Monday, February 3, 2014

The High Cost of Music

A piece of writing made the rounds on my Facebook feed this morning which was written by a mom wondering why on earth she should pay someone the exorbitant rate of $60/hr to teach her musically mediocre children to play the piano.  It’s safe to say that this elicited some rather passionate reactions from my musician friends.  I’m not going to engage here in the argument for arts education (which is long, involved, has been covered better elsewhere) and will just focus on the economics of the issue here.  After all, perhaps there are parents out there who are wondering why they are paying so much money for their kids’ music lessons and financing the lifestyle of the rich and famous that most teaching musicians must live.  

The writer’s argument focuses primarily on the issue of hourly rate, and brings up the hourly rates of several other professions such as loggers and college physicists by comparison. Leaving aside for a moment factors like education and whether an employee is paid hourly or salaried from this odd collection, please show me the logger who spends time uncompensated by his employer researching trees, cutting and roping techniques, or attending tree-cutting conferences (his union might have a problem with him being asked to).  Please show me the college physicist who is responsible for paying out of pocket for all of their research materials and texts.  Please show me the hospital psychologist who has to front the cost for all of his or her own marketing in order to get clients.  

Those things?  Music teachers do all of those things on their own, uncompensated, out of their own pockets.  When we aren’t teaching Johnny to play chopsticks, we’re attending conferences with peers, thinking about, researching, and sometimes even purchasing repertoire for your child, getting our piano tuned, engaging in musical endeavors of our own that add to our knowledge, or doing countless other uncompensated things that directly affect how we teach.  My teacher in school came to my school performances and talked to me about them afterward, arranged recitals complete with accompanists all paid for by her, talked to me on the phone about my concerns for free, filled out my college recommendations and helped me research schools, and even had me over for lunch on occasion.  She also had an entire library of scores containing everything from show tunes to art songs to entire operas, and she would loan them out to me to look at any time I liked.  At an average cost of $15-$30 depending on the size of the score, that’s a pretty substantial investment.  That dollar-an-hour of hers just kept stretching and stretching.  So much for that “low overhead” the writer claims teachers have.

Here’s another reason we can’t make that mythical $120,000 a year teaching 40 hours: in spite of the assumption that we’re all out-of-work musicians, every teacher I know is also a performer.  There’s not some mythical divide between those who do and those who don’t and teach.  All of us combine teaching, performing, and other odd jobs to pay the bills.  Why, when we could just make bank teaching for a dollar an hour?  For one thing, there aren’t 40 students a week to teach, and those students who do want lessons usually have similar demands on their time like going to school until three in the afternoon and going to bed at a reasonable hour.  And remember that list up there in that other paragraph?  That list doesn’t just take money, it takes time.  Time we wouldn’t have if we had back-to-back students for seven hours a day, even if they were available.    

The writer concedes grudgingly that we do have educations to do what we do.  When it comes to the nebulous value of education, perhaps another hourly rate comparison would be easier here.  My husband is a lawyer.  Here’s the deal with being a lawyer: because he reports billable hours, he is compensated by fractions of hours for every single minute he spends working on your case.  Unless he voluntarily writes down your bill, if you have a phone conversation with him, ask him to attend your bail hearing, or call in the middle of the night for legal advice, that crap goes in the billing system and is sent to you to pay for.  He and I both have a four year degree from a prestigious school.  We also had to compete with other qualified people for admittance to graduate school, where we completed our education and received applied experience in our fields and a degree that reflected that accomplishment.  We both have substantial educational loans we’re still paying off for our degrees.  When he started working, the average hourly rate in our area was $150-200, higher for bigger firms.  That’s per hour he spends on your case, no outside time.  My per-hour rate of $45 (yes, it’s less than $60) keeps shrinking based on all the factors I mentioned above.  Same time spent in school, same financial commitment to our educations.  Let’s just say that one of us is more responsible for paying the bills than the other.

If the writer still wants to shrug all of this off and take her kid to some stranger on the Red Line to teach them for $20/hr, that’s her perogative.  But keep this in mind.  You may know when your lawyer doesn’t win your case, or when your tree lands on your house, or when your kid’s college lab blows up and sucks her into a black hole because you hired someone to do the job who wasn’t properly trained.  You won’t know when your kid develops vocal nodes or repetitive stress injuries from how they get taught, and by the time you find out you’re going to be playing a lot more for physical therapy (I hope maybe she'll at least get someone qualified for that).  After all, I'm assuming there’s a reason she's are going to someone who cuts her hair for an arm and a leg instead of Great Clips, right?    

Look, maybe this writer genuinely experienced sticker shock when lesson shopping for her daughter.  The reality, though, is that the market will bear what people are willing to pay for something, and people in her area are obviously willing to pay $60 an hour for quality piano lessons.  Perhaps she might consider that parents see the value and sense of all the things I have mentioned above when making the decision about who should teach their children, instead of questioning the integrity and motivation of teaching musicians.  

And perhaps if she ever sees that mythical rich teacher park her Benz in the school parking lot, she can take a picture so that all the musicians I know can be insanely jealous.