Thank you for agreeing to the interview! I admire both of you for your business savvy and how you’ve given the label “piano teacher” a whole new meaning. Can you tell us a little bit about your early piano lessons?
Jennifer: I started studying at the age of 6 and studied with a variety of teachers before finally settling with my primary instructor who I worked with for about 6 years before she retired. We had a wonderful rapport and she went to great efforts to expose me to all types of music but with classical music as the primary focus. She was a wonderful, supportive teacher, and she helped mentor me at age 14 when I started teaching my own students. My teaching methods and style are based largely on how she taught.
Kristin: Like Jennifer, I began with lessons at age six. My mother asked me one night at dinner if I wanted to start taking piano lessons…she played and wanted nothing more than for me to learn as well, so I said yes. I still remember my first recital that following spring…I played three pieces, the first I don’t’ remember, and the second was called, “Down I Go, In the Snow”, literally 3 notes repeated with those exact words, and when I finished, nobody knew it was over! I remember the feeling of embarrassment or fear or both, so I then went into a rousing rendition of When the Saints Go Marching In with an overly zealous left hand accompaniment. I felt like I had some making up to do for the audience. Why on earth she let me play that 3-note ditty is beyond me!
After my first teacher retired (apparently it was a stressful year), I worked with two other teachers before settling down with my primary high school teacher, whom my father so fondly gave the nickname of Hitler to. She was wonderful; she set boundaries, she had expectations and propelled me forward faster than I could imagine. I think it’s interesting to note that the only one of my teachers prior to college that had formal training in piano was my first teacher, yet I still had a substantial performance scholarship for my undergraduate degree, and a full performance based scholarship in graduate school.
As a child, did you ever go through a period that you wanted to quit. What kept you going?
Jennifer: Absolutely! No endeavor is ever “fun” all the time. My parents were pretty strict about me getting in an hour of practice each day and there were often times that this was not my favorite chore because I would’ve rather been outside playing with my friends. In retrospect I’m glad they made me stick with it and once I started working and playing gigs at age 12 my motivation level never sagged. Funny how making a little money can turn your attitude around about things like practice!
Kristin: I think I asked to quit every day for three years. The breaking point came when I was in the 7th grade and my mother told me I actually COULD quit…If I learned this particular arrangement of Thy Word, which was in Eb major and had a bunch of 16th notes (she could barely play it.) She gave me a two-week deadline and said that I could quit if I learned the piece to her satisfaction in under two weeks. I never practiced so much in my life! About three days later I had learned and to this day I still have the first page memorized. Her response was one I will never forget. “You just proved to me that you are too good to quit. We’re getting you a different teacher.” And that was that. She was right; the teacher they found me after this experience was the perfect teacher for me, right when I needed her.
You’re both tuned into the learning styles of the new generation. What advice would you give teachers who are struggling to keep students “on the bench”?
Jennifer: In my mind it’s all about the material and customizing lessons to fit the tastes and goals of each individual. If they hate what they’re playing why should they be motivated to practice? There is such a wide array of repertoire available nowadays that there’s just no reason for students to be unhappy with their pieces. If students are having a rough time keeping up their motivation because they’re simply tired and over-scheduled I always tell teachers to take the “deadlines” out of this endeavor. Make it clear to these types of students that piano can be their one “deadline-free” hobby that is done simply for their own enjoyment. That, coupled with customizing the repertoire to suit their tastes is a great way to keep students in lessons.
Kristin: 90% of what we do as teachers is to give our students the right music at the right time. For me personally, I have an extremely low turnover in students and they all think they’re really good. ☺ If a teacher wants student retention, three things need to happen:
- Listen – listen to the child and the parents. Do they value the same things you do?
- Lead – listening is important, but leading is more important (most of the time.) I think performance deadlines are important for 90% of students, so here is the calendar year that I have and all but insist all of my elementary and middle school students follow (HS students are completely different and priorities shift). Fall Recital in October, judged piece in November, Holiday House Concert in December, Pop Showcase with a band in late February/early May, Achievement Auditions (3 pieces) for a judge in April, as well as a Grammy Week where students have a friendly in-house competition with each other. They receive awards for this event, and are encouraged to dress up, etc…a concert for kids, if you will.
- Organize – I attribute my success with students to my level of organization. My shelves and desk drawer may not be organized, but their course of study is!
How did you meet?
Jennifer: Kristin and I met at MTNA in Anaheim in March of 2013. I specifically sought her out at her presentation after getting to know her a bit online in the Facebook piano teacher forums. I knew that we would be fast friends considering our similar backgrounds and teaching philosophies and I wasn’t wrong about that.
Kristin: I remember meeting at MTNA in Anaheim, but I remember seeking Jennifer out in the exhibit hall, not the other way around! She is probably right though – my memory rivals that of a squirrel.
What is your business background?
Jennifer: My business background comes from the all-important ‘school of experience.’ I read a lot of books about business strategies and marketing and am always paying close attention to businesses in all realms that are doing things that I admire. Just as with music, the learning never stops!
Kristin: Ha! I grew up with parents who were third generation immigrant farmers, before the days of subsidies and incentives. Financial planning and working extremely hard are part of my DNA. I too read a lot of business, leadership and self-development books and surround myself with people who are smarter/more knowledgeable than me. (That’s really the secret.)
You’re both published authors. What led you down that path?
Jennifer: I started writing my Piano Pronto method series back in 2000 simply out of necessity. I was living and working abroad in Stockholm Sweden and didn’t have access to the materials that I was using in the U.S. with my students. I bought a copy of Sibelius notation software and started writing music for my students. I could have never imagined that 15 years later I would be running my own publishing company—but it’s been an amazing journey that is extremely gratifying.
