist and elbow and shoulder and rotation.  What I found interesting was her suggestion that wrist problems can come from being a Type A personality who has this need to control.  She suggested that it’s ok for the brain to be Type A, but the body must have a drink at the bar and relax.

Lunch across the street in a little deli Mark had scouted out earlier; we met up with two of my colleagues and had a very pleasant lunch together.

1 p.m. another master class.  Like Nelita True, Yoheved (Veda) Kaplinsky had interesting things to say about the extremely well-prepared performances:  “no matter how good one is, there are always other ways to look at things”  –  “Chopin’s long lines become easier if you insert commas”  –  “Rotate; think of circular rather than sideways.  Sideways twists the hand”  –  “this LH is not a lyrical legato, it is not necessary to actually connect the notes from key to key”  –  “a nocturne is not a lullaby” (this one made me smile because I had just the other day told one of my students the very same thing) “don’t use the loud section of a nocturne to wake people up – engage them from the beginning”  –  “do not just create affectation, do not just try to create an effect; make it sound more natural, more genuine” (and then she described and demonstrated where and how exactly to be more genuine).

2:10 p.m. I started with “Technique: it’s not just for fingers anymore” and sat in for a bit of “The essence of Chopin’s style” – actually, sitting in was impossible as the room was packed: just as many people standing and sitting on the floor as were seated on the chairs … So I stood for a while.  While I don’t think my Hungarian teacher in Germany was a Chopin specialist per se, she certainly knew and therefore taught us how to play and interpret his music.  I was a bit surprised to hear the presenter tell the audience that he finally figured out that “sotto voce” means left pedal in Chopin.

Mark and I had stayed in touch via texting; before the next session at 3:20 I took a short break and we went across the street to a Starbucks for some lemon bread and a latte, and then walked half a block to a nice little green space, “Urban Plaza”, to sit and catch up.

“Right from the start” with Marvin Blickenstaff made me wish he’d get in touch with Sheila Paige.  And by the time I sat in for a bit on “Back to Bach: performing the Partitas on the modern piano” I was tired and not really able to absorb any more teaching information.  So I sat in on the business session “Communication and Marketing” which offered some valuable tips on how to market your business.

Mark and I went back across the street to the little deli but were disappointed this time:  it looked like the buffet foods had been kept warm since lunch, and the clientele and therefore the whole atmosphere was very different from our lunch experience.  Worst though were the mosquitoes – not what I would have expected in March!

Earlier, Mark had showed me that from the street in front of our hotel we can see Central Park, a couple blocks to the north.  The Central Park.  He knew that the one thing I would not want to go home without having been to was Central Park.  We walked the couple of blocks to and then around the south-east end of Central Park, taking pictures along the way on this perfectly mild spring evening.

A full and filling day.  Tomorrow, in addition to events and a master class, the exhibits will open, and at 5 p.m. will be the premiere of the long-awaited documentary “Take a Bow:  The Ingrid Clarfield Story”.

Sunday, March 25.

Last things first.  The premiere of the documentary: “TAKE A BOW – The Ingrid Clarfield Story” will easily become the emotional highlight of this conference.  The video is very good, but to sit in a room with others and watch, witness the documentary, together – it was almost a spiritual experience.  To suddenly burst into laughter, together, to see others nod their heads in agreement, to hear emotional sniffs, to smile, together – it was very very special.  There was a standing ovation at the end, as much for Ingrid Clarfield (who, along with her husband, was in the audience) as for the maker of the documentary, Lu Leslan.  It was a very emotional experience.

Every time Mark and I travel overseas, we hit what we have come to call “the third day”.  That’s when the excitement from traveling and being somewhere else has worn off and overwhelming exhaustion sets in.  Nothing but a good long nap, and general lying low, helps on that third day.

This morning, after the exhibitor showcases ended at 9 a.m., I was exhausted and in no space to take in any more information, so I went back upstairs to our room and lay down for a nap.  45 min later I felt better and was ready for the day.  I skipped /missed the Opening Session, went straight to the Exhibit Hall and browsed.  Lots and lots of good stuff … Sigh.

11 a.m.   Marvin Blickenstaff’s “Intermediate Piano Master Class” was a delight – I had seen his teaching on video and knew that I would not want to miss an opportunity to watch his teaching live.

