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An image crisis in independent piano teaching?

I recently ran a survey, Perceptions of Independent Piano Teachers, as part of some research for a paper I am writing to present at the Oxford Piano Group meeting at the end of this month. Originally intended to offer some insight into whether private and independent piano teachers regard themselves as “professionals”, the survey revealed some interesting and unsettling thoughts on how independent piano teachers perceive themselves generally, and how people outside the profession view them. The majority of respondents were independent/private piano teachers and it was their response to the question When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?  which gave me significant pause for thought. See more on this below….

One of my ongoing issues is people not regarding what I do as a “professional” role, despite the fact that I adhere to many of the perceived definitions of the word “professional”: I am paid for my work, I hold professional qualifications, and I belong to several professional bodies. I also run my studio in an efficient and businesslike manner with clear terms and conditions regarding payment of fees etc, I market my studio effectively (website and social media), I participate in regular ongoing professional development, and know how to communicate and interact with my “clients” (my students and their parents). Discussions with friends and colleagues in the profession indicate I am not alone in this, and indeed this is one of the main aspects about which music teachers and musicians in general feel so denigrated: because we enjoy our work and (often) work from home, it is not perceived as “a proper job”, and as such, we are often undervalued, expected to work for low or no pay, and our job is regarded as some kind of eccentric hobby. Nevermind that many of us have undergone a long and specialist training, or have years of experience and an impressive track record of success.

One of the major problems of private piano teaching is that it is unregulated. This means anyone can set up as a piano teacher and recruit a few students. Other professionals – doctors, lawyers, accountants for instance – have their own professional/regulatory bodies, with professional exams, code of ethics, and so forth, which lends proper accreditation and gravitas to their role. Piano teachers can opt to join professional organisations such as the European Piano Teachers’ Association (EPTA) or the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM), but membership is not compulsory and these bodies do not “regulate” nor inspect; they offer support, legal advice, continuing professional development, public liability insurance, busaries etc.

I would like to share the results of my survey, in the hope that this may encourage all independent piano teachers to consider how the profession is regarded and to support me in raising the profile of the private piano teacher.

Qualifications
What has the average piano teacher studied to teach in an independent studio?

Piano to grade 8 – 78%

Music theory to grade 8 – 37%

A-level music (or equivalent) – 45%

Music degree – 50%

Teaching diplomas – 46%

Performance diplomas – 43%

Piano pedagogy – 30%

These results interest me because I frequently come across the view that the private piano teacher should have attended music college or taken a degree in music, as a minimum qualification to teach. While I accept that a BMus or MMus (or equivalent international qualification) would be desirable, it is worth pointing out that not all conservatoire or university music courses offer a separate and/or specialist course in piano pedagogy; the main focus tends to be on performance, and music theory and history. Now, you might be the most talented, internationally-renowned pianist, but if you can’t communicate in both words and actions how to do it, you are not going to cut it as a teacher. Many professional musicians teach because they have to; but they are not necessarily the best teachers just because they have undergone a conservatoire training.

As an unregulated profession, there is no minimum standard qualification for independent piano teachers. Personally, I would like to see Grade 8 piano set as a minimum standard together with some other accreditation required and recognised by a body such as the ISM or EPTA.

Here is a teaching colleague of mine on the thorny issue of qualifications:

There is huge range of qualifications on offer, some of which test different things to others. I think in my experience, the usual thing, ‘qualifications do not necessarily a good teacher make’ stands true. All the qualifications I’ve done, I’ve done because they enhance and enrich my teaching rather than that they somehow make me look a better teacher. I’ve never once, in 13 years been asked about them anyway, and I find this quite common. Having worked with quite a few teaching diploma candidates, for example, it is clear which of them are using the qualification as a means to reflect on and evaluate their teaching skills, and those who want the piece of paper (and for the latter, the act of doing the qualification will have had little or no impact upon their actual teaching ability).

What are the main duties and responsibilities of an independent piano teacher?

100% of respondents stated that “teaching piano” is the main duty/responsibility of the independent piano teacher.

Preparing lessons – 87%

Collecting fees – 59%

Scheduling lessons – 73%

Preparing students for exams – 80%

Writing student reports/appraisals – 34%

Marketing the studio – 41%

Administration and recording keeping – 61%

Encouraging students – 91%

Keeping up with one’s professional development – 81%

I was interested to note that “collecting fees” did not receive a higher response, since conversations with colleagues, and my own experience, suggest that this is one of the more time-consuming (and irritating) aspects of the private piano teacher’s role, along with other general admin. Additional comments in response to this question included: dealing with parental expectations, keeping abreast of the current writing/thinking in piano teaching and pedagogy, taking lessons and playing/performing oneself, learning the music that students choose to play, informing students of interesting/relevant concerts and encouraging them to listen to music.

