Attending Conferences By Sponsorship

When a company wants to invest in their employees, they will often pay for the entire trip to go to a conference or seminar.  Companies recognize that while they are investing in the employees, ultimately they are investing in the company and benefitting the company’s clients.  School districts work the same way:  teachers are encouraged to achieve higher degrees.  Not only are teachers paid more for their education, their tuition costs are often partially or fully reimbursed by the school district.  While teachers themselves certainly benefit from this, ultimately it’s the students who really benefit.

Private students are also the ultimate beneficiaries when their private music teachers attend conferences.  It stands to reason then that teachers not only can ask but should ask their students for sponsorship to conferences.  Private teachers would have no reason to attend conferences if it weren’t for their students; the information teachers get from conferences has no value to a teacher with no students.

This first occurred to me when I was invited to be on a Townhall Committee at the 2007 World Piano Pedagogy Conference.  I wanted to participate, but with the short notice, I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay for it.  I decided to ask my students for help, and the response was so overwhelming that I had to give partial donation refunds when I got back!  Granted, it was held in Las Vegas (I lived in Reno), and it wasn’t quite as long as the MTNA Conference, but the response of my students in this situation changed forever how I approach conference attendance.

The details are simple:  the students give whatever optional donations they can, and every student forfeits one lesson during the week of the conference, meaning they pay for the lesson even though they don’t get it.  That way, the teacher does not have to sacrifice a week of pay to attend the conference, and hopefully they only have to spend a very minimal amount of money to attend.  Each student’s “loss” of their lesson that week is dwarfed by the never-ending benefit of the teacher’s improvement in teaching.  Unlike public students, private students stick with their teachers for a long time, so when they invest in their teacher one year, they continue to derive personal benefit from that investment years later.

An analogy arises if one considers the rocks to be students, the keystone to be the teacher, and the flat stone to be knowledge obtained at conferences. Knowledge teachers gain from these conferences is disseminated downward to students through the teacher, but the teacher only attends conferences with support of the students.

Why don’t more teachers do this?  After talking to many teachers at MTNA conferences and to other teachers locally, I’ve come to the conclusion that

  1. teachers simply haven’t considered doing this (the vast majority of them).
  2. a small minority of teachers raise their tuition rates one year to permanently cover conference attendance each year.  This requires great financial discipline on the part of the teacher to set a little money aside each month.
  3. many teachers are afraid to ask their students.
  4. some teachers don’t have enough students to make enough of a dent on the cost.
  5. some teachers who “teach privately” don’t actually operate a private studio, such as teachers who give lessons to college students who are just there for piano credit (sometimes only because it’s required for their major in another instrument).

Regarding #5, these students could still be asked for donations, but the incentive to donate is not as high because they are only going to be with their teacher for four years at most.  However, college faculty should ask their music department if any sponsorship would be possible, since some music programs have money set aside for this.  It can’t hurt to ask.

Regarding #4, unfortunately, there’s nothing I can say to help teachers in this situation other than to continue building your studio.  Do keep in mind that costs can be cut significantly by carpooling and by staying in hotels with roommates, and many conferences are held at hotels with shuttles from the airport (meaning you don’t have to fuss with car rental).  Also, many local MTAs give reimbursements to presidents (and sometimes other board members) that can help chip away at the cost.  Even if you only have five students, if four of them donate an average of $15 each, that pays for two or three days of your car rental.

Regarding #3, this fear is completely unwarranted, because I know with absolute certainty that every teacher in the world has students who want their teacher to improve their teaching.  The first time I asked for sponsorship in 2007, many of my students expressed in one way or another to me that they were thankful they had a teacher who was willing to ask.  They were and still are enthusiastic about donating.

That is why I am sharing a generic letter requesting sponsorship as well as a spreadsheet to help with the process (the keyboard image in the letter is public domain). Of course, there probably isn’t any one universal letter that would suit every teacher’s personality, but at least this gives you a starting point of various points to include. Above all else, the key to approaching this issue with your students is to make sure, every step of the way, it is a no-pressure situation for your students. If you do this, you have nothing to be afraid of, and your students will respect you more, not less, because of your willingness to attend a a conference for their benefit. Remind students often that it is perfectly fine if people don’t feel they can donate. After some donations are collected, thank everyone for their contributions, not just those who’ve donated (remember, everyone is going to forfeit a lesson too!). Remind everyone that if you don’t get enough money to go, there will be no hard feelings, and you’ll refund all donated money to those who donated. Don’t ever ask anyone directly to donate, don’t ever publish names of those who have or haven’t donated, don’t send any e-mails to those who haven’t donated, etc. If you give updates to people about donations, that’s fine – just report total donations as well as your best estimate of what you expect your expenses to be.

