No Teacher is Worth $200

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            The longer you find yourself in the world of classical violin, you will start to notice how expensive keeping up with everything can be. The most glaringly obvious part is instruments and their upkeep (an issue that could use its own bit of commentary). Also costly, and arguably more necessary, is upkeep of one’s own education.

            As you move beyond your local (likely Suzuki) teacher, and realize you want to pursue music seriously, the search for a high-level teacher begins. Unless your local Suzuki program was already overpriced, when you start searching for a new teacher you are going to find the lessons fees rise dramatically, often doubling. Now, this isn’t to be completely unexpected. The type person you are tracking down is likely an accomplished performer with years of knowledge and understanding of, not only your instrument, but the business of the music world. They can potentially provide guidance as you navigate through the wild world of classical music, with its politics, nepotism – trying to figure out who to know and exactly who you should talk to and what paths you should take. I say potentially, as there is no guarantee your new teacher will provide this mentorship. The unfortunate truth is you so often are attracted by and paying for a teacher’s personal qualifications, none of which NECESSARILY are going to translate into being the best teacher for you.

            While this isn’t the primary purpose of this article, I do think that it is important to point out the rather weak utility of “official qualifications”. A person receiving degrees from Curtis and Juilliard and then winning a spot on an artistic management company’s roster has very little bearing on how good of a teacher he will be. Yet such a person can, and so often does, charge very high fees for their lessons. How can it be said you’re paying for anything but their personal achievements as a performer, which may or may not translate into teaching ability? I know, personally, very successful performers who charge $200-$300 per hour. Despite their impeccable resumes and connections, I sadly have to say they are not worth these fees. I state that I “have to say” as this isn’t common enough knowledge. If young people weren’t being convinced this was worth it then they wouldn’t pay, and these people would be forced to reduce their fees. This isn’t to say that these people are necessarily bad teachers though, again, you are likely paying this much because of their success as a performer, not a teacher. My point is that no one is worth $200 an hour to teach violin.  

            Charging this much for a lesson, which then must be repeated every week for months or years, is a predatory way to go about teaching your instrument. It’s an attempt to take another profession with very high hourly fees, consulting, and merge it with the educational process, which is much more long term by its nature.

            Now, someone who is a very successful consultant can charge hundreds of dollars for an hour of their time. A cousin of mine is a business consultant who charges $200 an hour, and I know of others who have gotten as high as $600. Businesses, however, can justify paying this because, A.) they are working solely to maximize their profits and therefore is worth it if the consulting pays off, and B.) they are likely to only be working with this person for a short, set period of time. If your business is in a fix and you need someone to work out the kinks, you might put down the necessary funds so everything runs smoothly again. Violin playing cannot and does not work on this principle.

            Violin teaching is to be viewed from the structure of general education. Per hour, it is certainly not as lucrative. (Also, I would like to point out that the teachers charging $200+ an hour are so often much less involved than the consultant charging that much. Just a point I thought that I’d make.) A general educator cannot charge as much, hourly, for his services because the service is, by its very nature, going to last for a very long time. You have the advantage of a client that will be paying you for many, many years. You also are importing information and guidance that will take many years to develop, so the amount you are being paid based on the return on investment is probably about equal to consultant in terms of total money put out by the client. The consultant gets more money for his hourly rate as he gets faster results. Unfortunately, violin teaching doesn’t allow us to work at this speed. I suppose if someone does figure out how to consistently achieve the same results in a few months as most others do in a few years, they could logically charge $200. But this person doesn’t likely exist, so back to reality. Another thing about violin teaching is that you aren’t there to fix a problem, often why a consultant is called. You are there to help your students grow and develop properly. It would be ludicrous to expect anyone to pay what amounts to consulting fees for that service, yet students are often pushed into this. (Also, I would like to point out that the teachers charging $200+ an hour are so often much less involved than the consultant charging that much. Just a point I thought that I’d make.)

            A big part of this is the constantly inflating, artificially sustained house of cards that is our university system. It is often remarked of the useless degrees for which students constantly accrue debt, leading to a life of the proverbial over-educated barista. One might even be tempted to ask why Universities offer such economically nonviable programs at so high a tuition. The answer lies in the nightmare of our student loan system. Student loans granted to impressionable American youngsters are in part subsidized by the government and are not dischargeable through bankruptcy. There is no way the banks aren’t going to get their money back, so they distribute these student loans like the CIA distributes crack-cocaine (allegedly). If student loans, like any other loan, weren’t artificially supported, they’d have to follow normal economic rules. No financial institution would loan to someone entering a degree program with a low chance of repayment. This would, in turn, force the schools to decide which programs they will keep open and how much they can charge. The sudden availability of more money (through student loans) is one of the main factors in dramatic escalation of tuition. Once schools saw more and more money was available, they started charging more for tuition. Music schools were certainly no exception.

            This explosion in tuition also meant that there was a significant increase in what teachers would be paid. The schools also needed to attract big names to keep the students (and their loan money) flowing, so they focused on hiring successful performers regardless of their abilities as teachers. If those performers, who likely don’t have too vested an interest in teaching but took the job for the perceived financial stability, took their salary and extrapolated to what they should charge per hour, that is how you get the insane prices many of these folks charge. It’s a completely inorganic system.

            So, what can you do? First off would be to refuse to pay past a certain price point for lesson fees. I hold that no one is worth $200 an hour. There just isn’t $200 worth of insight anyone can give you that couldn’t be achieved by someone who charges $150 or even $100. But you decide your cut-off point. And if one of these teachers discovers you, flatters your playing, and then tries to convince you that you need to come work with them (and pay their fee) because in the long run it will be totally worth it, smile nicely, get away as soon as you can, and then shake the dust off your feet from where you both stood. For those uninitiated who wonder if this really happens, please let me assure you: Yes, it most certainly does. Be wise, walk away.

            A second, and perhaps most important, thing to do is avoid the conservatory system entirely. The modern music school has, in so many ways, truly lost its way. So many institutions coasting on the momentum of their previous success and reputation, and now offer very little in actual preparation for success in the real world. You can avoid this by just refusing to participate. This is not to say don’t study music, of course not! But to take it your own way. What I now suggest (some have already started) is to find a teacher you think is best for you and then work with them privately. You don’t need the trappings and structure of an institution to successfully educate yourself. You need to learn more about theory? Put your work into self-study or check out some online lectures. I’m certain there are programs online that will give you dictation samples so you can practice your ear training. The same goes for music history. You can take care of your orchestral experience by playing in a local per-service orchestra (something you were likely going to do for $$ sake) and organizing chamber music on your own might be keeping closer to its true spirit. This method of education could open up the development of a truly organic school in an older sense of the word: a communion of artists constantly seeking to explore and better themselves in their art. The best part is it might only cost you the lesson fees of the teacher, which would still be less than ten grand a year even if they charge $200 a lesson. I see this model as the future of music education. I plan to be on its front lines. I hope you will meet me there.