I live a dangerous life.

Cave diving? No.
Ebola specialist at the CDC? Nope!
Sword swallower? Nah.

No, I base my income on the wispy whims of people whose ability to pay me is a direct reflection of sentiment about the economy. Sure, I have a few dedicated students who are going to be cellists as adults. And I have a few nearly-professionals who take maintenance and polish lessons too. But the majority are people who are half-assedly checking it out, and if the financial tango we all dance gets a little too risky, cello lessons are the first thing to get the hatchet. Tis the nature of the beast. How is it that the people who are dedicated somehow manage to budget for the cello even though 9 times out of 10 they are in much lower tax brackets than the people who bail?

Sometimes I think that the economy is an excuse. I had a kid drop out this week and cancel last week because of school “burn out”. The last lesson we had, I made his eyes well up with tears because I had to give him a talking-to after he was disrespectful. Coincidence? Hmm. Another student quit after 3 lessons, none of which he practiced for. His dad wrote me a note, saying that I would be contacted about his son’s intentions. After an unpleasant communication debacle, I had to level with them and let them know that I can’t pour water into a glass with a hole in the bottom: you have to practice to even attempt to retain. Plus, and perhaps I am frail for this, but I feel insulted when some 17 year old saunters into a lesson without so much as having read a word of the notes from the last lesson. So the kid bristled and gave me the “yeah, I know, I’ll practice.. I’ll let you know if I’m going to continue.” I, of course, had to call them the night before the lesson to confirm that he was quitting.


5 other students dropped in the past week, citing a mix of money and other issues.

This happens every few years, and what I am realizing is that I devalue myself and invite instability by accepting students for short term financial benefit. It’s a double-edged blade, though: if I only have 8 students, making the ends meet becomes very, ahem, exciting. But if I have a forever mutating, quitting, cancelling roster of 24 students, I get what’s coming to me anyway.

Nobody teaches cello to make the big bucks. And I have skills that could possibly net me some hateful job that would pay the bills and then some, but still I persist! Because I just love it. I love teaching. I love the good fight, the introspection. I love watching kids learn about humility and become fantastic young adults. I love the nit picking of the Internet Cello Society. I love the fact that my little blog generates interest, and that there are hundreds of other cellists writing some pretty compelling stuff. I love that I am always learning, about my instrument, about human nature, and am reminded that there is a lot of goodness even in an industry that is teeming with greed, politics, and unsavory characters.

So I guess this post started off with a whimper, but ends with a bang. In the end, I am grateful. And the students who continue to devotedly toil away make it all worthwhile. And if you’re one of them, know that your teacher gets just as much from your lessons as you do.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have to send off another copy of my manuscript….


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13 Responses

  1. Teaching is such a challenging and mostly thankless profession – whether it be a middle school teacher slogging through the day with a classroom full of rowdy hormonal kids [see “Frog-Swans and Swan-Frogs” for example] or someone like yourself trying to compete with computer games and TV and whatever.. for your student’s attention.

    You have my admiration.

    On another note, I started blogging with the old version of Blogger, which easily let me edit the html of my template. The new blogger added another layer of interference, which restricted (but not completely prevented) access to the code itself.

    When I reluctantly converted to the new blogger, I was able to retain my old format, but I had to give up a lot of the new bells and whistles in order to continue being able to edit the html code.

  2. Ms. Emily – I started preparing a comment Thursday evening but wanted to ask you a question. Do you run your cello instruction with a true business mindset. One thing I have noticed with my first and second instructor is that they are very loosey-goosey when it comes to business basics. Granted they are young(er) and business is not their focus. But it seems like there could be some low-impact, high value things they (or other instructors) could due to streamline things like money collection.

  3. Emily – I always look forward to your posts. I’ve learned so much just from your blog alone. Any student would be lucky to have you as a teacher! Your love of teaching will continually be a magnet for good students. Keep driving for the best in your teaching and the number of dedicated students in your roster will sure grow over time.

  4. I would classify myself as in the upper 80th percentile in business savvy. I run the show like a therapist or doctor: strict 24 hour cancellation policy, and most of my students pay for lessons ahead of time in monthly increments. If people can’t afford lessons, I refer them to my assistant, rather than do a cut rate deal on my own fee. What I won’t do, though, is continue lessons with someone who has absolutely no desire or is a complete flake. Many will continue teaching kids who are miserable or obviously not practicing. I won’t, because I think of it as stealing and also a little insulting. That’s not to say that many of my students have an ebb and flow to their practice. Of course they do, and we work through it. But you can always tell when the relationship is doomed. They cancel their initial appointment, after being really enthused on the phone. They usually talk about how they’re really good at music and they don’t need the basics. Sometimes, if they’re kids, their parents will tell you that they are a musical genius. These people are largely unteachable. They refuse to learn, and they also tend to flake on a lot of lessons. Since I schedule students in clumps, flakes end up costing *me* money, and so I streamline them right out of my studio.