With another exhibitor showcase at 1 p.m. there wasn’t too much time for lunch.  Mark and I wandered, rather unsuccessfully, around the hotel neighborhood which is littered with little cafes and delis, street vendors and markets, couldn’t find anything that looked good.  Mark didn’t feel good so he went back to the hotel room to lie down, and I went across the street to yesterday’s deli and got some lunch from their buffet.

The Henle Urtext exhibitor showcase was surprisingly interesting.  Norbert Gertsch emphasized the challenge of determining what the “real” urtext of a composition is.  Is it the first publication?  The manuscript?  What about changes / corrections the composer made after the first publication?  One way they deal with this is by offering an extensive appendix (instead of foot notes which tend to clutter the page, often necessitating extra page turns).  He stressed particulars of Henle editions such as the non-glare, cream-colored paper which is easier on the eyes (especially in performance situations under artificial light), the fact that the paper won’t tear even if you turn the page quickly (as you must when performing chamber music), the binding of thicker books which allows them to lie flat, etc.  Barbara Fry, my teacher when I was growing up in Germany, insisted on Henle editions – except for Chopin where it had to be the Paderewsky edition, or the Cortot édition de travail (study edition) – so I am well familiar with Henle and the benefit of using an Urtext edition.

Back to the exhibitor hall … I turned in many of my coupons and received special goodies, such a sheet music samples etc.  Another short break so I could dash across the street to Starbucks for a moccha, hoping that it would help alleviate my headache.  Mark had been out and about but we had kept in touch via texting and were able to meet there.

“A Natural History Of The Piano” by Stuart Isacoff was interesting and witty.  Mark had bought the book for me the moment it came out, and since the presentation was a one-hour reduction of the book I multi-tasked: listening for a bit, checking email, etc.

After the video premiere, we went to a place called “Astro” which served delicious and plentiful Greek fare.  Mark had had a late lunch there to try it out and decided it would be a good place to have dinner.  They do have a website but it is not at all as appealing as the restaurant itself so I won’t post it here as it would probably give you a completely different / wrong impression of the real thing.

Tomorrow promises to be another full day, with probably no time for a nap.  Exhibitor showcases, the Keynote Address with Benjamin Zander, and, like yesterday, there will be a group of four sessions all at the same time (one such in the morning, one in the afternoon) – very difficult to choose just one!

Monday, March 26.

Anyone who has seen Benjamin Zander’s TED Talk on YouTube or who has experienced him in a live speech knows that the moment Zander opens his mouth to talk you’re in for a treat.  His Keynote Address was an elaboration on his TED Talk.  I loved the way he used the image of birds flying over the fences that keep the sheep in to illustrate long lines in music.  As an exercise to make the audience experience bigger pulses and longer lines in music, he had us – hundreds of musicians and music teachers – sing Happy Birthday to one of the members whose birthday happened to be today, subsequently working on individual phrases to improve.  I may not have been the only one who noticed that this may have been a bit of a moot point – we know about phrasing, and pulse; so the very first rendition where at the end we spontaneously broke into (more than) 4-part harmony was already quite spectacular.

Randall Faber in his exhibitor showcase talked about how they have been incorporating the latest in brain research in their method.  There are now second editions available for several books in the Piano Adventures series.

While I didn’t have much time to listen to Joanne Haroutounian present her new book “Fourth Finger on B-Flat” it sounded interesting enough so I ordered a copy.

Zenph Sound Innovations looks like a really promising idea – I had read about it in one of our journals already; it was interesting to see it in action.  At this time, the price is prohibitive for a private piano teacher with a relatively small studio.

Another piano master class:  this one with Alexander Kobrin who worked on two Chopin pieces.  Regarding rubato in Chopin, he said, “He writes it in when he wants it.  If not, just let it flow – semplice.  That doesn’t mean to play metronomically – we don’t breathe metronomically.”  –  “If you play slower it must be because something is different (such as a new voice in the accompaniment) – listen to what is different, so it has purpose.”  –  “sostenuto, don’t push it forward, it is not yet exciting”  –  “gentle, but polonaise”  –  about LH leaps: “don’t jump – you don’t want the accent from landing”  –  “don’t play faster than you can hear! Don’t let the fingers just go up and down.”  –  “In Chopin, unlike Liszt, every note has a purpose – you must hear every note!”  –  about a tricky ornament which the student played in a somewhat forced manner: “Don’t sound so angry”  –  and “intense but not hysteric”.

