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Professional Versus Amateur Music Teachers; or Low Tuition Fees and How to Raise Them

[An Essay delivered before the New York State Music Teachers’ Association, at Utica, July 2d, 1891.]
While teachers should be free to charge such prices for instruction as they think best, nothing but harm can come to the profession and musical public from the extremely low rates prevailing in some communities. No person can afford the cost of a good musical education, and then teach at from fifteen to twenty-five cents an hour, as is done in some communities. The cost of a musical education in nerves, time, study, money, and labor, is great. In fact, to prepare a young person for first-class music teaching costs as much as does a college and professional training that would fit the student for the best work in any other profession. Then, again, it takes that period of life which is called formative, and if these valuable years are taken for preparation in a given line, it is scarcely possible for a person to begin life over again, as it were, by trying to prepare for another profession or business. Again, if the money-cost of a good musical education were invested, the interest would be no small item toward one’s living; or, if the money could be used as capital, it would be enough to start a young man in a mercantile business.
From a musical magazine we clip the following:— The struggle for a livelihood in certain localities in England must be something desperate. A music teacher there inserts an advertisement in the local papers, that her services may be engaged for two dollars and fifty cents per quarter, ‘distance no object.’ Another desires pupils at the moderate price of twelve cents per lesson. Then a lady who has studied several years in Germany with a distinguished teacher, from whom she holds high testimonials, will give hour-lessons, two per week, for the sum of five dollars a quarter. This is illustration sufficient to show the American teacher that England is no El Dorado for musicians. The only safeguard against this kind of thing in our own country is for each teacher to become more and more competent. Knowledge begets confidence, and confidence in one’s own ability will permit no such humiliating prices as above quoted.”
One of the last editorials by the late Dr. Carl Merz, in Brainard’s Musical World, contains this appeal to music-teachers: “Women complain constantly because there is a discrimination made against them on the point of wages, yet it is our observation that far too many ladies in the ranks of the musical profession are guilty of lowering the prices to secure pupils, and in order to protect themselves against their musical superiors. Our women’s rights advocates find fault with factories, with government, with school boards and institutions of learning, because they, as a rule, pay lower wages to women than to men. We think they are right in asserting that if the work is as well done, the pay ought to be the same, whether the work be done by women or men. But let these reformers look into our profession and see how ladies often deliberately cut down prices where no one forces them or obliges them to do so. There is no schedule of prices discriminating against ladies; the male portion of the profession have no advantage over them in fixing prices, but neither have they any protection. Do ladies mean to intimate, by the prices they charge, that their work is of a correspondingly lower grade? Of course not. Still they cut down the prices until it is difficult for them as well as for men to get a living.
“Teachers, we appeal to you to have more self-respect, to value your labor higher and to love your profession better. Do not selfishly cut down prices, caring not what is to become of the next generation of teachers. If you love the Art you teach, if you regard the profession to which you belong, then keep up its reputation and standing, not only by doing honest work, not only by self-improvement, but by sustaining reasonable prices for your professional labors. If others are proud to call themselves lawyers, doctors, or ministers, we would entreat you also to be proud to call yourselves teachers of music; and if lawyers, doctors and preachers value their labors and set a good price thereon, it is an example worthy of your imitation. If all teachers would show proper professional pride or self-respect, our condition would soon improve. But there is the rub, that so many teachers lack professional pride and self-respect, because in their hearts they feel themselves to be mere parasites, mere shams and pretenders. It is the result of all evil, that the innocent must suffer with the guilty. So good music-teachers must suffer for the shortcomings of the poor ones, and this condition of things must continue so long as there are poor teachers.”
The public needs better teachers, but good teachers cannot work at the price above quoted. As is truly maintained in the above quotation, any teacher who gives lessons at such low rates, not only injures himself or herself and fellow teachers, but is doing a worse injury to the cause of music. Furthermore, intelligent people can have only a low estimate of any teacher who thinks so little of his or her own ability as to give instruction at such meagre prices, and what excuse has any person to advertise his own incompetency?
The educational, moral and æsthetical value of music is so great, that our Art needs to be elevated in every community by the work of teachers who are thoroughly prepared and can be called fine musicians, rather than by the too common class of amateur teachers, who may fitly be called mere dabblers. It is only by superior teaching from thoroughly competent and brainy musicians that music can be placed on its true plane, and be made to work out its destined mission.
Let us take a look at what a good teacher must have in the way of preparation, aside from his musical and a general literary education. He must have instruments of the best; scores of volumes of classical music for reference and study, the most of which he must be able to play, as well as hundreds of pieces by the best modern and standard writers. He of necessity must have a library devoted to his Art, and all musical books are extremely expensive, costing from two to four times as much as books of equal size upon general topics. He must take some of the leading musical papers and magazines. Then there is the attendance upon State and National Association meetings with the accompanying expense. The progressive teacher feels the necessity of coming in contact with the leading musicians of our country, therefore he will attend the Summer Schools of Music. And he must hear first-class concerts, and if he lives in a provincial town this takes him to a city; all of which entails expense of time and money.
