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.

Peer modelling

I was teaching a little 5 year old beginner today, and she came up with a question.

“Is that your daughter playing on the Book 1 CD?”

Now my 16 yr old daughter has been acting as my assistant in the beginner group class, and she will often play the tune while I guide the students in the activity.

I found it really interesting that for this child, imagining an older child playing the music on the recording  was more immediate than imagining an adult doing so.

So I told her, “No, that is not my daughter. But it sounds like it could be her because she has listened to that recording so much. But anybody can learn to sound like that, they just have to listen to the CD lots & lots.”

Student: “Mommy, can we go home and listen to the CD for 20 .. no, 40 minutes?”

The Mysteries of Motivation

I recently read a CBC news article about a school that has decided to discontinue the practice of rewarding high grades and athletic achievement with certificates and ceremonies.

This decision was based on the work of Alfie Kohn, the author of Punished by Rewards and No Contest: The Case Against Competition.

According to Kohn, rewards only motivate students to earn rewards, not to become engaged in the act of learning.

Dan Pink, in his book Drive, summarizes much recent (and no so recent) research and writing that also supports this idea. He concludes that the three main  things that motivate people are Autonomy, Mastery, and and sense of Purpose – not rewards.

Both authors find that offering rewards actually reduce motivation to engage in a task.

So I think of my students, and discover examples that support this.

For instance, one recorder student, who also happens to be my daughter (which is why I know about her school work too), when asked if she would like to participate in special workshop, masterclass, or Institute, always responds with a resoundingly enthusiastic. “Yes! When? What do I need to prepare? Will it be challenging? Good!”

Yet when it comes to her school work, she is happy to do the bare minimum to get by and has no interest in any extra enrichment activities. She takes the “easy” classes to get the highest mark she can for her GPA, not because she is interested in the subject.

What’s the difference? The feedback she get from her music activities helps her to increase her mastery of the music and the instrument in a way that is immediately apparent. No grades, just a personal sense of “Yes, I can do this better,” followed by an opportunity to try it immediately and see that it works. The feedback she gets from school is in the form of a letter grade or a percentage mark, often many weeks after she has completed the assignment. No chance to change anything based on the feedback,  it’s too late for that. Just a mark that gets compared to all the other marks.

This student has never been on the honour roll or received an academic award at school, yet every time she auditions for a special music program she is accepted, and every time she plays in a festival she is awarded one or more scholarships. She attends school to earn marks, and she attends music festival for performance experience  and feedback from other musicians.

So if a school can create a non judgmental reward free environment to motivate learning in the same way that I have managed to create such an environment for this students’ music learning, I would think it would have similar results. I applaud the school in the CBC article for taking this first step.

 

 

 

 

Time management starts young – my response to “I can’t practice because I have homework” from a student in Grade 2

One of the major concepts in Suzuki philosophy is taking the long term view. Especially since the very young students do not have the long term experience yet to look beyond the moment, the parents and teachers have to help establish this. So let’s look at this in the long term. When you are in high school, the homework will take more time, and the extra curricular activities will also demand more time. Juggling homework and practice at this stage, when both activities only take a few minutes, is training for time management for high school and college.

When my daughter was small we juggled homework, practice , and the freelance schedules of both parents. If we knew the day was going to pose challenges for getting things done, we would discuss how we were going to schedule everything over breakfast (or in the car), come up with a few possibilities, and our daughter would help decide which one we would use. Then we would have to stick to it no matter what (which was sometimes very difficult) but we got it done (sometimes less than we wanted but enough to at least touch on everything). But now we have a kid in Grade 12 who has the next two years planned out in terms of what courses she will take at school, which ones she will do independently on line, and the timeline for which RCM exams she has to prepare in order to get her high school graduation, her ARCT diploma in recorder, go on tour to Europe with her choir and take a gap year before college.

That ability to plan ahead was developed in the car on the way to elementary school.

Reluctant performer

At his first recital, 5 year old Jimmy was to perform a piece that he had been polishing for weeks.  When it was his turn to play, much to his dad’s dismay, Jimmy ran to the back of the hall and hid in the corner, crying. We went on to the next student, and later in the recital I invited Jimmy to try again.  This time he made it to the stage, but he didn’t want to play his piece – just took a bow from the edge of the stage. At the next recital he and his dad again practiced his performance; practicing walking on stage, taking a bow, then playing his piece. Again he didn’t want to play when it was his turn, but after listening to more of the other students’ performances he finally came up and played his piece beautifully. Jimmy continued studying violin for many years, performing regularly in festivals and recitals, each time in front of an audience feeling easier and more comfortable. In high school he became fascinated with the technical side of the theatre, and was involved in running sound and lights for many student productions. Now most of his performing is behind the scenes.

Two beautiful performances

Kayla started playing the recorder when she was 2. After a couple of years, she could play a two note song. When she finished Kindergarten, she could play short Mozart melodies. At a Kindergarten concert, she was to play some Mozart, but after hearing all the other children play Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, she played Twinkle too, because that was all she could remember when it was her turn after hearing all the others. When she was 8, she was recommended to the Provincial level of the Music Festival for woodwinds 16 and under. The other teenage students at that event fussed over her, patting her on the head and telling her not to be too nervous. She played a movement of the Sammartini Concerto and a Handel Sonata, and won the class and the scholarship. Now a teenager herself, she is including Suzuki Recorder Teacher Training courses and an ARCT recorder exam in her plans for university studies in theatre and visual arts.