Well...a new school year has begun, and it’s time to get back to the busy schedule after a relatively relaxed summer break. Even though this is my 10th year with my voice studio, and I routinely have a good number of returning students each year, it’s always a relief once I’ve gone into the schools, made the voice lesson pitch, and see how many kids I’ll actually be teaching. The usual jigsaw puzzle of building a schedule is always a challenge, and this year proved to be no different–if anything, a bit more challenging due to the number of kids and the time I have to teach them. As I was working on that project, I thought it might be good to talk about some of the nuts and bolts of running your own voice studio and how that can fit in with other creative work. After all, most singers will end up teaching in some capacity, whether they run a large studio or just have a few students in between gigs. This first post will deal with starting your studio and building the schedule.
Let’s say you’ve moved to a new city after graduation, you don’t know anyone, and you are wanting to get started teaching. Where I am, the local school districts have programs for private lesson teachers in the schools. We operate as independent contractors, the parents pay us directly, and we get to teach in practice rooms or other spaces on campus. The advantages of this: a guaranteed pool of kids to draw from for lessons (especially helpful when you are new in town and no one knows who you are), ability to teach during the school day (which would normally be unavailable for school-age students), and an easy introduction into some of the voice teaching/choir directing community in the area. I’d definitely recommend starting here–email the local school district fine arts department (or perhaps look up local high schools/middle schools and email choir directors directly). This could be a great way to reach out even if you don’t have such a program–you could still build a studio based on getting students sent your way by their directors.
Church choir directors are also another possible resource–you never know who might be looking to boost the skills of their volunteer members. In addition, this could give you the inside track on a potential church job if you are looking for one. Of course there are also voice lesson options online, such as Takelessons or Lessonface (I’m sure there are others). I have been fortunate enough to not really need to explore the online teaching world beyond the virtual lessons I did during the pandemic. Full disclosure: I do have profiles on both of those sites, but so far haven’t had any real traffic directed my way (nor have I needed to pursue that). Obviously the advantage of building an online studio is the ease of working from home, and working with students from all over, not just in your local area. Whether you set up a profile on one of those platforms, you definitely want to think about virtual lessons as an option for your studio, even if it’s just to take care of make-up lessons. We live in the future, folks.
In terms of other places to reach out to look for students, here are a few other ideas: local theater groups, community choruses, opera companies, private schools...basically anywhere there is a group of singers who might need instruction. Here in Texas, another quick way to get in touch with folks is using the Region contact information from the Texas Music Educator’s Association–every public school choir director will be involved in that, so it’s a great way to quickly network. I’m sure there are others I’m missing. Building a studio from scratch, even when you have access to in-school lesson programs, is work. To put it simply, you have to hustle. And it’s not necessarily about having a cute logo and marketing on your website, although such things are nice touches. It’s about reaching out and making connections, and then showing up to do the work reliably and with consistent communication.
Once you’ve got students, then you have to build your teaching schedule. You need to figure out how many students you want to see on a weekly basis–most likely determined by how much you need to make. Checking out the local rates for voice teachers is also important–you don’t want to be priced way higher than the average, especially as a new teacher, but you don’t want to undersell your skills and undercut the local market just to attract students. You also need to consider what other sources of income you have. Church jobs? Opera/choir gigs? Side work with another business? All of that can determine how much money your voice studio needs to generate. One more note on the money: running your voice studio will also take some time on the bookkeeping end of things, so don’t forget that you’ll have to spend time invoicing, scheduling, and communicating with parents/students. That stuff doesn’t take a HUGE amount of time, but it still is crucial to have some room in your schedule for that.
The biggest challenge I have had to overcome in these past 10 years is building a schedule where I am busy but not overworked. For several years the mindset was “fit in as many students as possible”. And when you are starting out a voice studio, you do want a schedule that actually makes you enough money, and you also want to get your name out to as many people as possible, so you can grow. But after several years of saying yes to just about everything (that included opera, church job, accompanying choirs, doing auditions...it was a full list), I was at a point where during the school year I had no days off. None. Occasionally I might have a day when there was no school, but usually those days were full of doing makeup lessons.
To the average, logical, clear-thinking mind, that’s obviously not sustainable. But to me, it was just “a challenge”. I like to think of myself as incredibly capable, able to handle any project or workload thrown my way. I also hate asking or help or admitting that maybe I can’t do it all. Furthermore, I want to make sure that every student is taken care of–if they want to take lessons, I want to be available to do that! But I had finally reached a point in spring of 2020 (just before...you know...) that I was going to give up one day of teaching for the next school year, just so I could have a day for my own sanity. And then of course the pandemic forced me to hold to that decision.
This school year, I was once again faced with a challenge: my schedule filled up quickly, and the initial draft had me adding back in a half day, so instead of 4 days of teaching, I was going to be at 4.5. Thanks to some discussions with some very helpful people in my circle of friends and family, I realized I was doing the same thing I had done before that became unsustainable. Old habits die hard. But after several more revisions, I was able to adjust the schedule to fit what I needed (it’s still plenty full), and have a wait list for a few students. I hated the idea at first, and I felt SO guilty for taking time where I technically could fit them in. But I did it. And now that the schedule is built and the year is getting underway, I know it was the right call.
The point of that story is simple: figure out what your schedule will allow, factor in your other gigs and income sources, and don’t over-schedule yourself. You do no one any favors by being overworked and burnt out, and if you allow no time for downtime or making up lessons, you’ll find that you might have to cancel something anyway due to illness or some such, or you’ll have to credit fees for lessons you are just unable to make up. As long as your bills are paid, and you feel like you are able to be an effective teacher, leave yourself some room to enjoy your art as well. And beyond that, leave a little room to spend time with friends, recharge, and just...be (that is becoming something of a theme in my advice...hmmm).
This is just the first of a few posts on this topic–up next: the business side of the studio...you know, the really FUN stuff that all creative types love.