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Starting a studio: What, where, and how?

Teachers sometimes find themselves in the position of establishing or re- establishing a studio. Perhaps they have just graduated from a college or uni- versity with a degree in music; perhaps they have recently moved to a new location; or perhaps they don't feel that their studio is as successful as they wish it to be and would like to rethink their approach. In this arti- Cle two relatively new teachers have taken

two different paths to find the "best fit" for them. Mo ni ca Allen began teaching in a music school situation, but found that she preferred a home studio. Jessica Mellott started with a home studio, but due to relo- cating, found that a music school fit her needs as a teacher. Over the course of my professional life I have taught at both, sometimes concurrently! What would work best for you? 

Establishing a home studio

 by Monica Allen 

One of my life goals is to boost profes- sionalism in the field of Piano Peda- gogy. I have already started this lofty ideal within both my business and teacher organizations in my area. I am
excited to explain how I started

a studio, share the challenges and successes face d along the way, and to hopefully inspire others to create their own ideal teaching situation. 

Monica Allen and her students after a recent studio recital.

 ​Beginnings 

My first piano teaching job evolved from a conversation with a non-traditional student at my undergraduate university. Once she learned out about my music major, he wondered if I could come to her house and teach piano to her two children. I visited their home weekly, taught 30- minute lessons to each child, and was paid in cash. I built a student base through referrals and placement on a music department teaching list. In those early teaching experiences, my professionalism lacked concrete business practices such as studio policies roper insurance, and a marketing plan. Regardless, I continued in-home lessons as an undergraduate and learned a lot about piano methods and teaching in the process.

After graduation, I spent one year teaching piano lessons for the Community Education division of my university. Their office handled all the scheduling and business details. At that time I also worked as a Retail and Marketing Intern in a non-music industry, so I was building experience in both teaching and business. The next year, I entered graduate school to further study Piano Performance and Pedagogy. The internships and assistantships, including private lessons and group classes for pre-college and college-aged students, were invaluable.

After graduate school, I entered a teaching position at a very large, urban community music school. The school has an inspi- rational mission statement and touches the lives of thousands of music students each year. I received full benefits in this faculty position by maintaining a very large teaching load. There were paid faculty recital opportunities, in which I performed and collaborated. Many faculty members found their dream career at that school.

It was exciting and educational to be a part of that organization for two years, but it was not quite the right fit for my teaching and professional goals. I had other interests in music organization work and networking with independent teacher . Four out of five teaching days, I taught in an elementary school classroom in a suburban access site and did not have a dedicated studio space where I could utilize a computer, my music library, or other teaching aids during lessons. I had a strong desire for my own studio space and equipment and a smaller teaching load so I could teach to my fullest potential and offer quality lessons to each and every student. This led to my resignation and efforts to open my own studio. 

Lauren and Amanda play theory games in the MKA Music Studio.

Starting a studio

In September 2007, I opened MKA Music Studio in the lower level of my home. My husband and I purchased our first home with a studio in mind. We decided a split level home was the best option so students could enter through the front door and go downstairs to the business area. I was very fortunate to have the opportunity to choose this set-up. I encourage established teachers to evaluate their current set-up. Is the space and atmosphere conducive to learning and making music? Are all the necessary mate- rials and supplies available in the studio?

We live in a thriving suburban area so there is a good student pool and interest in quality music instruction. Areas with young families and good school systems are ideal for building music studios of school-aged children. Marketing a new studio to adults and recreational music makers is also an option.

My independent piano studio includes private lessons, group lesson components, and performance opportunities. I establish my own schedule, studio policies, tuition and fees charts, and business plan. By sharing my knowledge and passion for music, I hope my students become lifelong music consumers and appreciators, well-rounded musicians, and better members of society through non-musical benefits..

