Starting a Studio from Scratch

Are you working at your day job, dreaming of the day when you can make a living with your singing? Do you wish you could make money using the skills you learned as a voice major? As a voice teacher, you can use your musical training to earn a living, helping others achieve their musical goals while growing as a singer and artist.

Help wanted

If you are one of the many singers who continue to study, it can be difficult to see yourself in the role of a teacher. Even after years of study, many singers still feel ill equipped to teach others.

This sentiment is prevalent and maybe even understandable, but the fact is that good voice teachers are in great demand at every level. Many voice teachers out there with very little training are offering vocal instruction.

Desperate vocalists searching for a little vocal assistance hound piano teachers, who often have only a little choral experience. The dearth of qualified voice teachers in most areas means these pianists are able to make a living teaching voice lessons simply by teaching songs. In contrast, most classical singers have music degrees, many years of private voice instruction, and professional performance experience.

Tickling the ivories

Speaking of the piano, what about piano skills in the voice studio? Often, beginning teachers are frightened of teaching voice because their piano skills aren’t up to performance levels. Although it’s always nice to have a voice teacher who can accompany, most singers choose their teachers for their ability to teach technique. All the piano chops in the world are useless if your ears are not finely tuned.

The only piano skill an outstanding vocal teacher needs is the ability to play vocal lines, scales and arpeggios. Great ears and eyes, an inquisitive mind, and good communication skills are much more important. Many accompaniment tapes are available now, and you can bring in accompanists for recitals and other performance opportunities.

Studio space

New voice teachers have several options available for studio space. The primary concern is a piano or other good keyboard and privacy, so many teachers choose to teach out of their homes, either in the living room or another room in their house.

Besides a piano, other important tools include mirrors, a CD/tape player, and room for all of those books! A home studio can offer all these things in one convenient place.

On the downside, working at home can feel isolating, or you may have roommates or family members who are not supportive of your teaching business. Sometimes parking, noise regulations, or zoning issues make a home studio impossible. New voice teachers have many other options, however.

Many new teachers have found success teaching in music stores and schools. Many independent music schools, especially in urban areas, offer private lessons. Music stores often have back rooms available for an hourly rate, with the benefit of regular traffic bringing students to your door. The quality can range widely in both schools and stores, but it is worth checking out, especially for the beginning teacher.

Some store’s music rooms are nothing but glorified closets, often doubling as employee lounges complete with a microwave. Others are full-fledged music centers, with soundproof studios, grand pianos and performance halls! It pays to look around and research the quality and reputation of the stores and schools you plan to solicit.

Some singers have found success teaching voice lessons at public or private high schools that have budgeted money for private instruction. Other schools have programs where teachers can offer lessons during choir or after school. Some teachers teach lessons at their church in addition to their church job. Still more opportunities exist for enterprising teachers to teach private lessons or class voice though community schools or adult education college extension programs.

Getting paid for your services

When you first begin teaching, you may be shy about asking for payment. This is something new teachers must get over. It really helps to have a payment policy in writing that your students sign. The document should include your policy on cancellation, missed lessons, make-ups, and most importantly, when the tuition is due.

Most teachers find it convenient and effective to have students pay for their monthly lessons in advance. Remember, students are paying for the right to have you set aside a time for them in your busy schedule, regardless of whether they show up.

It can be hard for beginning teachers to be this firm at first, but the results are worth the effort. You will gain the respect of your students, you will be setting professional boundaries and standards—and most important, you will be creating a strong financial foundation for your teaching business.

Lesson rates

Private lesson rates vary greatly between different areas of the country. Even the difference between the city and the suburbs can be substantial. Research your target market carefully and set your rates accordingly.

You may be tempted to undercut your competition by offering lessons at a cheap price. Keep in mind that many people associate price with quality, so if your prices are way below the mark, people may question the value of your teaching. Try to set your price within the general price range of the other teachers in your area who have similar training and experience.

