Running a Private Teaching Studio by Erik Barsness and Josh Gottry
Having been active as private percussion teachers for over 50 years combined, we have seen both the challenges and the joys of running a private teaching studio. Countless numbers of students have met with us weekly over those years, and many are still active in music, both as hobbyists and professionals. But as much as those students have learned from us, we’ve learned from them, about music, about teaching, about communication, and about the logistics of being successful in running a private studio. This article will highlight the why, who, what, where, etc. of those logistics in the hopes that it may serve those of you who intend to make a private teaching studio a part of your professional activities.
Why teach privately? First, as professionals and educated musicians, we have a knowledge base to pass on that can significantly benefit the next generation of percussion students. Just as you benefited greatly from your music teachers, your knowledge, experience, and insights could now be shared with your potential students. Private teaching also provides a steady source of income, certainly more consistent than most gigging activity, and can assist in broadening your professional network.
We each started teaching well before earning an undergraduate degree as a means for a little income and a way to process and solidify what we were learning in our own studies. Growing that side activity into a significant portion of our professional freelance business was a natural result of the many benefits that came in teaching. Learning to teach is just like learning to play; it does take time and practice! However, the sooner you start, the more experience you get, and you can quickly discover if you enjoy doing it.
Who is private teaching a good option for? Any musician can potentially be a private teacher. Freelance musicians benefit greatly financially from the steady income stream at typical “non-gigging” times, and students of professional players benefit greatly from the real-world perspectives and experience. School music teachers can also augment their income by teaching outside of school hours (when the students are available for lessons anyway) should they choose to use their music and educational training in a one-on-one setting.
If private teaching is a good option for you, who might you teach? Teaching a beginner is much different than teaching a high school student preparing for college auditions. Teaching a fifth-grade beginner is much different than teaching an adult beginner. Teaching a drum set student is much different than teaching a total percussionist. Different students require different lesson lengths, lesson times, and practice expectations. Different students have different equipment needs and materials and require different skill sets and relationships from their teacher.
Through experience (the sooner the better), you can evaluate whether you like variety or consistency in your studio, whether you work better with kids or adults, and if there are certain instruments or skills that you most enjoy teaching. You will teach best and be most content setting yourself up to teach students who learn how and what you like to teach!
Before you can teach, you need to find students, and there are numerous options for doing so. Start by networking with local middle and high school band directors. Connect by email or at state percussion or music educator events and offer to present a clinic or recital for their program and students. Make sure you are also active within these statewide organizations such as your state chapters of the Percussive Arts Society and National Association for Music Educators.
Many band programs and youth orchestras distribute recommended private teacher lists; getting included on these lists can be a great way to get your name publicized. Connect also with other percussion private teachers, particularly successful ones with limited space in their studio schedule. Getting a referral from another private teacher is a great starting point for recruiting students already interested in lessons.
Once you have a few students, make sure you encourage them (and their parents) to tell others about your services; referrals from current and former students and families are easily the most effective way to expand your studio.
Where do you want to teach? Lessons can be taught at music stores, on school campuses, in the teacher’s home or studio space, or at the students’ homes, and each of these has its own pros and cons. At a music store, the facility is provided and the store often handles much of the paperwork and lesson fee collection. The disadvantage is that they often also set the rate (minus their cut), and lessons are typically in a small space where drum set may be the only instrument option. Lessons taught at a junior high or high school, or through a college/university prep program, have the advantage of facility and school equipment provided and, as with music store lessons, the fee collection and paperwork is likely handled by the school or program. Again, however, you likely can’t set your own rate (and you do pay a fee for the use of that facility and equipment), and scheduling can take a back seat to school needs and potential conflicts, especially during heavy performance weeks or months.
An at-home or personal business studio allows you to set your own rates and scheduling, provides the convenience of being at home or close to it, and the ability to use your own equipment. However, the cost of the equipment and facility are yours, and all paperwork and financial elements are your responsibility. Teaching lessons at the student’s home also allows for you to set your own rates and scheduling, but has added driving time, requires you to teach on the student’s equipment, and again all paperwork and financial elements are your responsibility. Knowing which of these pros or cons are a best fit for your priorities and abilities can help you determine your best teaching environment.
