Top 3 Absurd Skillz I Never Thought I’d Use as a Music Teacher

2nd post! So far, so good (said the person who has posted ONCE).

I have a lot of ideas. Sometimes in the middle of a lesson or rehearsal, I’ll say something, relevant or not, without really thinking it through or remembering that people can hear me.  Sometimes these outbursts are met with laughter and other times blank stares. I have word vomit, nay; word cholera. Frequent, explosive, and generally fixable with lots of oral rehydration therapy. Singers: drink your water! It’s not only healthy, but will keep your mouth shut, saving you from awkward silences!

Sometimes ideas come to me because of the general absurdity of a particular situation. As in, never once in my musical training did I imagine I would need to know how to say, clean up cat vomit at lightning speed because by some horrible planetary alignment, Spike has chosen to puke directly under the piano benchright before a new student’s lesson, and not only have I not printed the studio handbook or brushed my hair, but I smell like hospital and Spike is going for round 2 right in front of the door. Stupid cat always throws up in twos…every time.

I can't help it...I'm just a KITTY...
I can’t help it…I’m just a KITTY…

Many times, my propensity for uncontrolled thought-regurgitation works to my benefit. Students, singers, and friends are amused, and I manage to come up with some brilliant alternative to describe to my singers how the inside their mouth should be shaped when they sing Mozart (answer: turkey baster – open in the back and narrow in the front. BAM).

I thought for a while that I’d write a book called “How Did I Get Here? Thoughts and Stories on Teaching Music.” Not only would I share my misadventures, but I’d take all the funny stories my friends have shared with me and notate them into a brilliant compilation that no teacher could ever be without! Maybe one day I’ll have enough for a book, but in the meantime, here is my most eloquent list of:

Top Absurd Skillz (with a z)
I Never Thought I’d Use as a Music Teacher

Derived from at least several of my most interesting “How the Hell Did I Get Here?” moments.

1. Interior Design Skillz

I took pictures of my studio space in its first year. I did it because I was sure the IRS was going to audit me and I wanted proof that I did, in fact, use 33% of the square footage of my rental duplex for my job! (We never even used that main level bathroom, I swear!) I look back at my first studio arrangement that I was insanely proud of at the time; my bookshelf full of so many materials (college textbooks that have minimal real-world application…turns out most 8-year old pianists don’t care to analyze Bach chorales), my high-tech printer (hp1510, anyone, anyone?) so carefully perched on my workspace (look! Now it’s a baker’s rack!).

I look at those pictures and laugh because now, having transitioned into at least a rudimentary real-person’s house, I have to wonder how my students or parents took me seriously when my couch cover wouldn’t just stay put. I’m not saying your teaching space has to look like something Sandra Lee would put together (“Keep it simple!”), but you do need to create an environment where your students aren’t going to wonder if your vacuum is broken, or if your carpets look like it’s growing a secondary carpet.

I’ve always been a control freak neat and organized person, and as such have always had to be comfortable in my environment before I could ever think about learning. But the general mentality of extending hospitality to guests in my home didn’t really kick in until I bought a house. Here’s some skillz you may not have considered:

  • Changing your AC filter so you don’t have to dust every day. Did you know there’s about a billion different sizes and styles that catch all sorts of microscopic invaders? This is a big deal when you teach singers who have uncontrollable sneeze fits upon entering your studio. Replace that sucker every 6 months or when it starts to look like the cookie monster. Your musicians will thank you.
  • Snow, ice, leaf, pet, spider (not pet spider…jeez), and small children removal / general outdoor maintenance. Nobody who happens upon a scene out of a Stephen King novel will feel like subdividing rhythms. Don’t make your students and families maneuver the Temple of Doom to learn music. Get your curb appeal on lock, folks. Plant some flowers, sweep, set up a nice little bench or waiting area. Let people take off their shoes if you can. Tuck your trash away, hide the cooler full of alcohol from last weekend’s float trip, and make it a place that people actually want to be.
  • Knowing how to clean a room in less than 10 minutes. Sometimes my first student of the day shows up 10 minutes early, or worse, I have forgotten I have a lesson scheduled (this has only happened about twice in my life). Sometimes when this happens, I am surrounded by piles of crap, upon which I have to kick into gear. I have the art of “oh, excuse the mess” (read: strategically placed books and fresh-cut flowers) down to a science. Pick up everything that doesn’t “belong.” Throw it in a giant box. Throw said box into the shower and yank the curtain closed. Wet rag on major surfaces, light a smelly candle, choose the low-but-comforting-and-cozy lighting option (that way they may overlook the pet fur accumulating in the corner) and you’re good to go! Everyone has their own process. Just don’t get caught cleaning up cat vomit.
  • Keeping your bathroom bathroom-able! That means actually replacing the toilet paper and having readily-accessible hand soap and hand towels. All of these are business expenses, so keep track of what you buy in the way of “real-person bathroom” stuff from wal-mart, which includes cleaning supplies. It all adds up!
  • Cleaning carpets, if you have them. I have 36 private students that I teach out of my home. That means my studio door opens and closes at least 72 times every 4 days. People come in with shoes, mud, water, snow, feet, socks, and bodily oils, and after a while, it takes a toll on the carpet. You start to get “carpet jaded,” as in, “I think it looks okay, don’t you?” Then you move a piece of furniture and see what the carpet is supposed to look like. Let that be your motivation. You can write it off as a business expense.
  • Basic feng shui. As it turns out, pushing all your furniture up against the walls isn’t always the best thing to do…who would’ve thought? After some time binge pinning  studying beautiful design, I found I was committing a major “line” faux pas; that is, having all my photos and artwork stop at the exact same imaginary line about 2 feet down from the ceiling. Once I put some thought into how to maximize my studio space, my productivity skyrocketed. Not everyone is this way, but knowing how you operate is step one, and if you know you’d rather work in a happy, manageable, clean space, then make it so! Or just keep that awkward furniture arrangement and hope that one day your room will magically look like a BH&G spread. Maybe it will solve itself…