If you live in an area with no other voice teachers (lucky you!), research the going rate for instrumental instruction, then charge a little more. Voice teachers are considered something of a rare specialty, and it is understood that the teaching is custom-designed for each student. You deserve to be paid a professional rate for your services!

Finding students

Many trained singers may wish to attract pro-level singers to their studio, but this can take many years to achieve. The typical beginning voice student is usually in high school, but many other non-traditional students may be interested in your services.

Many adults are interested in voice training with a caring, accomplished teacher. The first obvious group is choir members and church singers who would like to improve their solo voices, but many other adult non-traditional students are waiting in the wings. Here are just a few: dancers, actors, lawyers and other public speakers, musicians wishing to pick up singing, school teachers, people who need vocal rehabilitation, and those who are simply drawn to singing as therapy.

If you are open to teaching lessons to non-classical singers, your potential student base expands even more. Many singers in bands would like to find a “vocal coach” to help them get through their gigs without straining or pain. In short, your potential students are just about everywhere!

In the beginning…

So, you’ve found your studio space, and typed up your lesson policies—and now you have your first student. What exactly do you do in a lesson? After years of college-level training, beginning teachers can be at a loss over what to do with their first beginning student.

It can be difficult to remember what it was like before you learned to sing well, because so much of singing is the result of muscle memory. We build our technique over time, so eventually it becomes second nature. Because of this, it is important to break down the fundamentals of singing into easy steps. Most beginners will not even know how to breathe, let alone sing a difficult vocalise. Many are terrified to be singing in front of someone for the first time.

Start easy, building on body awareness and listening skills. It is better to start slow and build over time than to overwhelm the student with too many things to be aware of right off the bat. Slow and steady wins the vocal technique game—and your goal is that of the coach: encouraging and refining.

Use your ears and your eyes, along with your communication skills, to gently retrain the beginning singer into new habits. Many teachers begin with breathing, and then teach vocalises as the student gains greater mastery. Some students will be content with this training alone; others will wish to work on songs. Eventually, you will find that most lessons are spent in exercises and vocalises, such as those in the Vaccai method, along with song study. You can find many excellent resources for beginning singers, such as the excellent Joan Frey Boytim book series, among others.

Strategies for studio success

Depending on the type of area in which you will be teaching, there are different strategies for studio success. Rural areas certainly can be the most difficult places to make a living teaching. Teachers can carve out a niche for themselves in a rural setting, however. The most successful voice teachers in rural areas usually combine voice lessons with other instrumental lessons, such as piano, or perhaps a church job.

Urban voice teachers have many opportunities, but also challenges, since they face the greatest amount of competition with other established teachers. It can seem daunting to jump into such a crowded field—but keep in mind that urban areas include many people who are looking for the right teacher. Cities also are home to many young, urban professionals who have the money and desire to pick up expensive hobbies.

Marketing to these non-traditional students is an effective strategy for new urban teachers trying to find their niche.

Another very effective technique for building a studio fast is to travel out of the city to outlying suburban areas, which may not have voice teachers. Spending a day or two teaching in the suburbs, while you build your city studio, can be very effective, since many people who would like lessons either cannot or will not travel to the city. You will be doing them a great favor by bringing your voice lessons to their town.

The teacher in the suburbs or a medium-sized town probably has the best situation: lots of potential students but not too much competition from other teachers (unless you are in a college town). Each area is unique, so you may need to apply the urban or rural strategy to your situation.

Acquiring students is always the ultimate challenge for the beginning teacher. As you get more established, you will find that word of mouth is your best advertising, but beginning teachers need to get their names out there.

If you are teaching at a music store or school, you will have natural referrals, which are very helpful. You have many other effective ways to reach your potential students, however.

Marketing yourself

Traditional advertising can be an extremely effective way to find new students. Some singers put ads in the Yellow Pages; others purchase advertising in the classifieds. Niche publications that members of your target market read (co-ops’ newsletters, music magazines, and alternative newspapers, for example) will bring your advertising directly to those who may be looking for your services.

