An interview with John Gardner, band teacher, entrepreneur
John and I connected on LinkedIN and we got speaking about teaching music, the new technologies available, trends in music education and safety precautions when teaching children, both for the child and the teacher. John also has a business supporting other teachers and musicians called Virtual Music Office where he offers virtual assistant services, copying/arranging, marketing and tech support.
John is full of great wisdom from years of experience. I’ve broken this into 2 parts.
Andrew: I saw from your profile that you’ve been a band teacher in high school, is that how you first started in music teaching?
John: I graduated with a degree in music ed and I started in a public school, a small school, rural school. I did that for a few years and then I got out of education. My wife and I were both teachers.
When we decided to start our family, she wanted to be a stay-at-home mom and I didn’t want to go to half income, so I went to work for a fundraising company that did business with me while I was a band director and I worked with them for a few years and then I went off and started my own business which still operates but it’s a little more dormant now, so I was doing sales for 25 years.
And about 11 years ago, the local school system called me, a band director called me because they were cutting staff and he wondered if I’d be interested in helping him part time, just come in for a few hours a day, and so I kind of went at it with the idea that “it’ll be like a hobby.” I’ve got my business. This will be my hobby.
And so I have been doing that for the last 11 years and then for about 15 years, I’ve been teaching as adjunct faculty at a local university. It’s a small school, so they don’t have a lot of full time music faculty. So when they have clarinet or saxophone students come in, I work with them. I play in some of their faculty ensembles and their orchestra and things like that, so I’m still actively performing and teaching individually. I have a few Skype students which is kind of interesting. I’ve learned the hard way you can’t play duets on Skype.
Andrew: Interesting. You said you have a business as well. What is the business?
John: I have a couple. The one that I got out of education for was with a fundraising business, working with schools and daycares, and church groups, and little leagues, selling products to raise money. The people that come to you—chocolates or gift wrap or candles, cookie dough. I’m fundraising distributor and I supply the products and services that go along with that.
That business though, as I got back into the schools, I’ve kind of let that slide a little bit, but what I’m doing more and more of now because technically at the high school, I’m the assistant band director which means, I’m the one who gets to do all the fiddly stuff around the office. All the background stuff and I would say, you know what? I bet there’s other people out there in smaller schools where they’ll have multiple staff even part time. I’ve kind of set myself up as a virtual assistant specializing in music and I can write out parts for somebody or transpose parts, do a lot of the things that happen in a choir or band or office.
Once somebody is willing to say, Okay I can’t get it all done, I’m falling behind, can you help me out. That’s a new thing, still trying to get it going, but I think there’s definitely a need for it if I can find a way to get the word out.
Andrew: Yeah. Is that what you call the virtual music?
John: Yeah. Probably if I started now because I’m actually—more of my work is with non-music people where I’m doing some virtual service work for just a hodgepodge of people, I might have tried to come up with something a little more generic than virtual music office. But yeah, that was my intent, whenever I’ve had enough of public education and I walk away again or they retire me or whatever, we’re always in a flux of who can we cut and what can we do without. I want to have something else that I’ll be able to fall back on and work out of the house.
Andrew: That sounds like a common theme. I was talking to another professor recently. He’s an adjunct and he’s saying there’s so little chance of getting tenured track anywhere.
John: Nobody’s doing that anymore because they don’t have to. There’s enough
people that want something to do that don’t take anything. I know at the local university they’ve even cut people who got doctorates, and they’re saying, “Well, you can do some adjunct work now but you’re no longer full time faculty.”
Andrew: I guess this is what you’re most excited about right now, is your virtual music office.
John: Yeah, getting to work with individuals. I really enjoy getting to work with individual student too. Around in the high school, I’ve got a couple hundred band students but they’re coming in, in droves, you get 40 or 50 of them at a time coming into class but getting to work with them this time of year, we’re almost done with that. I’ve been working with them doing their college auditions and trying to get into music schools and applying for scholarships, all kinds of things, that’s pretty much done. We’re coming to the end of our school year.
Andrew: Is that something you do as part of your job at the school or is that like you do separate private lessons?
John: Both, both. I have with people at the school and then I have always had a private music studio. Students, they just study with me, they have—the only difference is now instead of doing it at my house, I’m doing those one on one lessons either at the high school or over at the university where I’ve got a room or a studio.
Andrew: How many students do you have individually though?
John: I’ve never let it get more than 12, 15. Fifteen is probably the most I’ve ever had at a time where I can still do all the other things that I’m doing but those are people who’ve come to me or people that I think, “You could really be good” if somebody were kind of a combination of giving you some higher level advice and keeping your feet to the fire because they’re pretty intimidated if they come for a lesson and they’re not prepared. I’m not very easy on them.
