Making Music a Life Profession

The following article was published in the American Music Teacher, Aug-Sept, 1995. It is as relevant today as it was then.

Dr. Virginia Houser, Kansas State University

A friend of mine quit her profession last year. Janice was a bright, energetic young woman dedicated to her clients and excited about her field. After moving to town several years ago, she jumped into her work wholeheartedly, developing a clientele, joining local professional organizations, and making contacts within the community. Who would have thought she would leave the profession within three years?

Janice’s profession is my profession–piano teaching. I am saddened by her departure and the loss it represents–the students who reluctantly have had to find another teacher, the future students who will not know her, and those of us who will not be enriched by her ideas. Why did this fine teacher, seemingly well-trained, enthusiastic, and passionate about music, quit the profession?


As I have reflected on Janice’s departure from the music field, I have wondered about her pedagogical training. She often spoke about how enjoyable her college pedagogy courses had been. She still referred to the enormous resource notebook she had developed from those courses.

I would guess that most current pedagogy courses present the nuts-and-bolts information of running a private studio, i.e. learning styles and theories, aspects of studio management and business procedures, methods and materials, and use of technology. This is undoubtedly a necessary component of teacher training. But the question can be raised, as in Janice’s case: Is such information sufficient for insuring long-term vitality in a teacher’s lifework?


The music profession has retained, probably to a greater degree than many other fields, a close tie to the original meaning of the word “professional”:

At root, a professional is one who makes a profession of faith–a faith in something larger and wiser than his or her own powers….the true professional is a person whose action points beyond his or her self to that underlying reality, that hidden wholeness, on which we all can rely…the true professional is one who…strips away all illusions to reveal a reliable truth in which the human heart can rest.(1)
This “reliable truth” is the heart of our profession–music itself and its power to inspire, express, illuminate, and transform thought and emotion.

Considering music’s close ties to matters of the heart, should not pedagogy programs pay attention to spiritual aspects as well as informational elements in their training? Marilla Svinicki in the book Teaching Tips writes:

A teacher, whether by accident or design is more to students than a content expert. The teacher is a model of all that it means to be a thinking person. We teach not only what we know but what we are. Part of the ethics of teaching is to realize this responsibility and to become the best models we can be, which requires some serious self-reflection on our personal standards of scholarship and living.(2)
Spiritual perspectives of the music teacher’s life are seldom overtly taught to pedagogy students. Perhaps it is assumed that students interested in piano teaching already possess the self-knowledge and ideals for life work in music. Perhaps it is assumed that such perspectives will be learned in the process of working with their own teachers in the classroom and studio. Perhaps these aspects seem too intangible to teach.

Whatever the reasons, inclusion of topics outside of the informational realm can go a long way in preventing Janice’s crisis of spirit. Teacher training programs which offer a more holistic curriculum promote longevity and effectiveness in teachers’ careers by bringing attention to a wide array of topics. In regard to spiritual considerations, what ideas and resources nourish the inner life of a teacher?


Live with a vision.

While it is important to have goals and plans for one’s life, listing personal goals within time frames is not the starting point of purposeful living–commitment to a life purpose is. In his book, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey invites you to visualize being present at your own funeral. For what would you be remembered? How would that life have made a difference in the world? Covey stresses the value of taking stock of one’s life and creating a mission statement–“the solid expression of your vision and values….the criterion by which you measure everything else in your life.”(3)

Know your own daily, weekly, monthly, and annual rhythms.

Many of us in the teaching profession plan our schedules without considering our personal rhythms and cycles. Questions to ask oneself for optimum energy levels throughout the year might include: Am I a morning or evening person? When is the lowest slump in my day? What can I do to help myself through it? Does my teaching schedule reflect my varying energy levels during the week? What can I do for myself to insure high energy during the demanding times of the year? How can I best use the less demanding times of the year to recharge my batteries through interesting activities, rest, and reflection?

Integrate personal renewal into each day’s schedule.

How easy it is for independent music teachers to live frantic lives without private time. The message can be traced back to earlier student years: work long and hard and success will follow. Consequently teachers, especially those in the early years of building a studio, are prone to interpreting continuing tiredness as confirmation they are devoting sufficient time and energy to their work. This can lead to a lifestyle of constant unrelieved work activity that frustrates and squelches the inner creative voice.

Covey describes the hypothetical scenario of a man in the woods working like a maniac to saw down a tree. Although the work has become slow and difficult, he refuses to take a break to sharpen the saw. “I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man explains emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”(4) Similarly, the teacher should take time to cultivate life-long habits which nourish and preserve the […] dimensions of human nature: physical, mental, social, emotional, and spiritual.

Design your life for development of “the things worth being”.

In their book, Type A Behavior and Your Heart, Drs. Meyer Friedman and Ray Roseman discuss the necessity of cultivating an interest in the broad satisfactions of human culture. Not only do they write this is crucial to maintaining good health, but also write that one “cannot continue to avoid all that man in the past has considered lovely and humane without becoming the sort of person whose death saddens no one.”(5)

How easy it is for teachers to abandon all interests and activities that are not directly related to their profession! And yet the rejuvenation and perspective from other activities enlivens teaching. The music professional does herself a favor by regularly visiting libraries, museums, galleries, concert halls, theaters, and parks. This also includes time with friends and reading of books that tell about the lives of inspiring people.

