Sweeping dust off of truth, one thought at a time

Men In Private Music Teaching

It is no groundbreaking observation to note that the vast majority of piano teachers in the United States are female.  One only needs to attend any MTNA National Convention or other keyboard conference to observe this striking majority.  As of December 2011, in my local music teachers association (NNMTA), there are 55 total members, and 7 of them are male (12.7%).  We see similar figures when we look upward:  in the Nevada umbrella association (NMTA), there are 174 total members, and 25 of them are male (14.4%), and in the national umbrella association (MTNA), there are 21,957 members1, and only 3,384 of them are male (15.4%).

Why is music teaching a female profession?  I don’t know of any research that addresses this issue to my satisfaction, but I’d like to offer three ideas.

1.  The Day Care Effect

It’s a rare thing to observe a man working in a day care, although men who do so have my complete admiration.  If I had to take care of a room full of 20 two-year-olds, I’d probably jump off a cliff within an hour, and all of my male buddies with parental perspective on this issue seem to feel the same.  While there is probably a certain amount of societal nurturing involved in mens’ incompatibility with child care, I believe that most men are predisposed not to have the interest and/or empathy to properly nurture a bunch of unrepentant sociopaths.  (See this Onion article if you’re wondering where this half-joking term came from. Also see this article for the truth behind it.)

Since the “age 12 and under” category represents such a huge portion of those who study piano, it is very difficult to earn a good living giving private music lessons without accepting younger students.  College professors can avoid it, but they are not relying on private lessons to pay their bills since they have a university salary that includes the significant benefit of health insurance.  When demand for piano lessons is mostly created by children, those who fulfill this demand are going to be people who work best with them.

In a well-intentioned and short-lived attempt to expand my own comfort zone of teaching very young children, I tried Music For Little Mozarts with a four-year-old beginning student a couple years ago since traditional piano courses progress at too rapid a rate for kids so young. I didn’t last long before referring the student to another teacher. Using the method correctly involves starting the lesson each day by singing a cutesy song, using stuffed animals, etc.  After two lessons, I knew that my distaste for this type of teaching went far beyond environmental nurturing/programming, and that additional exposure was not going to help.  I absolutely hated it, despite having the parental experience that comes with having three kids of my own.  I’ve even watched all 18 Barbie movies with my two daughters!  Having said that, I am fairly comfortable teaching four-year-olds 15 minutes per week by writing down finger numbers to their favorite songs as a kind of preliminary training to method books.  It is quite beneficial to students, because they learn early on to memorize what they do.  They work on hand position, they develop good clarity in playing, etc.  As long as the teaching materials do not require me to behave like Elmo, I’m fine.

This isn’t just specific to the 3-4 age group;  we can see this in elementary schools too (5-12 age group).  Male teachers are already a rare breed in any elementary school, and they’re almost unheard of as kindergarten teachers. This phenomenon doesn’t occur because elementary schools discriminate against male applicants.  It occurs because there are far fewer male applicants than female applicants2.

I don’t believe that giving private piano lessons to young children requires anything near the patience of teaching kindergarten or running a daycare class.  Giving private lessons is a one-on-one experience, so there is no chaos that results from children feeding off of each other, and the time in a piano lesson is severely limited, usually either 30 or 45 minutes each week.  But it still requires a certain amount of interest and/or empathy that I believe is more abundantly found in women than in men.

2.  The Minigolf Volcano Effect

I expanded this point into its own blog post, Prospective Male Piano Teachers Are Like Volcano-Prone Golf Balls3), in which I pointed out a kind of “Goldilocks Effect” when it comes to male students who might become successful, competent private teachers as a career.  To summarize, a disproportionate number of prospective male students:

  1. are turned away from teaching by the perception that it’s a career that is part-time, low-paying and provides an unsteady income (the porridge doesn’t taste right)
  2. get Ph.D.s and become college professors (the porridge is too hot)
  3. don’t go far enough in their training and impersonate master teachers or try to make as much money as possible by doing very little for their students (the porridge is too cold)

3. The Macho Effect

Growing up, playing piano was never a “cool” thing to do.  In my K-8 years, I never told anyone at school that I played piano, and the only friends I had who knew about my skill were those who were over at my house when my mother made me practice (I was supposed to practice before playing with friends every day – if I ever tried to accidentally “forget” this rule, my mother would have me practice while my friends waited).  I resisted social pressures fairly easily, especially since I had no desire to hang out with people who engaged in ridicule of others based on activities they enjoyed, but not all boys resist these pressures as well.  I don’t believe girls experience nearly as much (if any at all) social pressure with regard to piano.

Even high school students engaged in ridicule.  I recall on many occasions football players walking by the boys tennis team, pointing out to us that we were a bunch of “pansies” not playing a “real” sport.  Childhood piano or tennis lessons aren’t branded as feminine interests as much as ballet or fashion design, but it’s still there.