​How to begin 

I think a music teacher needs to do back- ground research, formulate a good business plan, and find a support network in order to open a studio. I checked with the city's zon- ing office to see if our house could have a business and what rules were in place for an in-home business. At the state level, I filed a Certificate of Assumed Name to register my business name and location. Still in progress are other self-employment issues including health insurance and IRA plans. 

I enjoyed developing my studio policies and a fair tuition and fees schedule. Some students from my previous teaching position chose to join my studio, and I built enrollment by adding family members of current students, offering quality lessons that spread by word of mouth, and placing my name on the Minnesota Music Teachers Association's (MMTA) website. To fully equip the studio, I transferred personal items to the business including a desk and computer, digital piano, my music library and music reference books, and some office sup- plies. I believe that high quality lessons are best offered on a high quality instrument so I secured a loan for a one-year-old grand piano. My second favorite purchase was an all-in-one print/copy/scan/fax machine. Bookkeeping software organizes my invoices, income, and expenses each month.

As for a support network, there are a lot of great music teacher colleagues and friends in my area. One educator had me envision and notate my ideal studio. This activity served as the turning point towards opening my own business. Another teacher friend referred her accountant and gave me a tutorial on book- keeping software, both very helpful. Meeting other teachers may lead to student referrals, musical collaborations, and socialization out- side of a business. Colleagues can share resources like piano tuners, gig locations, and local music stores. Established teachers also know arts events, student performance opportunities, and many teaching tools and tips. Networking with other teachers is an invaluable resource! 

Nick at the piano in the MKA Music Studio

 Meeting the challenges

The challenges faced since opening my studio all involve time management. I am highly committed to positions in teacher organizations and struggle to balance unpaid volunteer work with my career and studio. I find it challenging to make time to socialize with other teachers outside of teacher meetings. As a freelance accompanist and pianist, I schedule gigs around my teaching schedule when possible. It takes time to keep learning, practicing, and performing music. Continuing education is avail- able to teachers in my area through college classes, certificate pro- grams, teacher meetings, conventions, and piano study. Currently, I utilize teacher meetings and conventions as a way to gain and share information. Enjoying the successes

My higher education, teacher training, and previous music experiences have molded me into a strong piano teacher. I treat each student as an individual and provide the best possible music education to each client. I have good studio policies that help me run my business and I work to keep open communication with my piano families. The biggest success is that my students enjoy the studio, music education, and their performances. In keeping with my goal to boost professionalism in the field, I enjoy giving presentations to teacher groups and adjudicating student events. I hold leadership positions in state and local music organizations and work with Conventions as a way to help teachers continue to grow in their own studios.

Looking ahead

My love for teaching and music keeps me excited about my work. One new goal is to complete the Music Teachers National Association's (MTNA) Assessment Tools for the Independent Music Teacher, a teacher's evaluation resource. This will help to address on-going challenges and successes in the studio. I will continue evolving both within and outside of my business. Since piano teachers never retire, MKA Music Studio should be open for 50 more glorious years!

The following websites provide excellent resources for independent music teachers and business owners:

• Music Teachers National Association (www.mtna.org)

• MTNA Professional Certification (www.mtnacertification.org)

• SCORE "Counselors to America's Small Business" (www.score.org) 

Joining a non-profit organization

by Jessica Mellott

There are many options available to a private teacher who is ready to undertake a career teaching in a stu- dio setting. For instance, one can choose to act as the sole proprietor, work for a nOI1- profit organization, or obtain a position at a commercial studio. I would like to share my experience having chosen to work for a non- profit school after teaching independently for several years, and discuss the benefits I discovered to be associated with that choice.

A new direction

Like many of the changes that occur in one's life in these dynamic times, my deci- sion to alter my career was associated with relocation. Because I was to start from scratch in an entirely new area, I decided to take stock of what I wanted to retain about my private teaching experience up to that point and to examine those aspects I found less satisfying. Also, the complete alteration of my environment had an impact on the options available to me and the possible outcomes of my decision. 