Ideally, this letter is sent out two months before the date of the conference, although this scenario is certainly feasible on short notice through e-mailing.  But when the process is started two months in advance, often there will be little response at first, then when you remind people in a newsletter or e-mail 2-4 weeks later (and when people write tuition checks), donations start coming in.

Donations from my students each year typically range from $350 to $500, depending on how many I have (I have less students than I did before because I now teach longer lessons as a result in a change in my philosophy toward lesson time). If your results are anything like mine, then you can probably count on an average of $12.50 per household, and this accounts for those who do not donate as well (those who donate seem to give between $25 and $50, with your occasional outlier who donates $75, $100 or even $200). And of course conference attendance is even easier if you are a local or state president of an MTA that offers partial reimbursement (commonly $300) as a presidential benefit. Don’t forget that if you follow my advice, you’re also being paid that week for your time at the conference via forfeited lessons, which saves you sacrificing an entire week’s pay. Do not forget to thank all of your students for sponsoring your trip, since all of them are forfeiting one lesson in order for you to go!

And remember, when your students respond with such enthusiasm to your sponsorship request, it’s because they recognize the positive value of doing so for not only you but themselves as well.  Your most generous donation may very well come from the student who most selfishly wishes to benefit from your conference attendance.  As I joked to a teacher in Las Vegas when I was there for the 2007 WPPC, “I sure hope my students responded with such enthusiasm because they wanted to support their great teacher, as opposed to sending me here because my lousy teaching desperately needs improvement!”  Whether the former or latter were true (all joking aside), the end result is still the same:  students want to sponsor their teachers because the recognize the value of doing so to themselves.

And to save more money, consider:

  1. taking a bus (such as Megabus) if you are within a couple states of the conference location.
  2. using a service like Hotwire to find you an inexpensive hotel near the conference location (conference hotels are never cheap – often they are between $150 and $180 per night even after the conference discount).

Get Everything You Can Out Of Conferences

  1. For MTNA Conferences, attend the extra Saturday session!  Not always, but often, this is the best information delivered at the entire conference.
  2. Bring an empty suitcase with wheels, or at least an empty bag, that can be used to lug all the free sheet music around that you collect each day.  Most days start with early sessions put on by publishing companies giving out free sheet music, and the exhibit hall is full to the brim with free goodies to take home.  To give you an idea, even a paper grocery bag is sometimes not big enough for everything you will collect.  Last year I even came back with volume 1 of Schirmer’s new edition of Beethoven Sonatas (meaning 16 sonatas) for free!
  3. Take notes on a laptop if you type faster than you write.  If you don’t have a laptop or if you write faster than you type, consider typing up your notes when you get home so that you can search these notes electronically in the future.  When you have attended five or ten conferences (or even just three!), you start to lose track of which session was offered at which conference, and searching for certain lectures using Windows or Mac becomes essential!  I still refer back to presentations given years ago.
  4. Share notes with your students… that is, after you’ve edited them so that your students don’t get information that they don’t need to see, such as notes you take on piano studio policy.  This accomplishes several things.  First, it shows accountability: students know that it is worth their donated money and forfeited lessons for you to attend conferences.  It shows you didn’t just go sight-seeing instead. Second, it causes you to take better notes at conferences, which will work to your own benefit years later when you refer back to notes.
  5. Bring business cards.  I usually end up giving out my business card 5-10 times during each conference.
  6. Print out about 30 mailing labels with your name, address, phone number and e-mail address on it.  You can fasten these labels to all the drawings you’re going to want to enter.  Various companies who give presentations and who have booths in the exhibit hall want your information and are willing to give away cool prizes to get it.
  7. Plan out which sessions you will want to attend as far in advance as possible.  Every hour there are as many as 5 or 6 things to choose from (usually at least 3), and there’s nothing worse than having to finally decide at the last minute.
  8. Bring friends, or make friends who are willing to swap notes with you, in case you want to attend two lectures that are offered at the same time, but your time travel pocket watch (as used by Hermione Granger in Harry Potter: The Prisoner of Azkeban) is not working.

(c) 2011 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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