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Savvy Music Studio Blog

How Music Teachers Can Combat Toxicity in the Music Industry

Savvy Music Studio - marketing for music studio owners. Sara at a laptop computer
Sara Campbell / Savvy Music Studio
Sara standing next to the text: How Music Teachers Can Combat Toxicity in the Music Industry

Estimated reading time: 12 minutes

In an industry often clouded by the shadows of toxicity and the daunting ‘starving artist’ mindset, we have a profound responsibility to nurture the next generation of musicians.

In this blog article we’ll explore some of the ways I feel that we, as independent music teachers (or IMTs), can play a crucial role in reshaping the music industry. From challenging ingrained stereotypes that undervalue artists to modeling sustainable work environments… there are so many ways we can combat this toxicity!

In doing so, we’ll also explore how we view our own business practices, and shed light on how we (myself included) may still carry remnants of those toxic mindsets today. And how we might shed them.

We’re not just teaching music; we’re molding the future of the industry itself.

Hold onto your hats, friends. It might get a little bumpy here…

Understanding the Current Landscape

Whether you are a recording artist, composer, teacher, or involved in the music industry in another capacity… you’re familiar with our industry’s challenges.

While the public may perceive glamour and fame, or imagine how “fun it must be to make music with kids all day!”, there is also a darker side to our industry. And it’s marred by toxic mentalities that often render the career of a professional musician unsustainable.

This dark side isn’t limited to the realm of commercial music or professional music organizations. It spans across all levels in our industry, including college and high school.

broken down old piano keys

Yes, we’re talking about all those overworked and underpaid teachers out there. College professors, adjunct teachers, and high school band, choir, and orchestra directors are often expected to manage the responsibilities that would typically be spread among two or three teachers. They’re single-handedly running programs that are chronically underfunded and understaffed.

And yes, we’re talking about the independent music teaching field, and how scarcity and fear drive some business owners towards underpricing and chronic overworking, both of which hurt our industry as a whole.

As IMTs, we have little chance of changing all the issues in our industry, but we can — and dare I say the S word… “should” — look at what we can do in our own corner of the industry.

It’s time to start dismantling outdated paradigms.

In order us to start dismantling these outdated paradigms, we first need to understand what they are.

I feel the need to preface this section by stating that this is by no means an exhaustive list of the toxic mentalities we face in the arts! There’s no way we could fit that into one blog post.

Instead, here are two BIG issues that tend to show up, especially in the teaching field…

1. The “Starving Artist” Stereotype

One of the most pervasive and harmful mindsets throughout the ENTIRE artistic industry is the notion of the “starving artist.”

This stereotype romanticizes the struggle of artists, suggesting that true creativity can only come through hardship and financial struggle. It glorifies poverty and suggests that commercial and / or financial success diminishes artistic integrity.

Two of the symptoms of this stereotype:
  • Financial Devaluation: Musicians, artists, and teachers of the arts are often expected to work for exposure rather than fair compensation. This perpetuates a cycle of undervaluation and financial instability.
  • Mental Health Impact: The pressure to conform to this underpaid — and thus overworked — stereotype can lead to significant mental health challenges. Many artists struggle to reconcile their passion with their need for a sustainable income.

This stereotype rears its ugly head in so many places!

And it doesn’t always come from outside of the industry, i.e. from the people who are doing the actual hiring of musicians and teachers. It also comes from inside the industry as well.

Want to see examples? Look at how most big music organizations neglect to pay their presenters. Or spend a little time perusing music teacher forums on Facebook. I can guarantee you’ll see a plethora of conversations and comments that either support this stereotype or point out personal struggles with it.

Let me be very clear: my intention is not to fault or shame organizations or teachers, but rather to point out that this mentality is SO deeply ingrained in our industry that we barely even question it.

It’s been handed down from one generation to the next, through underpricing lessons or services, ignoring the desperate need for business training within the arts, and constant modeling of self-sacrifice over self-care.

2. Unsustainable Work Cultures

Tied with undervaluing artistic services, our field often glamorizes overworking and constantly being productive. After all, how can we possible meet our financial needs without working all the time?

The expectation to always be “on” and perpetually creative without adequate rest or personal time can lead to burnout and health issues.

And that kinda stuff results in:
  • Long Work Days: Long hours, juggling teaching, planning, and administrative tasks, along with personal practice and professional development. This type of relentless and unsustainable schedule can significantly impact physical and emotional well-being.
  • Decreased Quality of Life: Given the required workload, it’s no wonder that many in our industry feel overwhelmed! Free time… that’s a thing? Hobbies… what are those?

This concept of “I must be busy in order to be successful” is something that’s inherently learned in our industry.