In nearly all kinds of business one can work the whole year, while the musician has only nine months of productive activity, since our American people break up their homes during the Summer, and though a teacher wished, he could not teach from the middle of June till September.
Unfortunately many pupils are careless in regard to missing lessons, and while the teacher should charge for all such, he generally is too tender-hearted to do so, and this amounts to a very serious annual loss to him.
In a mechanical pursuit a man can work ten hours a day and still keep up health and strength, but it is impossible for a music teacher to do so. There is no vocation that makes greater demands upon the nervous system, because music is an Art and the teacher must judge everything from an ideal and perfect standard, and when one listens intently, or seeks with special endeavor to impress an ideal upon another, it is like doing anything else with all one’s might; it is particularly exhaustive to the nervous system. In short, when we do anything with all our power there is resulting prostration, whether the exertion be mental or physical.
The long vacations are expensive, and as they are imposed upon the teacher by his patrons, he must charge them tuition fees large enough to offset this un- remunerative period of the year. Rightly or wrongly, patrons expect a teacher to appear in as good style as themselves, and to be always willing and ready to give his services to any benevolent or pet project in which they may be interested, and not infrequently he is expected to open his purse to demands of charity at their suggestion.
The teachers who give lessons at the paltry prices above quoted are usually young misses, who are living at home at no expense to themselves, and teach simply for a little spending money, and not being thoroughly prepared for a life-long competition in the profession, and in no sense capable of doing good work, they seek to obtain and retain pupils by teaching at low rates—rates which defy competition on the part of good teachers. On the other hand, teachers who have spent so much of their time and money in preparing themselves for first-class work, often have others besides themselves dependent upon their labor. This being true, the amateur teacher has no moral right to cut prices, and deprive those dependent upon their own efforts of the public patronage rightfully belonging to them. To offer to teach at a cut price is equivalent to announcing one’s own inferiority to one’s competitors.
The old maxim, “Competition is the life of trade,” belongs to music teaching as well as other business. But there should be a just basis for competition, and that basic is not cut prices, but superior work. Then competition will bring in a class of teachers who are better prepared, and are true musicians in the best sense of the term, as well as good teachers, and it will all end in the survival of the fittest. The age has passed when a person unfit for anything else was turned loose upon the community as a music teacher. It is beginning to be recognized that it takes as good a quality of brains and as much of them to become a successful musician, as a good physician or lawyer.
The thoroughly prepared teacher who knows he has a comprehensive knowledge of the theory and science of his Art, and that he is doing good teaching, will have too much self-respect to compete with the amateurs upon one of the lines which they universally adopt for obtaining a class; that is, personal canvass. Teachers of this grade do not hesitate to importune friends and strangers, and pursue a child from the time it can toddle until it can be inveigled into taking lessons from them; nor are they unwilling to use any amount of flattery upon the mothers to accomplish their unworthy purpose, and in many instances practically force their useless services upon their patrons.
The teacher of music not only requires the manual dexterity of the organist, pianist, violinist, etc., but also constant study, for the Art of music is so rapidly developing that a teacher who was abreast of the times ten years ago, would, without study, find himself far behind at the present day. It can well be seen that a teacher could not use up his strength in teaching a sufficient number of pupils at these low prices to make a respectable living, and also keep up a daily practice together with the necessary course of reading and study demanded by first-class teaching.
This shows how utterly impossible it is for a good teacher to compete with cut prices brought about by too much amateur teaching. The old proverb has it that “The little foxes spoil the vines,” and in this particular case we can say it is the incompetent amateur teachers of the dabbling class who spoil the vines of the musical profession.
The musical public needs enlightenment upon these points. They should have a better appreciation of the value of music, and know why an amateur teacher is not capable of doing even passably good work, for there is a great gulf fixed between teaching the Art of music and the ordinary school studies. While an amateur can teach notes and more or less of the technicalities of music, this is practically useless, for notes are not music, nor are technicalities playing.
Any lover of music recognizes the superior artist when he hears him. He feels that indefinable something that moves the soul, and charms the aesthetic taste, but when he hears ordinary playing, he is instantly aware that those refined charms are entirely lacking. It is a plain fact that no one can teach what he does not know, and it is absurd and unreasonable to expect superior teaching of an æsthetical quality from an incompetent (?) amateur.