There was not enough time to go out for lunch and browse the exhibition hall, so Mark brought me some carry-out lunch I could eat in between things.

More exhibitor showcases:  “The Carnegie Hall Royal Achievement Program” (how much more prestigious-sounding can you get? Not only Carnegie Hall, but Royal, too!), and “Ultimate Music Theory”. At 2:15 there were again four very interesting sessions (all at the same time) and after sitting in for a bit on the Debussy presentation I went on and listened to “The Inclusion of Students With Disabilities”.  Most interesting for me were the personal stories of the two presenters.

More browsing in the exhibition hall.  The greeter (hall monitor?) at the entrance noticed that Mark and I were chatting for a bit by the entrance before we said good-bye (Mark was going to go back upstairs to the room) and suggested that we could get a day pass for Mark (who is not an MTNA member) so we could browse together.  I enjoyed being able to show Mark some of the things I had found, and being able to point out composers such as Dennis Alexander etc. who were available to answer questions and sign books.

For dinner we found another deli, this one much larger and, I thought, a bit nicer than the one across the street.  In defiance of normal dinner fare I had cheesecake and hot chocolate.  Back to the hotel room for a long nap, and then right back to the deli where, this time, I had foods from the buffet:  some hot pasta, chicken, veggies, and delicious cold salads, including some cold salmon.

Very much looking forward to tomorrow’s piano master class with Menahem Pressler.

Tuesday, March 27

Two of my colleagues and friends, Bonnie and Lee, had originally signed up for the Steinway tour but then changed their minds.  Since the tour plus getting there and back was going to take a good four or five hours I didn’t sign up – didn’t want to miss half a day of presentations, but Mark eagerly accepted their offer to take one of their invitations.  He wrote about it here.

8 a.m. exhibitor showcases offered a choice of 3-D Piano with Fred Karpoff; Hal Leonard new releases; the International Institute for Young Musicians with Scott McBride Smith, Steven Spooner and Jack Winerock; and Stipes Publishing’s Keyboard Fundamentals.

Since I purchased 3-D Piano when it first came out I skipped that presentation.

The Keyboard Fundamentals looks like an interesting book but the horrid voice leading (parallel fifths and octaves and leading tones left and right) in the demonstration of chord improv was appalling and unprofessional; it cheapened everything else.

The International Institute for Young Musicians is located in the middle of the USA: in Lawrence, KS – a mere 75 minutes from where I live.  After a short talk about the Institute, there was a (much too) short master class with three high school students.  Adrian Saari performed Liszt’s Waldesrauschen stunningly, effortlessly and beautifully – Steven Spooner commented on the fact that Adrian’s playing was able to draw the audience in at 8 a.m., even more astonishing considering that Adrian, in response to Steven Spooner’s question, admitted to not being a morning person … If he plays like that at 8 a.m. I wonder what he sounds like at 8 p.m.  His is certainly a name to remember.

One of the several highlights of this conference followed at 9:15 a.m.: Menahem Pressler had graciously agreed to give a master class. I could tell that I wasn’t the only one who had left the previous presentation(s) early to secure a good seat in the Grand Ballroom where Mr Pressler was going to be: by 9 a.m. the hall was filling up. Mr Pressler didn’t mince words when commenting on students’ performances … he was genuinely impatient and displeased when a student didn’t do well. It was clear that he expected a lot from the students, but not unreasonably so. And, of course, the few times he said “Yes!” or “Good!” – as genuinely as he had said “No!” before – it really made an impression.

More good stuff still before noon:  “Practice With Your Students”, a presentation by Martha Hilley, covered the many ways we can help our students be more productive in their practicing; and another Louis B Nagel presentation, this one on “The Six French Suites”.

At 1 p.m., Alfred Music Publishing presented more new music, but the really interesting stuff happened in Murray Hill (room):  “Special Students, Unusual Circumstances, Creative Technology” (Yamaha Corporation).  I walked in late, so I missed the introduction but what I heard and saw from then on was yet another emotional highlight of this conference:  Daniel Trush and his father introduced Daniel’s Music Foundation which, since 2005, has been providing free musical instruction to individuals with developmental and physical disabilities in the NYC area.  Connie Wible shared experiences from her own studio, encouraging the pitifully small audience to look into this special field of music teaching.

