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Focus on the Independent Music Teacher: A Conversation with Scott Donald

December 1, 2015

When did you begin your studio in Austin?


I thought I would never want to be an independent piano teacher. The 15 year-old version of Scott Donald saw my future as getting a Bachelors, Masters and Doctorate then teaching in college. That vision has followed me for many years. I now find myself as the 50 year- old version of Scott Donald doing something that I never thought I would want to do – an independent piano teacher. For the first time in my life I am not teaching at a college or community music school. Studio A, my studio name, officially opened this Fall 2015. It was a gradual process. I had taught privately for a few years in Austin with other primary responsibilities associated elsewhere. The thought of opening an independent studio from nothing is a daunting task. I was fortunate in that I had an established reputation in Austin and access to students already.



How did you promote the school? (Advertising, press releases, events, signs, etc.)


My push to full-time independent status was an exciting and challenging process. Most of the promotion for Studio A came from word of mouth at the start. I offered a $50 book credit to any families that recommended a new student and they registered for lessons. I have 2 families that will enjoy that credit this year. I also contacted a Music Together teacher and dance studio in the same shopping center where my studio is located to do cross-promotional activities. That will only get you so far.
My next thought was advertising. I did place advertisement in local community newsletters and on craigslist. That resulted in basically nothing. The second best strategy involved placing ads on a listserv online resource for the neighborhood where my studio is located. I did get inquiries and a few students from that resource and it was free!


The biggest net for new students was in contacting and meeting with area Elementary school music teachers. That was the biggest payoff in terms of new students. Again, a free resource that paid off big time! I simply set up a time to talk and introduce myself, drop off flyers and brochures and offer to do a demo class with their students if they were interested. Now I have student families in about 5 area schools that will also talk to other families in those schools.



Have you been successful in filling some daytime hours at the school?


Of course, we only have so many hours that can be filled with lessons between 3:30 pm and 8pm during the week. How do we find students to fill those earlier hours during the day? I haven’t found the magic answer for this question but I do have a group of adult students that have filled some of those precious daytime hours. Recreational music making is a big trend and could be the answer to this problem. Home-schooled kids could be the other answer. I haven’t reached out to this population in a systematic way so I don’t have any advice to offer at this point. I have to say that I do like having earlier in the day open to focus on other projects. For the first time in a long time, I have time to practice and I spend some time earlier in the day engaged in practice and business matters. I like having that balance. As an avid runner, it also gives me time to focus on training and running during the earlier part of the day. There does need to be a healthy work/life balance.



Do you have any tips for handling the business side of administering your studio?


As far as organizational tools that I have to keep track of the business side, I have three main resources. I handle all my student information and lesson information through Moosic, an application on my iPad. All my invoices are done in Moosic and emailed to my families. The other is Excel for spreadsheets and accounting type tasks. I know this is rather simplistic but it works for me at this moment. Of course, there is a website for the studio. If you are going to be an independent teacher in 2015 (almost 2016) you HAVE to have a website. I refer all my families to that website for all program information, policies and calendar. It is a very important resource. (Studio A Website)


Speaking of policies, I structure the school year as a 44-lesson school year spread out over 11 months. Families pay the same tuition per month regardless of number of lessons for the month. During the 11th month we will have Skype or FaceTime lessons due to the fact that I go away and teach at a summer program. The 12th month of income is a one-time student fee deposit for the year. All families pay this and it gives me some income during that month.



Is there anything you wish you had known when you got started that you know now? Or things someone who is thinking about doing this should know?


The one thing that I am still learning about is the whole tax side of things. Music degrees do not prepare you for this. I set up my studio as a DBA (doing business as) and have my tax ID for this purpose. I also have solicited an accountant to help with these matters. It is a whole new ballgame for me!



Do you have any other thoughts to share?


Is it worth doing this? Has it been worth giving up the security of full-time teaching employment in a college or community school setting? I can say that I have been challenged and exhilarated by this adventure. To be able to do what I love and on my own terms is liberating. There is a feeling of operating “without a net” to catch you if you fall. The advantages seem to outweigh any disadvantages that could possibly develop.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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