In the provincial cities and towns of about ten thousand people, there are a select few who employ first- class teachers. Many more would do this were they brought to see its importance. But how to give them this information is the question; People see and think about the things that they are interested in. They will use an intelligent judgment when they become convinced of the desirability of discrimination. In general, they wish the best they can afford for their children, and this would be as true in music as in other things, if they could be brought to see the difference between poor amateur and good professional teachers. One way to enlighten them is to invite these worthy people to your musicales and recitals. Prepare yourself to give a good lecture or talk in these recitals upon some musical subject that will show that there is something to teach in music besides the names of notes and keys. You must show that the pupil’s mind is to be directed to the inner music; to the effects that the notes record rather than to the notes themselves. Show the necessity of analyzing a phrase, and of bringing out it’s climaxes and accents, of crescendoing and diminuendoing, and, in short, to play with taste and expression. Show that touch is especially necessary; and above all, these people need to know what real practice is, to see the vast difference between the thoughtless and fruitless strumming done by the great majority of pupils, and the true practice of the few who know how to study music.
The pieces they hear at the musicales should not be entirely above their enjoyment, and each piece should be fully analyzed and explained, both technically as to its germs and phrases, questions and answers, and as to the composer’s meaning and intentions. The pieces should be so described as to give an intelligent appreciation of their aim and content.
Teach these people that there is something in music of more lasting worth than merely to while away a pleasant hour. That although there are sickly, sentimental songs and trashy music akin to “flash literature” novels of the blood-and-thunder order, yet there is a class of music that ranks with the best in literature. Teach these people to appreciate a few pieces selected from the gems of the classical composers, and show them that these are equal, intellectually, emotionally and morally, to the best thoughts in prose and poetry.
They would not expect some half-educated young person to teach their children the noblest and best thoughts in the world’s books, for this requires a person of complete education and broadest culture, and why should they look for good music teaching from a novice? It requires a cultivated musician to teach those things in musical art that are really worth studying and paying for. The amateur teacher gives attention to the self-evident things in music only, things that even the ordinary pupil can see for himself, or things that a first-class teacher will impart as accessory while teaching the pupil to bring out the musical effects from his piece, to perform it artistically, be the piece ever so simple, while he is also teaching that difficult and subtle subject, touch, and imparting the ability to play with feeling, understanding, and musical intelligence.
Again, would right-minded parents consent to have the minds and morals of their children corrupted by the teacher who taught reading from the trash and riff-raff of the street book-stalls? Why should they any more willingly consent to have their children’s taste and æsthetical and emotional nature corrupted by the musical trash that is universally given by these amateur teachers ?
“As the twig is bent, the tree’s inclined.” Every good teacher has suffered agonies from pupils who have been under the baneful influence of poor teaching. How he has despaired of ever getting such pupils to appreciate good music! How he has had to work to get them into ways of practice that had any real worth in them! He has not only to teach the child from the beginning, but has had to do that which was vastly more difficult, root out the brambles and thistles that the parent has paid some dabbling and incompetent amateur to cultivate; while if the competent teacher could have had the child when his mind was ready for good sowing, like a newly ploughed field, instead of a field of weeds and thistles, which the false teacher had cultivated, he could have shown a beautiful crop of musical accomplishments within half the time spent by this incompetent teacher; yes, and have done this at a less total expense of money, to say nothing of the discouragement suffered by the child and the waste of some of the most precious years of its life.
As above said, the public needs enlightenment, and each teacher can talk these things over with his patrons and friends. He must use his influence to have good recitals in his town by the best obtainable artists. He must educate his own town up to an appreciation of the best music through chorus-societies, amateur orchestras, church choirs, concerts, musicales, musical lectures and by his own private playing and that of his pupils. He must be, or speedily make himself, a man of broad culture, and have a full and superior knowledge of the theory and science of his Art, and be so eminently above the amateur teacher that his abilities will command the patronage of his community.
Why could not one of the leading teachers of the town write a carefully prepared letter, to which he should have the signatures of other teachers, setting forth the main arguments, and calling the other professional teachers of the locality together, and plan in concert remedial work? The offending amateurs should be “labored with,” argued with, and the whole matter set before them in its true light. It would seem that it need not be difficult to show them that if they asked a fair price, although they might have less teaching, they would receive the same amount of money. It might be suggested to them that, if they intend to continue teaching, it would pay to be better prepared, for it is as easy to give a lesson for a dollar as for twenty-five cents, and the difference in the fee lies in the thoroughness of the preparation for the work. No right-minded teacher will ever complain of competition on the ground of capability and competency, but it is a sort of slow assassination on the part of the dabbling amateur, to take the whole life out of the profession by these niggardly prices. Where the moral responsibility rests, can easily be seen.
If these amateur teachers will prepare themselves, they will get more pupils at the higher prices, and these prices will enable them to seek further self-improvement, unless they are too trifling and indolent to make themselves worthy of a fair share of the public patronage.

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