How I Became a Full-Time Piano Teacher

Everyone’s journey to becoming a full-time piano teacher is different. Some of us had a smooth pathway from college to studio, while others (me included) took many more twists and turns on the way to full-time piano teaching.

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⬆️ Listen to the podcast above or keep on reading, whichever fits your style. ↙️

In this article, I’m sharing my personal journey to becoming a full-time piano teacher. This is not a prescription or a recommendation. It’s just my story of how I went from a teenager handing out flyers to running a studio of around 70 students.

My First Piano Student

When I was around 15 years old (I never can figure out whether I was 16 or 15!) I was chatting with my piano teacher about not having enough allowance to do something or other and mentioned that I had been looking for jobs in the local shops. She asked whether I’d ever considered teaching piano, and said she’d started at around my age. 

It was a casual throwaway comment, and she probably thought no more of it. I never mentioned it to her again, but I went away buzzing with nerves and created my first flyer using the ancient desktop computer in my bedroom (this thing was outdated even then.) 💾

I printed 2 versions: one smaller one for putting through people’s letter boxes and a bigger one with pull off phone number tabs at the bottom. (I gave my family landline number, of course, not my mobile!) Then I went off on my bike and put the flyers through nearby houses and hung the larger versions up in any shop which would let me. 

Low and behold, someone actually called looking for lessons for their 7-year-old. I bought a copy of ‘Jibbidy F and ACE’ since that’s what my piano teacher said she used with beginners, and off I went. 

I knew nothing about pedagogy other than what I’d absorbed from my own lessons. We just followed the method book and then started exams once she reached a certain level. 

I was a nice teacher (my first teacher was not very lovely to me so I modelled my style after my second teacher) but I wasn’t very inspiring. I would come, fix the mistakes, tell her to practice and then come back the next week to do it all over again. Scales, old pieces, new piece, repeat.

Part-time Piano Teaching

I ended up teaching that girl for about 4 years and gradually added a few more students as well. I kept a schedule of 7 students per week all the way through the rest of school and then college. 

My teaching style didn’t change much during this time. I did my best to look for fun music for them to play and to keep being kind and supportive. But I never questioned whether what I was doing was right. I just taught the way my teacher taught me.

My Year Off

I studied fashion design in college, and when I graduated and got a real job; I quit teaching. Teaching was only ever supposed to be a part-time job while I was a student. It was a great way to make more per hour than I did working in the pizza shop or the bar (yes, I did all of those at the same time while in a demanding college program) but it was just that: a nice college job. Not a career.

I thought I had quit for good. But, of course, music teaching has a way of finding you again.

After working in a design office for a year, all the while with an itchy feeling on the back of my neck which said it wasn’t quite right for me, I left, became self-employed and started a bridalwear business. 

Yep, really. Here are some photos of my first collection of wedding dresses as evidence. 😆

Obviously, starting a bridalwear company is not the most instantly profitable thing, so I took on some work in pattern making (i.e. what the patterns factories use to cut out garments,) a shop where my dresses were displayed and a Chinese takeaway. 

My First Student…Take 2

Amid this attempt to make ends meet, while I tried to make it in the bespoke bridalwear industry, I remembered piano teaching. That had been a reliable source of income for me, and it made sense to look for a few students again. 

I got the feeling from family and friends that they didn’t think this was the best idea. It seemed like they thought (and maybe I did too) that it was a pleasant hobby before I had a degree, but now I was supposed to be working in fashion. I was supposed to be making use of this expensive piece of paper and all the hours I had toiled away at the sewing machine, sketchbook and computer. 

Now, don’t get me wrong, they were all very supportive…this was just something I felt under the surface. They’ve always been behind everything I do, and I feel so very fortunate to have that. 

But little did any of us know, I would eventually put all these skills to use. ✅     

So I repeated the flyers and posters tactic again. But this time I added Gumtree and other message boards to the mix. And that’s when I got the student who would change everything.  

How I Began Blogging

When I started teaching again, my first student was a transfer student. She wasn’t just a transfer from another teacher; she was a transfer from another country. 

I didn’t understand some of the terms she was using (she was still learning English as well as a whole new music system) and so I turned to the internet for answers. I had never really thought to look online for teaching ideas before that point. Seems like an obvious thing to do now, but we’re talking about the early days of smartphones here. I still had a Blackberry with the full QWERTY keyboard and WAP (anyone remember WAP?!) and we were all still wondering out loud about things rather than instantly asking Google for the answers. 

That changed everything.

Once I looked up one thing to help her, I found the world of teaching blogs. I discovered I could teach preschoolers, improvise without being a jazz pianist, play games with students and so much more. 

This was exciting.

This was what I didn’t realise I had been missing before. Now that I’d found it, I wanted to be part of it in whatever way I could contribute. 

