Go Book Yourself: Two Rules for Time-Hoarding and a Full Studio Schedule

So in my previous post, I Draw the Line: Why I Hoard My Studio Time,” I talked about why I am a self-titled time-hoarder, which is to say that over the last several years, I’ve become a teensy bit selfish with how I organize my life, which has ended up having a glorious effect on my students, family, and myself.  I spend significantly less time wanting to shred people to pieces and more time focusing on happiness and balance! That’s Progress (with a capital P).

So today, I’m going to delve into the nuts and bolts of how I do this (feel free to insert a nut joke here).

When I tell people that at any given moment in time, I have 5+ jobs, the responses I get can be lumped into two families:
Family 1: the impressed and slightly incredulous “Wow, you must stay busy!”
Family 2: the half-bitter, half-supportive “Good for you! I could never do that.” To which my response is yes, yes, you actually could if you wanted to. Because if I can work eight thousand jobs and still make time for wine and Breaking Bad, then surely you can, too.

It’s not rocket science. There are a few reigning principles I keep in mind when I organize my schedule…these are my Golden Rules for Time-Hoarding and a Full Teaching Schedule:

1. Will this give me time? I know enough about myself by now to know that I need time. I cannot function without seriously quarantining myself to recover from socializing. Hence the 6-8 weeks of yearly summer rejuvenation, after which I still don’t really feel ready to start fraternizing with the real world. I need time in my schedule for family: my dogs, cat, husband, parents, garden, etc…(not necessarily in that order) and myself so that I can be more than what I do. When I seek opportunities and contemplate taking them, I always ask myself – will this give me time? Because of the nature of my work, the answer is usually not entirely “no,” but more often something like “for x-number of weeks, you will have significantly less time, after which you will have gained this, this, and that.” It’s all a delicate tightrope act of loss versus gain. Which leads me to…

2. Will this better my life? As I approach 30, I’m becoming a serious advocate for flushing the crap. Eliminating, or dramatically reducing things from my life that do not give me joy at least most of the time. This principle is slowly weaving itself into the fabric of my day-to-day musical (and non-musical) operations, right down to the students and families I take on, to the classes I teach and the music I choose for my choir and students. I realize it’s not always about me, though. Teaching a Mozart aria does not grant me total nirvana, but I think is necessary for the bettering of my students and myself as a teacher, and so I do it. But at the end of the day, when I’m deciding whether or not to do another unpaid performance, or if a smallish accompanying salary is worth the net gain in new students, contacts, and professional relationships (it is, as it turns out), I ask myself – is this going to better my life? If the answer even slightly deviates more toward “no,” I turn it down, because it’s not worth it.

Case in point: My husband, also self-employed sassafras, is currently licking his wounds after spending six months on a project that did not really pan out financially and didn’t give him what he wanted professionally. We both agree that six months is way too much time, especially as we approach the baby-making years and rush like mad to get done everything we want to accomplish before we have kids.  The project neither gave him time nor bettered his life. You live, you learn.

So how does this apply to studio teaching? 

These two questions have been paramount to establishing myself as an independent teacher, constructing a nice, symbiotic ebb and flow between my students, studio families, and teaching. For the most part, my students and I kind of “get” each other, and therefore want the same things out of lessons. Is that the law of attraction at work? I like to think so.

So then the actual mechanics of establishing a teaching schedule all sort of become Price Is Right-ish. How much is that 30-minute weekly time slot actually worth to you and the general public? My studio scheduling methods have changed over the years, and are by no means perfect or unchanging, but this is what has worked for me:

Exhibit A: I decide when I want to teach. My studio “prime-time” is about 2:00-6:30 or 7, Monday – Thursday. I don’t teach past 7:00 so that I can eat dinner with my husband or choose to do musicals (the universe doesn’t usually grant me both). I don’t teach on Fridays because with a church job, Sundays are a work day for me. By proxy, my “weekends” are usually Fridays and Saturdays, if I’m not slaving away in some musical. I do set aside three or four Friday afternoons a semester for group lessons, which I’m willing to facilitate because they better my life and my student’s lives without sacrificing a ton of my time.

