When I first jumped the day job ship to be a full-time musician, teaching during the week and gigging on the weekends, I was living hand-to-mouth. Sometimes I had a good weekend of two or three gigs, but other weekends I was sitting home watching movies. I had a few students, but I wasn’t charging much and they didn’t always come. I remember banking on my teaching income for this week so I could pay my rent on Friday. Invariably, I’d have cancellations galore that desperate week. Financially, it was a stressful time.
Luckily, it only lasted about six years.
I wouldn't wish that kind of financial stress on anyone. Back then, we didn’t have the internet and its global community of helpful people. There was no publication for freelance music teachers, and there was no book about how to set up your freelance music studio. Anyone who decided to take the plunge into those waters was on their own. Sink or swim. Learn-as-you-go.
It was awful.
Being any sort of a freelance service provider has its pros and cons. One pro is that you can set your professional rate. One con (or pro, I guess) is you have to learn to deal with money in a professional way.
Each relationship with every student is extremely valuable. It represents time, energy, choices, and money.
As a teacher, you want to preserve all the good in that relationship so that your student feels safe to take the risks necessary for learning. As a freelancer, you need to be mindful of anything that might get in the way of that relationship and, perhaps, cost you a client.
In my experience, the number one reason for bad feelings between Voice Student and Freelance Teacher is money. Getting paid, from your perspective. The reasons for those bad feelings are predictably easy to categorize.
If you do find yourself feeling annoyed, do not – I repeat, do not – communicate in any way with the student until you get it together. Most times you’ll find that the student was not being intentionally lame or disrespectful, and the damage done if your student senses that you’re angry or disappointed may never be undone.
Failure to set clear policies
In order to keep you free from resenting your students, and your students free from feeling guilty about cancelling, you need to have studio policies. If your policies are few and concise, they are more likely to be remembered. Really. The fewer the better.
Your first policy must be about how and when you expect to be paid. What forms of payment do you accept, and when do you expect to be paid (by the month? by the lesson? when they get a bill from you?).
Your second policy should be about how you deal with cancellations. Here’s mine as an example:
I have a 24-hour cancellation policy. If you cancel more than 24 hours ahead, you don’t owe me any explanation. We can try to reschedule your lesson, or you can simply cancel. If you cancel less than 24 hours ahead, and are not in the emergency room, you must pay for your lesson. There’s no need to tell me why you’re cancelling short notice or blowing me off, because I don’t want to be in the position of deciding what’s a good excuse and what isn’t. You will owe me for the lesson.
You need to go through your policies verbally the very first time you meet a potential student. Your policies may only be about payment, or you may have another item or two that is important to you. If you have your policies in writing (on your wall or on a physical piece of paper that you hand to them) it’s easier for the new student to see that your policies are about you, not about them.
Failure to enforce policies
In letting a student slide on one of your policies, you think you’re doing them a kindness that they will appreciate, respect, and not take advantage of. (You know… because of how nice you are.) They, however, now believe that they are special in your eyes and heart (because of how nice you are) and that none of your policies apply to them anymore. Ever.
Fear of rejection
Voice teachers are nice people. We develop intimate relationships with our students. We genuinely care about our students. Voice teachers are also singers; performing artists who are sensitive to rejection. For all these reasons, we’re often afraid to risk asserting ourselves, set boundaries, or enforce our policies; we’re afraid of our students. We’re afraid we’ll “make them mad”, or “make them quit”. We put (what we imagine is) the student’s agenda before our own.
I urge you to confront this in yourself and get over it as soon as you can. You are a professional. You need to keep your professional boundaries. You can neither predict nor control your student’s emotional reaction to you defending your professionalism. The reality is that your students expect you to be professional. You’re the only one who expects that you’ll put nice-ness ahead of professionalism.
I think it’s fair to say that, overall, freelance voice teachers don’t have a hard time getting paid. Most of our students pay us. It’s probably also fair to say, though, that getting paid, and in a timely way, as well as finding students are the primary sources of anxiety for most freelance voice teachers.
Remember that your students, even the most devoted, will come and go. You are the constant in your voice studio, so make it work for you.