The fact that every day so far has brought at least one very emotional experience was not something I had expected when I decided to attend this conference.  I expected to learn, to review, to run into old colleagues / friends, to browse the exhibition hall – but I was not prepared for this to be an emotional experience. Mark said a few times that he could hear in the tone of my texts how very special some of the events were.

Tuesday afternoon and I was a bit running out of steam.  I knew from the beginning that this would be a time to be overwhelmed, with plenty of time back home to digest.  At 2:15 I sat in on “Strategies for Reliable Memory in Music Performance”, yet another presentation that was clearly planned for a smaller audience:  the room was packed and the air was getting stale and rather warm which made it a bit difficult to focus.

More exhibition hall browsing, and purchasing …  I am finding lots of very good books and materials.  MTNA had recommended that especially those of us who travel via airplane bring boxes to ship purchased materials rather than having to pack our suitcases with heavy books.  Mark and I decided to pack two suitcases with our clothes etc, and put the smaller of the two bags into a slightly larger one, thereby having three suitcases to bring back home.  One of them would be a carry-on = no extra bag fees.

For dinner we went to an Irish Pub Mark had tried and liked for lunch.  We met with Bonnie and Lee and had a fabulous dinner together.  One of the nice things about having had a (nearly) full glass of beer is that one doesn’t seem to mind when the waiter acidentally spills most of the rest of said beer on one’s clothes (and purse, and bench) …

Last conference day tomorrow.  No more master classes, no more exhibition hall, just presentations, and the Awards Brunch (which I hadn’t signed up for).

Wednesday, March 28

I had been looking forward to Amy Greer’s presentation “Let’s Play Ball! Motivation and The Music Lesson” but unfortunately – perhaps because I was tired (physically as well as mentally) – I found her nasally voice hard to take.  So I switched to “It’s More Than Just Being Nice” about the MTNA Code of Ethics.  Perhaps it was very telling, indicative of the role the issue of ethics plays in music teachers’ lives and organizations that this presentation was pushed (?) to the end / fringe of the conference – I had overheard quite a few people say that they were leaving Tue evening or Wed morning, presumably because there was nothing of worthy interest going on Wednesday.

“Playing Together: The Chamber Music Experience for Beginning and Intermediate-Level Pianists” was certainly of worthy interest.  I particularly liked that Kiyoshi Tamagawa tied his presentation in to other conference events: references to the Menahem Pressler master class, Benjamin Zander’s Keynote Address, etc.  It made it more – personal? relevant? and less like something that could have happened anywhere anytime, just another presentation.  With Mark’s cello studies (beginning of book 4 now) and my about-to-begin viola studies, I am looking forward to trying my hand at chamber music, looking forward to arranging tunes or original late beginner / early intermediate piano works for piano trio.

Mark had been taking wonderful care of me, being there to text or meet in person, bringing me lunch and mochas (spell check doesn’t know about mochas, wants to change it to ‘machos’ …), sharing the exhibition hall experience, taking pictures of me with contemporary composers I met and had asked to sign some of the books I had purchased; he had also been able to “do New York” a bit on his own – Grand Central Station, the New York Public Library, Fifth Ave – but we were looking forward to doing some of these things, and more, together.

On our second evening, we had already walked to and around the South end of Central Park.  Wednesday, after the last session (bitter-sweet –  what do you mean, That’s it? …), we walked to Fifth Ave (away from Central Park first) because I was hoping to do some shopping.  Found some basic clothing articles at H&M (familiar from Germany) and jewelry at the Fossil store, but nothing that would say “New York!”.  Lunch at Pershing Square – delicious!  Back, in light rain, to the hotel, and after a while, out again.  Broadway, Times Square, Junior’s Cheesecake (they are famous for a reason …), Fifth Ave toward Central Park, The Apple Store, FAO Schwarz …  Grateful for good (“sensible”) walking shoes … The weather was mild again, friendly, so beautiful to see the trees in bloom.

Thursday (yesterday), we traveled back to Manhattan, KS.  11 hours after we got up, we were back home.  To sleep in my own bed, take a shower in my own bathroom – ah, yes.  Having until Monday to come back and go back to teaching was excellent planning.  Right now I am in this delicious in-between stage – part of me is still in NY, I can still hear the traffic, still feel the energy …

Stereotypes and Expectations

There is a stereotype, an expectation, regarding mothers:  the best mother is overworked, under-appreciated, running on empty, comes crawling on all fours because she’s so exhausted, but of course she loves her children, so who is she to say no to their wishes and demands.  A mother who seems well-rested and happy cannot possibly be doing a good job because if she were she’d come crawling on all fours da-da-da.