Moving to rural Vermont from a large Midwestern city was certainly a welcome change. However, with a more widely dispersed population, new challenges presented themselves, making me uncertain about how to build a successful piano studio on my own. Furthermore, living far from a city with a major arts center could have made it difficult to converse with others in the field. As a newcomer, I desired support from colleagues who were familiar with the unique culture of rural life and the particulars of teaching piano there. It had also been my experience that word of mouth is very important when starting a studio and I was, of course, unknown in the area. These were some initial reasons that helped me make the decision to work under the nonprofit organization, The Vermont Independent School of the Arts (VTISA).

Jessica Mellot with her student Eloise.

The Advantages

I have since discovered that there are many advantages to working for an Arts Organization. T his particular school started as a small grass roots organization that has grown to support many artistic areas including, but not limited to: piano, wood- winds, strings, voice, steel drums, dance, and even bagpipes! The founders are native Vermonters who love their community and want to offer opportunities for creative out- lets and instruction to community members. They are constantly expanding their programining as well as offering such diverse workshops as tai chi, photography, calligraphy, and acting classes. Like many other areas of the country, most of the public schools in the area have cut or drastically reduced their arts programming. In response to this VTISA has been working with the local public schools to provide instruction through outreach programs. In my own personal experience, I was fortunate enough to mentor a local high school student on his senior project of documenting his progress in learning to play the piano over the course of a school year. VTISA also provides scholarships to students who need assistance for their private lesson tuition. This is particularly exciting since it can be difficult as a private teacher to assist need-based students while ensuring one's own security and level of financial comfort.

Lydia practices at the Wmnont Independent School of the Arts (VTISA).

The facilities

This organization is fortunate to have acquired a building large enough to support group recitals. The entire second floor of the school is devoted to concerts, related rehearsals, ensemble practice space, and private events. Recently the school was able to raise enough money through public donations and state grants to install an elevator, making the space handicap accessible. This is a real advantage to working under a nonprofit organization, since it would be difficult as a sole proprietor to ake such essential though costly additions to a property. At VTISA members of the community join together with the instructors and the school's board of trustees to enjoy the biannual recital nights, where friends, families, and all others are welcome to enjoy an eclectic program that is truly inspiring. It is a wonderful experience for the students to be surrounded by so many different instrumentalists and styles of music. Many students have had the opportunity at some of the recitals to explore duet or ensemble performance. The space is also used as a concert hall, bringing local and traveling artists to this small town, and offering good exposure for the students and the school as well. Additionally, the space has been utilized for a "cafe night," offering a creative outlet for interested young people in the area. One of my piano students often participates in this "cafe night" where she accompanies a friend who performs as a vocalist.

Personal pluses

As a member of the school, I welcome the freedom from schedu ling and billing students. This allows me to devote more of my time and energy to instruction. Another plus is having a representative to speak on my behalf regarding my credentials as a teacher and professional musician. In addition, it is always a relief to have someone else to strictly enforce the make-up policy when unexcused missed lessons are in question. In my experience working under a nonprofit brings higher pay to the instructors as opposed to working for a company that needs to turn a profit. Also, the founders have established a great website which incl udes pictures and bios of all their teachers. This has been very helpful not only in attracting new students but also in giving me exposure that leads to other professional performing opportunities.

Due to heavy public involvement and support, the school attracts many nontraditional students. This is evident in the huge interest shown by adults and beginning high school students for private and group lessons. In my own studio I have enjoyed a large number of older students over the years. It is great to be surrounded by such a diverse, creative, and passionate group of budding artists.

A great experience

I feel that my decision to operate my studio under a nonprofit organization has proved to be a positive and enriching one. I have enjoyed being surrounded by many helpful and supportive colleagues and the feeling of being part of a close and cooperative community. It is my hope that this article will offer an alternative perspective to those who are interested in a less conventional option than teaching in an independent studio, and perhaps even entice others to undertake beginning a nonprofit arts organization in their own area. 

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