Cultivate a life approach that does not separate creativity from daily living.

In preparing for a life of satisfying personal and professional achievements, I believe the teacher should cultivate a sense of learning and curiosity that is not limited to certain activities and times of the day. Hugh Prather in his book, Notes on How to Live in the World …and Still Be Happy, recommends bringing the same attention and energy to both job and personal life for optimum happiness. If a teacher can inculcate a sense of creativity in all circumstances–from housework to planning the day’s schedule to grocery shopping to successfully teaching concepts to a young student–rejuvenation can be an integral component of daily life.

Cultivate the habit of writing.

Personal writing probably works best when not read by anyone else. It does not have to be polished writing. To be most effective, it should be honest and done regularly; and like playing the piano, it improves with practice. In her book, The Artist’s Way – A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, Julia Cameron describes writing as her own form of meditation and a fundamental tool of creative recovery and maintenance. As a film and television writer, director, and producer, she speaks about creativity in the following way:

“In order to create, we draw from our inner well. This inner well, an artistic reservoir, is ideally like a well-stocked trout pond….As artists, we must realize that we have to maintain this artistic ecosystem. If we don’t give some attention to upkeep, our well is apt to become depleted, stagnant, or blocked….Any extended period or piece of work draws heavily on our artistic well….leaves us with diminished resources….we must learn to be self-nourishing.”(6)

Writing is a wonderful form of self-nourishment and can be encouraged by the habit of keeping a pencil and pad available for scribbling ideas throughout the day–in the car, bathroom, kitchen, night table. A personal diary can be valuable as a written record, feedback to oneself, uncritical friend, access to creativity, personal expression, a problem-solving tool, and therapy. A practice journal by the piano invites the pianist to record practice times, impressions, ideas, and musical goals.

Emphasize means over ends as the most important element in the ventures of life.

It is unfortunate that in our goal-oriented, competitive, result-driven culture, the mentality which glorifies ends over means influences every pursuit. So it often is with music study. Ends-oriented teaching stresses competitive performing to the exclusion of broader considerations. Means-oriented teaching promotes and develops a wide range of elements: comprehensive musicianship skills; awareness of the body in playing; nourishment of a deep emotional attachment to the music itself; personal knowledge of one’s own learning style; and responding, creating, and expressing in the sound and emotion of the present moment.

Remember that efficiency and function do not feed the soul.

We all absorb the message from the earliest age on into adult life–to live in a way that produces results in the quickest, most efficient way possible is the best way. Modern culture extols efficiency and function in objects and lives as well; but a deep, rich sense of living is not nourished by these elements. In his book, Care of the Soul, Thomas Moore writes about the soul and spirit being fed by myth, ritual, tradition, and, for those who embrace a higher faith, religious belief. It has been noted Drs. Friedman & Rosenman in Type A Behavior and Your Heart that “the repetition of any pleasant event eventually gives far, far more pleasure than the initial event possibly could have done”.(7)

Rituals to enhance the life of a music studio might include celebrating achievement with recitals, complete with individual certificates and sharing of refreshments; giving birthday remembrances; observance of holidays and seasons of the year through appropriate music and decorations; and regular study of the great composers’ lives.

Stay in touch with new ideas in the time management field.

Time management encompasses so much more than it used to. While the teacher can always gain inspiration from reading books about time use (e.g. How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Lifeby Alan Lakein, or How to Put More Time in Your Life by Dru Scott), there are holistic-approach books which adopt a broader life-management view. One such book, You Don’t Have to Go Home From Work Exhausted by Ann McGee-Cooper, promotes ideas to bring joy, energy, and balance to life. Topics include high energy engineering, the importance of passion and dreams, recapturing the vitality of childhood, balancing work and play, recognizing burnout traps, designing an energy environment, and daydreaming as a source of energy. A far cry from the old make-a-list-and-check-it-off system!

Cultivate active ties with fellow musicians through dynamic involvement in professional organizations.

No pianist leaves a pedagogy course without hearing about the value of membership in a music organization. Yet it is easy for a new teacher in a community to get so busy setting up a studio that seeking out fellow professionals gets put on the back burner. It cannot be stressed too much in pedagogy training; there is a synergy in numbers which translates into inspiration, practical ideas, increased knowledge, exchange of information, and increased political and financial resources for its members.


Independent teachers, by taking advantage of the freedom and choices available in their profession, can create a life that is creative and restorative. Problems and stress are handled within the context of a larger purpose. Flexibility, awareness, open-mindedness, love of learning, balance, and attention to self and others are tools of daily living. It is from this humanistic foundation that living and teaching are nourished.

NOTES:1. Parker J. Palmer, The Active Life–A Spirituality of Work, Creativity and Caring(San Francisco: Harper & Row Publishers, 1990), 44.2. Wilbert J. McKeachie, ed., Teaching Tips (Lexington, MA: D.C. Heath and Co., 1994), 273.3. Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People(New York: Simon & Schuster Inc., 1989), 129.4. Ibid., 2875. Meyer Friedman, M.D. and Ray H. Rosenman, M.D., Type A Behavior and Your Heart(New York: Ballantine Books, 1974), 255.6. Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way–A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity (New York: Putnam Publishing Group, 1992), 20-21.7. Friedman and Rosenman, 257.