2. Graphic Design Skillz

I don’t know about you, but I graduated with NO experience in this realm (but gosh darn it, if you need me to analyze a Bach chorale, I’ve got just the book! It’s on my $15 mainstays bookshelf!) Five years ago, I put this at about a 5 on the absurdity scale, and by that, I mean No one ever said to me “You know what? Maybe if your stuff looked like it wasn’t designed by a drunk kindergartener, you might appear more professional!” or “Maybe if you didn’t wait until the morning of the recital to design the programs, you wouldn’t be stuck figuring out how to format text in a table!” Absurd situations. Absolutely ridiculous.

You don’t have to have a degree in this (if you, do, awesome! I need to hire you). But guess what? When you have to design and print your first recital program, it’s going to need to be at least a few steps above photocopied scribbles, or else your parents will be praising you for letting your first-years design the program (inadvertent project?)

School yourself in the most basic design principles, like how to use and modify pre-existing templates in programs like Office, Pages, Publisher, etc. Every time I designed something for a new event, I tried to use a different program. Yes, each program inevitably had a 10-hour learning curve (hello, coffee), but it was worth it. I became more intuitive about the the graphic process and now it’s easier for me to embrace new programs, which makes me more marketable as a professional.

A Recital Program - I made this in Pages (for mac)
A Recital Program – I made this in Pages (for mac)

When will these skills come in handy, you ask? Designing your studio and self promotion materials, like…

  • Your individual or studio webpage
  • Business cards, studio brochures, flyers, posters, recital invitations
  • Recital programs
  • Studio handbooks
  • Advertisements for your studio (online and in print)
  • Studio worksheets, forms, and projects

Start with what you must design, and give yourself a solid chunk of time (read: well before you need it) to learn how to do it. Then try not to fixate on that one production method, because it will probably become outdated or impossible to sustain in the long run.

3. Basic Photography Skillz.

One day, I was editing my studio website and couldn’t for the life of me figure out how to make a photo smaller. Every time I loaded the site, I was faced with a very intimate closeup of my latest skin problem and couldn’t figure out how to not make that happen. Learning the proper way to minimize Sir Swells a Lot (that’s a pimple nickname) went from a 1 to an 8 on the Scale of Absurdity.

I totally respect what photographers do. I wish I could afford to hire someone every time I need a photo resized. Instead, I spent a long time (okay, a few weekends) poring over a stack of library books on how to take better photos, use the manual setting on my camera, figure out good lighting, etc. Turns out you don’t need the latest-greatest-super-mega-camera-of-death to take a good photo; you just need to know how to properly frame a shot, find the light, and consider the rule of thirds.  I’m no Ansel Adams (refer to the unedited feline photo at the top of the page) but I do have a newfound resentment for over-exposure and “duck-face.” Here’s a few times when this has come in handy:

  • Taking headshots, self-portraits, and group photos at recitals and events
  • Using said photos on a studio website, blog and promotional materials
  • Accompanying written biographies for events and performances
  • Documenting my studio for tax purposes.


There’s oodles more SKILLZ that have come in handy that certainly weren’t on my college degree track, and maybe one day I’ll do a series on all the funny, bizarre events that have premeditated the development of these skillz. For now, just trust me, okay? One day when you’re frantically scrubbing the bathroom floor before students arrive, you’ll be glad you did.

What absurd situations have prompted you to learn how to do new things? What skillz have you cultivated in your musical lives?

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