I was asked to do a video talking about my experience of becoming a piano teacher, and if I had any insight to share for those of you who are interested in piano teaching.
In this video, I’ll share my story and my journey, as well as some tips and insight into the job as a whole. I’m just one piano teacher – my insights aren’t the be-all-end-all – but hopefully you’ll enjoy this personal video and get something out of it.
I began teaching piano by accent. I was around twenty years old, working odd jobs. I had skipped the University route (more out of stubbornness than anything else), and had no sense of what to do with my life.
Fortunately, I had been trained in piano since I was a kid, so I at least had some specialized skills. My piano teacher was a wonderful, vibrant woman who destroyed the stereotypes of the cranky old lady teacher – she was young, she was fun, and I spent many years under her tutelage.
So after taking a long break from lessons (between the ages of 16 and 20), I decided to reconnect with my piano teacher and take my grade 8 exam over the summer. It was a great experience re-bonding and getting back in the saddle.
She asked me one day if I had any interest in becoming a piano teacher. She worked at a music school, so there were lots of teachers of lots of different instruments. Apparently they were looking to hire new piano teachers, and she was wondering if I’d be willing to go through training for it.
At the time, I had a temporary job working at a popcorn stand. It would end after summer, and after that I had no idea what I would do. Teaching piano sounded just fine to me.
Early days as a teacher
So I did some training – mainly in pop styles, as a lot of kids who went to that music school opted out of the Classical route. I sat in on lessons, learned what books I should be using. And then, I was thrown into it. I probably had 30 or 40 students back when I first started – this was no light teaching load.
At my peak, I was probably teaching around 50 students, but it was an overwhelming amount of work and energy for me, so I’ve since scaled back to longer lessons and less students. Currently I teach 21 students.
Types of people I taught
So I taught at that music school for a good five years of almost full-time work. It was a great – if challenging – experience. I saw students from all walks of life – rich and poor, young and old, normal and insane. I’ve made kids cry, I’ve been called a witch by a particularly demonic student, taught kids who didn’t even have pianos, kids with no parental support, kids with too much parental support, kids who were never on time, kids who forgot their materials half the time, and anything else you can imagine.
As far as the age range, I’ve taught as young as three, and as old as elderly. Three year olds are tough for me – I don’t really know what to do with them, or how to interact with them – so nowadays, I don’t teach anyone younger than six (and even six can be a challenge, depending on the kid).
Elderly students are among my favorite. I taught an amazing Vietnamese woman in Toronto (I’ll get to the Toronto part of the story soon) who was always so excited for lessons, and would leave me so boosted up. She regularly sent me home with pomegranates, oranges and other fruits, since we bonded over vegan and vegetarian food.
Burnout and direction change
Anyway, after spending about five years doing this work, I was pretty burnt out. I was in my mid-twenties, and starting to seriously consider what I wanted to do with my life. Should I further my piano education? Should I go to university, or get my grade 9 RCM?
Instead of walking either of these paths, I decided to entirely jump ship. Since I was so young when I started teaching, I was hungry for other non-piano life experiences. I wanted to explore my options, and explore my many passions.
So I decided to spend six months at a culinary school in Texas and pursue a path of food. I love cooking, so getting professional training for it seemed like a no-brainer when exploring my options.
Moving to Toronto
Shortly after my training, Michael and I moved cross-country to Toronto. I tried to get into teaching cooking classes there, but that was a logistical nightmare and just didn’t end up working. After giving that up, I decided to work at a vegan catering kitchen.
It was hours of chopping vegetables, listening to the radio, and packaging food. The hours were sometimes very long, and the pay was comparatively low (especially in an expensive city like Toronto). Worst of all, I hated it.
I can see why some people really love working in a kitchen, but it just wasn’t my thing at all. For starters, I’ve always needed to be the captain of my own ship, so working as an underling was very challenging for me. It was also tedious, labor-intensive work – I tend to prefer cerebral, research-based work.
Deciding to teach in Toronto
So, life lesson learned. I couldn’t continue that job any longer, so I quit. The problem was, I quit without a landing net. Our rent wasn’t cheap, so to just axe my income was a little reckless (it probably gave Michael some gray hairs).
But I knew what to do. I had this piano teaching skill, and I wanted to use it. I was ready to return to my original path – this time on my own terms, not at a company. I wanted to be my own boss.
