By Emily Wright | From the March-April 2021 issue of Strings magazine
If necessity is the mother of invention, 2020 was the grande dame of it. As my life shrank down to the size of a couple of rooms and a few screens, certain things took on outsized importance. For instance, I now have an improbable number of plants throughout the house. I’ve become one of those people who propagates cuttings in test tubes. Sometimes I just smile at them, watching the fine, hairlike roots wispily floating in the water. “Not yet!” I tell them, sensing their desire to be planted.
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Watching them grow is comforting when so little comfort is on offer. I miss teaching students in my home studio with an intensity that surprises me; I long for the shared pot of tea on a cold day, incense burning on the front porch to guide them to the door, ending the lesson with a favorite duet and a long exhale. Teaching online can feel impersonal in comparison, but la grande dame has offered me the space to re-evaluate the way I approach my own musical and teaching life. As a result, I’ve made a few changes that I will carry forward after COVID.
Back to School
As cautions became advisories and eventually turned into full-on lockdown, all of my gigs and many of my students evaporated. Weeks wore on, and there were some bleak moments of feeling disconnected from my identity as a musician. I started thinking back to when I felt the most plugged in and hopeful about being a cellist (as an undergrad) and realized that much of the frisson of that time was a byproduct of taking in so much new information and challenging myself. So, I made a list of books to read or re-examine, bought four new sonatas to learn and critically study, and asked colleagues for recommendations of new music to listen to. From these sources, I created a yearlong curriculum of practice, reflection, and scholarly study. To make sure I reached out to other musicians for insight, had deadlines to meet, and a sense of accountability, I started a podcast to be the work product of my “course.”
Charging the Same Rates
I used to charge lower rates for online lessons, figuring the difference in experience was substantial enough to merit some sort of recognition. About six months into online-only tuition, I noticed students were improving just as much, if not more, compared to in-person sessions. Rapport continued to build. Folks I had started as beginners were thriving. Calls went long, just as lessons in my home studio go long.
I’ve reminded many new teachers that payment is for their time. Time booked during a specific day, yes—but also the time spent practicing, sitting in master classes, in rehearsals, at home, hunched over a score, puzzling out what Messiaen or Haydn or Ives had been up to. That is the time teachers are paid for, and the occasional internet signal degradation does not alter it. I am a champion of teachers charging what they’re worth, but in this way held myself out as an exception to this principle. It feels like a step in the right direction to resolve that dissonance. A cadence in the key of self-worth.
Taking a Break
Self-employment cuts both ways: there is near complete freedom to set a schedule, but without the infrastructure or incentive to take time off. It’s hard to pause the hustle, especially when things are tight. If there is money to be made, make it, right?
Until just recently, I had not taken a week off for pleasure in over ten years. Every other block of time off was spent doing something: recovering from surgery, doing some other work, traveling for a wedding or funeral, scouting locations for other future work. Even my days off would occasionally have a lesson or two punctuating the white square in the planner. And though the COVID-induced drop in student load and performance work certainly left me with more time on my hands, it was not time spent feeling a sense of relaxation. The hustle is a lifestyle. It doesn’t turn off just because the meter isn’t running. I felt a sense of tremendous guilt during those hours of downtime, no matter what I did during them.
One morning my phone, which is obviously spying on me, fed me a news article about American work culture and how little vacation time we use, and the toll on physical and mental health it can take. With shaking hands, I typed an email to my students: “I will be taking one week off.”
For a self-employed teacher, there is usually a whisper from the Greek chorus after that sentence: “Without pay.”
A day into my staycation, I sent an email to those same students and asked if they would be willing to subsidize two weeks a year of paid time off for me. Two lessons paid for but not taken. This is not as wild a proposition as it seemed to me: I know many teachers who work this way, some with more than three times that many weeks of paid vacation! All but two of my students said this was not only an excellent plan, but one that should be more generous. I couldn’t be more grateful.
My week off was blissful. A few long walks, a lot of British period dramas, and much time spent communing with the plants, which are honestly starting to encroach on my living space a bit.