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The recession-resistant studio, Part II

According to follow-up reports from Music Teachers National Association members, the impact of the economic crisis on piano studios continues to be related to similar criteria reported in January 2009. A survey was prepared and conducted by graduate students Gulimina Mahamuti and Erika Kinser under the guidance of Dr. Robert Weirich and Dr. Diane Petrella at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. Results of this survey were reported at the MTNA National Conference in March, 2009, and in the September/October issue of Clavier Companion. 

In that issue, Ms. Mahamuti was joined by Brian Chung, Senior Vice President of Kawai America Corporation and chair of the MTNA Foundation Fund Development Committee. They suggested steps teachers can take to safeguard their studios' financial viability. In this issue, Kathryn Koscho from SUNY Potsdam offers the perspective and advice of a pedagogy teacher and piano teacher working in a small town. You'll also find a letter from Alison Barr with her thoughts about Part I of this article, with a response from Brian Chung. 

Teachers not currently experiencing negative effects of the economic downturn in their own studios may feel tempted, or even pressured, into providing significantly reduced tuition for students. However, this is a potentially dangerous solution that can cause a ripple effect of other issues. How can we address this not-so-new dilemma? 


Even if your own situation is currently stable, as teachers we must remember that we are not impervious to potential financial crises down the road. Although not every solution is practical or even possible for every student or teacher, several strategies are available when financial problems for students may jeopardize piano lesson enrollment. Consider these options that can avoid negatively impacting our bottom line and help us stay focused on the value of arts education:

Investigate grants and scholarships for performing arts study. Although grant monies are certainly more elusive when charitable giving is impacted by an economic downturn, funds are still available for music students. Check with your teacher associations and local arts council for specific opportunities that are less connected to short-term financial fluctuations, such as endowed funds.

Exchange services. Suggest that a parent or older student assist with filing, organizing, making copies, scheduling, and other studio-related tasks in exchange for partial tuition payment. Some teachers report parents offering special services from their own careers. One teacher provided lessons for a child whose parent is a personal chef: "Every Wednesday, my student's parent arrives with a gourmet meal prepared for my entire family, and even sets the table!" Teachers have also reported parents willing to run errands or tutor the teacher's children (or even the teacher) in a foreign language - anything that the teacher may value, but have either limited resources (time or money) to afford otherwise. 

There are many services that a family may be able to offer in return for tuition consideration. For teachers whose schedules are overburdened, these hours could translate into openings for additional students. The "exchange rate" for services should be based on the average rate for office management services or the rate the parent would ordinarily charge clients for their services in your local area. A word of advice for anyone considering any type of bartering or co-op system: To avoid disappointments or building resentments, make a clear agreement and commitment to an "exchange rate" for services. Be sure to keep a contemporaneous accounting system. Note: The IRS requires reporting bartering of services or products on Form l099-B. 

Offer flexible payment options. Many piano teachers collect tuition through quarterly, trimester, semester, or annual payment plans. Consider introducing a variety of options with smaller installments, such as monthly or every two weeks. This option can be offered as a short-term plan with a time limit tied to a concrete event, such as a parent becoming employed again, a change in bank interest rates, or the removal of the government COLA (cost-of-living adjustment) freeze. 

Offer temporary deferred payment. Although allowing students to accrue debts certainly can be risky, offering some temporary payment flexibility to a family with a proven track record can mean the difference that allows a student to continue lessons. 

Encourage advanced students to serve as student assistants in the studio. Students can serve as mentors, computer lab monitors, practice assistants, or student teachers. They could help organize and publish recital programs, prepare festival entries, or plan other large studio events. Any of these services can be accepted in exchange for partial tuition coverage. 

Suggest advanced students seek music employment opportunities. Community music schools, private studios, and churches frequently seek student accompanists for lessons, classes, and choirs. Sheet music stores value student employees who are knowledgeable enough to assist customers with purchases. Encourage students to generate a resume or CV, demo CD, and cover letter. Remind students to keep these materials current so they are prepared for any opportunity. 

Consider supplemental music career employment. Some piano teachers have found part-time employment with a sheet music store or publishing company to be a satisfying and exciting option for supplemental income, continuing education, and networking with professional colleagues and potential students. 

We must take steps to safeguard our livelihood, but along the way we should take care to also protect our philosophical ideals and our artistic and educational integrity. We have gained much ground in recent years educating the public about the value of a musical education. As we work to retain all of our students, we must ensure that we do not lessen the public's perception of what studying music is really worth. 

Considering creative options to assist students and our studios can help us avoid succumbing to those who, sadly, may try to take advantage of the economic crisis. A teacher in Maryland complained bitterly about feeling cheated after providing sharply reduced tuition rates to a family "in need": "This student's parents refused to enroll their daughter for hourly piano lessons, even though she really needed the time to prepare for events that they wanted to include on her college applications. Of course, they claimed they couldn't afford the tuition. I started burning an ulcer when the sixteen-year-old student waltzed into the studio one day, swinging keys to a brand-new car her parents had bought for her birthday! If I had directed them to apply for the grant that was announced in our newsletter, their true financial situation would have been revealed, and they wouldn't have been in a position to take advantage of me."

The good news

Is there any good news? Many have been concerned about what the economic downturn will do to students and teachers pursuing future careers in music. A professor at a leading conservatory confided last winter: "It will be interesting to see what happens at the next round of auditions. Frankly, I can understand parents sitting around the dinner table being, more than ever, concerned about shelling out more than $100,000 for a college education that may not prepare their child for a very secure financial future." 