Andrew: Tough love.
John: Well, when I was in high school, I had a guy that taught me clarinet lessons, I couldn’t afford him, so he made me a deal where I would basically—he was an older guy—he had a bad heart, I took care of his yard, I tend his grass, I shoveled the snow. I was kind of his on-call—whatever—and his deal with me was you do those things for me and I will give you clarinet lessons until the day you show up here unprepared. That was like, “Wow, okay” but I learned from that. I could blow this on any given week. I could blow this whole deal and so I know what that did for me, so I kind of do that with someone my students. I fired some students before. Sometimes they come back a whole lot better after they realized, you mean, you’re not just going to take my money? I’m not going to waste your time or mine. If you’re not going to work, I’m not going to work with you.
Andrew: What age group are most of these? Are these high school mostly?
John: Yeah, most of them are high school students. I have right now working with a 7th grade girl. She will be going into 8th grade. I’ve worked with some home school students. In a way they don’t have an ensemble to play in or whatever and I’ve got a few of those where they’ve searched me out. Sometimes the middle school teachers in the county will call me and say they’ve got a student, can I help them out, things that way.
Andrew: How do you get most of your students? It sounds like mostly word of mouth then, right?
John: Locally, word of mouth.
Andrew: Do you do any marketing for that?
John: Not too much. I try to on my website put out that I’ll do music coaching or music critique. Some of the people I work with they’re just wanting to get ready for something specific. They got solo contest coming up in a month and so I’ll spend three or four sessions with them just trying to get that one piece of music ready to go or they’ve got a college audition coming up and they want some special help with that. My preference is to work with somebody ongoing, kind of systematic study, but there are people who will say, “Well you know, I’m not going to do it all the time but I need some special help right now.” I do some of that too.
Andrew: You said you want to cap it at about 12 to 15.
John: Well, while I’m still teaching. If I get out of the public school business, I could probably do more than that although we’re in a town—the community I’m in is not a real big community. The whole county has only got about 30,000 or 40,000 people. The city’s got about 20,000; one high school. There’s not tons of students around.
Andrew: Why do you think that you’re so successful as a teacher and a music entrepreneur?
John: Well, I think it’s a combination of being a decent musician, if they know that you know what you’re talking about. I demonstrate what I’m talking about.
The sales training that I’ve had over the years helps me with communicating with people, clarifying questions, somebody comes in and says I have to quit, why do you have to quit and we kind of go—okay so here’s the real problem, and then we address the real problem. That’s the kind of stuff I learned in sales school or if I’m recruiting or I’m trying to convince mom or dad, your son or daughter needs a better instrument or they need ongoing study, I’m basically selling that and I’ve been trained in sales technique, so that helps me there too. But I think that combination of being a good musician, (I was trained in music ed so I get a lot of the education training), the psychology of learning, knowing how people learn and how to accommodate different styles of learning as opposed to a teacher, here’s how I teach and this is what I’m going to do to everybody.
I‘ve got some students if I were not careful in criticizing them, they break down and cry. I’ve got other students who want me to be hard.
A few years ago, I had an exchange student. He was in the area. He wasn’t at my school but he wanted private lessons. He was from South Korea and I learned a lot from him. He would come into the building with his instrument already assembled and I ask him, “Why do you that?” And it was because, “I don’t want to lose any of my lesson time putting my horn together.”
Okay, “I ain’t thought of that. That makes sense” and then he would leave and he would not take it apart. “What are you doing?” “Well, I’m going home to practice. It’s a waste of time to take my instrument apart and put it back together.” And he would not let me—he almost would not let me compliment him. I use “good” a lot in terms of “okay, that’s better.” It’s not perfect but he wouldn’t let me compliment him, “No, that wasn’t good.” He would disagree with me. You know, I can do better than that and there’s different people whether it’s a cultural thing or their own internal—how they do—their own personalities but learning how to read those and find out, okay, here’s what this person needs, here’s what this person needs—that’s the education training I think, being perceptive and then just being comfortable with teenagers.
A lot of people are scared to death of teenagers. We have people come in every once in a while to talk to the band and we have 70 teenagers. Some just can’t handle that. And the kids pick up on that. They could read that. It’s like, they say animals can smell fear, teenagers can too. And if they smell fear, you’re done because they’ll chew you up and spit you out.
See Part 2 of John’s interview
We delve into technology and music teaching, trends and precautions and safety tips.