Sounds sarcastic, seems exaggerated, but is true.  Look around: there’s a certain glamour to being overworked.  Find a well-rested and happy mother and the rumors start:  how does she do it?  Oh.  She’s got help.  Well, if *I* had help I wouldn’t be so exhausted all the time either.  (So, why don’t you get help?)

Private piano teachers aren’t much different, except you need to add “under-paid” to the equation.  There is a certain glamour to being exhausted because you teach so much, to being under-paid (and of course struggling with parents who either don’t pay or who pay late etc.) – the starving artist still seems to have a certain appeal; to not having time “for anything!” – especially for attending performances it seems.  I do not care to remember how many times I have attended a concert or a masterclass, here in town (= no traveling required!) and I was the only teacher from our organization there.

Much of the work of a piano teacher lies outside of the actual piano lesson.  College professors who teach 18 contact hours are considered full-time.  Outside of the actual lesson/class but within the normal 40-hour week there’s preparation time, evaluation time, professional development time, etc.  College professors are expected to do and publish research, attend meetings, etc., all within the normal 40-hour week.

I once had a colleague who told me, regarding a somewhat complicated student who was looking for a different teacher, “I can’t teach him anymore. I would have to prepare the lessons, and I don’t have time for that.”

Say what??

Whenever someone asks me, “so, how many students do you have?” I have to say that I don’t count them.  How do you count the student who comes on average every other week because his work schedule is so busy?  Half a student?  I do know that on average, I teach about 22 contact hours each week but that’s only the private lessons.  On top of that are additional contact hours in the form of irregularly scheduled performance classes, extra lessons to prepare for competitions etc.

However you count it, it is too much.  Part of the problem is that there is not enough time, quality time, to do all the preparing, evaluating, watching and editing and uploading student videos, professional development, etc.  The other problem is that when I get sick – and I seem to get sick more often these days – it is a nightmare to find times to make up a day’s worth of lessons.  Or:  competitions and auditions routinely happen on weekends – I normally teach six students on Saturdays, so when I am at a competition I can’t at the same time teach lessons = need to find time to make those up as well.  I have dedicated make-up lesson days on my calendar and I offer make-up and extra lessons on no-school days but those days are filling up awfully fast.

There have been days lately where I teach from 10:15 a.m. til 7:15 p.m. (with a lunch break).  My lessons are very focused, my students usually have 100% of my attention 100% of the lesson time – I feel bad when I have to take 5 minutes from a 45-minute lesson to use the bathroom (because I teach for such long stretches at a time).  I don’t want the quality of the lessons to diminish just because I am exhausted.

A colleague of mine routinely has to cancel lessons because of illness due to working too much.

In a way, this reminds me of the no-pain-no-gain attitude.  There are fortunately fewer and fewer teachers who disregard their students’ physical (and emotional) discomfort caused by an unhealthy approach to playing the piano, and more and more teachers who pay particularly close attention to injury-free technique and an overall healthy attitude toward playing, practicing, performing, competing, etc.

So, if we are so conscious regarding our students’ well-being, why do we seem so willing to ignore our own? Why do teachers glorify the problems that stem from teaching too many hours, from accepting students who drain the teacher’s energy because they are not a good match, personality-wise?  Why do teachers accept tuition that is too low, given their education, expertise, and experience – and then complain that they don’t have enough money?   Because unless it hurts it’s no good?

All in all not a healthy situation.

I don’t want to be one of those teachers who proudly complain that they are overworked, consider themselves under-paid, who come crawling on all fours because they are so exhausted.  And who get sick because they don’t have the time to take care of themselves.

I see no glamour in that.  I only see that my teaching would suffer.

So.  I have looked at my students and at my teaching schedule, and I have started to think which of my students might do as well, or better, with a different teacher – at least temporarily, if not permanently.  The challenge is how to explain to the parents/students that this is not a weeding-out process, trying to get rid of unwanted students, but an attempt to find what is best for both the students and me.

