Starting a Profitable Music Studio

Many professional musicians find teaching to be personally fulfilling and an important part of their annual income. Sharing your love of music with someone else is incredibly rewarding and a way of giving back for the great teachers who inspired us to follow our own path.

Teaching the content is easy, but I think many of us struggle with the business, marketing, and organizational aspects of being a self-employed private lesson teacher. That’s why I reached out to Andrea Miller, founder of MusicStudioStartup.com, for advice. I’ve learned from reading her posts and think many musicians would benefit from subscribing to her newsletter, whether you are starting a studio for the first time or have been teaching for decades. Here’s our conversation:

Finance For Musicians (FFM): I’ve really enjoyed reading your posts on starting and running a music studio. You’ve got a unique story, please tell us about your background as a musician, piano teacher, and in business. How did this all come together?

Andrea Miller (AM): My interest in entrepreneurship developed long before my interest in music! I was always starting businesses as a kid. I started piano lessons when I was seven and started teaching in high school. That’s also about the time I decided the first business I would start after college would be a music school.

I paid my way through a double-major in Entrepreneurship and Piano Performance by teaching and running a house-painting business. My senior year was an especially busy one. When I wasn’t practicing for my senior recital, I was wrestling with my music school business plan, trying to find a way to make it work without having to go into major debt.

There was always a tension in college between the music and business worlds. The two finally collided when I had to reschedule my senior recital at the last minute because I was invited to compete in a national business plan competition the same weekend.

I launched my music school a few months after graduation and hired my first teacher that same year. Soon we had over 100 students and five teachers in our thriving community. Four years into growing the music school, a move to the East Coast led me to pass the music school off to a new owner and revise my entrepreneurial path.

I opened a home studio in my new town and began consulting for startups and business owners in a variety of industries. In 2016, I decided to bring my entrepreneurial focus back to the music world full-time. Today, I coach ambitious music teachers who want to accomplish big things in their careers!

FFM: Musicians are certainly taught how to be great performers and teachers, but most schools aren’t preparing their students for the business side of music, such as having your own private studio. What do you find are the biggest initial challenges facing someone who wants to start a studio? 

AM: Unfortunately, I think many fantastic teachers start off on an unsustainable path by under-pricing their services. They don’t have a clear picture of their long-term financial goals and responsibilities or are afraid to charge what they need to to make it work.

FFM: A lot of musicians resent the idea that we have to market and “sell” ourselves. As artists, it seems maybe a bit degrading, or at the very least, it’s uncomfortable. How can musicians open themselves up to think more like an entrepreneur and embrace marketing? For creative people, why does this seem so difficult?

AM: I encourage musicians to think about why they’re uncomfortable with marketing.

Afraid of coming across as “salesy?” Look for a promotional style that fits your personality. Timid about putting yourself out there? Make mini goals each week to practice and grow in this area. (It’s kind of like learning a new instrument!)

FFM: If someone is new to a town, what would you suggest for them to get established as quickly as possible? If you are trying to pay your bills, you can’t exactly wait three years to get your studio up and running. 

AM: Set up a website and get involved in your neighborhood. Actively participate in community events and introduce yourself to the local play group organizers and school music teachers.

FFM: As teachers get more students, the administrative tasks outside of lesson time can become quite time consuming, with scheduling, billing, and communicating with parents. I know some teachers get really burned out on this part of being a self-employed teacher. Any suggestions for this, maybe tools or apps that help a teacher save time and be better organized?

AM: I love a good system! Use an automated system for billing so you never have to worry about not getting paid on time because you forgot to send the invoices.

Write canned email responses for new student inquiries so you can respond quickly and don’t waste time writing the same email over and over.

Establish routines for important tasks that you have to do manually (every Saturday morning I spend about 15 minutes processing receipts and doing my bookkeeping).

Schedule time to zoom out from the day-to-day tasks and establish long-term goals (Ex. If the admin side really isn’t your forte, what would it take to hire an assistant or outsource one particularly arduous task?).

FFM: You’ve got a lot of great resources on your website and you also coach people to start, grow, and better manage their studio. Tell me about what you do for your clients and who would benefit the most from your services. What sorts of concerns can you help teachers address and solve?

AM: We cover a lot of topics in coaching, but ultimately I help teachers build financially-viable studios faster. Most teachers don’t realize that running an unsustainable studio when they’re young can have huge long-term costs.

