Obligations, Loss and Liability

One of the biggest losses a studio faces is when a student resigns or steps down.  It can be a big blow not only to the teacher, but to the other members of the studio.  Recently, two key members of Celtic Calamity, the Thursday night Celtic Group Class had to resign.  I'll not go into their personal details, suffice it to say that family and financial obligations always come first, and in my mind, you have to take care of those before you can do anything else.

But while this recent loss is painful, it brings me back to the loss of another student in 2016.  This student had been with the studio since the early 1990s, participated in all of the groups offered, and was a participant and key player in the formation of Mandolin New England, the mandolin orchestra that assembles once a year with players from New York, Massachusetts and Rhode Island to perform in western Massachusetts.  When they said they were resigning from the studio, it was a horrible loss not only to me, but to the other group members, their spouses and in some cases their children.  To this day, I'm not sure how much they were aware of the positive impact they had, and the abrupt almost violent impact they had when they left.  The ripples are still spreading out and their absence is still felt, almost four years later.

As a Studio, we are obligated to keep going, to shoulder the burdens and to continue to do our best to reach out to interested communities and continue to grow.  Each new group of students contributes such positivism and helps to further the participation and contributions of other members.  And, as the 21st century trundles on, we are forced to seek out methods of meeting those obligations in an increasingly online world.

Twenty years ago, word of mouth was key.  Area stores that carried mandolin-family and violin-family instruments were critical sources of new business.  Now that most of those businesses, except for a few stalwarts, have closed or consolidated, private studios such as ours, are finding fewer and fewer students coming from referrals.  Fifteen years ago, MySpace was the primary social network, and source of many new students and musicians.  Facebook took over in 2006, competing on multiple levels.  Ten years ago, Craigslist was the primary source of new students and participants in the various jam sessions, sight-reading sessions and even new orchestra members.  This source has mostly dried up due to Craig Newmark's sale of the site to new owners who have switched to a payment option for small businesses and studios.  Nowadays even social media is a weak source of new musicians, as Facebook/Twitter/Google+ squeeze the attention of their members, removing potential eyeballs from pages and posts, and forcing new algorithms that don't work for small businesses.  Now a combination of word of mouth and social media are just about the sole methods for reaching new potential players, audiences and students.  Events still work for encouraging participation in programs, but they often do not result in paying members.

Studios such as ours are facing a new attack from another direction.  Over the past six or seven years, liability insurance costs have skyrocketed.  No longer part of a home-owner's insurance, private studios such as ours are forced to take out additional liability insurance plans with a monthly payment that is as much if not more than a car payment!

I do not mean to sound negative, and if this post reads that way, I apologize!  I am doing the best I can to keep the various programs alive and engaging, and the rewards of positive comments from participants and students are helpful, and technology has increased the conveniences available to existing and new students.  Skype and Slack, for example, are two software communications options for online lessons.  We use Slack, and many other studios use Skype.  Competition from "Free" lessons through YouTube and other social media is fierce, however, and using the words of one of my students, there's no THERE there.

We continue to market online lessons however, because it does drive traffic to our events, YouTube channel and Podcast.  A new model is emerging, that of becoming a studio "Patron" through a monthly "contribution" is interesting.  We are experimenting with that.  So far it's a dud, but we will continue to try it out.  It obviously works for YouTube channels that provide content that people want.  The key is to know what content is most interesting currently and to provide more similar content.  For example, people spend more time watching and sharing the "product review" videos on my YouTube channel, than they do the music-related ones.  Obviously this means I should be creating more "product review" videos, and pushing the "subscribe" and "become a patron" buttons there.

In order to maintain a successful small business, one must be constantly vigilant, flexible, have a thick skin, and be forward thinking.  To be a good teacher, one must be sensitive, open-minded and passionate.  Do the two compliment each other?  I've been doing this for more than 30 years, so I would say yes.