Picture an ebony grand piano in a penthouse studio overlooking Central Park as opera stars arrive for their twice-weekly (or daily!) singing lessons with Madame or Maestro. This is the glamourous life of a typical singing teacher as depicted by Hollywood and, sometimes, by Opera News. In real life, however, a typical private voice teacher is more likely to be enlightening a gangly teen to the finer points of Italian diction in “Caro Mio Ben” or helping a church choir soprano prepare for Sunday’s solo. While not always glamorous, teaching singing can certainly be a worthy and satisfying full-time or part-time career choice.
If you are considering starting your own voice studio to supplement your performing career, it is essential to consider whether you are cut out for the task. Private music teachers David and Barbara Newsam, in their book Making Money Teaching Music caution that “the first step in becoming a great teacher is deciding if that is what you really want to do.”
Joan Frey Boytim is a well-known private voice teacher and clinician who has compiled the popular First Book of [Soprano etc] Solos for Hal Leonard Publishing. She write a regular column, “A Private View” for the National Association of Teachers of Singing. Boytim believes that aspiring voice teachers should begin by writing a Mission Statement This should help you to determine what you have to offer as a teacher, or as Newsam suggests, “to identify what you really do well.”
Though you may be tempted, at first, to accept any student who posesses vocal cords and a check book, your own experience, personality, and preferences will help you find your niche as a singing teacher. “There is great demand for private voice teachers for junior high and high school students,” says Boytim. “If you look at the demographics for the next 20 years,” she says, “there is a proliferation of teenagers. As public schools continue to cut back on arts education, parents and teens are looking for private teachers to fill that gap. All high schools do musicals these days, and the kids know that if they want the lead or they want to beat out 200 singers for District Chorus, they have to have private singing lessons. Its a huge market.”
If you know you don’t work well with adolescents, consider the large segment of the adult population who are avocational singers. These would-be students include many retiring baby-boomers and empty-nesters with time and money on their hands. Teachers of amateur adult students often hear, “I always wanted to take singing lessons, but I never had the time while I was working [or raising the children]”
If you are qualified to teach working professional singers, it can be quite lucrative. Voice teachers rarely start at this level, however, and it may take years to build a reputation as a teacher of artists. Many of these teachers are former (or current) opera singers, and/or former university teachers. Says one prominent New York private studio teacher and ex-voice professor, “Academia is a very easy lifestyle where a full load is 18 students a week. Now when I teach 18 students a week, I’m on vacation! When you teach professional level students your schedule and pace is very frantic. New York teaching is like doing triage; we deal with singers at the highest level of anxiety.”
Where to teach is a major consideration for new voice teachers. Choices include creating a home studio (often the living room, basement, or spare bedroom); contracting with a local music store; or renting a private studio. The Newsams write at great length about the reality of combining a working and living environment. Although this is the most common choice for practical and economic reasons, it can wreak havoc on the domestic scene. They urge teachers to respect the rights of family members who may resent the intrusion of students: “We encourage you to create a permanent space in your home that is designated as your studio and does not double as anything else. The ideal situation is to have a separate room on the first floor close to an entrance, so students don’t have to trudge through your living space.”
Initially, a private studio rental can be prohibitively expensive. A local music store may offer “free” studio space in exchange for a percentage of the lesson fees, but be sure to read the fine print in the contract. It is common for a store to include a clause discouraging or prohibiting an instructor from teaching those students privately when he or she is no longer employed by the store.
Don’t overlook possible low-cost or no-cost studio space at a local school or church. Donna Green, a former student of Joan Boytim, took a church job in Okemos, Michigan and was allowed to use the church for private voice lessons. “She has built an amazing private studio!” says Boytim.
How much to charge will vary according to your experience and training, and what the local market will bear. Determine the local rates by asking around or doing an informal survey. Set your fees carefully, being cautious not to sell yourself short; there is a perception that you get what you pay for. Linda Lewellen, a private teacher in Boulder Colorado says, “The smartest thing I did lately is raise my fees. I have more students than ever!”
In general, big city teachers can charge significantly higher fees than teachers in less-populated rural areas. Teachers who commute from “the boonies” to the city, may have two different rate scales. Interestingly, if you want to make a full-time living teaching singing, you may have better luck teaching in a smaller, less cosmopolitan town where there are fewer singing teachers. Reputable, popular teachers in smaller towns often build studios of 40 or more students, mostly by word of mouth. Boytim’s home studio in Pennsylvania has averaged 60 students per week for decades, but she recently cut back to about 40 students. “ I draw students from eleven area school districts.”
You will also need to decide when you will be paid for lessons. Students of top-dollar teachers ($100+ an hour) may still pay per lesson, but voice teachers, with the encouragement of organizations like Music Teachers National Association (MTNA), are increasingly favoring pre-paid monthly fees or ten-week “tuition” plans. Students (and parents) who pay up-front for karate class, sports, or dance lessons shouldn’t balk at paying in advance for singing lessons. Make sure payment procedures and all lesson policies are clearly outlined in writing.
The Newsams’ book, and Beth Gigante’s A Business Guide for the Music Teacher, offer business guidelines, sample forms, and marketing ideas. Bookkeeping for your music studio can be as simple as a spiral notebook, or as high-tech as a music studio management software program like E-studio (http://www.parapubs.net).
Don’t forget about an accompanist: If your piano skills are solid and you are teaching at the beginning to intermediate skill levels, you will typically accompany your students during lessons. It is common practice for advanced and pro singers to pay an additional fee to have an accompanist present during their lessons.
To market your new studio, flyers and professional business cards are a good idea, as well as ads in target publications like Classical Singer or concert programs. The NATS website includes links to free online databases for singing teachers. Avoid advertising in the local newspaper unless you want the rock band singer market. Yellow page ads are expensive and may scare away more students than they attract. My favorite yellow page ad in the Dayton, Ohio phone book a few years ago read: “Singing Lessons and Belly Dancing.”
Flexibility or Stability?
Are you looking for a full-time teaching career, or a part-time teaching experience to supplement your day job or performing career? A lot of frustration can be avoided by keeping these choices clear. If you want a steady, reliable income as a voice teacher, you will need to keep a fairly rigid schedule, devoting time, energy and resources to building your “business.” If however, your singing career demands the freedom to cancel and reschedule lessons to suit your own audition and performance opportunities, there are probably better “temp” jobs available. David Newsam writes, “It is not necessarily an easy way to supplement a performance habit. Teaching is a living, not a last resort!”
RESOURCES for the private studio teacher
• MTNA: Music Teachers’ National Association
• NATS: National Association of Teachers of Singing
• New York Singing Teachers’ Association (212) 579-2461
• Making Money Teaching Music by David Newsam and Barbara Sprague Newsam, Writer’s Digest Books, 1995
• A Business Guide for the Music Teacher by Beth Gigante, Kjos Music Co, 1987