It’s become something of a cliché to say that the life of a piano teacher is a terribly isolated one, implying we have little or no meaningful contact with colleagues, operating entirely off our own steam, without support.
And perhaps in the age of the lockdown, the sense of isolation becomes more acute than ever. We are all suffering, but we are not alone. You are not alone.
In this article I am going to consider from a personal perspective why I don’t personally feel isolated as a piano teacher, and offer some useful tips for those who do, along with practical suggestions for networking and accessing support from colleagues.
Spending Time with People
Let’s get started by considering those who we spend time with on a regular professional basis: our students and their immediate networks.
At present in my studio there are between 50-60 of them. Many are children and young people who are accompanied by parents and perhaps siblings. Overall, I have regular contact with nearly 100 people a month, right here in my own studio and/or online.
But we’re essentially speaking of clients here, which means the relationship is in part a commercial one, attended by particular codes of conduct. So maybe these people don’t count?
Actually, I think they do. Sure, when it comes to conveying my knowledge and experience of piano playing to students, I am delivering a paid-for service. But outside of that time, my students represent a significant network of people whose expertise I might draw on, whether informally or as a client.
A simple real-world example is my former student Sam Ficek, who recently wrote a brilliant article for Pianodao about SEO for piano teachers. Sam is an expert on all-things-internet, and when I needed help setting up my business website I was happy to employ his services. Another helped me formulate my GDPR policy. While a third has done electrical work here.
I have adult students, and parents of students, who can offer professional support in all sorts of ways. Running a piano teaching business takes a lot more than musical and teaching skill – it takes business management, accounting knowledge, marketing strategy, computer literacy, and a whole lot more.
Among those 100 people I regularly connect with, there’s plenty of strong relationships, good will, and a willingness to help out and exchange skills and information. It would be tragic to overlook that.
And of course, these are people that I spend time with. So I am not isolated by any means!
The World of Colleagues
But perhaps the concern is that as piano teachers we “work alone”, without any accountability to other colleagues?
Let me be straight about this: I love running my own business!
I have previously worked for schools and for the local Music Service, as well as in the recording industry and (many years ago!) retail. Working with others has many wonderful benefits, but ultimately I would rather have professional autonomy than find myself working for a “bean-counter”, or in an environment where professional rivalry and dreaded office-politics cause anguish.
But it would be daft to suggest that I don’t have regular and meaningful contact with an array of fellow piano teachers. And I do this on multiple fronts.
None are exclusive arrangements; any piano teacher can access all (or at least most) of the following, should they just choose to do so:
Big events for teachers are great; they happen all over the world in a variety of formats, from trade shows to smaller professional development days and local training sessions.
Here in the UK the most high-profile are the Music Education Expo shows which usually take place over two days in London in early Spring, and one day in Manchester in the Autumn. Although you’ll need to take a day off teaching and factor in the cost of transport, these days are completely free to attend. They provide multiple training sessions as well as a unique opportunity to chat with representatives from all the major music education businesses, publishers, exam boards, etc.
And while such conferences are in abeyance due to current health restrictions, many of those who usually deliver conference and training opportunities are doing so online. For those in the UK, the Piano Network UK page on Facebook offers a great way to find out about the latest online courses and webinars.
Best of all, they are chance to get out and meet like-minded teachers, to network and form relationships which can then be continued over the phone or internet the rest of the year.
2: Residential Weekends and Holidays
In addition to conferences such as those listed above, growing numbers of pianists and teachers here in the UK are enjoying the many residential weekends, summer schools and piano holidays that are now available.
For those interested, my good friend and fellow blogger Frances Wilson, aka The Cross-Eyed Pianist, has written in depth on this topic and provides an excellent and comprehensive round-up of what’s available on her page here.
3: Professional Associations
Joining a professional association provides much more than just insurance cover and a logo to add to your letterhead. A professional association is a network of like-minded professionals with whom you can engage on many fronts, from joining in with local events to running them!
Here in the UK, the ISM, MU and EPTA are perhaps the three most useful for us in this respect, and in some cases even provide regional meet up groups for teachers.
And this isn’t just a UK thing. EPTA have organised groups in many countries (including beyond Europe), while other countries often have their own associations for teachers, such as the NFMC and MTNA in the USA.
4: Local events and connections
As well as professional association meetings in your region, there are loads of other ways to network with other musicians and teachers in our more immediate locale, often without paying out a penny.
Take a deep breath and consider:
- Attending local concerts and live music;
- Starting or attending a local adult piano group/club;
- Joining a choir, orchestra, band, or chamber group;
- Contacting a local education provider to find out about music education and community initiatives you could get involved with;
- Reaching out to build professional and musical bridges with local schools, colleges, churches and community organisations;
- Getting involved with the local music festival, if there is one.
And of course, socially, we can meet all sorts of interesting people beyond music events, whether by joining a golf club, bee-keeping association, gym or zumba class!
Wherever we go, there’s a chance of meeting great people, taking an interest in their lives, and discovering the rewards that come from engaging with others in a meaningful and mutually supportive way.
But we can’t just wait for those people and groups to come to us; we must reach out.
5: Phone Calls and FaceTime
Beyond those who live locally, I’ve found it extremely helpful to have a few “phone buddies” who are, like me, private instrumental teachers, and with whom I have an established connection.
Such friendships. at their best, can offer a genuine lifeline, and a chance to talk in confidence with an appropriate colleague about both professional and personal issues.
6: Websites and Social Networks
The online world is one that some piano teachers will want to embrace with more enthusiasm than others; the fact you are reading this means you are already engaging online, but to what extent is this helping you feel less isolated?
Websites, forums and piano groups on Facebook and other social sites can certainly be a fertile source of new ideas and materials. However, the drama than can occur online, together with the prevalence of spurious advice and self-promotion, can be off-putting to say the least!
In a recent feature on this subject, US pedagogy journal Clavier Companion surveyed Facebook groups incognito, concluding that the benefits of participation increase in some of the smaller, more intimate groups which maintain a clear focus.
It is this suggestion, among other things, which underpins the creation of my own online club, the Pianodao Tea Room. This is essentially a supportive community where membership numbers will remain capped so as to maintain the lovely atmosphere that has quickly been established.
Find out how you can join here.
7: Finding a Mentor
What about those teachers looking for a yet more personal relationship with an experienced teacher who can provide specific one-to-one support?
The question of how to find a suitable mentor is an important one, which I have recently addressed in detail here. Please have a read!
A More Positive Outlook
Considering all of the above, it seems unsafe to conclude that piano teachers are professionally isolated. Unless we deliberately choose to be, we aren’t.
However, those of us who work alone need to make efforts to build a support network, both professional and personal, so that even as our work thrives, so too does our mental health, social and emotional wellbeing.
If you are feeling isolated in your work, I therefore sincerely hope that among the many suggestions in this article you will be able to identify one or two which you can act on.