Teaching music lessons is one of the best ways to generate a realistic, livable income through music. For some, teaching is their passion, and teaching lessons is the perfect job for them. For others, teaching lessons is simply another way to generate stable revenue in the very unstable world of a freelance musician. Regardless of what your scenario is like, even some of the greatest living players still teach to make a living and pass on their skills.
When you decide to start teaching, the first question you want to ask yourself is whether you want to work for a company or as an independent freelancer. There are big differences in the way to go about each, and often times, the lines can be blurred. Some studios will allow you to teach independently on the side, allowing you to experience both sides of the equation.
It can be a tough call to make. I've had a lot of experience both as an independent music instructor and as an instructor through studio programs, and I can tell you that there are a lot of positives and negatives to each. In order to help you make a decision, I've listed out what I consider to be the biggest pros and cons for each method.
When you make the decision to start teaching lessons independently, you're essentially starting a small business, all aspects of which are controlled by you. This can be a lot of work with a lot of risk. However, with great risk comes great reward if you're willing to really hustle to be successful.
You set your own rate
Perhaps the number-one benefit of teaching lessons independently is that you have full freedom to set your own rate scale and payment policies. You can charge exactly what you think you're worth, and you'll have the freedom to raise it if you're successful or lower it should your prices not work for students in your area.
You decide who to teach
Do you work really well with adults but not with children? Then you only have to take adult students. What if you only want to work with advanced students? Or beginners? You have full control over who you teach when you work independently, and if you have a student who isn't meeting your standards or is becoming a behavioral problem, you have the power to discontinue lessons at your own discretion. You can also decide mutually with new students whether or not your teaching style and personality is a good fit, and if not, you don't have to continue with lessons.
You decide what to teach
When teaching independently, you teach your own curriculum and use only the resources that you enjoy teaching with. Each lesson you give will be totally "you," and you won't have to base your curriculum around a set of someone else's specifications.
You pick the location
Do you have a clean, welcoming, and well-equipped home studio/music space? Then you can teach directly from your home, negating the need to commute to work. You can even teach from your home over video chat, which is becoming very popular as the technology improves. Another option is to rent a studio space/office and teach from there.
Some instructors may opt to commute to the homes of their students and teach from there. Even so, you can set the limit on how far you want to travel so that you aren't burning yourself out with long commutes or spending half your paycheck on transportation. Regardless of what you decide as far as location, you're setting your own hours along the way.
Acquiring new students
Unless you have a big, well-known name, acquiring new students can be a long, slow-moving process. You will need to be on the ball as far as searching and reaching out to potential leads, getting your name out into the community, and dealing with advertising and budgets. You have to work hard to build your reputation and self-promote, which you'll need to budget for with money and time.
If you live in a rural area or in a town that has little interest in music or the arts, you'll likely have to teach from student homes and extend the range of your commute. Depending on how your schedule and the schedule of your students work out, this may involve you running back and forth across your county/region to get from student to student.
Be ready to spend some time (possibly a lot of time) on paperwork and organization. You’ll be in charge of organizing your students' information, keeping track of lessons and cancellations, income and expenses, and your own lesson materials (paper, books, flashcards, music, etc). You'll also have to be ready to do all of the tax work yourself.
Working for a studio
When you teach through a studio, you're an employee of a business. This business likely takes care of its own bookkeeping and marketing (you don't need to promote your fast food chain if you're simply a line cook, right?), but may have its own goals, quotas, and ideals that you will have to conform to.
Students are brought to you
When working through a teaching studio, the staff are the ones trying to bring in new students for their business. This means that you don't have to worry about hustling for students – they simply assign you new ones when you have the availability. If you need to take more students or if you have too much work, you can usually just talk to the manager and have him or her adjust things for you.
Business aspects are taken care of
Since you aren't running the business, you don't have to worry about things like advertising, paperwork, student organization, or taxes. There will usually be an office employee who's in charge of handling things like that. The studio may even provide you with lesson materials such as paper, pens, books, and music. You simply have to sit back and teach great lessons.
Lesson coverage if you're away
If you have to take time off for a gig, tour, or studio session, many studios are accepting of this and will assign somebody to substitute and cover your lessons while you're away. This keeps your students busy while you're gone and can really help with retention, so you don't return home with only half of the students you had before you left. This goes both ways: when other people at the studio have to take time off, you can pick up their shifts and take more hours when you need the money.
One central location
Unless you work for a studio that specializes in sending teachers to students' homes or teaching them over the web, the studio will have a central location that you'll teach from. While you may have to commute to work, you can stay in the same "office," where the students come to you for the entire day.
When you work for a studio, you have to take its pay scale. Keep in mind that because there's a middleman (the studio has to cover business expenses and pay office staff, after all), you won't be receiving the full amount that each student pays. Also, keep in mind that as a business, your studio will likely be competing with other studios in the area, and thus charging competitive lesson rates. All of this boils down to the fact that you'll likely (though not always) be making less money per lesson than you could make on your own. Sometimes, this number can be significantly less, especially if the studio's policies on cancellations don't fall in favor of the teacher.
Some studios have specific goals that they want the students to achieve, teach using a specific book/method, or have quotas that need to be met. Thus, you may have to conform to their teaching policies and put your own personal curriculum on the back burner. This can be great if you're new to teaching lessons and need to try different teaching methods to see what you like and what you don't like, but if you've been teaching for a long time, you may end up being forced to adopt teaching methods that you dislike or disagree with.
Less control and freedom
Having somebody else do all of the advertising, policy writing, and paperwork for you is great, but only if he or she actually does it well. If the studio you work for doesn't have a known name in the community and doesn't know how to advertise well, it may have trouble getting students to the studio. Thus, fewer students for you, with nothing you can do about it. Since many studios restrict or outright prevent you from teaching independently, you may be in trouble if the studio can't get you enough students.
You may also run the risk of unfair policies towards the students. If the students are subject to shady policies or bad management/organization, their experiences will be reflected as negative regardless of how well you teach. Thus, your student retention and personal reputation could be at risk, sheerly by association.
This pro/con comparison won't represent every individual's experience, but it's is a good place to start when deciding how you want to organize your teaching plans. If you have some teaching experience, business and marketing skills, and the time and place to do it, then you may be much better off teaching independently. If you choose to teach through a studio, the best advice I could give would be to find one that has a good name in the community and treats their teachers well (both personally and through policy).
Dylan Welsh is a freelance musician and music journalist, based in Seattle, WA. He currently plays in multiple Seattle bands, interns at Mirror Sound Studio, and writes for the Sonicbids blog. Visit his website for more information.