Monday, July 7, 2014

Be a Purposeful Artist

I'm sure we all make a point to check out the excellent bog posts over at Inside the Arts - which means, if you haven' need to now.  Just in case you have been too busy playing Pops Concerts and the 1812 Overture, let me direct you to one I found to be quite excellent: Impressions and Appreciations on Holly Mulcahy's blog.  This post wraps up her series in which she reflects and shares wisdom that young musicians need to know and experienced musicians wish they had ingrained sooner. 

In her post, Mulcahy poses the question of why we have chosen our careers in the arts - specifically music.  I want to take a few minutes to actually answer those questions:

Why does my involvement in music mean anything?

My involvement in music means that I am part of the continuation of a valued and integral aspect of my society's, and generation's, cultural fabric.  I am both preserving and creating within an art form that informs and responds to the dynamic nature of the human experience.

 What am I contributing to society as an artist/musician?

I am contributing my personal passion for music.  This is includes, but is not limited to: the positive affects live music has on a person's development, education, entertainment and cultural awareness.

 Am I sincere with my goals as a musician?


 Is it worth the personal struggle and sacrifice?


 Am I perpetuating the art?

At this point in my career, I feel strongly that, most specifically, my work with the Chinook Winds is expanding the positive perception and scope of wind chamber music and classical music in general. 

 Am I helping sustain it in the minds of society?

More than sustaining, I feel like we are most often introducing the joy of live classical music.  Sadly, we seem unable to sustain the value of music in society because of a generation that now seems to lack a meaningful and positive introduction to it.  Baby steps, we will get to sustaining once we have done our due diligence with proper introductions.

Why am I answering the questions Mulcahy posed?  Because, as she intimates in her post, we need to be purposeful musicians!  I love that she addresses the importance of first impressions and it reminds me of the points I made with my own post about being an effective communicator.  The fact is, we all know how much we enjoy what we do but to expand and progress as artist and professionals, we must address why.

I think it is so easy to get lost in the static of work - get in the practice time, make it to rehearsals, take care of the sustenance of private teaching, buy more concert black - that we miss the big picture of what we are doing, why we are doing it, and who that affects. 

Be a purposeful artist!

I laughed when Mulcahy mentioned vanity plates since I finally have my dream vanity plates.  WHY did I spend money on vanity plates?  Because I want every person who drives up behind me to look at that plate and think about a bassoon, the Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras, and their local symphony.  Why?  So that when they see an advertisement for a symphony concert or chamber music performance, they will think about that plate, maybe chuckle, and then think, "Hmmm, maybe I should check that out.  Maybe I will meet the person who owns those plates.  I bet they are neat people."

Yes, it's that purposeful! 

Be a purposeful artist!

Present yourself and your art in a way that reflects all the training, practice, education, and passion you have invested in it.  Take time to write down your own thoughts about why you are engaged in this work.  It will probably change over the years and that's great, that is part of your progression.  But among the many activities pulling you in too many different directions, always be purposeful and don't get so caught up in the work that you forget the why

Saturday, July 5, 2014

Always the Teacher, Now the Parent

This post is a close follow-on to the thoughts I shared about Recognizing Your Worth as an Artist

Private teaching the past two years has been a frustrating aspect of my work in Montana.  I have pondered many different aspects of being a teacher as I have progressed to understand better how teaching in GTF is going to work for me.  In the midst of this, my son - better late than never - decided he wanted to play cello!  This meant entering a new world: paying for private lessons.

I have been a private instructor for 20 years! 

I began teaching beginner piano lessons when I was 14 years old in order to pay for my lessons and transportation to the Hochstein School of Music in Rochester, New York.  As a 14 year old piano teacher, I wrote and paid for my own advertising, established a studio policy, created my first artist biography, managed a teaching schedule, set lesson fees, designed curriculum, communicated with parents, assessed progress, and finished each year with a studio recital.  Looking back, I think I was better organized then, than I am today!

However, being a parent to a music student is a whole new world! 

