So You Want to Teach Voice: : How to Start Your Own Private Studio

Beginning a private studio can be a daunting task. There are so many things to consider, like how much to charge—a complicated issue because it is tied to the average costs for private music lessons regionally. Private teachers must also consider marketing and recruiting strategies for building their studios. And then there are attendance and payment policies. To get to the heart of these and other studio related matters, I spoke with singer-teachers for their tips on opening and building a private studio.

Soprano Marcelle Duarte Cantor has performed with the Little Opera Theatre of New York and has premiered many American composer works for the Long Island Composers Alliance. She has also been teaching a full studio in the New York City Metro area for over 13 years, including professional and celebrity clients. Cantor priced herself based on comparable rates that she paid for lessons when she began studying, accounting for time and inflation, and has adjusted her rates approximately every two years.

Soprano Joyce Sylvester is an adjunct vocal instructor at the University of Mobile Center for Performing Arts and the University of South Alabama, frequent faculty recitalist, founder of Bella Voce of Mobile Women’s Chorus, extensive performer with Mobile Opera, and private voice teacher for the past 15 years. Sylvester started her private studio with one person, “a soprano who was in the same church choir where I was a section leader. I used the price rates that were the going fees for other area voice teachers.”

Soprano Mandy Brown teaches privately and is an emerging artist based in the Washington D.C. metro area. She has sung with companies such as Chautauqua Opera and Lyric Opera of Wichita and has 45 private students. She maintains three studios, two of which are in partnership with local music stores—they offer flexibility of raising rates over time but also take a portion of the lesson cost in return for providing the space. “For my private students outside of the music store,” Brown says, “I checked with other local teachers with similar qualifications to myself, found the average price among their rates, and used that as my rate. I try not to increase rates very often—typically reasons I would slightly increase rates for lessons would be earning a higher degree or reaching a milestone teaching year.”

Soprano Danielle Steele is the assistant director of choral activities and a teacher of voice at Earlham College in Richmond, Indiana. She has performed with Des Moines Metro Opera, Indianapolis Opera, Peach State Opera, and Sugar Creek Opera and has sung with numerous symphony orchestras. She bases her pricing on two things: her level of education and the demographic where she is teaching.

“So, as a doctoral student with over a decade of private voice teaching experience, in a major city in the Midwest, serving a more middle- to upper-middle class population, I charge $50 an hour,” Steele explains. “In more rural areas, that can go down to $40 an hour. Sometimes, to make it more appealing in terms of price, I might shorten a lesson to 45 minutes and take the price down to $30. Being flexible with my pricing in this way has allowed me to consistently value myself as a musician but have the broadest appeal in terms of what people in a given area might think of as fair for my services.”

Steele has taught in places where classical voice hasn’t been offered before. “If they’ve never experienced classical voice, at first they can be hesitant to invest,” she says. “Get them to invest by educating them, not by dropping your prices. Devaluing myself by making my prices cheap is something I’ve always been glad I didn’t do.” She often offers a concert in the area that has classical, Broadway, and jazz standard repertoire, allowing potential students to see that classical training allows them to sing in multiple styles.

When it comes to raising prices, Steele adds $5/hour every other or every third year. Of course there are exceptions to that. “In the recession of 2008, I was simply delighted to have students,” she says. “There’s no way I would have raised my prices.”
Mezzo-soprano Maja Lisa FritzHuspen teaches privately in Philadelphia and has performed over 25 roles with companies including Opera Lancaster and ConcertOPERA, Philadelphia. She maintains a voice studio of 30 students. She asked other teachers in the area what they charged and also checked around her area for other services, like personal trainers, and charged similar prices.

“I charge pretty standard for this area,” she says, “keeping in mind some good advice a mentor told me, ‘Do good work at a fair rate,’ which I try to do! I had the same rate for about four years and then I decided to raise my rate by $5 for all new students to my studio. My long-time students I did not charge more.”

Coloratura soprano Kristen Janell Sullivan teaches a 30-student private studio in Lee’s Summit, Missouri. She has performed with local professional theaters for several years and sings with AGO Schola Cantorum. She sought out a few teachers that she knew and respected and asked about their price. “From there I considered my education, continuing education, and the market,” she says. “After six years, I’ve raised my prices for the first time. It’s tricky to navigate, but I’ve continued my education and what I offer my students, plus the cost of living does rise. My raise was $5 per ½-hour lesson and per 1-hour lesson.”

Each of these teachers had different methods of marketing to build their studios. For Sylvester, it was patience and establishing good relationships with other area musicians. “All of my students have come to me by recommendation from other students, area teachers (especially high school chorus teachers), area musicians, parents of students, friends, etc. It’s all been by word of mouth. I have never recruited.”

Sullivan also recommends reaching out to local high school music educators. “If you’re willing to work harder, starting at the middle schools or junior highs is a nice way to build, too,” she says. “At times, I felt the high schools were extremely concentrated with available teachers. I also got my name out there through my performing and making it a part of my bio all over the Kansas City metro area.”

Cantor relied on schools and lesson programs. “I was an undergrad at the time and did not have the time or resources to do any heavy marketing,” she says. “As time passed, I developed a sizable studio as well as greater teaching experience, so it was largely word of mouth that drew students in. In addition, my students perform up to seven recitals a year, including three at Weill Recital Hall. Wonderful student performances and accolades are the best exposure any teacher can receive.”