Take for example the grueling class schedule that’s required of college music majors. Where other majors might take 3-4 classes a semester, the music major has at least 4 classes, 2 ensembles, private lessons, and a long list of other 1 credit classes that have them on campus at all kinds of odd hours.

And that’s not even taking into account the hours of instrumental or vocal practice!

Our industry trains people to equate being busy with being successful. But that’s not how success needs to look!

Side note / small digression here.

There a big movement towards “work less, make more” programs in our industry. Some of them are absolutely fabulous. However, the “do as I do and you’ll find success” model can can ALSO result in major burnout. I’ve witnessed it first hand in coaching groups outside our industry, and heard many sad stories from music colleagues and clients.

This is what happens when teachers adopt business models that are counter to the way they actually want to work.

In other words: models such as online courses, group lessons, and high priced boutique services are not a fit for every teacher or every business. But because some of these programs make hefty promises such as “earn 8K a month!”, they seem like the fastest solution.

Straight up: Business model changes alone will not fix the issue of being underpaid and / or overworked. Yes, model changes are part of the solution, but if that’s all a program is teaching you? Run away, friends.

I could go on about this issue for ages, but let’s get back to the point at hand here…

We’re Teaching More Than Just Music

That was a lot of doom and gloom, huh? Well, here’s the GOOD news, teacher friends…

As IMTs and educators of young musicians, we’re in a unique position to chip away at these toxic mentalities by modeling behavior that counteracts the negativity.

Certainly, this won’t be something that changes overnight. And if I’m entirely honest, it may be something that never fully changes. But just because something is challenging or hard doesn’t stop me from wanting to talk about it. In fact, it kinda does the opposite.

Wanna see Sara get up on a soapbox? Just tell her that she can’t do something. ( *ahem* That’s how Savvy Music Studio started!)

So how can we start chipping away at unsustainable work cultures and the starving artist stereotype?

Our first step is to examine our own proclivities and figure out where we can make shifts in our businesses. AKA… we have to practice what we preach. By doing so we can be begin to foster an environment for our students that encourages sustainability and health within the industry.

Let’s examine what that might look like!

1. Valuing the Artist’s Services

First and foremost, it’s essential that we model the importance of valuing artistic services. This isn’t with the overall goal of turning all our students into professional musicians. (If I’m honest, I’ve encourage almost every single one of my students to pursue careers outside of music.)

Our goal is to instill the importance of appropriately valuing our own skills and the skills of others.

As teachers, we can emphasize:

Appropriate Compensation: Educate students about the importance of fair compensation and how to negotiate contracts that respect their contributions.

Yes, there will be opportunities where young students are asked to accompany the school choir without compensation. For many, that’s part of the training process.

But there will also be students who will seek out or be presented with paid opportunities, which require a different approach.

It’s essential that these young musicians understand the value of the service they’re providing and how to read and negotiate contracts that clearly outline expectations and compensation.

Professional Respect: Cultivating a professional mindset from the start is essential. We must teach students that their education and skills warrant recognition and respect.

This involves things such as emphasizing punctuality, preparation, and respect for collaborations. Additionally, understanding effective self-marketing and networking are crucial.

By modeling and instilling these values, we can help students to enter ANY industry with the confidence to advocate for themselves and respect their peers.

As IMTs, the foundation of this work begins by being able to 1) appropriately value our business services and 2) confidently communicate the value of said services.

A business cannot thrive when services are solely based on lesson length or expertise.

Clients are investing in a service that is so much more than just face-to-face teaching! They are supporting a structured business that requires resources to function effectively and sustainably.

If you own your own teaching business, you understand that there’s a wide array of operational costs that support a client’s experience— from administrative tasks and curriculum development to studio maintenance and investment in technology, etc.

Transparently communicating the value of our services is crucial. As business owners, it’s our responsibility to ensure that clients understand what our pricing covers.

Yours may include things like:
  • Convenience features like automated billing and online scheduling software
  • Personalized learning plans and repertoire selection
  • Recitals, competitions, and showcases
  • Studio insurances and memberships
  • Instrument maintenance and repairs
  • Continuing professional development
  • Studio resources and supplies
  • Technology and equipment
  • Facility costs and utilities

Communicating what’s included in our pricing is something that’s often overlooked in the sales process. Or it’s hidden away in a policy with the hopes that it will be read. (It likely won’t.)

By transparently communicating the comprehensive nature of our pricing, we’re able to impart a crucial lesson to our students:

To value their own work and the work of other artists.

If you find yourself needing help with pricing your services, here’s a fabulous blog post by my friend and colleague Michelle Markwart Deveaux – “The Importance of Pricing in the Arts Industry: A Guide.” (Bookmark that for later!)

