What do lessons cost? -or- The real economics of music lessons

I recently had a parent inquiring about lessons email me with a simple question: “What do lessons cost? ”

Answering this question is not simple. Once I started composing my answer, it turned into this blog post. So here we go:

Of course, I could just say, “My hourly rate for lessons is this much,” and leave it at that. But you are inquiring about beginning a long term relationship with an artist teacher who is willing to make a long term commitment to help you reach the highest possible level of artistic expression. That involves the exchange of more than just few dollars a week to show you where to put your fingers. It is a relationship that exchanges time, experience, commitment, communication, art, and love, so the “cost” involves more than just money.

Time & Commitment:

When you pay for music lessons, you are not paying for the lesson. You are paying for your teacher’s time. The minute you commit to lessons with me, I reserve a spot on my teaching schedule for you for the next 10 – 15 years. If you don’t come for a lesson, I can’t put that time back on the shelf and use it again. Neither can you.

To get the best ROI, or “return on investment”, for your lessons, you need to factor in a commitment to regular attendance at weekly lessons and group classes, as well as regular daily practice.

  • Most beginner students start with a half hour lesson once a week, and the lesson length gradually increases as the student starts learning more complex material.
  • Group classes are also weekly, but they run in terms with breaks in between terms. (Oct. – Nov. for 8 weeks, Feb. – Mar. for 7 weeks, and a spring term that varies in length depending on when Easter, other holiday events and festivals fall on the calendar, ending with a July summer Institute for 1 week.) The group classes vary in length from 45 min to 1.5 hours depending on the level of the students.
  • Daily practice includes listening to recordings as well as working with the instrument. For a young beginner, this could be as little as 10 minutes a day, but it does have to be daily to have any effect at all. As with the lessons, the time commitment increases with the complexity of the material. The requirement to practice every day never changes.
  • Parents need to support students to make sure that these commitments are met. Attending the lessons and classes, taking notes, and making sure that those notes are followed in home practice are essential duties of a beginner parent.

Flexibility:

Small interruptions to the regular schedule of lessons and practice are not a problem if you are in a long term relationship with your teacher. School trips, family crises, and illnesses can all be worked through with humour and flexibility if you have your long range goals in place, and the solid continuing relationship with your music teacher can be an strong anchor in a situation where school teachers and other mentors may change every year. Your teacher may also reschedule lessons to do performances or attend teacher training and conferences. As your teacher grows as an artist through these activities, so also do your lessons become richer experiences.

Rewards:

The benefits and rewards of music study have been examined a great deal over the last few years, and various studies in neurology and psychology have demonstrated repeatedly the value of music instruction in intellectual, social, and emotional development.

Starting music lessons with a young child, where the support of the parent is necessary for success, creates a situation where the student and parent need to work together daily on a shared goal. Aside from the usual benefits of “quality time” with your child, this provides a rare opportunity to learn about your child’s learning styles in a very specific way.

Music study over the long term also provides an opportunity to develop independence. My goal as a teacher is to make myself unnecessary, so I am constantly working with my students to make sure that they develop the ability to do it “all by myself.” A side benefit of developing this sense of autonomy is increased motivation to practice, as students realize what the process is to develop mastery. When combined with the strong social support of the group classes, students develop the ability to continue their music study independently at a very high level of ability.

Money:

So in addition to the free exchange of time, commitment, experience, and support, some money is also involved.  At this point I would give my teaching fees, but since this is a blog post, I’ll just put up the link to the program where I teach, for the most up to date fee information: http://www.suzuki-flute-recorder.ca/ESFRS/Registration.html

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“Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

To answer a parent’s question: “Why don’t you just tell us what notes to play?”

You expressed two concerns in your last lesson.

  • You wanted to be able to tell your child what note to start on.
  • I wasn’t telling you what note to start on.

I want to address these concerns

First let’s look at the ultimate goal:

  • Your child needs to know what note to start on without you needing to help him.
  • How can he figure this out independently?

1) Listening to the the recording

You have been doing the listening at home. You told me that everyone in your family recognized that adding the “C” to Mary Had a Little Lamb sounded weird when your child started the song on B. This tells me that everyone in the family has a very clear idea of how the song sounds when it is played correctly. You all developed this idea from listening to the recording. Excellent!

You all realized that there was something not quite correct about his way of playing it because you were all comparing it to your idea from the recording. Excellent!

Next step: If you are not quite sure of something, refer to your reference recording. Go back and listen to it again, and then try playing the piece again. The discrepancy in the first note would become much more immediately obvious. When I do this with students in lessons, they often just automatically make the needed correction without realizing it after hearing the recording. (Then I have to ask them – “What did you just do differently?”  “Oh…”)

The most important part about this approach is that the student gets to figure it out independently. If a student has difficulty, parents and teachers can guide his attention to a specific spot by asking questions – “Did your first note sound the same or different than the first note on the recording?” – or by playing just a short section of the recording instead of the entire piece.