Brown found it beneficial to teach through a music store. “When fall rolls around, the store is overflowing with students preparing for the school year and wanting to enroll for lessons,” she says. “On top of that, the music stores have a large selection of music available for you and your student to explore new repertoire. For my private students outside of the music stores, it was a slow process to start. I e-mailed the music teachers at the local schools to let them know I had openings in my studio [and included] my contact information and a brief bio.

“Once you have a few students, the best advertisement you have is current student/parent recommendations!” Brown
continues. “Fellow teachers also may not have room in their studios for new students and they will recommend the students to other teachers they know and trust. We help each other out that way!”

FritzHuspen used a lot of online marketing. “I have a voice studio website (separate from my performing site),” she says. “I put my studio on Google Maps—at the time I did this, I was able to list my street corner for safety purposes. I also have a business card, which is basically a mini flyer.”

Steele also used business cards and informational brochures, which she advises that you always carry to leave in strategic local businesses. She took out ads in the local arts circular and called high schools with good music programs and local studios to let them know she was available as a teacher. After her church job on Sundays, she taught students at her church.

“Church jobs not only supply you with a decent amount of income but also provide you with a group of people—your choir!—who want to love and support you,” Steele says. “My church choir was only too happy to send me their nieces and nephews, granddaughters and grandsons for music lessons.” She also notes that you have to be a confident, “shameless self-promoter.”

When it comes to lesson policies and maintaining on-time payment from students, many teachers groan. Being understanding and trusting are important aspects of being a good teacher, but it is also important to be paid, and in a timely fashion. Sylvester admits that she has been lenient with her students. “Up until now I have never had a student or parent sign any agreement or policy,” she says. “There are times when students don’t show for some reason or other, which puts a hole in my schedule. Sometimes life happens and there are emergencies. Then there are times that there is a lame excuse and I am expected to let it slide and not be compensated for the time I wasted waiting on them.”

Brown does have her students sign a contract. “Sometimes people do not understand that this is your livelihood and can take advantage of your kindness,” Brown says. “If you teach lessons through a music store, they will have an overall policy for their lesson program, but you should still have your own on top of the store policy. I have parents and students sign a studio policy contract when they enroll for lessons and I give them a copy of my studio policy. Main points covered in the policy are billing, cancellations/makeup lessons, and ending lessons with two weeks’ required notice.”

Cantor uses a tuition contract that commits students to 18 lessons per semester, biannually. “This is nice because students take their education seriously with consistent training,” she says. “I find that these students progress quickly. All students are asked to sign a policy regarding cancellations—any cancellation made within 24 hours of the lesson must be paid in full.”

Steele keeps contracts on file and available at lessons. “If I ever had a student that was repeatedly delinquent in payment or consistently late to lessons, I would pull it out and review it with them.” She requires payment at the first of the month with a one-week grace period. After two weeks, she adds a $25 late fee; after three, a $50 fee. At four weeks, she suspends lessons until the bill is paid.

“While this might seem a bit draconian,” Steele says, “it works remarkably well. I never had a student remain delinquent, and my relationships always remained positive. Also, because I had my policies in writing from the get-go, I never felt the need to be aggressive in enforcing my policies. It took the stress off. The expectations are set from the beginning. If a student or parent didn’t meet the expectations, I simply had to revisit the signed document with them.”

Policies widely vary from teacher to teacher, and exploring what other teachers in your experience bracket are doing can help determine the best policies for an individual’s studio. Sullivan outlines her studio policy with parents and students and requires a signed contract for financial safety. FritzHuspen has a one-page studio policy that includes a payment policy, practice expectations, illness policy, and 24-hour cancellation policy.

“It helps if you establish a firm location,” Cantor observes. “I know many young teachers will travel to their students. This wastes valuable teaching time and can hinder your ability to pick up new students. I currently run two studio locations, one in Manhasset, New York, and the other in Forest Hills, New York. It took roughly four years to build a solid studio of devoted students.”

Steele is quick to remind prospective teachers about another hazard of teaching voice. “Teaching voice can wreak havoc on your own instrument if you don’t use it intelligently,” she says. Not singing with students and allowing them to develop listening skills by demonstrating warm-ups only once and to listen critically to good recordings is helpful both to the teacher and to the student.

Many of these teachers have also taught another instrument to be more marketable. Sylvester taught piano after completing her music education degree and started teaching voice only after completing her master’s. Brown teaches beginning harp and piano in addition to voice. “Because of offering lessons for different instruments and styles with which I am comfortable teaching, I am more marketable as a teacher,” she says. “I have young beginning piano students from 6 years old to 60-year-old voice students.”

Beyond the administrative tasks, these teachers remain passionate about helping their students succeed. “Teaching is not about my agenda—teaching is about helping the students reach their goals, whether it is to perform a beautiful rendition of ‘Se tu m’ami’ or helping them sing a good ol’ Gershwin tune,” Brown concludes. “If you help a student accomplish their personal goals in music, you have a loyal student, earn their respect, and ensure a lasting love of music for their lifetime.”

If you’re thinking about starting a private studio, reach out to teachers in your area. Like the teachers interviewed here, they are sure to have lots of practical and helpful advice to get you started.

Joanie Brittingham

Joanie Brittingham is a soprano and writer living in New York City. She can be reached at joaniebrittingham@gmail.com. Visit her blog, Cure for the Common Crazy, at commoncrazy.blogspot.com or see her column, Big Apple Sauce, on the arts scene of New York, at the website JuicyHeads.com.