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Private Piano Teaching: A Hobby or Profession?

More swept under the rug issues related to piano teaching… hush hush.. Don’t tread on sacred ground. Would I dare to blog about a Piano World post that bemoaned the plight of private piano teachers as hobbyists– not hard-working, dedicated professionals. I might agree with some but not all of what I read on the Forum, but could I straddle both sides, and sit in a gray middle area? I didn’t think so.

Dozing off on Amtrak 712, journeying from the Bay area to Fresno, I was already thinking about my next blog. Perhaps it was too soon to get controversial–to stray from the information highway. “A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!” had been a Word Press shocker but it hit home like a ton of bricks. Secret, middle of the night thank you’s from piano teachers around the country found their way to the Comments section with a promise not to publish. Many of these teachers felt ragged out, unappreciated, and in some cases abused. Some drafted their own Codes of Behavior that copied my own.

By the same token, I had also heard from colleagues who regaled the profession and never felt more applauded for their efforts. They were Ego Syntonic–at peace with their students and the musical environment they had nurtured over years, if not decades.

So there. Two sides of the same coin–one just as valid as the other.

But back to the “hobby” vs. “profession” issue.

For many of us, our activity was home based, which could breed informality. Might it be better to teach in a community college or university that set aside cubicles named for us, with fancy bulletin boards attached, validating our professional status?

Swishing down the hallways of the Fresno State Music Building at MTAC Celebration Festival time, I couldn’t help but feel envious of music instructors who were on contract, had paid vacation, sick leave, and decent pensions. Such perks spelled RESPECT–and you could kick in the reality of prepaid registrations and tuition that made student absences a moot point.

We private teachers wouldn’t enjoy anything approaching. We sometimes lived on the edge.

I thought about situations in my studio and those of others, that had more than a sniff of taking our services for granted, but being exceptions to the rule, we weren’t ready to raise up the white flag of surrender. It was mostly a joyful, unencumbered journey.

In my case, a few adult students had become my “friends” over a period of years, making it harder for me to abide by my professional studio policies. And ultimately, it came out in the wash, when one or two wanted to vanish for a few months, and come back fresh and easy. Not like the supermarket with all the good stuff. These pupils wanted to disappear mid-year without a trace of themselves for far too long to make any real musical “progress.” And they would return on their own clock not having thought about payment for their stretches of absence. More informality about attendance, an issue that I should have addressed more decisively when I formulated my Policy statement at the very start. (Please, everyone, sign on the dotted line)

I was beginning to agree with the Piano World Poster when he suggested that some teachers were acting in such a permissive way as to undermine the “profession.” He kicked in the fee issue as well, saying that those of us who under-charged fueled his “hobby” assertion.

How could I respond without implicating myself. Well, for one thing, not all hobbies were to be taken with a grain of salt. If a hobby was pursued with passion and intensity, why invalidate it?

Now what would most psychologists say about my response? It definitely skirted the issue—I was using plain old denial.

If a “hobby” was an unpaid activity, Mr. Piano World poster was probably right ON THE MONEY, saying that we “professionals” were being short changed. (pun intended) And it was due to our ENABLING nature.

But the fee issue was something many of us could argue about. The economy dictated more than a grain of flexibility in these hard times. Not every piano teacher could charge what they felt they were worth given inflation, gas prices and rest. If we did, we might be without a profession or hobby to boot.

So where would we go from here to resolve the Great Debate?

I had learned my lesson the hard way–making mistakes I had to amend, but I objected to any Internet Forum poster blaming his colleagues for perceptions that were not easy to change in the universe of students and parents. None of us could be Atlas shouldering the world’s burdens.

Maybe, in the last analysis, we needed some kind of arbitration machinery, or better yet, a union with collective bargaining rights. But that could never happen because we were independent contractors.

So for now, I would be comfortable with my “professional” identity, knowing that a few individuals might test limits and boundaries. In that event, I would take it one situation at a time and not generalize about a whole population of students.

Most psychologists would validate my mantra, saying that what counted most was how we felt about ourselves. No one could in reality take away our professional identity unless we allowed it.

A Piano Teacher’s Worst Nightmare!

Pulls and Tugs: Two sides of the student/teacher piano lesson relationship

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