What non-musical skills do you think an independent piano teacher should have in order to teach successfully in a home studio?

Administration and organisational skills – 87%

Computer skills – 53%

Business skills – 57%

Knowledge of learning styles and how to accommodate them – 86%

People skills – 95%

An ability to challenge and motivate students – 96%

Patience – 96%

A sense of humour – 84%

Communication and writing skills – 71%

The responses to these three questions above suggest that independent piano teachers have a clear idea of what the job entails, and what skills are necessary in order to fulfil the role.

In response to the question Do you consider private piano teaching to be a “profession”?  91% agreed with this statement, while 7% did not. 2% responded “Don’t know”. When asked to qualify their responses, the following comments were made:

It’s a hobby, even if a full-time living, and never feels like a ‘real’ job. It’s up to the teacher to be self-motivated and conscientious if he/she wants to do a good job of it, though, but it’s increasingly a peripheral and quaint thing to do in life.

No [it’s not a “profession”], in that there are no recognised entry qualifications, no regulation and no career progression.

It doesn’t command any respect, people think it’s a hobby, not a vocation.

Depends on qualifications

What attributes and/or qualifications do you think define a private piano teacher as a “professional”?

Qualifications (e.g. music degree, education degree, performance or teaching diplomas) – 95%

Experience – 80%

A career as a professional performing musician – 25%

Ongoing professional development – 71%

Self-motivation – 50%

Good business skills – 36%

Additional comments in response to this question:

Success in motivating, teaching and helping students grow – not just musically, but personally, as well

I am constantly baffled as to why some piano teachers are not part of a union or professional body

Understanding of child development and basic psychology (we teach adults too)

A ‘professional’ attitude to practicalities such as studio policy, having insurance. Planning lessons

An ability and willingness to perform up to something resembling professional levels, but not necessarily having a professional performance career.

When you think of the typical private piano teacher, who teaches at home, what image immediately comes to mind?

It is the largely negative responses to this question which have given me most pause for thought. Remember, the majority of respondents are independent piano teachers – these comments are their view of how our profession is perceived by others:

Probably an older, rather eccentric female

Someone who is probably not properly qualified

Old lady next door, cardigan, cats, musical erasers

Someone who is not really up to the job- who isn’t fully trained or a professional musician and has realised they can make a quick buck teaching piano. Someone who is kind and nice to the children and parents but ultimately unaware that they are teaching bad technique often and not aware of the rigours of quality music-making

Not a profession but a religion!

Someone who is keen to develop people in their creativity and understanding of music. They love what they do, and teach it because they themselves love to play and be creative.

A mum who used to play…..has kids and needs a bit of extra money

I divide it into two types: Those that live and breathe the piano, and those for which it is a “nice little hobby”.

Someone who has Grade 8 or Diploma in performance. Teaches pupils for the exam they are working on, leaving ear training and background knowledge until the week before the exam. May be a great performer.

It used to be a woman in her 40s or 50s sitting, slightly seriously, beside a wide-eyed child at an upright piano. Things have moved on now and I know teachers across a wide demographic.

Interestingly, when I asked two professional pianists who also teach (one privately, one in a university music department) how they are perceived by their students and parents of their students, I received the following replies:

I find that my students and parents treat me as ‘highly professional’ due to the calibre of my performing engagements. This is completely unrelated, however, to any ability I might or might not possess as a teacher. The latter comes from studying and working in the field for over thirty years, from discussions with psychologists and other instrumental teachers – and trial and error.

I find that generally (with a few exceptions) teaching within an establishment [a British university] one does get the appropriate respect and indeed, as instrumental teachers, most of the students treat us as being on a par with the other academic staff. The only private teaching that I do (at the moment) is on a consultation basis, so people (generally parents of talented late teenagers or sometimes young professionals themselves) approach me because of what I’ve done or because they’ve actually heard me in concert. I guess that generally means that one has already overcome the hurdle of being respected and the people involved do therefore treat one as ‘professional’. But this is less about qualifications/prizes won….

Do you have any memorable anecdotes about the perception your students, their parents, or someone outside the profession has had about the independent piano teacher or the job of teaching from a private home studio?