Of course, this 40-hour work week is my personal choice – it allows time for my family which is important to me.  If someone else chooses to work 60 or more hours, that’s perfectly ok but, I think, only if it can be done without detrimental effects on their health, and, please, without taking pride in getting sick from working “so much”.


As much as I love teaching, I am so very ready for a break now.  There were days recently where I thought that the end of my eight weeks of summer teaching can’t come soon enough.  And it wasn’t that students had become worse or that teaching wasn’t as much fun as usual – I simply need a break.  ~  Mark reminds me that part of what makes the summer exhausting is that because everyone’s schedule constantly changes, no two days are the same, no two weeks are the same; there’s no routine, no predictability, part of me is constantly busy trying to keep track of the ever-changing schedule.  I’m not complaining, as a matter of fact I enjoy being able to encourage parents to take advantage of the fact that my schedule can be so much more flexible in the summer.  But it wears on me.

My vacation now for the next three and a half weeks is of course only a vacation from teaching actual lessons; I will still be busy preparing the fall schedule, catching up on reading and watching videos, among many other piano and teaching-related things.

I have recently become “friends” with a number of pianists and musicians on facebook many of whom routinely post links to very interesting videos, videos of performances (student and/or professional), teaching demonstrations, as well as music and teaching-related articles, etc.  Over the last several weeks I have accumulated a long list of links of videos to watch and articles to read “when I get to it” …

A colleague of mine who studied with Sheila Paige is lending me some of her videos which are so chock full of information that during normal teaching days I cannot digest more than one video a day.  So, I am looking forward to having more time and leisure.

Last summer I had a young Asian student who consistently played one part of his assignment particularly well:  his pieces from Beyer Op. 101 were unusually well-prepared and musical (the other pieces not so much).  When I commented on it, the mother told me that there are videos of a Chinese pianist/teacher available online who demonstrates each piece, performs it, shows how to practice, etc.  The mother made her son watch the videos and follow the instructions.  With beautiful results.  So.  I have started to record videos of my performing some of the pieces my students play, some at practice tempo with metronome, for them to watch at home in order to refresh their memory of what we started at the lesson.  Mostly this is about technique and to set a musical example of what I expect the student to aspire to.  Time-consuming, and not usually something I like to do on normal teaching days when I have only 15 minutes in between so many other things.

And then of course there are the things that have nothing to do with piano or teaching:  I look forward to spending more time gardening (I hand-weed the lawn …), smelling the roses I recently planted (yes, in the 100 degree heat of the summer but I couldn’t resist the “all bedding plants 50% off” sale), watching the immensely cute little frogs and less-cute toads that have decided to live on the deck, the patio, in the planters by the entrance …

I look forward to not having a schedule.  I look forward to doing things when I get to them, not because they’re on the calendar and need to happen at a certain time.  I look forward to breathing space.  Sitting on the deck, in the heat, feet up, dripping with sweat, smiling.

A new semester

August 18 came and went and life is good again. 

I had returned from Germany late Saturday evening which gave me a wonderfully relaxed Sunday with Mark, a Monday with nothing on the calendar, a Tuesday full of interviews, so by Wednesday the 18th I had had a couple days to come home and get organized, ready to start teaching. 

While I don’t believe in jet lag = the assumption that for a couple days after transatlantic travel my body is still operating in a different time zone, I do acknowledge that spending a day that begins at 5:30 a.m. in Germany and ends some 24 hours later at 10:30 p.m. in Manhattan, KS – a day that is spent sitting and trying to sleep in a taxi, airplane seats, waiting areas and a car – takes its toll on a body that is closer to age 50 than 40.   I was dragging for a few days, taking delicious naps and generally taking it a easy.   It helped that the terrible heatwave which had gripped Manhattan the previous weeks had finally broken right before I arrived back in Kansas. 

My schedule this semester is very full, and it is still evolving:  since I started the piano semester six days before students went back to (public) school, some students were still on vacation which necessitated rescheduling their lessons.  Now that we have started and students are back in school, the reality of how realistic the piano schedule is for my students is starting to sink in.  I have already had requests to move lessons to a slightly different time to accommodate other family obligations during the school year.   Back-to-school nights temporarily mess with the schedule.  So far, I’ve been able to accommodate these requests.  