I am sad to say, that in only 1 year, I have done every single irritating thing that students have done to me:
  1. Missed payment for lessons
  2. Missed lessons without cancelling
  3. Last minute rescheduling
  4. Last minute cancelling
I can only imagine that my son's teacher has had the same thoughts that I have had as I sit in my studio waiting for a student who is 5 minutes late, 10 minutes late, 15 minutes late, a no-show. 

Being a parent has definitely made me more empathetic to my students and parents. 

The reality is that life is busy!  In a perfect world, our weekly schedules are all exactly the same.  But in my life, my schedule is always different.  This means that I am constantly canceling or rescheduling for my son and my students.  In all of that, it's no wonder that lessons get missed or forgotten.

On the upside, there are a few things I do very well as a parent that I wish more parents would do for their students:

  1. Know what your student needs to practice and ENSURE they get their practice time in.
  2. Sit in the lesson and be aware.
I can overlook missed lessons and missed payments.  What is frustrating as a teacher is feeling like a babysitting service because the parent shows little interest and doesn't follow up week-to-week.  Getting your students to lessons is obviously important, ensuring that your student is actually learning and practicing is far more important.  Too often, parents drop their kid off once a week at a lesson and wait for the studio recital at the end of the semester/year. 

Parents, you are missing out an amazing learning experience with your child!  Studying privately isn't like having a math tutor because your kid is failing math.  Studying privately is the opportunity to watch your child interact with an expert in a discipline that your child has expressed passion for. 

I LOVE attending my son's cello lesson each week.  For a few months, I was even able to play his cello as well as he did.  I love watching my son learn from an expert!  I love watching him learn and then master a new concept or technique.  I love observing another teacher and learning myself how I can help my son and all of my students.

Ensuring that my son practices is sometimes difficult but I have learned to step back and let him work on his own - that's why he has a teacher.  I'm not expected to teach him cello, but I am expected to provide him with the time, space, and tools needed to teach himself in between lessons.  It's wonderful to listen to your child practice and improve day by day.  I don't hear scratchy sounds, I see a child working to learn and improve. 

I obviously believe in the value of private instruction both as a parent and as a musician.  I want to further encourage parents to take a more active role in supporting their child in learning music.  Don't just drop them off while you run errands - go inside!  Even if you can't always be present for every lesson, make a point to attend even occasionally.  If you can sit through a 2-hour athletic practice or game, you can sit through a once-weekly music lesson.  Encourage your student to practice DAILY and provide that by giving them time and space.  Volunteer to take a chore off their hands so they have  an extra 15 minutes to practice.  Have them end their practice session by playing a few lines for the family in the living room.  Learn to become familiar with their progress so you can give positive feedback as you hear them improve. 

I have seen first hand this past year how my son's cello study has brought fun and music into our home and family in a whole new way!  I'm not really concerned with what Morgan does with cello in 20 years but I'm truly grateful for the memories we are making as a family right now surrounding his cello study. 

Recognizing Your Worth as an Artist

I have been traveling out of town for work a lot recently.  It's something that I really love about my work here in Montana.  Symphonies in Montana have organized themselves into a collective called the Montana Association of Symphony Orchestras.  There are 8 ensembles included in the association.  There are aspects of this association that seem to function rather well such as sharing music amongst members - which I know saves $$$ for each organization.  Also, I'm rather fond of the MASO license plate which I have availed myself of this year:

Part of working in Montana includes "importing" to these member organizations as they have need for a bassoonist.  I contract with these orchestras individually and to date have performed with 4 of them.  Outside of my salaried work, though I enjoy playing with MASO member orchestras, I don't make a lot of money playing for these orchestras.  Typically, half of my pay is made in per diem and mileage.  While it's always fun to have a reason to travel to one of Montana's larger cities (which are all quite small) and play good rep with different conductors and musicians, I'm usually lucky to clear a modest honorarium after all expenses are factored in.

When I was asked to import to Glacier Symphony recently, I looked at my calendar and though that it would be lovely to head over to the other side of the mountains for a long weekend but that it would create complications to leave my son at home.  The more I travel in the region, the more I wish I had my son and husband with me.  While my husband has to work, leaving my son home while I go play a few rehearsals and concerts is increasingly impractical.  So I did something I have never done before: I valued myself enough as a musician to ask for accommodations for myself and my son...and I was obliged!  This was really exciting because suddenly, a gig that would have been fun and cleared me a few dollars but would have taken me from my home for 4 days, turned into an adventure that added greater value to the whole trip. 