Since Toronto is a big city full of very highly educated teachers, I felt like a small fish in a big pond. All I had was my grade 9 RCM certificate (which I had just received), and no university degree. All the other teachers seemed to have a minimum of a Master’s degree and a thousand credentials at the end of their names. Why would anyone possibly give me a chance at teaching?
Getting started teaching in Toronto
But then I remembered that I had something that not even the best-educated graduate has, until they’re out in the real world: Experience.
Tons of experience! Five years of teaching a huge variety of students. I knew I was a good teacher. I knew that if I was just able to meet with people in person, they would see that I’m trustworthy, skilled and organized. On paper, my credentials were much less impressive – but in person, that’s where I could shine.
So I immediately put up flyers, put up ads on Kijiji and Craigslist, joined ORMTA (Ontario Registered Music Teachers Association), and sent messages to a ton of teachers in my ‘hood.
The flyers were useless, but Kijiji worked very well for me. In the ads, I was very clear about the price (low, but not too low), and replied to people immediately when they contacted me.
In the first email, I said that I like to do a phone interview with every potential student, just to talk details and to get a chance to “meet”. If that went well, I told them we’d set up an in-person interview where I had a chance to meet the student, do a tiny amount of teaching, and figure out where their house is (I drove to people’s locations).
So I did two interviews, both 100% free of charge, and I believe this was a huge factor in my success. The phone interview was great, because they could hear that I’m coherent and chipper, and learn that I’m not a scary internet person. And the in-person meeting was great, because they would have a chance to see how I interact with their children.
After the second meeting, we always arranged to begin lessons. I didn’t have a single “miss”. Usually we would begin lessons on a trial basis, as in, “try out lessons for a couple weeks and see how so-and-so likes it”, so that they wouldn’t feel pressure to continue. But the thing is, if you have a great first few lessons planned, they will always continue. Again, I didn’t have a single “miss” in this regard.
So many ads that I would see for teachers online were cringe-worthy. There were a lot of really impersonal, robotic ads where you didn’t get a clear sense of the person, and a lot of lessons so cheap that they became questionable. So I decided that the best and easiest way to advertise myself was to be a real person. To “be myself”, as they say.
I didn’t try to make myself seem hyper-professional. I didn’t deck out my ads with tons of crazy claims. What I did was emphasize my experience, and include a few testimonials (which were easily attained from my old boss, as well as a couple former students who were happy to put in a good word).
Joining ORMTA and meeting people
Aside from advertising myself, I also joined ORMTA and connected with other teachers. I knew that, if I was a part of a professional teacher’s organization, it would make me that much more of a “legitimate” piano teacher. It also opened up doors for recitals and festivals that were hosted through ORMTA.
And I emailed a whole bunch of teachers who were in my neighborhood. I found them by looking at ORMTA’s database of local teachers. The email was friendly – again, my whole idea was to just be a real human being. I said that I was a new piano teacher in Toronto, and was looking to make friends with other piano teachers.
I ended up with a few responses from that. I ended up meeting a lady who I did independent contracting work for (she had a larger studio, so it was a way for me to pick up more students), and we formed a friendship. I got to participate in her recitals, and she even taught me some piano lessons when I was studying for my elementary pedagogy. I had to continue that education!
Another lady I met was very friendly, and we went out for coffee several times, chatting about piano teaching and life.
I think one mistake aspiring piano teachers make is not getting yourself out there. A lot of us tend to have this introverted tendency where we want to sit behind a computer and do all of our interacting that way (I’m guilty of this as well). But I knew that, to be a successful teacher, I had to integrate into the community and meet with people face-to-face. It was a little scary, but was extremely helpful and valuable.
Doing all of these things, I had a full workload within several months. Many of those students came from Kijiji, some came from independent contracting, and others still came from referrals. I drove (or walked) to all of the lessons, and made a very strict effort to be timely and reliable. I built relationships with parents and their children, and managed to keep the vast majority of my students the entire time I was teaching in Toronto.
Piano teacher evolution
So if I’m breaking this down into steps, it might look something like this:
Step 1: Teach at a music school (and/or apprentice under a teacher)
Step 2: Be a mobile teacher (travel to people’s homes to teach)
Step 3: Create a home studio
Creating a home studio wasn’t realistic for us in Toronto, but we ended up moving back to our home province of Saskatchewan. As a (real) teacher, Michael had a very difficult time in Toronto, and there were much better jobs available back in our hometown. I was sad to leave all of my awesome students, but excited to move, since it meant realizing step 3 – having my own home studio.
