As some of you may have gathered, I’m hustling out here in Baltimore. Gone are the days of composers calling me up for last-minute tv gigs, of weeks full of teaching my beloved students, of having the luxury of near-daily blog ramblings.

So yeah, I’m hustling. Trying to make the most of my non-schooly time by taking as many students as I can get, and incorporating music into most of my research and writing. One of my hustling venues is a small teaching studio in Howard County I have on Sundays. There is a reasonable flow of people who wander by, and most of my new students stroll in and want to meet with me before they start weekly lessons. Fair enough. Some people push me a little and ask for a free trial lesson, to which I politely decline. I tell them if I could somehow get the time back in case I didn’t think they were suitable students…

…they get the point.

Some people push ever further, though. Impressively far. I call these people:

Super Hustlers.

One mother called the studio and stated up front that she was not interested in lessons and then asked if I could just “show her daughter where the notes are” on her new cello. I told her that finding the notes comprised the first 3 years of tuition. She asked me to put tapes on the fingerboard, and I declined. I don’t usually put tapes on, and certainly not for someone who is not my student. I would happily tune any cello that comes into my door, and would even put on a string or two without any hesitation. Past that, and we’re into a lesson. Which is, despite some evidence to the contrary, what I do for a living.

So mommy comes in anyway. Knock, knock! Opens the door and trills a cheerfully overbearing, “You said you were done at 1:00, and it’s 1:10!”

Whee! Aren’t you clever, with your remarkable time-telling skills.

Without going crazy on the details, the child possessed all of the charming, polite, and deferential qualities utterly absent in her mother. I ended up coaching her a little bit on the new stretch a full size cello presents, on keeping her hand in such and such a shape, on lowering her shoulders and finding strength in her whole hand, not just individual fingers. It ended up being 47 minutes worth of advice.

In other words, it was a lesson.

And I own that. I was prepared to just donate it and stick it in my “good karma” pile.

But wait, friends. It gets better. Mom pulls out her wallet, and says, “Thank you so much. I must owe you something for your time.”

I try to elegantly refuse, but she rebuffs me. There comes a point where it is more inelegant to make a show of elegance than it is to surrender to the zeitgeist of the circumstance.

And besides, I’m hustling. Take the money. You earned it, Kid. So I say, “Thank you so much. It was a pleasure teaching your child.”

As mommy reaches into her wallet, I avert my eyes. Who knows? Maybe she’s generous! Don’t look, don’t count it, don’t say anything. She gives the money to her child and says,

are you ready?

are you sure?

“Give the nice lady her tip!”

And the child pushes 3 wadded up dollar bills into my palm and smiles up at me. I busy myself packing up and fake a phone call to my fake next appointment.

She might as well have smacked me in the face with a tire iron.

Alas. That’s the thing about charity: it’s only about giving, not about what the recipient does with your offering. Still, with any luck, our young cellist will continue on something of a distal trajectory to that of her mother.

The incomparable Guilhermina Suggia, famously painted by Augustus John.

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7 Responses

  1. I love that painting. This is so surreal, all I can find to say that I'm sorry that it happened to you.

    Everybody feels they have the right to things without paying for them. It's one of the down sides to our internet era.

    On the other hand, some rudeness is just timeless.

  2. With any luck you have taught that girl the value of the arts and she goes on to live creatively inspiring those around her. As for the mother…well. I guess she managed to have a lovely child despite her countenance.

  3. If you were to ask a plumber, lawyer, doctor, landscaper, architect or any other professional for a consultation they would be sure to quote you a fee for that professional service, and follow-up with an invoice or bill afterwards.

    When a prospective student wants a consult why not quote them a fee up front; "I charge $70 per hour." If they walk away fine, if they stay and receive 45 minutes of your time and then ask, "What do I owe you for your time?" you can now say "45 minutes is $52.50 ~ let's just call it $50."

    You are a professional cellist and a professional cello teacher, meaning you get paid for your experience, time, and ability. Elegantly refusing in order to surrender to the zeitgeist of the circumstance only costs you your fee.

    "I charge $70 per hour."

  4. Mark: I quoted them the fee up front! That's what makes it even more awesome. She came in anyway! Also, I do not run my own studio in this particular joint. So I could have driven the hardest bargain of them all, but would have possibly cost myself any further students. In the end, I think it was worth it because:

    1. It makes a funny blog!

    2. I got to talk to the management about why I don't do free lessons or samples…and they went pale at the "tip".

    3. It keeps me a little humble. I may be a professional cellist, but that should not isolate me in an ivory tower of how things "should" be done. Dealing with tough situations makes me a better person, and a better businesswoman. In the end, it helps me be more…elegant. 🙂

  5. People are SO unbelievable sometimes! (ok, most times)

    But, as TBF reminds me, especially when I'm behind the wheel: you can't control how other people behave, you can only control your response to it. And, as reluctant as I often am to admit: he's right.

    It sounds like you handled it like an enlightened human being, AND managed to create a teachable moment for the studio, yourself and the your readers.

    (I probably would have shaken my fist a few times. Yes, definitely.)

    Gorgeous painting, btw. Must find a print!

  6. "show her daughter where the notes are"

    Did this stick in anyone else's ear like a thorn? I mean, aside from the whole tip thing.

    Show her where the notes are. Come ON. Hum "Doe a Deer" to yourself a few times, then put your finger down, pick up the bow, and go looking! It's not like the thing will explode if you hit the wrong note.

    Jesus on toast. Just pick up the bow and start sawing, and use your freakin ear!

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