Right now, if a 25 year old teacher decides to max out his Roth IRA this year only, his $5,500 investment will be worth about $82,000 when he retires. If he waits until he’s 30, he loses five years of potential investing and his $5,500 investment is only worth about $59,000 when he retires. If he waits until 35 the value of that $5,500 investment drops to $42,000.

The ramifications of building a sustainable studio early on are huge!

FFM: There’s no substitute for getting an early start on saving, so thank you for pointing out how important that is! What qualities do you think are most important to be a successful lesson teacher?

AM: From a teaching perspective, you have to actually care about the students. If you don’t care about them, they won’t care about what you have to say.

From a business perspective, I think focus is one of the most important qualities. There will always be more things to do than you have time for and you have to be able to look past the distractions to work on the important things.

FFM: Suggested book or resource for studio teachers?

AM: The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg

FFM: I think most teachers have had teachers who inspired them. Would you like to give a shout out to any people who made a big impact on your life?

AM: I’ve had three teachers who each inspired me in different ways. My first teacher taught me how to motivate and inspire students. My second teacher taught me how to foster a love of music in my students. My third teacher taught me how to coach students to reach a higher level of musical mastery. I’m thankful for all of their influences!

FFM: Thanks for your insights! Where can readers connect with you?

AM: Thank you, it’s been a pleasure. My site is MusicStudioStartup.com. I’m on Instagram @musicstudiostartup, Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/musicstudiostartup, and (soon) on the podcast!

How To Be A World Traveler

When asked to describe The Good Life, many musicians include a desire to travel and see the world, often in our top three or four goals. Yet, often we find reasons why it seems impractical or impossible to do so today. My Oberlin roommate, Marty Regan, travels more than anyone I know, and I have always found it fascinating to talk with Marty about how he does it. Here’s my interview with Marty.

SS: We met up in Taos in May and now you are in Tokyo for the summer. Give us a rundown of where you’ve been in the last 12 months.

MR: Last year I was conducting research in Cambridge, UK, and during the summer I traveled to Ireland, Italy, and Iceland. I returned to the USA in late August and have since taken domestic trips to Maine, New York, California, and New Mexico. Over Christmas and New Year’s I traveled in New Zealand for five weeks.

To be a world traveler, a lot of people think you have to be very wealthy. Did you win the lottery or inherit a family fortune? This is all from your college music professor salary?

Yes, it is. However, I am single with no children, have no debt and lead a simple lifestyle in an area with a relatively low cost of living, so I have dispensable income to spend as I wish.

What do you enjoy most about travel? What have you learned from other cultures? 

As a composer, I have always been fascinated with the relationship between life experiences (including travel!) and artistic expression. If a writer, artist, or composer experiences a cathartic moment when doing something significant like cycling through the Netherlands when the tulips are in full bloom or witnessing an architectural masterpiece like the Pantheon in Rome, how are those experiences manifested when they begin their next work? For writers and visual artists, it seems to me that the relationship is often quite direct. For example, a writer could attempt in prose to capture the details of a particular scene or space, while an artist could be inspired to render the scene realistically or perhaps more abstractly in a painting. In either case, one could argue that the resultant work was directly inspired by the experience. For a composer however, this relationship is a bit more slippery. For me, musical “inspiration” often involves finding myself in a new and unfamiliar environments and allowing myself to be stimulated by the experiences that await me.

I strongly suggest reading Pico Iyer’s article Why We Travel.

I think many people – myself included – could work from anywhere in the world, as long as we have internet. How has travel impacted your work?

As long as I have my computer or iPad with me, I can conduct most of my work remotely. Travel has not negatively impacted my work in anyway.

You’ve obviously figured out how to travel on a budget, because you spend weeks or months in some of the most expensive cities in the world. I imagine that hotels in these cities can cost $500 a night and up. How do you make this work?

Well, I am very lucky in that I have a network friends and colleagues all over the world. I sometimes plan trips where friends of mine reside, not for the promise of free accommodation, but because of the companionship and benefit of having a local teach you about their city. If I travel to a place where I do no know anyone, then I find other ways to keep costs low by living like a local. I rarely stay in hotels.

Let’s talk more about lodging. Where do you stay? How do you find places? 