    But I have to say that this doesn’t happen very much. I think I have “let go” of about 8 students in the past 10 years. Mostly, it’s just people quitting after a month or two because they’re horrified that the cello is not easy.

    As for the rest of my business stance, I am relatively aggressive: I send out a reminder every month of my cancellation and payment policies, I almost never do one-off lessons (where I make a trip for just one student), and I make myself very contactable so nobody has an excuse. Having a website and a paid ad on google brings in a few people a quarter, but it’s tough in a boutique industry.

    I think a lot of the answer is time, and involvement in ASTA and such. Lots of players around town know me, but only a few teachers do. This year, I’ve made it a point to become someone that other teachers think of as a resource in my area.

  5. I meant to say “not to say that many of my students DON’T have an ebb and flow…”

    silly blogger no edit after the fact posty thing!

  6. I taught flute briefly. My former flute teacher thought I was just the one to teach an adult beginner. She was so enthusiastic at the first lesson, then called an hour before the second lesson to say she couldn’t make it, but would be there next week. I never saw her again, of course, nor the flute books I had loaned her.

    It takes a special person to be a teacher–to share their joy of music and learning when the students are not always receptive. I’m glad you and other dedicated teachers are there for us students, and I think even the reluctant students do gain something in the process.

  7. I am thankful that there are such dedicated teachers around like you who care so much about what they do. I agree with you that a great student/teacher relationship is a give and take where both benefit and only you giving doesn’t work.

    My husband coached swimming for over 20 years before retiring and a former swimmer of his, who he hasn’t spoken to in years, called yesterday. My husband’s face just lit up – it was a beautiful sight.

  8. It makes me happy to get so much support from you guys. I hope my rants don’t seem overly self-indulgent! Oh, and Mr. Muser, if you have any thoughts on my business style, I would invite them 🙂

  9. and I wanted to add, you deserve to have students who sincerely want your help to improve their playing, ebbs and flows included! I think your students are lucky to have you as their teacher.

  10. “I hope my rants don’t seem overly self-indulgent!”

    It’s your blog, let it be self-indulgent. I don’t have a musical bone in my body, but it’s fun to read your blogs.

  11. Emily,

    You have to remember too that not everyone’s meant to do cello & that part of life is experimenting with things and then deciding whether or not to stick with them.

    In my own case, I have a tendency to drop at least one class in school every semester. This usually has nothing to do with the teacher (in fact, I always feel bad about it & usually like the teacher).

    So anyway, don’t let it get to you too much, and just keeping working away with your students who are dedicated.

    Hope things are well otherwise..


  12. Hi Emily. Sorry for the delayed response. Your response to my business-mindset question was great and offered some context around some of the portions of your original post. Specifically, a small segment of your students that introduce a large portion of frustration. I hope you did not take my inquiry as questioning your business acumen. Sounds like you are pretty confident with your approach.

    Over the last six months or so, I have made the following observations (not to be confused with conclusions):

    1. Embracing technology to facilitate instruction does not seem to be a wide-spread popular practice. Suzuki recordings only go so far and are not agile enough. For me, using the Finale software has been a life-saver. Being able to input the melody / harmony pieces and play with it to my liking (tempo, etc..) has helped me relearn basic music theory and be more effective in my practices as well as instruction sessions. I even offered to export the files for my first instructor so she could share with other students – she never took me up on it. I am not an education expert – but it seems like technology is the perfect intersection for today’s technology enabled generation(s).

    2. Payment options. Money is always a sticky subject with people and they want maximum flexibility. First thing that comes to mind is electronic payments (paypal, etc..). I have always prepaid in cash because I know college students probably need the cash. To do that though, I have to stop by the bank, get cash, segregate it, and drop it off at my next lesson. I would prefer to do it electronically. I do not mind cash because I am probably getting a very good lesson rate. I have even offered to pay more because I think the value I am getting is more then what they are charging – but both instructors have politely turned me down – somewhat shocking.

    3. Grant money. Is there any money in grants? Just curious.

    4. Have you considered Internet based consultations? How good does the technology have to be to provide feedback?

    There you go – a long winded post. Have a great day / week!

  13. Muser: Thanks! I am revamping my site, as you know, and maybe I’ll enable PayPal so students can pay that way. I was also thinking of making some “premium podcasts” that are better mastered and more substantive, that will be available for download or CD for a fee.

    I have looked into grants, and it seems like a brutal and usually fruitless endeavor. A lot of them are for students, but I have one lead: Devin, my student with the brain injury. He has been making progress in ways he has no right to…he is beginning to retain new material. So I was going to talk to the brain folks over at Cedars-Sinai to see if we could make a study of the phenomenon and maybe it would benefit others. But that’s a grant for specific work, and I bet we would still end up losing money on the deal…just a gut instinct. But money is not a chief concern with this issue.

    Thanks for the long winded answer. It was (prepare for pun) a breath of fresh air.

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