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Private Lessons: Starting a Program

Patricia George | August September 2023

The Teacher’s Studio

A good band or orchestra program can be made better if more students studied privately. Private instructors can focus on a student’s set up, drill the basics of rhythm and technique, and work on tone and musicianship. When students are able to work on these skills in private lessons, the performance level of the ensemble soars.

If you do not have a private lesson program in your school, here are some ideas to develop one. Be sure that the administration in your school is on board with the development of a private lesson program, as they will be responsible for writing contracts with the teachers, providing teaching spaces, acquiring background checks of faculty and setting a lesson fee schedule. The school district also assumes personal liability for the program. Discuss who collects the tuition fees, who pays the teachers, and what the cancellation policy will be. Often booster programs can underwrite part or all of a private lesson program. Generally, students are required to cancel 24 hours in advance or will be charged for the lesson. Private lessons may be taught before and after school, during study halls and during band rehearsals. Payment for the lessons can be by month or semester.

Populated Area
If your school is located in a populated area with a close proximity to a university music program, then there is a larger pool of possible private teachers. This could be the university professors themselves who may be interested in teaching in your program as a recruiting tool or it may be their students. Many of these students have taken pedagogy classes which focus on one-on-one instruction. Place a job announcement with the university placement office and contact each applied music faculty member to inquire if they are interested or if they have an advanced student to recommend. Form a committee from the music boosters to help you review resumes. Most programs require the new hire to have a background check which your administration can facilitate. Involving the boosters in the early decision-making stage lays a foundation for them to possibly underwrite the entire program in the future.

Beside musicians at a university, look for musicians in the community. These may be members of the local symphony, community band, or chamber groups. Inquire if any of them would like to teach in your program. If they agree, place their names and contact information on a private lesson sheet that will be made available to all students and their parents.

One advantage to this option is that many of these musicians will already have a private studio set up outside of the school. They will also be responsible for their own bookkeeping.

As part of the traditional interview, observe a candidate teaching a private lesson to one of your students. Evaluate the quality of their teaching plus how professionally they treat the student. Discuss with the potential teacher what your hopes are for the curriculum and goals for the semester or the year. Fall goals during the marching band season might include setup, tone production, scales and arpeggios for technical development, etudes, regional and all-state audition material, and an ensemble work. The ensemble could be a group of like instrumentalists or a mixed consort such as a woodwind quintet, brass quintet, or percussion ensemble. During the second term, students might learn a solo for the spring festival plus another chamber work.

Rural Area
If you teach in a rural area, there simply may not be professional instruction available on each instrument. If this is the case, look at the other faculty in your system and district to see if anyone has an interest and the ability to teach these instruments. If offering private instruction is not a possibility, then consider weekly or bi-weekly group lessons on like instruments and import a professional to teach the class. If you import a teacher, factor in paying travel time and expenses in addition to the teaching fee. Group lessons offer several advantages. First, the teacher has less contact hours and can make more money per hour than teaching privately. There is also the potential that members of the group class will sign up for one-on-one instruction in the summer which helps the teacher develop a studio. For the students, the individual cost for a group lesson is less because there are more students paying.

Group lessons can offer many advantages when private lessons are not feasible.

I taught group lessons as an import teacher when I lived in Idaho. I structured the class similarly to that of a private lesson. There were assignments to be practiced for the next class and the peer pressure of keeping up provided excellent motivation for home practice. They all studied the same solo which I selected from the state solo list. When solo festival arrived, more than three quarters of the class performed at festival. In prior years, only one or two had played at solo festival. At the end of each group class, students played a round. After a few weeks, they progressed to flute duets (multiple players on a part), trios, and quartets. This meant they sightread something as a group at each class.