Before you storm off in a rage over the fact that I only work sixteen studio hours a week, you should parkitrightthere and mull over the fact that for every contact hour I have with students, there’s at least a half-hour of weekly overhead, which involves some pretty menial labor, like enabling wi-fi on my ridiculous printer. Or cleaning the carpets. Or replying to silly e-mails (for the last time, the studio schedule is ON THE WEBSITE).  Do a little math and that all adds up to about 25 hours a week, which to me is a reasonable amount of time to contribute to what provides about 50% of my income. Add in my other jobs, and during peak season (mid-fall and spring), I’ll put in anywhere between 50-75 hours a week. It just doesn’t ever feel like that much because I work to control my schedule (giving me time) and am pretty happy doing everything (bettering my life).

Exhibit B: I ask students to send me their top three choices for lesson days and times. Within my teaching hours, which I divulge well in advance. Inevitably, I have to remind someone that no, I do not teach Sundays at 2 am, or I’ll have to deal with everyone and their (literal) mother’s request for Tuesdays at 5. I can’t accommodate everything, but can usually come close to giving most people what they want, after a fairly decent (and by decent I mean a lot) exchange of e-mails and texts. I also account for other crazy unrelated stuff, like the significant cramp that the school district’s release times put on my teaching hours. But everyone else in the city suffers, too, which levels the playing field.

Here is a very high-tech document that I use to work out a semester teaching plan:

it's a work in progress
it’s a work in progress

Chicken scratch? Maybe, but it works. One checkmark means they’re confirmed for that time. The second check means I have invoiced them. Once they get two checks, I move them into my studio management system (God bless musicteachershelper.com), which syncs up to my ical and voila, my semester is laid out before me. Use whatever works for you – smiley face symbols, skull and crossbones…

Exhibit C: I don’t teach makeup lessons. I used to, but it drove me up the WALL. Inevitably, every one of my students has at least one schedule snafu a semester. They write their lesson day down wrong, or accidentally schedule a doctor’s appointment at the same time, or forgot to arrange transportation, they have to wash their hair…it never ends. For too many years, I gave up a Sunday of each month to accommodate the fact that my family of three pianists wanted to skip their Halloween lessons so they could go trick-or-treating before it got dark.  #no. These days, I forgive, because I’m less cynical and completely understand the need for balance. I don’t take it personally; Lord knows I’ve double-booked myself. BUT I’m pretty firm on my makeup and refund policy. If all thirty of my students miss one  lesson and I agree to make them all up, that’s thirty hours of my time that I have to magically pull out of my ass and strategically divvy up throughout the semester. That violates both of my golden rules by taking away my time and worsening my life.

So what’s the alternative?

Exhibit D: I build in a “flex” week at the end of each semester. If a student has missed a lesson in the semester and given me 24 hours’ notice when canceling, or if I’ve had to miss because my throat feels like someone has raked hot coals across it, I will make it up to them during the flex week. The onus is on them to track what they’re entitled to, and I set a deadline (usually about 1-2 weeks before flex week) and they have to notify me by then if they want their makeup lesson. The nifty secret I’ve discovered is that by the time the end of the semester rolls around, lots of families don’t even want to bother with another lesson. Especially if it interferes with Christmas shopping or fair-weather picnics. When they do the math and account for how their tuition has paid for group lessons and recitals, they only end up paying a little more per lesson, and most people don’t lose sleep over that. So I end up with a relatively flexible, paid week that I spend providing for my students in other ways. I scope out new rep, schedule, remove all dust bunnies and cat vomit stains, and even give “double” (hour-long) lessons for students that tried really hard to make their schedule work, but may have just had some unfortunate-yet-legitimate circumstances. Though, for the record, those students know that only one of those makeups are guaranteed, as per my studio policy, and my willingness to make up more than that is directly proportional to the amount of mutual-respect-juju I feel floating around. The flex week might even be my favorite week of the year –  the regular weekly schedule does not apply (yay for not doing the same thing every day!), it gives me a chance to wind down before taking a break, yet simultaneously gives me time to get excited about my teaching

…and that betters my life!



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