What equipment do you need? This depends on what you intend to teach. If you teach drum set only, two drum sets and playback equipment should suffice. If you teach beginning percussion, a snare drum (and/or pads) and a small keyboard instrument are appropriate. If you teach pre-collegiate total percussion, you’ll need a quality concert snare drum, drum set, large keyboard instrument (possibly more than one), timpani (or a reasonable substitute), hand drums, and small accessories, as well as playback and recording equipment. Each studio and teacher is inherently different, but appropriate equipment is vitally important to providing quality lessons.
What materials will you use? If the materials you teach with are simply the materials you learned with, you’re doing a disservice to your students. Strive to find materials that clearly present the concepts and techniques you prioritize. Select materials that are age appropriate. Consider student cost, but not as your only priority. At the same time, respect composers, publishers, and your students enough to have them buy their own materials rather than copying yours. Continue to explore new literature and methods for use, and talk with other teachers about what they are using successfully.
For specific recommendations on either of these areas, please feel free to reach out for the specific equipment and materials we each use in our teaching studios.
Unless you are teaching lessons as a community service, you will be charging for your professional services. In determining your rates, find out what other music teachers and music schools charge in your area and start by charging just a little less as you get established. Make a clear plan to raise your fee slightly at regular intervals (once a year, every other year, etc.) to keep up with inflation and your own cost of living. You will also need to determine whether you are billing families weekly, monthly, quarterly, or based on a semester schedule. Require payment in advance and document each payment immediately (two ways, if possible, to help ensure accuracy). Maintain records diligently for tax purposes (even cash). Collecting payment by cash and check is free to you, as is Zelle and Venmo. Credit cards and PayPal are ways to accept digital payment, but do incur a small fee.
Make sure you have a clear and public policy for cancellations and absences. Consider following local school policies for weather related cancellations. Review area music school and private teacher make-up policies, then customize your own based on that research. Online lessons can be a great option for make ups, but regardless of your policy and process, try to make up lessons instead of giving credits; don’t give money away! Also, be sure to document attendance at lessons in a way that you can go back to and understand clearly in case there is a dispute on payments or credits in the future.
… the paperwork? If teaching was just about spending 30–60 minutes one-on-one with a bunch of percussion students, this would be easy! It is important that you set up systems to help you be efficient and organized with the logistics of running a private studio. Consider online forms (e.g., Google forms) for gathering information. Make sure you have email templates for communicating with families, and utilize Google Drive, Sheets, Docs, etc. for distribution of materials. Make sure you have a database of contact information — phone number (for last-minute calls or texts), and email — for all current (and former) students.
Create a system that works for you for tracking income and expenses. This includes mileage, instrument and equipment purchases, utilities and rent payments, etc. This is a business, so there are numerous tax implications, and having an advisor work with you to ensure you are conducting your business legally, but taking advantage of all credits and deductions, is vitally important.
Make sure you have an online presence (website, social media) for your studio, and consider creating an email address just for lessons. However, use social media with discretion (avoid posting pictures of students or student names without explicit permission), make sure any digital communication with students includes parents as well, and use blind carbon copy (bcc) on all studio communication to avoid sharing addresses in group emails.
Every musician at some point does or should seriously consider making private teaching a part of his or her music career. There is much to consider when doing so, but the benefits are plentiful, and most private teachers consider it one of the few consistent pleasures within a freelance career. We hope these tips and suggestions are helpful, and we encourage you to reach out to ask additional questions as needed. Best wishes on navigating the process of running a private teaching studio!
Erik Barsness actively performs throughout Minneapolis/St. Paul including theatre shows, dance companies, orchestras and choirs, and churches. He performs with the Minneapolis Pops Orchestra, the Minnesota Percussion Trio, and CRASH, and will be touring this upcoming Fall and Spring with the Copper Street Brass. Erik maintains a private studio of about 45 high school-aged students throughout the Twin Cities metro area. Erik was the recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship and received his master’s degree from the Royal College of Music in Stockholm, Sweden. For more information, visit erikbarsness.com or email him at [email protected].
Josh Gottry is a respected educator, accomplished percussionist, and internationally recognized composer who has been working with, and creating music for, the next generation of percussionists for over 20 years. He has served as part of the music faculty on college and university campuses around the Phoenix metropolitan area, works regularly with ensembles and students at all grade levels as a clinician and within his private lesson studio, and his performance record includes professional orchestras, musical theatre, worship teams, jazz combos, community and chamber ensembles, as well as solo performances and recitals. Gottry is an ASCAP award-winning composer whose works have been performed at universities, junior high and high schools, and multiple national conferences, and he currently serves as editor for Rhythm! Scene. For more information, visit gottrypercussion.com or email him at [email protected].