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. 


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