Teaching from home
And that’s what I’ve been doing since 2015. In a small town, my advertising methods were a little different – I didn’t use Kijiji at all, for example, and mainly had success with flyers (and later, referrals). But I did all of the other steps that worked so well in Toronto – joined the local organization, conducted phone meetings and in-person meetings, and so on. Again, it only took me several months to fill up my studio.
At 21 students, I have room for a few others if they come along, but I’m not actively pursuing students at this point. My student base is incredibly stable, and I expect the majority of them to stick around a while.
How I set up the studio
Setting up a home studio wasn’t much of a challenge once we had the space for it – I shipped down the family piano, set up a table, bookshelf and homemade whiteboard (which I should really replace, but I’m still using now), and then I was good to go. The piano studio is pretty out of the way compared to the rest of the house, and it’s right by a door, so kids aren’t stomping through the house constantly (which gives Michael privacy).
As far as getting my piano students to stick around, I don’t have any “tactics”, unless you consider being a good human and (hopefully decent) teacher a tactic. My number one priority is to build relationships with students and parents.
One major thing that I think a lot of new piano teachers don’t consider is how crucial this relationship is. There will be times where your students lose motivation, get busy, and stop practicing for whatever reason. When this happens, it’s your relationship that’s going to keep them going. If they enjoy visiting you every week, and the parents can see that you’re bringing them value every week, then they’ll keep coming – even when times are tough. It’s really that simple.
There’s another really important thing to consider, as well, and that’s consistency. Whatever your baggage is, no matter what kind of day or week you’re having, you really have to leave it at the door when you teach. The absolute worst thing you can do as a teacher is bring a foul mood into class. What did the poor kid do to deserve your foul mood?
You have a relationship with them, but they’re not your confidants. Even with my adult students, I largely avoid personal conversations. Kids and adults alike don’t need to know. I like to keep my piano studio a sacred, drama-free space as much as humanly possible. A place where a kid can come to and always know what to expect.
If I’m a moody and unpredictable piano teacher, it’s going to make kids edgy. Kids just do so well with routine and familiarity. So I always make it a priority to be consistent.
It’s extremely challenging to push aside your own personal drama and find cheerfulness, or at the very least, find a meaningful connection with the kid. Sometimes the kids themselves are challenging.
One more thing that I want to share that I’ve learned is that, even though it seems like it might be a good idea to get upset with students who don’t practice, to be stern and wag my finger at them, this basically never works. My role as their piano teacher is not to be their disciplinarian. My role is to foster a love of music, and to give them skills they will cherish for the rest of their lives.
Yelling at kids, getting mad at them, guilt-tripping them – none of this helps accomplish either role. Yelling at a kid for not practicing will never make them love music, even if it makes them (begrudgingly) practice.
Practice review at the start of a lesson
In every lesson, I like to sit down with my students for a couple minutes (even the very young ones), and have a quick talk about how practice went that week. If it didn’t go well, we’ll talk about how to have a better upcoming practice week. Sometimes we even chose specific days and times. I try to help them as much as I can with this – and parents are also critical to ensure practice becomes a routine. But I try my darndest not to shame students for not practicing.
The reality is, they already feel bad for not practicing – unless they really don’t care about you, or music, in which case you have other problems. Sometimes these two-minute conversations aren’t easy (I’ve had students cry out of guilt before), but I really try to stay compassionate, instead of stern.
Happiness feeds happiness. If kids associate with coming to my house as a good, positive experience, they’ll not only enjoy coming back, but they’ll be more likely to willingly practice. Even if it’s not right away, or their practice habits wax and wane with the seasons.
Lastly, don’t expect credit of any kind. An eight year old is not going to say, “That was such a great lesson, you’re adding so much value to my life!” An eight year old might not even care one way or another that they’re playing piano. You’re not going to get thanks and approval in a literal way.
But if they keep coming back week after week, that’s approval enough. They’ll be so grateful when they’re older, and even if you get little to no praise for your work, it’s a great feeling to know that.
I hope you enjoyed this rather unconventional blog post and video discussing my experiences as a piano teacher. Let me know if you found this helpful, and I’d love to hear about your experiences too!