When I stay in a place for a long period of time, Airbnb is my preferred accommodation option. VRBO is also dependable. Some cities I have used Airbnb for extended visits include London, Rome, Paris, Prague, Helsinki, Shanghai, and Seoul, among others.

Outside of lodging, any advice for saving money on transportation, food, and entertainment while you are travelling?

I don’t purchase plane tickets until I have spent time exploring the market for a while and I am confident that I am getting a fair price. I try to stick to the Star Alliance network and pay with my United Chase Plus credit card because purchases add up really quickly that can redeemed for free flights. I always try to stay somewhere with access to a basic kitchen so that I can buy food at local groceries to save on meal expenses. As far as entertainment is concerned, I rarely book in advance but rather show up the day of the performance (symphony orchestra concerts, ballet, theater, etc.) and inquire about last minute rush tickets. Often I am given tickets for free by patrons who can’t use them and have left them at the box office. This happened recently for a performance of Götterdämmerung at the Houston Grand Opera. I was prepared to pay $150+ for a good seat!

You rent your house in College Station through Airbnb. How has that helped you with your travel?

I started renting my house on Airbnb in 2011. Basically, I use the rental income that I receive from Airbnb to pay for expenses that I incur when I travel. At the moment, I am currently residing in Tokyo for 2+ months, but rental income from my home covers my rental expenses here. Here is a link to my home.

Who is a good candidate for Airbnb? If someone is thinking of making their house available, what should they know? 

A good candidate for Airbnb would include a person who can appreciate the unique quirks that you might encounter when living in someone’s home. If you are hoping for a cookie-cutter Hyatt or Hilton experience, then Airbnb is not for you. If you are thinking of making your house available, be aware that fielding questions from guests can sometimes take a lot of time! Create a profile in which answers to the most commonly-asked questions are available. Have a system in which guests can check in and check out without you being there, such as having a lock box on the door or installing a keyless entry system. Consider providing amenities that will make their stay memorable. In my case, I usually leave a snack and fruit basket along with fresh-squeezed orange juice. I also leave a hand-written welcome letter as well as a guest book where I request that guests leave their comments.

Do you set a daily or weekly budget for when you travel?

I have never planned daily or weekly budgets!

Favorite travel memory?

Taking a snowmobile tour in Iceland to the top of a glacier in August for my birthday to view a filming location for the Secret Life of Walter Mitty.

Best place to visit that has a surprising value?

Czech Republic.

Many thanks, Marty, and safe travels! See you in Texas in the Fall.

Originally from Long Island, New York, Marty Regan is an Associate Professor at Texas A&M University and lives in Bryan-College Station. He is a composer who specializes in composing music for traditional Japanese instruments. Marty graduated from Oberlin College, lived in Tokyo for 6+ years, and received a Ph.D. from the University of Hawaii, Manoa.
martyregan.com

Orchestra Substitute Etiquette

I have been principal trombone of a regional orchestra for the past 15 years. During that time, I’ve seen a lot of substitutes who we wanted to hire again, and unfortunately, a number who we did not want to have back. Sometimes, that’s because of poor technique, but too often, we simply didn’t enjoy working with that individual. This may seem ridiculous to talk about conservatory graduates not being invited back to sub with a part-time group, but there are so many good players out there. Are you someone who we would want to have back?

If you’re trying to make a living as free-lancer, your income depends on people wanting to hire you next time they need a sub. Here are my top 7 tips for substitute etiquette, along with actual events which have occurred. Don’t be that player who makes us say “never again!”.

