Back in college, I often viewed teaching private lessons as a way to earn a bit of extra spending money. I taught a couple of children through the University of Redlands at the time, and it was just enough to cover modest expenses such as clothes or my cell phone bill. Since I was convinced that I wanted to focus on freelance composing and performing when I graduated, I didn’t thoughtfully consider the possibility of teaching as an integral aspect of my identity as a professional musician. Though I have always had the utmost respect for K-12 teachers, I had decided that having my own classroom full of students wasn’t the best fit for me. And with my limited business skills, I assumed that a modest studio of private students would not be lucrative enough to cover major household expenses.
In the years since, I’ve learned that teaching lessons can be a very reliable source of income when the business aspect is managed well. Reading books like The Savvy Music Teacher by David Cutler gave me the financial chops that I needed to go from teaching under the auspices of other businesses, which kept a sizeable portion of my income, to managing clientele on my own.
What I didn’t expect was how much teaching would shape and mold my identity as a performer and composer. I had been told that it would reinforce my technical abilities as I continue to study music, but to my surprise, there have been many other benefits as well.
On the days when I am feeling frustrated with my own progress as a musician, my students—especially the children—remind me of what it is like to approach music with a sense of curiosity, lightheartedness, and joy. Most of my students have sought me because they essentially want to play music for fun. They seem to have few assumptions about the successes that a musical life could grant them as they grow older, so they are naturally free to explore many creative paths with little worry that what they are doing is the “right” thing.
Though it is taking a bit of extra effort to retrain my thinking as an adult, I’ve been learning to relinquish feelings of guilt around artistic exploration that doesn’t feel immediately purposeful or profitable. There is something about being a teacher that tacitly holds me accountable to learn without ceasing, and I remind myself that in some respects, all of the skills that I acquire will find their way into my artistic voice and prove their worth in due time.
Above all, my students inspire me to write and play for them. I can still remember myself as a young child, sitting on the edge of my seat in awe as I watched my teacher play with the local symphony. Education is one of the ways I am choosing to give back and stay connected to the heart of my community. I feel fulfilled knowing that I can give a young student the same experience that my teachers gave me.
Initially, as a budding freelancer, part of me felt a little dirty for teaching as a way to make money on the side. I sometimes felt the stigma that if I needed to teach for a living, I was somehow failing at being a performer or composer. When non-musicians asked me what I did for a profession, I perceived that identifying as a music teacher quickly overshadowed my other identities as a musician, just as saying that I worked in an office during the day made it seem as if I played gigs only for chump change.
Now that I’ve been teaching for several years, I feel pride in knowing that the greater portion of my income is earned from a variety of activities in music. I no longer feel burdened by others’ opinions of what I do for a living because I know that whether I am teaching, performing, or composing, I am dedicating myself to a career that gives me life.
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Sakari Dixon Vanderveer’s work connects people of all ages and backgrounds over a shared love of music. A composer, violist, and teaching artist, she eagerly collaborates with creatives of various disciplines, especially if such projects enable children to experience the joy of creating art. Photography by William Vasta, 2014