Because of this macho effect, I don’t think we see as many boys opting to sign up for piano lessons as girls, and we probably also see a higher percentage of them quitting before high school than girls.  After many years of teaching, I sense that boys are giving their parents more trouble at home than girls are because of the perception that they’re aren’t engaged in an activity that is reinforcing their boyness enough, and I suspect this effect would be even more pronounced in my studio if I were a female piano teacher.

What Is To Be Done?

To say, “We need to encourage more males to be piano teachers” would be beyond cliché.  This is the kind of conclusion we read and hear all the time in articles, papers, news reports, speeches, etc. after some study or report reveals that some demographic group is “underrepresented” in some new way.  The problem is that it is only “under” representation if we first assume that all professions and areas of study should demonstrate a 50-50 ratio of men to women. In every profession, there are a large number of factors that contribute to males’ and females’ interest, and these factors must be studied thoroughly and honestly.

Some people on the outer fringes of science continue to insist that we give trucks to little girls and dolls to little boys, but science has moved beyond this type of wishful thinking. Girls invariably find a way to use the dump truck as a bed for their imaginary sleeping baby, and the boys end up launching dolls across the room.

Consider the predominance of males in technical professions and the fact that males score higher on technical aptitude tests.  This published theory about technical aptitude suggests that women score lower on technical aptitude tests only because they simply aren’t as interested as men are in certain things (I also think this is a great example of Occam’s Razor).  What further reinforces this is the fact that girls perform better (and boys perform worse) when technical things are taught in a more feminine context.  But even with more gender balance in teaching, we’re still going to see a manifestation of natural gender preferences in the sciences: more males will become electrical engineers and computer scientists since the “geek factor” turns women away more than it does men while more females will become obstetricians (see conclusion of that study) and pediatricians since men have less interest in babies and toddlers. We don’t need to artificially compensate for these differences through affirmative action – it only creates injustice where no injustice existed in the first place.

That is why I feel that the day care effect is here to stay, and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that.  As for the minigolf volcano effect, I think too many people (both sexes) assume that teaching music privately simply isn’t a very practical career, when in fact it is.  A private teacher can earn almost as much as a professor does, but without the slave labor:  no constant requests to accompany recitals, no obligation to teach academic classes, no pressure to become tenured through research, and no pressure to fulfill an administrative obligation by becoming department chair.  There is a bit of a trade-off since piano teachers have no built-in retirement plans and they have to buy their own expensive health insurance packages.  But for me this trade-off has been well worth it.  One might have said several years ago that the professor has a more secure position, but I have to question this assumption given the university budget cuts I’ve seen over the past three years (2009-2011) while I myself haven’t even felt any effects of the economy at all within my own private studio.  That’s why I try to make sure all of my best students who have good potential as teachers (whether male or female) are made aware that private piano teaching is a very legitimate option on the table.

Obviously, the macho effect is also not a good reason for a boy with potential to quit lessons, although I’m not sure what female teachers can do to fully counteract this, short of the unrealistic option of suggesting a male teacher who can serve as a role model.  But I think that it will already be of great help for female teachers to simply be aware, since it would likely affect everything from how the lesson is conducted to what repertoire is assigned.

(c) 2012 Cerebroom

  1. There are “22,000 plus” members in MTNA as of December 2011, but only 21,957 specified their gender.
  2. Jason Egg offers four reasons for why this might be in his 2004 article, which include colleague relationship, physical contact with kids, perceived sexual orientation, and gender differences.
  3. Originally titled “Prospective Male Piano Teachers Are Like Ant Hill-Prone Golf Balls,” but I changed the title to match the fact that the picture showed a volcano, not an ant hill.

2 Comments

  1. Lyle Compton's Gravatar Lyle Compton
    April 9, 2012    

    Great article, but the points raised in Jason Egg’s article should be brought to the fore. As a (male) piano teacher of over forty years, I’m sure that the “”paranoid”‘ effect has a great deal of influence on the choice of many men to avoid the teaching profession altogether, as too hard, too full of politicaly-correct dogma, and in the wake of the rise of the “”Stranger Danger”” industry over the last 30 years, far too dangerous.

    • April 10, 2012    

      Thanks for the feedback, Lyle. Jason’s article didn’t convince me that male high schoolers are really actually thinking that far ahead. He interviews full-grown males who are already teaching, not prospective males who thought about going into teaching but decided not to, so trying to apply his point to the scope of my article would just be speculation, and it’s not speculation that resonates with me at all. Maybe you have drastically different high school students than me, but never have I heard a single male high school student bring this up when we talked about teaching piano as a possible career. Their concerns are always 1) whether they can earn a good and stable living in the field, and/or 2) perception that it’s a feminine profession.

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