  1. Be responsible. A few years ago, we had a tuba sub who showed up 20 minutes late to the first rehearsal. At the second rehearsal, he left at the break, not realizing we were not yet done! At the first concert, he forgot his music at home, sending our poor librarian into a panic to locate and print parts. Is this someone you would want to have back? Does it even matter how he played? Be early, and make sure you have a pencil and any mutes or equipment you might need.
  2. Prepare your music in advance. Do not sight read on a gig, you will stick out! At one “movie score” program, the conductor emailed the orchestra in advance encouraging us to look at specific sections of a very difficult score by Dimitri Tiomkin. At the first rehearsal, he must have noticed that the other trombones had not picked up their folders. After the orchestra tuned, he immediately asked the trombone section to play a difficult sixteenth-note passage alone. It did not go well and we spent the first 10 minutes of that rehearsal having a trombone sectional, while the rest of the orchestra sat there and listened. Say what you will about the conductor’s behavior, it was a humiliating moment which may have been lessened or avoided if my colleagues had practiced their music. Sections play together for years. When you are a sub, you need to focus 100% of your attention on fitting into the section, not learning notes. Learn your music before the rehearsal, if you want to be called back to sub again. Myself, the bass trombone and tuba have played together for 15 years. If it is out of tune or not together, it is probably the sub on second.
  3. Don’t be a distraction. Be still when you play. Do not move or fiddle with anything before or during a colleague’s solo. You will probably see members of the orchestra playing with their phones during rests, and think it is okay to do this. I would keep your phone put away. You risk missing an entrance or not hearing what a conductor is saying. Similarly, you may hear others carrying on conversations during rehearsal. Again, as a sub, I would not. It’s not the time to talk about sports, politics, or equipment. You may unknowingly be distracting and irritating those around you who are trying to concentrate on the music. It may seem hypocritical to not also criticize the other musicians for this behavior, but they already have the gig and are respected colleagues. You are a sub and should be on your best behavior. Please do not turn around and look at players behind you.
  4. Be a great second player. In school, most studies are focused on audition excerpts or principal parts. Most calls for subs will be to play second. There is an art to being a great second player, and it is not the same as being a principal player. Blend. Do not play louder than the principal. Follow. Do not lead from the second or third chair. Listen to the principal for dynamics, style, phrasing, note lengths, and releases. Adjust to make the principal sound good. Be flexible, even if you heard it, learned it, or prefer it another way. Do not play too loudly. Do not let notes “hang over”. Be open to feedback and be willing to adjust. Why do I have to write this? Because I hear these problems all the time in groups. If I have to say something to a sub, they’re not listening to my playing.
  5. What not to play. Before the rehearsal or during breaks, please do not practice excerpts, concerti, or passages from other player’s parts. If you are there early, don’t be that player who is practicing on stage while the harp is tuning or the oboes are working on their reeds. If you are a brass player, bring a practice mute and the musicians in front of you will be much happier.
  6. Don’t complain. In many orchestras, there are the resident curmudgeons who are always unhappy. Even if they air their gripes, it is not appropriate for subs to complain about the music, the hall, the conductor, or other conditions. Those complaints may be valid, but sharing those thoughts creates a negative environment. If I say my dog is fat and stupid, that’s okay. If you say my dog is fat and stupid, it is an insult. Subs who complain come across as ungrateful and arrogant. Negativity can feed on itself and become a downward spiral. Have an attitude of appreciation. Or as my mom always said, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all!”
  7. Be positive. Several years ago, we played Bolero on our season opener. I spent all summer staying in shape, knowing that for our first week back, I had a heavy program that ended with one of the best known trombone solos. We had a sub on second, who literally did not say one word to me about the solo all week. It went well, and it would have been appropriate to say “nice job” or something resembling a compliment. I don’t need this for my vanity, it’s simply being a supportive colleague. By the third performance, it just felt awkward that he didn’t say anything. We want to be around people who are positive, who appreciate having the opportunity to make music together, and who support each other. Life’s too short to spend it working with people who are downers. If you want to be asked back as a sub, it doesn’t hurt to be a friendly colleague who people want to be around.

As a sub, you may not realize that it can be very stressful on a section to have a different person playing. We play together for years and develop an unspoken way of blending, tuning, and approaching different styles of music. When a sub comes in, that all goes out the window. It can be very unsettling. Like it or not, people don’t enjoy having subs. You are an unknown, a risk, someone who could make their section look bad in front of their colleagues and conductor. There is not a lot of upside to having a sub play for a week. Think about how you can use these seven tips to put them at ease and lower their anxiety.

As a free-lancer, I have had a chance to sub with a fair number of orchestras over the years. I am very grateful to those who invite me to play again. But sometimes I think I played well, and still never get a call back. I think about subs in my orchestra who have not gotten called back, and the reasons why. I am sure I have probably broken every one of these seven tips at one time or another. Mea culpa. Hopefully, I can continue to grow as a person and improve as a musician!

Remember that you never get a second chance to make a first impression. Imagine yourself as a member of the orchestra and ask whether you would want to have yourself back. Be prepared, be professional, be polite, and be positive.