Kristin: My book came at a time when talking about a financially viable career as a piano teacher was still taboo. The title actually came from a presentation at NCKP in 2007, to which Sam Holland actually gave me the name for. We were having lunch one day and I was telling him about the success I had my first year. It’s a story that I wish I had known before I created it, and then wanted it to be available as inspiration for others in the same boat. I used the philosophy, “done is better than perfect”, so just put it out there. I’m currently working on its second edition and can’t wait for it to come out this summer! My editor is great, there is a lot of content that has been added and ‘beefed up’, as well as handout examples galore.
Do you find time to keep up your own piano performance careers? In other words, do you still find time to practice?
Jennifer: I don’t spend as much time honing my own skills at the piano as I would like to and the professional performance aspect of my career is a chapter that is more or less closed. That being said I always make a point to get to the piano everyday and have a few pieces that I’m actively polishing.
Kristin: I do! My background is classical and from the Lutheran church (I’m a really strong reader.) Then after college, I used to play with the Celebration Jazz Orchestra, which is the chair Norah Jones used to play in. I ‘play’ current music all the time, and am constantly teaching that repertoire, so I stay on my toes that way. The piano in my living room is an amazing instrument, so I ‘play’ a lot of classical music that I learned really well in college and graduate school, though rarely practice new classical literature.
I am also currently studying all of the Debussy and Chopin Preludes with Alfred Mouledous, my teacher from graduate school. He studied with Gieseking in Paris, so I am doing this primarily for the historical context, but also because it’s fun (not too hard) and I love Mr. Mouledous.
What’s next for both of you?
Jennifer: I plan to continue to grow the Piano Pronto brand and to keep writing and releasing new titles. Things are growing so fast with the company that it’s hard to even imagine where we’ll be a year from now. For the time being I’m just enjoying the process of carving out our niche in the publishing world. I also plan to spend more time on the road leading workshops for teacher associations and retail locations. I really enjoy connecting with teachers and students at smaller events. Kristin and I have some plans to coordinate professional development events that will offer a different spin on the traditional conference—stay tuned for more details about that!
Kristin: The second edition of my book is a biggie, and I am looking forward to teaching the Current Trends course at SMU this coming spring for the Piano Performance and Pedagogy students. Jennifer and I are working on some development activities that I hope we are able to share with everyone very soon. It’s the next step in professional development for us piano teaching professionals! In my immediate plans, this summer will be spent taking some time off to explore what is next for my career and personal goals while simply enjoying a slower pace.
Jennifer, what inspired you to take the self-publishing route?
Jennifer: I felt that the market needed materials that were fresh and different and that there was no way to accomplish that other than staying independent. I have never had a desire to have my materials edited down to fit the preferences of somebody else’s catalog. My voice as an arranger and composer is unique and the only way to maintain that voice was to do all the work myself.
What was the most challenging part of building a publishing company?
Jennifer: Hardcopy print publishing is an extremely expensive business endeavor with a ton of moving parts. I’ve made plenty of mistakes along the way but have really enjoyed all of the things I’ve learned along the way.
Kristin, what advice would you give to a teacher who is dealing with Piano Teacher Burnout?
- Schedule breaks. Summer break, fall break, winter break, spring break, etc…it’s a time to recharge. It’s also really important for teachers and creatives to have down time/unstructured time.
- Summer. Have a reduced schedule over a period of half to 3/4 of the summer weeks the public schools in your area have. This still gives you time off and keeps the students going.
- Have a non-musical hobby. For me this is reading, long walks with audio books, watching TV shows, going to movies and shopping.
- Repertoire Lists. At the end of the year, seeing the work you and your students have done throughout the last 9 months is incredible. For me, it’s motivating, especially when I see a break on the horizon. Look at all ‘we’ accomplished!
- Read. I love self development and leadership books, as well as the free (somewhat less than literary classic) romance novels Kindle provides.
- Policies. Have policies in place that keep 90-95% of your client base updated regularly. Establish boundaries such as ‘office hours’ and when people can expect you to respond. Too often people can text or email at 9am and expect you to reply by 9:04am. Have financial policies in place and follow them, so that you feel you are being valued in that way.
- Energy. List your energy suckers and make strides to eliminate them. This could be billing/invoicing, bank deposits, scheduling, etc…figure out solutions so they are no longer draining you.
- Energyx2. List your motivators and make strides to add more of them in your life. This could be more performances, more students who are creative, ensembles, etc…
- Mindset. Let’s face it, the person we most have conversations with in our lives, is ourselves. Make sure you are the person you want to spend the most amount of time with…Make sure you truly love enriching lives through music at the piano, you enjoy communication, you can handle ‘exceptions to the rule’, you like making decisions, reading budgets, reviewing financials and more…that’s what a piano teacher does.
Jennifer Eklund is the author of the Piano Pronto method book series, and the owner of Piano Pronto Publishing, a full-scale publishing house offering educational materials for students of all ages and levels. You can see and hear all of her works at PianoPronto.com. You can also connect with her on her Piano Pronto Discussion Forum on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/groups/pianoprontopublishing.
An active performer, author and teacher, Kristin Yost brings her experience and expertise to piano teachers around the world. “How I Made $100K My First Year As a Piano Teacher” is now a requirement for some of the top pedagogy courses in the country. It is availabe for purchase from www.PianoAccents.com or Amazon.com. Learn more at her websites at www.KristinYost.com and www.CentreforMusicalMinds.org.