In designing ads to attract voice students, it is especially important to present an upbeat and positive message, as many beginning students are very anxious about taking voice lessons.

Creative marketing approaches can find students as well. One effective method is the tear-off poster.

Research the various free bulletin boards in your community. Often, these can be found in supermarkets and some restaurants. Design a poster with a brief bio and teaching information, and with little tear-off sheets featuring your name and contact information. When you hang your poster, always tear off the first sheet, so others will feel similarly inspired to take one.

It is very helpful to design business cards, a letterhead, and a brochure for your teaching business. This is very easy to do with today’s desktop publishing tools, or you can go to a place such as Kinko’s.

A website also can be an excellent tool. It is a great resource for people looking for more information. Your website should be designed well, and you should bring students to your website through search engines. Even without a website, teachers can get listed at various music teacher sites on the Net, such as privatelessons.com.

If you are looking to attract high school-aged students to your studio, it is a good idea to contact the school choir directors in your area. If necessary, look in the phone book, call the schools, and ask for the appropriate information.

When you contact the directors, offer to come to their school free of charge to offer a vocal workshop for their students. This is a guaranteed way to get students, and it provides a nice service to the director. Some of the teachers may be more interested in sharing some of your business cards or posters with their students. Just a few key directors in good schools can bring you many wonderful students over the years. These techniques also work with local churches, community choruses and barbershop groups.

Getting organized

Once you begin making money with your teaching business, you will need some way to keep track of it. Some teachers use the old-fashioned ledger; others prefer to enter income and expenses into a financial management computer program.

Teachers also need systems for keeping track of their students. A card system, notebooks, or monthly student lists are but some of the methods teachers use. Most teachers also rely on some sort of calendar book to schedule lessons and make note of schedule changes.

The tax man cometh

During tax time, you will need to gather up the information you have collected for the year. Regardless of whether you have another job, your teaching income constitutes a business, so you will have to file a Schedule C (the form for profit or loss from a business). The form asks you to total your income from teaching, minus your expenses. Your expenses include but aren’t limited to your studio rental, instruments, equipment (such as stereo systems and recorders), CDs and other educational media, sheet music, car mileage and meals away (if you are commuting to your studio), home office deductions (if you teach at home), musical magazine subscriptions (like Classical Singer) and business promotional materials.

Many teachers do their own taxes, but you may prefer to consult with an accountant to discuss your unique situation.

Associations offer support

Professional associations, such as the National Association of Teachers of Singing, can offer support, education and camaraderie for the beginning teacher. The Music Teachers National Association and the local equivalent also are worth joining, for networking with other music teachers and for meeting potential accompanists.

Other rewards

As your studio grows, you will enjoy watching your students blossom under your loving care. Your studio may even grow to the point where you can put on small concerts and recitals. But the heart of the studio is the one-on-one relationship you create with your students while you are building skills and values that will last a lifetime.

The sweet surprise for most teachers is the discovery that the more we give, the more we receive. Besides the excitement of seeing your students grow, you will find that teaching voice is one of the most powerful things you can do to improve your own singing. By breaking things down, explaining and demonstrating, you will be challenged to rethink your ideas and concepts. You will become a better singer, which in turn will help you inspire and educate your students. The cycle will continue while your circle of influence grows and you touch more lives. And your life will be enriched on many levels beyond your wildest dreams, living your gift of music.

Valerie White Williams

Valerie White Williams is a Seattle-based singer, voice teacher, lecturer, and writer. A featured presenter at the 2005 Classical Singer Convention in New York City, Williams taught classes on “Promoting Your Teaching Studio” and has since then lectured on vocal health and internet marketing for musicians. Visit Williams online at www.valeriewilliams.net to learn more about her singing career and www.vocalsplendor.com for information about her voice studio.