Why the most motivated and inspired musicians teach – and how to find teaching work

Posted on 27 Feb 2014 |

Gareth Dylan Smith

If you’re a musician, you want to make music. You need to make music. You also need to pay the rent (and buy, say, guitars). Often it’s hard to earn a living from just playing or writing music, and it’s much, much harder to get by on just the music you want to write or play. Even the best-paying jobs in music performance (famous orchestras, West End shows) don’t always pay especially well, and earnings there are not a patch on what people with far less dedication to their art and craft can earn in the public or private sectors doing much more sensible (read ‘much less fun’) things than music. This is partly why many musicians also teach music – a 2012 study found that 60% of professional musicians in the UK earn part of their income from teaching. It can be very rewarding.

Teaching music, as any engagement with this most magical art form, can – and should – get emotional. After all, if music didn’t move us, why would we bother with it? Teaching is truly exciting if (when – it’s inevitable) you work with pupils who devour information and develop technical expertise with alacrity, and who push you to think differently and work harder. Engaging pupils of varying ages with a broad spectrum of interests and motivations, with different circumstances and anxieties, makes teaching an exhausting and fulfilling occupation. Teaching is intense, if you do it right. It requires you to be energetic, inspirational, empathic and humble. Plus, you get to work with some of the zaniest, weirdest, coolest, most creative and excitable people around. If a kid is interested enough in the trombone/drum kit/nose flute/zither to make their parents buy one, chances are you’re on to a winner!

One of the cool things about teaching is that it is a highly creative activity. It provides a great income stream for motivated, inspiring musicians; it’s a terrible idea if you’re lazy, stubborn, or think others should be able to learn music through osmosis, simply by being in your awesome presence for half an hour a week (which would also be nice). Some teachers complain about how pupils ‘don’t listen’ or ‘don’t get it’; while this is sometimes the case, the burden of responsibility lies mainly with the teacher: if you’re in a one-to-one lesson, and little or no learning is taking place, it’s not really fair to assume that the pupil (the one without the musical and pedagogical expertise) is to blame!

Most local authorities in England provide a music teaching service that farms music teachers out to schools. It is often easier, though, to find work as an instrumental or vocal teacher if you go directly to a school’s Head of Music, as there is less politics involved this way for her/him. This is especially the case for private schools, which have no access to state-funded music service provision. Alternatively, you can teach from your own studio/back room, or visit pupils’ homes. You can typically charge between £25 and £50 per hour for lessons in the UK. As a guide, consider what driving instructors and lawyers charge, decide whereabouts on the spectrum of human needs ‘cello and flute lessons fall, check out what’s competitive in your area, and let your conscience be your guide.

Whether you’re working as a solo agent or for a school or local authority, there is always likely to be an ebb-and-flow to the number of pupils you see. This is, as with most self-employed work, a double-edged sword, because it gives you, at different times of the year, both more work than you want or can reasonably handle, and far too little. The flip-side of this is that you can end up with quite a lot of time for creative projects, and that students (and their parents/school teachers) are likely to be forgiving when you have a run of festival gigs across Europe and can’t make a week’s teaching.

The possibilities for teaching music, as with making it, are pretty boundless. You could set up a summer rock camp, start a local community choir, organize hip-hop workshops, or convene a ceilidh collective. Let your imagination run wild! Put in the effort, and teaching will be its own reward.

Gareth Dylan Smith is based in London, England. He drums in punk, musical theatre, pop, and alt. rock bands. He writes for Rhythm magazineDrDrumsBlog, and for academic publications including The Grove Dictionary of American Music and Psychology of Music. Gareth’s book I Drum, Therefore I Am: Being and becoming a drummer, was published in 2013.

Do you teach music? What do you think people starting out as teachers need to know? We'd love to hear your thoughts!