Parents of new students think often of piano teaching as a simple, stress free and lucrative job. Parents of older students realize it’s a profession, that requires knowledge, competence and constant learning on the part of the teacher.

Thinking I’m a part-timer. – Believing I deserve less professional respect. For instance: paying me late, assuming I want to babysit their kids, wanting to switch times when a plumber/electrician wouldn’t put up with their crap. This might be a bit controversial, but I think part of the problem lies in the fact that as a profession, there are very little “benchmarks” or “guidelines” to guide absolutely everybody in a uniform fashion, even within unions and professional bodies. For instance, there are some piano teachers who may put up with late payment because they feel they don’t have a choice, or other teachers who allow pupils to switch times and cancel at the very last minute. This makes others believe all piano teachers are the same. I think this freedom and flexibility to operate is a positive, but if you compare to say, the GMC (General Medical Council) or BMA (British Medical Association), they are a lot more stringent and dogmatic about what their members should and should not do as professionals.

“What do you do for a living?” (Parent couldn’t believe this was my job)

Once a mother pulled her son out of lessons because I was getting too skilled and teaching too much and she just wanted him to read notes. I told her I was allowed to grow too

As organizer of a local piano competition and representative of a teaching union, I sat down to check a piano was in tune and the stool was at the right height at the start of the competition day, only for a parent to ask “so you actually play the piano then? Like properly!” Made me smile for hours.

One piano parent asked me and my colleague Claire “So what do you want to be when you are older?” whilst she was sat in my private piano teaching practice which I rent and run as a business.

I am troubled by these largely negative comments and the recurrence of the word “hobby” in relation to piano teaching. The perception, expressed by teachers themselves, that the role is not valued nor regarded as a proper professional job is very evident in these responses. While the stereotypical view of the private piano teacher as a little old lady down the road is fading, there is a still a strong perception that the private piano teacher is doing the job for “pin money”, or because they can’t get a “better” job. I find this view deeply depressing: I take my job very seriously and adopt a professional attitude to every aspect of my work (the fact that I also enjoy it a great deal is an added bonus). How do we change this attitude into a positive perception of piano teachers as highly skilled and professional people? I believe that the impetus must come from within the profession, from piano teachers themselves, and from professional bodies such as EPTA and ISM, who should be actively promoting private piano teaching as a recognised and respected profession.

I would like to thank everyone who took part in my survey and also those pianist and piano teaching friends and colleagues who responded to more specific enquiries from me.

In a later post, I will explore professionalism in private piano teaching in more detail.

Please feel free to leave comments or to contact me directly via the Contact page of this site.

9 thoughts on “An image crisis in independent piano teaching?”

  1. I think people have a hard time distinguishing us a teachers from hobbyists in that we LOVE what we do. Many people do not love their professions and see going to work as a drudgery. As long as we conduct ourselves as teachers/business people/performers, our clientele is bound to see us for the professionals that we are and accord us the respect to go along with that. I do remind my clients that I am running a business….I just happen to love what I do!

  2. Thanks for sharing the results of your survey. I have mostly found that parents/students have respected my terms and appreciated the organisation of my piano teaching practise. My students/parents and myself know where we stand and things have worked well. Having now moved to a completely different area, I’m having to start again from scratch and I will maintain the terms and organisation but it is an unknown quantity at this point as to how people will respond. I have only once have someone kind of suggested that piano teaching wasn’t a proper job although I don’t think they actually meant it as it came out!

  3. When initially contacted by a potential student / parent I always mention my membership of the EPTA (UK) and the contract I use. This underlines my professionalism [-and might prepare them for the shock of my fees!] and elevates their expectations.
    I wonder how many male teachers you approached for your survey?

    1. I think this is an excellent point Josephine and something I will mention in my follow up post. I didn’t ask people to indicate whether male of female in the survey but I suspect most of the negative image comments come from female teachers, sadly

  4. This is a really interesting survey, have enjoyed reading your results. Thanks for sharing! I am curious to know what percentage of the respondents were the general public, and from where you drew these participants. In particular which of these were involved in some way with piano teaching (having lessons or related to a student) and which were from outside the whole experience.

  5. Very interesting post. On a positive note, however, I generally get a pretty good response when I tell people I’m a piano teacher. People tend to be impressed and respect me for making a living from something I love doing. I certainly don’t get the impression that they see it as something I’ve just fallen back on because I couldn’t find anything better to do! I feel that my students and most of their parents treat me as a professional.

    1. @ Piano with Jess, I usually get the same or similar response. I guess its all about the confidence in which you present.

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