Other changes that are coming up:  I have particularly many transfer students this semester, and all transfer students start with twice-weekly 30-minute lessons until I am confident I can leave them alone with their assignment for an entire week and we switch to once-a-week 45-minute lessons.  There is no time limit on this transition: for some students it takes a few weeks, for some many months.  So there’ll be changes to my schedule throughout the semester, depending on how fast students transition.  I have future students waiting for a time slot to open so they can start lessons.  I have current students whom I am watching particularly carefully because they are not doing as well as they could and should because I may not be the best teacher for them.  If I determine that I in fact am not what they need I will approach the parents and suggest a change. 

But all in all, the semester is off to a good start and I have a pretty good idea of what my schedule will look like for the rest of the semester.  Busy.

Teaching siblings

Many a parent, when inquiring about piano lessons, asks if there is a discount for siblings.  While I understand the parents’ point of view, they apparently haven’t thought this through with the teacher in mind. 

Teaching siblings is usually more work rather than less for the teacher because I have to be careful about possible sibling rivalry.  For instance:  should we or should we not use the same book/pieces for all siblings?  In many cases it is better to NOT use the same book so as to avoid unfair comparisons because I have never had siblings who progressed at the same pace exactly.  One is usually faster than the other, if only for some time, and the resulting comparison can be very frustrating and depressing for the slower student, in particular if it is a younger sibling who happens to be the faster student – which is often the case because they have had the advantage of hearing the older sibling practice and play the pieces they then get to learn!  (They don’t have to be in the same book at the same time for these comparisons to happen.) 

As far as scheduling lessons goes:  while parents may think it would be easier to schedule their children all in a row, for the teacher it is far easier to find time for one 30- or 45-min time slot in a day than for two or more 30-or 45-min time slots in a row, especially in an already fairly full schedule.  

I once heard of a teacher who suggested that we should actually charge more for siblings …


Recently, I joined Music Teacher’s Helper.  That’s a website designed to make the business aspects of the Music Teacher’s life easier.  I’m not sure that I’ll sign up for the full service.   While the general idea and layout are very well-designed, uncluttered, there are a few things I don’t like, such as the fact that it’s a “fill in all the blanks” kind of thing:  I can’t leave any blanks – blank.  I would like to have a choice whether to fill in – or not – the composer of a student’s piece, or the student’s tuition, etc.  It won’t allow me to save the page until I have filled in all the blanks, which I find unnecessary and time-consuming.

They also have a standard format for dates, but they don’t tell you until you have filled in all the blanks and try to save the page; then they say that the way you input the date didn’t conform, so you have to go back and redo it, which to me is a waste of time which goes against their claim that their website will save me time.

As part of the package, they are sending me informative emails.  How-to’s.  And their ideas on how to deal with potential problems.  Much of it seems geared toward the new and inexperienced teacher, the teacher who has to be convinced of the importance and usefulness of a studio website, the teacher who doesn’t have a lesson cancellation policy, the teacher who struggles with parents who don’t pay, etc.

I don’t know how to say this without sounding arrogant:  I already have a professionally designed website, and many – all – of the potential problems that are listed in those emails are simply not an issue for me.

Last summer, when I told colleagues and friends that I was going to travel to students’ homes to teach, one colleague in particular warned me, “I did that for a while. It was a nightmare!  You get there, they aren’t home, you waste your time, they don’t pay …”   I have been teaching in students’ homes now since last October and have yet to arrive at a home where the student wasn’t there.  Not only are they home, they are ready and prepared to start the lesson on time.  When I taught in my studio in Manhattan, it would occasionally happen that a student didn’t show up – rarely, actually – but they always called soon after and had a satisfactory explanation.  And when, very rarely, a parent would explain, “I just completely forgot!” I would smile and remember that I, too, forget things once in a while. 

I am perhaps different from other teachers in the way I handle missed lessons:  as a mother, I understand that children don’t give you 24 hours notice that they are going to be sick the next day and won’t be able to attend their lesson, so, in my opinion, requiring 24 hour notice (- or else!) is – just not reasonable.  In my studio, the parents respectfully call as soon as they know that they can’t be there for the lesson. 

Such an attitude goes both ways:  there have been times when I called parents, students, and asked if we could reschedule the lesson.  I do get migraines, completely irregularly, unpredictably, randomly, sometimes two in a week and then nothing for two months, and the only thing that helps is to take my meds and crawl into bed and try to sleep it off.  Over the winter, I was struggling with fatigue and minor depression (what an insulting name for something that over the long run can be just as debilitating as “real” depression), and there were times when I called and asked to reschedule a lesson.  I wasn’t sick, but I was in no shape to be teaching young children.  24 hour notice?  Hardly.