Not surprisingly, college education is being pursued in record numbers throughout the country. What is perhaps surprising is that many arts department representatives are reporting that applications have not suffered. And, arts departments are actually leading enrollment growth in some schools. At the community college in Maryland where I teach, Fall, 2009 enrollment is up about 12% over last year. Performing Arts enrollment is up 15% at our school, and music enrollment leads with a 22% increase! The arts are indeed an inalienable part of the human spirit, and perhaps their values and benefits are recognized well enough to transcend dollars and cents.

In the first installment of this article, the results of the teacher survey implied that professional development may be an important component of improving teachers' financial footing in uncertain economic times. The MTNA National Certification program reports that applications for July and August are up 100% over the same time period in 2008.

Being willing to explore strategies that are working for other teachers and developing some creative approaches of your own can help to ensure a safer financial future through and beyond our economic crisis, as well as continued emphasis on the value of arts education. 

Staying afloat through economic downturns

by Kathryn Koscho

Economic downturns can be frightening for all workers, but they are especially scary for small business owners. As independent music teachers, we may feel particularly vulnerable to negative economic trends. What if our students' families no longer can afford piano lessons? What if they decide that music study is an extra expense that can be eliminated in an effort to be more frugal? How will we make ends meet if this happens? 

When and how this current economic tide affects our livelihoods likely will be different for each of us, depending upon factors such as studio location, clientele, and even pure luck. Being no financial expert, I cannot offer advice on what will make everyone's situation better in a poor economy. However, I can share my own experiences and speculate on what I see happening in my area. I can also share the advice I give to my pedagogy students for being prepared in any economic climate. 

I live in a small, rural community in northern New York, an area of the state affectionately known as The North Country. We have little local industry, and the recent housing bubble never did have much effect on our area. Like most parts of the country, our local independent music teachers vary in years of experience, education, and tuition rates. 

Many of our local teachers have felt little to no effect in their studios from the recent economic downturn. There are, however, isolated instances of students needing to postpone lessons or payment for a while, or of prospective students reacting negatively to tuition rates. In reality, this is no diffeent than any other year of teaching since these situations can arise even in the best of times. However, since my community is a bit off the beaten path, many of us are wondering if the financial crisis that began last year has yet to trickle down to our rural area. We are wondering if these isolated financial problems will grow in number and frequency as the recession drags on. If these problems do grow, how should we respond? What can we do now to prepare ourselves and our studios'

Many factors affecting our studios are out of our control, such as the job stability of our customers, our local real estate market, and the viability of industries in our cities. Still, there are factors that we can control that might help ease or manage the burden. As a pedagogy teacher, I encourage my students to develop these strategies in order to make their current and future businesses viable. 


Do your piano families truly understand the value of your service? Do they have a sense of how their children are progressing? Sometimes families can hear the day- to-day struggles of music study at home, but they are not able to see the overall improvement their children are making. They might not see piano study as a successful endeavor, and they may be tempted to eliminate it from their budget, especially in rocky economic times. 

These problems are compounded by the fact that ours is a specialized field. Consider that much of what we teach might be lost on someone who is not a trained musician. Are parents aware of subtle changes in tone, dynamics, and interpretation? Do they appreciate the gradual development of very refined techniques and motor skills? Do they grasp the complexity of theoretical concepts? Do parents have realistic expectations for advancement in piano study and do they understand how long it can take to master an instrument?

Utilizing regular written and/or oral progress reports for students can help parents understand what we aim to accomplish in lessons. When parents see exactly what is improving and what still needs refining, what they hear during home practice starts to make more sense. It is possible that they may come to better appreciate the value of music lessons when they comprehend what we strive for and what type of progress to expect. 

Self-evaluation and improvement

It never hurts to re-evaluate our teaching to ensure we are providing the best possible service to our students. Are we staying current with what is new in the field? Are our lessons engaging and inspiring?

Continuing education and professional activities help us stay fresh in our teaching. By reading articles in magazines and online, participating in blogs, and seeking out teaching presentations at local music stores and colleges, we can learn new ways of thinking that will refuel our teaching. Also, participating in local, state, and national music teaching organizations allows for both formal and informal communication with colleagues. When I talk to fellow piano teachers, I always learn something that improves my teaching. It is such a joy to have this continual source of renewal! I think my students can sense and absorb my enthusiasm about piano and teaching, and improved lessons are the natural outgrowth of this revitalized excitement. 

Maintaining ties with fellow teachers not only furnishes avenues of rejuvenation and learning; it also provides valuable networking that can reap future benefits. Perhaps other teachers in the area have full studios and are willing to share prospective students. 


Many of us go through stages when our studios are not full. While this can feel unsettling, it might also lead us to explore new employment opportunities. Now might be a good time to accept more accompanying gigs for high school students, schools, local organizations, or area college students. Perhaps you have always wanted to explore more ways to work during school hours, such as offering pre-school classes or adult classes. An economic downturn may be the perfect setting for pursuit of new areas and interests that might not be considered in "normal" times.

Many economic factors are out of our control; those of us bearing stress or hardship from this recession might feel overwhelmed and helpless. Still, if necessity is the mother of invention, then perhaps any adversity we are facing now will lead us down new paths that will improve our teaching and strengthen our studios. In turn, our studios will be better equipped to remain viable through all types of economic situations.

Kathryn Koscho, NCTM, directs the undergraduate and graduate programs in piano pedagogy and teaches keyboard skills courses at The Crane School of Music SUNY Potsdam. She serves as Co-Director othe biannual Crane Piano Pedagogy Conference, which runs in conjunction with the Julia Crane International Piano Competition, and she is the current Vice-President for Membership othe New York State Music Teachers Association. Dr. Koscho regularly collaborates with Crane colleagues and guest artists. She holds degrees from the University of Oklahoma, the University oKansas, and the University oNebraska-Lincoln. 

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November/December 2009


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