2. Encouraging Sustainability and Health Within the Industry

In addition to teaching our students about valuing artistic services, we have the responsibility to advocate for sustainability in our industry.

The sustainability of a music career, whether you’re performing, composing, or teaching, hinges on the ability to set and maintain healthy boundaries.

And let’s be honest: boundary setting is a major issue in our industry.

This is why we see so many music teachers who are completely and totally exhausted.

Out of perceived necessity (and because pricing isn’t where it needs to be), they find themselves working 7+ hours with back-to-back clients every day. Yet they’re barely able to pay the bills at the end of the week.

I’ve been one of these people, so this is not a pointing finger, blaming and shaming kind of thing. It’s a “let’s call it like we see it” statement of the issue. And a call for “let’s figure out a way to FIX this!”

So — how can we combat this in our studios and in our industry as a whole?

We can demonstrate:

Setting Healthy Work Boundaries: Teach our students to respect their limits and ensure they don’t fall into the trap of overwork and burnout.

For example, a teacher could demonstrate healthy work boundaries by not accepting student calls or emails after 7 PM, clearly communicating that evenings are reserved for personal time.

Practices like these teach students to respect their own limits and the boundaries of others.

Mental and Physical Health: Provide students with strategies to manage stress, avoid burnout, and maintain overall wellness amidst the demands of their careers.

This can be as simple as incorporate brief mindfulness exercises at the start of each lesson, teaching students how to center themselves and manage stress before diving into their musical studies.

Avoiding scheduling outside of our desired working hours, consciously choosing when our businesses communicate via email and text, reinforcing studio policies that help our businesses run smoothly… I get that sometimes these things can feel tough.

But they’re a necessary part of running a sustainable business.

And they’re an important step towards encouraging sustainability and health within our industry as a whole.

When we set and respect our boundaries, we’re able to show up better for ourselves AND our businesses. And by managing the energy we dedicate to our businesses and valuing our personal time, we demonstrate that downtime isn’t just a luxury. It’s a necessity.

Want a little assist when it comes to setting boundaries in your policies? Check out this Savvy blog post: “The Simple Language Shift that will Transform Your Business.”

Need personal help with boundary setting? Reach out and let’s chat about how coaching support can help.

a picture of paper being ripped to reveal the words "What's next?"

The Challenge Ahead

We’re more than just music teachers. We are mentors, guides, and role models for our students. We have the opportunity to reshape the music industry into one that values its artists and their well-being.

But it requires effort, dedication, and a willingness to challenge the status quo.

So, let’s continuously ask ourselves:
  • How can we model a healthier, more sustainable existence in our industry?
  • What can we do to foster not just skilled musicians but well-rounded individuals who value themselves and their craft?

The task ahead may be daunting, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

As we guide our students in crafting soulful and beautiful music, let’s also encourage their development of professional esteem, respect, and balance so that they can confidently navigate life with dignity and self-assuredness.

Finally — to all my fellow music educators out there never underestimate the impact you can have. Your influence extends far beyond the studio.

You’re shaping the future of music, one note, one lesson, and one student at a time.

Did this blog post resonate? Got more ideas to help us change the toxicity in our industry? Let me know in the comments!

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5 thoughts on “How Music Teachers Can Combat Toxicity in the Music Industry”

  1. Great blog Sara!!!! This is so important to discuss and I just love that we’re getting there with the transparency around these once unaddressed issues. Boundaries, self-advocacy, & destigmatizing conversations surrounding money & work expectations will lead to a much happier, healthier and financially sound community of artists. That is what we need. Utopia! lol

    1. Well put, Jules! Destigmatizing these conversations is exactly what we need. Thank you for reading, and for your lovely comment. Here’s to creating utopia! 😉

  2. Made excellent points.We as teachers do neef to ne more transparent in letting other teachers know what we are charging to help create a baseline which will of course, vary per region. Would that we had a union like AGO ( I am a member ) that sets standard prices for standard tasks.Too many places believe they should pay the organist but not the musicians. And the guest brass, violinists, flautists who show up for special services sre often paid three or four times what singers are paid- I have done gigs both as guest positions, apparently because my playing on a third of the pieces with an instrument is more highly valued.

    1. I hear what you’re saying about transparency. I’m of a different mindset when it comes to baselines and standard rates, especially when it comes to lesson tuition, as rates vary SO widely due to factors such as: business and personal budget needs, the transformation you’re providing to students, the level of expertise a teacher has, how they deliver their services, etc. I think this also translates to gigging musicians as well. For example: the type of music a band plays could be super specialized — if there aren’t many of those types of bands in the area, they’re able to provide a service that’s seen as “scarce,” and therefore could chooses to price according to that.

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