It was a beautiful long weekend for a trip to northwestern Montana.  My son got to listen to two concerts that he REALLY enjoyed!  We hiked, picnicked, explored, and learned together while I also managed to do some work.  It also set a precedent for me and this orchestra that, should they invite me again, it will be easier to ask for compensation that is valuable TO ME - not just per service pay, per diem, and mileage but a way to include my son and not have to leave him home.

 I have been thinking a lot more about my worth as a musician this year.  THIS article made me resolve to do a better job at valuing my worth as a musician not only for myself but to set a precedent for others musicians.  The area in which I have struggled the most to value myself as a musician is in my private teaching.  Teaching bassoon privately has never been great for me.  I taught beginner piano lessons for many years and found it rather easy to set a price, find as many students as I wanted, and ensure that I was paid.  This has never been the case for bassoon students.

There are many reasons/excuses why teaching bassoon has/is/will always be more complicated:
  1. There simply aren't as many bassoon students
  2. Students are profoundly limited by the instruments made available to them
  3. Purchasing a bassoon is cost prohibitive
  4. Purchasing a DECENT bassoon is cost prohibitive
  5. Students who chose bassoon can't always afford lessons (often, it seems, they can't)
  6. Band directors need a lot of help teaching bassoonists
  7. It's a bizarre instrument

For all these reasons, I have often found myself approaching my teaching more as a public service to the local music community than as a for-profit business model.  While I am well aware of the success of tuition-based and other private studio pay schedules, I have found that they aren't very practical for engaging student bassoonists. 

Let's look at the numbers where I live currently. 

15 elementary schools, 2 elementary bassoon instruments (new this year) = 2 elementary bassoonists
2 middles schools, maybe 5 instruments available combined = typically 4 middle school bassoonists
2 high schools, maybe 8 instruments available = typically 6-8  high school bassoonists

I have 12-14 potential students...but I am not the only teacher in the city. 

Of those potential students, how many can afford to take lessons?

Of those potential students, how many WANT to take lessons?

Of those potential students, how many are hooked up with the other teacher?

Thus I find myself within the predicament that IF a students approaches, I really don't want to turn them down.  My first year in GTF, I offered my services for free to try and drum up students.  This garnered one student.  I offered that student a sliding scale lesson fee.  I describe this in my studio policy as follows:

Parents should establish an amount that is valuable to the student but not a burden to the family.

In my second year teaching privately in GTF, I was given $300 in scholarship money which I offered to two students.  I asked that they simply show up ready to work and well prepared in exchange for the scholarship. 

My hope in allowing so much flexibility with regard to payment was that I would develop students who had a great appreciation for my expertise, the service they were receiving for free or greatly discounted, and in turn, I would have highly motivated students who would inspire me to teach.

The reality is that months of teaching went by and each week I crossed my fingers that students would cancel.

Teaching for free and discounted, in reality, made me dread my teaching days because I felt used.

The fact is, when there is a crisp $20 bill involved, I'm a better teacher.  I feel motivated to work for that student and give them a great hour of inspired bassoon teaching. 

The fact is, when there is a crisp $20 bill involved, the student seems to realize that what they are doing is valuable - to them, their parents, and me - and they should be prepared and ready to work.

I always knew this to be true when I taught piano and I never once gave a single piano lesson away for free.  But because the numbers for bassoon are so small, I thought I needed to devalue myself to ensure access.  What I have learned is that the best thing I can do as a teacher is ALWAYS value myself, my knowledge, my experience and invite students to find a way to share in that. 

Whether we are seeking valuable compensation as a performer or setting up payment structures for our private studios, we must always first establish our own Worth as an Artist.  If we expect others to value our talent and time, we must first value it ourselves.  Sometimes that means establishing a set dollar amount for lessons, sometimes that means asking for accommodations for a family member.   The point is to communicate that your talents, knowledge and experience carries value which is non-negotiable and certainly not free.