Over the last few months, I've received numerous emails from CPB readers worried about their job prospects and on the lookout for ways to gain entry into various freelance markets as they finish grad programs. What took me years to realize in my own career and what I now recommend to anyone working as a freelance pianist, is that teaching piano, whether privately or at an institution, can be a lucrative line of work and can help you move forward as an artist and teacher.
Following is a list of what teaching piano can bring to a pianist clever enough to balance both collaborative playing with teaching. One note of warning: this balancing act involves figuring out how to reconcile the freelance collaborative pianist's unpredictable schedule with the piano teacher's fixed and reliable calendar. It ain't easy, but there are plenty of rewards that come with developing a piano studio. Here's why:
1. A reliable schedule. In the freelance world, either you're too busy or not busy enough. Collaborative work can be notoriously seasonal - that breakneck February through April recital season can easily decline into the tiniest trickle of gigs by July. Having a regular studio can even out your work-year so that slow times won't be reason to consider becoming a barrista.
2. A reliable income. As the amount of work goes, so goes the income. I've found that a steady stream of income from teaching is much more reliable financially than having boom or bust pay cycles from pure freelancing.
3. Experience in dealing with personalities. Collaborative pianists must be adroit in navigating the extensive varieties of people in any professional situation. The skills gleaned from these experiences can be put to good use in piano teaching, where one must often walk a fine line in dealing with students and parents. From the time spent working in accompanying graduate assistantships, smart collaborative pianists tend to have these skills pre-learned even before they embark on their teaching careers.
4. Experience in dealing with publications. In the rehearsal process, it is imperative to have the experience and knowledge to know the quality of one publication over another. Should one use Peters or Baerenreiter for Schubert Lied? Henle or Schirmer for Brahms Violin Sonatas? This firsthand knowledge of publication quality can determine the final musical product, and has many parallels in piano teaching, where reading a student's attributes can determine which type of piano method to use for a beginner.
5. Time spent observing pedagogical methods in the studio. Over the years, collaborative pianists have spent more time than anyone observing teachers, their methods, successes, failures, and mannerisms. Hundreds, sometimes thousands of hours spent in teaching studios as staff accompanists have not only given these pianists a large repertoire, but an almost encyclopedic knowledge of how teachers teach, what works, and what doesn't. This time in the trenches can be put to use once pianists start up their own studios, and without the trial-and-error period often experienced by novice piano teachers.
6. Time spent working in depth with a musician's development. I've had countless gigs where I've been brought in to do a few rehearsals and a concert, get paid, and then move on to the next engagement. It's hard to observe the joys and agonies of long-term development that come with teaching or collaborating with another musician over a period of years. After many seasons of freelancing, I was missing out on the pleasure of watching artists develop, since I was doing mostly one-off gigs. Now that I have a growing piano studio, watching young pianists develop has strongly informed the way I work in collaborative settings.
7. Increased respect in the musical community. I can understand if people are angered by this point, but my experience is clear: one has more respect as a teacher of piano and collaborative artist than they would as a player-only collaborative artist. After all the gains that have been made in the profession, it's hard to explain why there is still this sense of prejudice against pianists who play with others for a living, but it's there. On the other hand, if you're known as a teacher of piano who also collaborates, it may in large part alleviate the perceived also-ran status of collaborators in many musical communities.
8. Increased opportunities in the musical community. With a reputation as a piano teacher, it is possible to get work as an adjudicator, clinician, and examiner with much more ease than if one is only a fine collaborative artist. And with these opportunities come not only increased income but the possibility for even further breadth of work and professional development.
9. The opportunity to become an artist/teacher of piano. One of the most highly sought-after positions in schools of music is that of the Artist/Teacher of Piano, where a well-known pianist is able to combine an active performing career with the teaching of a carefully selected group of students. Most pianists that obtain these positions are soloists. However, if you're a freelancing collaborator, you can readily combine the two as a private teacher, and the biggest gainers in this respect are your students. One of the greatest assets a piano teacher can ever bring to their studio is the wealth of experience gleaned over the years from active performing. This is exactly the type of modeling that a young pianist needs in order to become inspired...
10. The opportunity to train collaborative pianists. There are plenty of degree programs in collaborative piano, but who will light the spark in younger pianists that may eventually lead them to pursue these programs in the first place? A recent comment by a tenured university professor states that in the US there is a dire shortage of home-grown collaborative pianists at the graduate level (since many programs import their students from Canada, Europe, or Asia). To put it bluntly: unless professional collaborative pianists teach developing pianists their skills, the fine art of collaborative piano will eventually die. Specifically, I mean teenage pianists and younger, who need to be shown that it is a pleasure, an honor, and a lot of fun to be able to work with other musicians. We have to show them that.
As always, your comments are welcome.