I understand that things come up, short notice, and I always make an effort to reschedule the lesson.  For other teachers, such a policy might spell disaster, but I have to say that for the last ten, fifteen years, no parent in my studio has ever abused that privilege.  I know that a lot of teachers will, out of principle, not reschedule lessons that are missed because of birthday parties, etc.  I understand that it can create a lot of work for the teacher to have to reschedule these lessons.  But – attending that once-a-year birthday party is probably more important to the student than attending a weekly piano lesson, so if it can be done at all, I will reschedule the lesson.   

If you give them an inch, they won’t take it.  My piano parents occasionally call and apologize for the inconvenience and ask if a lesson can be moved.  They also understand, and accept, that if the lesson can not be moved, they are simply losing it.  There were a few lessons last year where an unusually busy student just couldn’t find the time for the lessons, nor any make-up times I suggested, but the parents kept paying the tuition, and once in a while, she was able to have a lesson.

Tuition.  Apparently, there are parents who don’t pay.  Or don’t pay on time.  Or try to argue about the amount.  I think this is a matter of communication:  I assume that when parents don’t pay, on time, it is not out of malice or because they don’t value my work, I assume it is simply because they forgot about it.  Paying the monthly tuition is not exactly the only thing they have on their plate.  So.  In Manhattan, I used to send email reminders, and a surprising number of parents thanked me for that.  Here in Olathe, Overland Park, Spring Hill, if I need to remind a parent, I get an embarrassed, “whoops!  I completely forgot!” and then they write the check right there and then.  For parents who want to argue about the amount – I make sure they understand that the monthly tuition does not necessarily reflect the number of lessons in any particular month, but that it is an average, based on the tuition for the semester.  If a parent ever were to argue with me – attempt to argue – about how much I charge, I know that that parent would have no place in my studio. 

It is my choice whom I teach.  I accept students not on merit of “talent” but based on their desire to learn and based on parental support – and that includes their willingness to accept and pay the tuition. 

Bilanz means balance sheet, Bilanz ziehen means to take stock.  Taking stock, I would have to say that life is good, teaching is good, and I think I have one of the most wonderful jobs in the world.

Travelling to teach

In March, when my accountant informed me that the IRS allows me to deduct mileage when I travel to a student’s house to teach he also admonished me for traveling to Manhattan to teach.  His argument:  if you make, say, $4,000 a year in lessons and the IRS allows you to deduct $5,000 for mileage you may want to reconsider why you are doing this. 

A $5,000 deduction for mileage, even though you earned only $4,000? The math is correct.  Currently, the IRS allows 50 cents per mile.  A roundtrip to Manhattan is 250 miles, a $125 deduction according to the IRS.  While the gasoline+toll costs are “only” about $50 (that’s in the Lexus; I don’t dare take the Jimmy because of the poor gas mileage it gets), there are other, not so obvious, expenses – maintenance comes to mind, so this seemingly generous $125 per-trip-deduction is probably quite justified. 

While at first thought the idea of having such huge deductions and the resulting lower self-employment tax bill may seem intriguing – who wouldn’t want to pay less taxes? – , at second thought, and as Beth Gigante Klingenstein points out at every workshop, it’s not in your best interest to lower your self-employment income this way.  Taking the above calculation, earning $4,000 but having a $5,000 deduction (for travel alone, there’s more in addition to that) means that I spent $1,000 for the privilege to teach – or, if you want to look at it differently, that I lost $1,000.  Negative income. 

Of course not all of my earned income went directly toward travelling expenses, so it’s not really negative income, but let’s look at what those taxes are.

Self-employment tax is the Social Security (and Medicare) taxes.  Which means that by lowering my income through deductions (which results in a lower tax bill), as far as my retirement is concerned, even though I worked and earned money, I had practically no income this year which means that no money went toward my retirement.  As far as the Social Security Administration is concerned, I didn’t work this year.


Of course, one solution would be to not take that mileage/travelling deduction.  But the fact is that I do have expenses from travelling.  I do want to teach my students in Manhattan, but the expenses, all expenses – gas, deductions if I take them, time – do add up.