2) Reviewing previous repertoire

When we learn new fingerings, we transpose the “toolbox” songs to start on different notes. This is to change the key of the piece, to incorporate a new fingering in a familiar melody. Because the melody is very familiar, anything that sounds “odd” directs the students’ attention to the accuracy of the new fingering.

By reviewing these toolbox songs starting on different notes in the daily home practice, the student recognizes that there are multiple options for playing these tunes in different keys, and learns to hear the difference when the the tune starts on an A or a B by daily direct comparison.

The allows the student to recognize patterns from previous pieces in new repertoire, even if the patterns start on different notes.

So if something sounds “odd” in practice, questions to be asked can include: “Can I play this piece in a different key (on a different starting note)?” “Will what I am trying to do work better in one key or another?”

So this is my philosophy:

All new pieces will be introduced with these questions in mind:

  • “What is in this piece that I already know?”
  • “What is in this piece that is new?”

Beginning with the “same / different / higher / lower” pitch identification game in our first lessons, all the way through to finding the start of the recapitulation in a classical sonata-allegro concerto movement, the process of learning the music remains the same, only the complexity of the material changes. We identify when it is the same, and when it is different.

  • If a student does consistent review of previously learned material, he has a repertoire of “same” things that he can access for immediate comparison.
  • If a student listens consistently to the reference recording, he will recognize things that are different and try to imitate them.
  • If his imitation is successful, he has just solved the “different” problem independently by combining known material in a new way.
  • If his imitation is not immediately successful, direct comparison to the reference recording and guiding questions from the practice parent or teacher can help him find the answer.

Yes this takes longer. WAY longer than just saying “It starts on an A”. But only at the beginning. If we invest the time in learning this process at the start, we can sit back later and enjoy how competently our students master new material quickly and independently. I have also seen the alternative, where students who have depended upon their parents to tell them what to do have quit playing the instrument once they get to an age where depending on the parent isn’t that fun anymore but they haven’t got the skills to do it themselves yet. I would rather foster a student who can work independently at a high level, so at an age when he desires more independence he can go off and work on his own with continued success.

Time and Practice

I just watched a TED talk by Abha Dawesar, “Life in the digital now.”

Here is the link: http://www.ted.com/talks/abha_dawesar_life_in_the_digital_now.html

She had some very interesting things to say about time, and I quote:

“Our story, therefore, needs two dimensions of time: a long arc of time that is our lifespan,and the time frame of direct experience that is the moment. Now the self that experiences directly can only exist in the moment, but the one that narrates needs several moments, a whole sequence of them, and that’s why our full sense of self needs both immersive experience and the flow of time. Now, the flow of time is embedded in everything, in the erosion of a grain of sand, in the budding of a little bud into a rose. Without it, we would have no music…

…You and I know exactly what it means like to be truly present in a moment. It might have happened while we were playing an instrument, or looking into the eyes of someone we’ve known for a very long time. At such moments, our selves are complete. The self that lives in the long narrative arc and the self that experiences the moment become one. The present encapsulates the past and a promise for the future. The present joins a flow of time from before and after.”

The idea of existing at a point where the long narrative intersects the present moment spoke to me.

As a musician, I put in long hours of practice, building the skill to be able to communicate through the sound I create with my instrument. Yet when I perform, I exist in that moment only – when the performance is over, the music has vanished. You can’t step back and say, “Look at what I just played!” It is not there anymore. Yet without the long story of daily practice, it would not be possible  to have that performance.

So, to use Dawesar’s analogy,  the practice is the long narrative arc, the performance is the moment, and when the two intersect, that is where art is created.

This makes me feel like practicing.

Why practice the easy stuff?

As I was practicing this morning, I realized that as I was warming up I was doing the same, or very similar things, to what I have my junior and intermediate students do.  It made me stop and think.

Why was I doing these things that I have been practicing for years if I can do them already? Is this a waste of time?  Am I bored? I don’t feel bored.

As I thought about it, my answer is: I do those things very well and very easily because I do them every day.  If I didn’t spend a few minutes going over all the basics of violin playing every day they would all be much more difficult and I would be unable to successfully perform complex music with the necessary ease to communicate with an audience.

So when we practice we apply knowledge to develop skill.  The easier it gets the more precisely we are able to apply the knowledge and the more finely tuned our skills can become.

To quote Shinichi Suzuki “Knowledge is not ability.  Knowledge X 10,000 times is ability.

The Joy of Procrastination

The urge to procrastinate is a good thing! I never thought I would say this, but I have been introduced to a radical new idea thanks to Seth Godin.

In his new book The Icarus Deception (which I highly recommend) he refers to the urge to procrastinate as a sign that you are about to make some really good art. Since creating really good art also makes you vulnerable, it also activates your sense of self-preservation. Your sense of self-preservation then activates your “fight or flight” response, which manifests as an urge to put off making the art. Therefore, the urge to procrastinate is a sign that you are about to create something really good.

That is the best explanation I have ever heard for the common experience of artists, writers, and musicians – that it is a joy to practice your art, but so very difficult to get started. So the next time I feel like procrastinating instead of practicing,  I should paradoxically feel a stronger urge to practice because I know I will accomplish something really good.