I had learnt how to build a website on WordPress for my bridalwear business, and now I built a separate one for my teaching business. When I began teaching preschoolers, I started sharing graphics I was creating for them on this blog. 

Remember, I had been trained as a designer, so creating graphics was easy for me. And I was simply delighted to get to share my little creations with the teacher community. 

Those little creations turned into bigger ones and eventually became Vibrant Music Teaching. But more on that below. 🙃

Full-time Piano Teaching with a Waiting List

Gradually, my teaching hours expanded. I got more enquiries through my website and families referred me to other families. 

My bridalwear was slower going. I got some commissions and made some sales, but it became a smaller and smaller portion of my income as the teaching side grew. 

Though profitability is important, the bigger reason I gradually let the teaching take over was that it became more exciting to me. It turned out that piano teaching was the creative career I had been looking for. 

Working in a design office mostly equated to hours upon hours of technical drawings and a sprinkling of idea generation. And creating occasion wear meant more of the sales, marketing and client management with a few hours of creation each week. 

But teaching. That was where I got to be really creative. 

Every lesson is a new opportunity to problem solve. Every day is a chance to come up with an outside-the-box resource which helps make music learning easier or more fun for the student. 

So, looking at the bullet points of my work up to this point, someone would think I failed as a designer and fell back on teaching. 

But it wasn’t a backup plan in the end. It became my vocation.

I have an entire page devoted to helping you set up and manage your own piano teaching business. Check it out!

The Birth of Vibrant Music Teaching

After several years of being a full-time piano teacher and loving it, I wrote my first book: The Piano Practice Physician’s Handbook. I also created a course to go along with this, and gradually formed an idea for something bigger.

It would be a games library to end all games libraries. I wanted it to be sortable by concept, student level and number of players so teachers (me included!) could find exactly what we needed for a particular student or group. It frustrated me how haphazard my selection of games was, and I had a vision for something better. 

So I leapt. I worked furiously in the summer of 2017 to reformat the games I had created up to that point, make new ones and put together a website with a beautiful filterable library. 

In September 2017, I launched Vibrant Music Teaching. I had no idea if anyone would sign up, but the response blew me away. It turned out teachers all over the world were just as frustrated as I was. 

We’ve gone on to include courses, tools and other resources to help teachers find more creativity, fun and freedom in their teaching. I’ve had the privilege of helping thousands of teachers to become better teachers and have more fun while doing it.

Hiring and Mentoring Other Teachers

The final stage in my piano teaching journey, so far, has been to hire other teachers to work at Colourful Keys. 

Like anything new, this was a nerve-wracking decision for me to make. I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to take this step at all.

I think it’s perfectly valid to want to be a single-teacher studio. For that matter, I also think it’s fine to only want to teach part-time. One of the beautiful things about this career is that you get to set the rules and make your own definition of success.

The reason I ultimately went from being a full-time piano teacher to the owner of a multi-teacher studio was impact

Many teachers in this country start with little or no training in pedagogy. We also don’t have much in the way of local associations or conferences. I think mentorship is one of the best ways to keep progress happening. 

I believe that teaching is moving forward, and I think Vibrant Music Teaching contributes to that globally. In a smaller way, my mentorship program at Colourful Keys aims to make sure Ireland comes along for the ride. 

If you’re interested in more about my mentorship program, VMT members can check out this course.

Onwards to Episode 300 and Beyond

As I write this, I’ve been teaching for about 17 or so years and truly loving it for the past 10. I’m still excited about each and every day of teaching. 

Sometimes it’s hard. Sometimes it’s tiring in a way that nothing else can be. But deep down, I know it’s where I should be.

I wrote this post to commemorate the 200th episode of the Vibrant Music Teaching Podcast, and I’m looking forward to seeing how my teaching changes between now and episode 300. 

One thing is for certain, the lessons in between will require fresh creativity and alternative approaches which I can’t even imagine right now. Here’s to that. 

Your One Thing.

This week, I’d love for you to reflect on your own journey and where you want to be when episode 300 comes out (May 2024)! Spend a few minutes thinking about the twists and turns you took to becoming a piano teacher so you can appreciate how far you’ve come and where you want to go next!

Are you a full-time piano teacher?

How did you arrive at this career and did you have another one first? I’d love to hear your thoughts on this in the comments below. 🙂

5 thoughts on “How I Became a Full-Time Piano Teacher”

  1. Hi Nicola,

    It’s really nice to hear your story, thanks for being so open! I never would have guessed that you didn’t study music. It’s actually quite reassuring to hear, I sometimes feel not qualified to teach piano because I didn’t study it although I did study horn at a conservatoire and took abrsm piano exams as a kid I still worry about not instilling the right technique sometimes. But I think it’s more about bringing a love of music and giving them a well-rounded music education.

    I agree it is always creative, as teachers we have such autonomy it is really whatever we make of it.

    Congratulations and I’m excited to see where you go next with it.

    Reply

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