Teaching Music – A Journey

29 Jul

Think being a musician is all about gigs? Think again. Teaching your instrument can provide you with an income while giving you a deeper insight into your own practice, writes Fillippo from Gypsy Street.

Teaching music is a difficult but rewarding job. In this short article I will write about my own experience in this field, trying to outline it so that it can be of use to anyone who is interested in engaging him/herself in this business.

There are three main areas to consider: The business side, the practical side and the spiritual side of teaching music (yes, there is a spiritual side to it!)

Business first

When it comes down to business, you are of course aiming to make a living, or at least a consistent income, out of teaching. Students cancel lessons, move away, or simply decide they no longer have the time. You need to find new students regularly in order to make sure you don’t run into weeks when your teaching hours are low.

A Self-Promotion Toolkit

Good self-promotion is very important for finding new business. The best way to do this is to commission a good quality, professional video of yourself playing your instrument so prospective students can see you at your best. Think about hiring a cameraman to film you playing a piece of music that captures your skills and professionalism, preferably in a studio environment.

Be your own agent

Once you have your video, you need to promote yourself on social network websites such as Facebook (by setting up your own artist page), LinkedIn, Tumblr, Soundcloud, YouTube and of course on a personal website if you have one. Gumtree attracts a large number of visitors and is an excellent way of finding new students.  The money spent on posting an advert is well spent – assuming your ad looks professional and appealing, you will make the money back very quickly.

To write a successful listing, make sure it has information about your experience, music education and what you teach in the lesson (theory, scales, improvisation, styles), as well as some encouraging words to your future pupils:

  • Remind them that anyone can learn to play any instrument, and that you can teach them how to put the right effort into it.
  • A free trial lesson is very appealing to people and makes them want to try out your teaching without having to commit financially straight away.

Of course it’s not all about social media – many people still look for tutors in music and record shops. You can easily (and fairly cheaply) print out professional-looking flyers to hang in shops/businesses. Just make sure you check with them first.

Don’t forget the taxman!

Hopefully at this point you will be getting a good amount of work, in which case you will need to register as self-employed with the HM Revenue & Customs to keep everything above board.

You can do this very easily on their website (http://www.hmrc.gov.uk/) – there’s a lot of advice on the site, but can also be worth getting professional help from an accountant in your first year, just to make sure you’ve got it all correct.

The Practical Side

It’s not enough to find students for a couple of classes: you want to keep them with you as long as possible and build a lasting relationship. To do this, you have to gain their trust so that they can relax and learn as much as possible from you.

To gain your student’s trust as a teacher – and as a player – always demonstrate the piece you are teaching them. Whether it’s a C major scale or a whole piece of music, demonstrating it in its full form and musicality will impress them and make them want to work hard to be able to play it as well as you do.

I still remember when my first guitar teacher played me an enchanting five minute-long piece of solo classical guitar thirteen years ago. I practiced like a maniac for years until I was able to play it and have played it every day since.

The very first class

Get started with basic exercises that are musical, melodic, and easy to play. On a guitar this could be a run of three or four notes on a string, accompanied by an open string ringing along with it. This way your pupil understands that she/he doesn’t need to be a professional to enjoy playing music, and will feel motivated to continue playing without feeling like the process of learning music is an insurmountable obstacle.

Most importantly of all, make sure you reward a student’s progress, even the smallest steps, with compliments. Nothing works better than kind words about their efforts to keep students with us and make them want to practice more.

The early stages

For pupils who are new to their instrument, life as a beginner can be frustrating. It’s easy to forget that even a melody or exercise that seems very basic and simple to you can be extremely challenging to someone who is starting from scratch.

Try to be as empathetic as possible and to anticipate students’ frustration, making sure you comfort and encourage them. It can be useful to have a few key sayings to hand when they get disheartened. I like to tell them that “Everything is achievable. It’s like learning to tie your shoes as a child. You have to do it extremely slowly at first, step by step, and now you don’t even need to think about it. It works the same way with music.

The Spiritual Side

Listening to music can lead to feelings of bliss and altered states of consciousness – even more so when you are the one playing it. As teachers, it is our responsibility to try to communicate that to our pupils: we don’t want them to miss out on this amazing gift.

It’s not that we need to act as gurus, simply that we can encourage students to take a more open approach to music and to their instrument. We can then allow the music to do the rest.

The importance of ‘play’

When I first learned how to speak English I was struck by the different meanings of the verb “to play.”  In Italian there are two words for this:  “suonare” means to play an instrument, while  “giocare” is to play a game.

This made perfect sense to me: playing an instrument is like playing a game. It underlines the fact that playing music is supposed to be approached with fun, enthusiasm and a light heart.

Of course, playing music also involves serious commitment and discipline, but it’s not only down to that. It’s important to remember a skill that we need to develop along with our technique and knowledge of the theory of music: the ability to enjoy playing.

Experiment! Innovate!

You must teach your pupils not to think that they will be able to enjoy their instrument only when their technique will be good enough, but that they can love and enjoy what they do from day one.

It might seem unconventional to encourage your students to tap the body of the guitar to make it sound like drums, or to allow them to make up chords without wanting to know the name; or for them to detune the strings to whatever notes they want.

At the end of the day, playing music is a game. In teaching music, we are  also helping our students rediscover themselves as creative beings.  There’s nothing more rewarding than that.

Teaching to Learn

In order to be good teachers we need to develop a few skills ourselves, which definitely go along with our personal spiritual development as human beings: patience, empathy, concentration and positivity.

Teaching on a regular basis boosts all these qualities, as they are all necessary to do a good job. This is the best gift I have got from doing this job, and what made me write this article to share my experience.

Whether you turn to teaching for business or to extend your own practice, I hope these words (or maybe just some of them) will give you some insight into the practicalities of becoming a teacher.


Filippo is a ‘gypsy jazz’ guitarist based in London. He plays regular gigs with his band Gypsy Street and has been teaching one-on-one guitar lessons for over four years.

Function Central offers a wide range of live bands and musicians to hire in all genres, from rock to jazz and everything in between.

Posted in Help & advice for musicians