Other Options
A band program in Summerville, South Carolina has a designated weekend held at the high school where students alternate between band rehearsals with a guest conductor and like instrument masterclasses taught by a specialist. This event culminates with a Sunday afternoon concert for the parents. The boosters provide dinners on Friday and Saturday evenings and lunch on Saturday. The students seem to thrive on this dedicated allotment of time, perfecting their ensemble music and improving their individual playing skills. If you have private lesson faculty already on your team, then providing a weekend like this is simple.

While starting a program is a time-consuming process, the rewards and benefits are almost immediate. If you decide to forgo a private lesson program, consider providing group lessons on each instrument several times a semester. There is nothing better for student than to hear a great player demonstrate on their instrument in person.

What to Teach

Education classes often devote more time on how to teach than music classes on what to teach. While each child has their own learning style and teachers should address that, musical content is equally important. In private lessons, it is easier to address each student’s musical needs than in a large ensemble. Start by making a list of things a player needs to know about playing their instrument. This might include: how to assemble the instrument, how to stand and sit when playing, how to balance the instrument in the hands, how to breathe, how produce a tone (attack, duration, and release), how to finger the notes, how to read notation, how to slur, how to vibrate, how to play softer/louder, how to shape a phrase, etc. Once the list is made, create a file on your computer for each of these topics and write everything you know about each topic. Research areas you feel less comfortable with and be sure to attend masterclasses, festivals, workshops to continue to add information to your ever-growing file.

A good curriculum for private lessons is divided into three parts: warmup (tone and embouchure studies) and theoretical technical material (scales, scales in thirds, arpeggios, and seventh chords), etudes, and solo repertoire. Included in solo repertoire is audition material for regional and all-state bands.

A pitfall for many teachers is assigning material that is too advanced for a student’s playing level. Slow down, take your time, and help the student move forward with understanding – both musically and technically. Playing music that is too hard too soon creates tension in the player that can take years to get rid of. I regularly tell myself to go slowly and thoroughly. Quality is more important than quantity.

Many directors instruct private teachers to focus the lesson time on audition and ensemble music. I find this to be a mistake. All music study goes better when students understand the basic set up the instrument and can play theoretical technical materials such as scales, scales in thirds, arpeggios, and seventh chords, followed by studying articulation marks, various rhythms, and dynamics. If the teacher does not lay a foundation, then they must start over parrot-teaching the material with each new audition packet.

This is similar to teaching students to read. Children start with a few simple words and then learn to sound out more words and increase their vocabulary. For music, first scales may be only one octave or nine-note scales, but with time students expand the range to two or three octaves. Practicing this material with varying dynamics, rhythms, and articulation marks gives students the tools to play musically. If each member of an ensemble has better skills, then the overall group will play at a higher level.

Chamber Music Study and Performance

If you haven’t included chamber music into your curriculum, I strongly suggest considering this option. The programs that I have observed that include chamber music study in the curriculum have developed independent functioning musicians because the instrumentalists can play one on a part without a conductor. The total responsibility of counting and dynamics lies with each player. Playing in like group ensembles such as flute choir, clarinet choir, or brass ensemble helps students learn to match tone color and improve intonation. For flute choir, I like each flutist to learn all the parts of the composition, so in rehearsal they can switch parts and still have a successful performance. They learn that playing the melody is often the easiest part while playing a counter melody or accompaniment offers different challenges. The private teacher for each instrument can teach the music in private lessons and later coach the ensemble.

If students learn one chamber music composition in the fall and another in the spring, it is possible to schedule a chamber music recital in late fall and in the spring just before contest festival. This gives students practice in walking on and off the stage professionally, taking a bow, setting the chairs and stands, tuning, cueing, and playing without a conductor. They also learn when to play out and when to take a secondary role.

Chamber groups that have played together for multiple years will also be available to gig in your community. Having small ensembles performing throughout the community makes your program much more visible. It is also a way for students to use their skills to create income.
Programs like this are quite popular now in universities because the curriculum helps students find ways other than teaching or playing in an orchestra to generate income. Encourage your students to think creatively about ensemble possibilities and have them research groups such as Apollo’s Fire or Eighth Blackbird.