Teaching Music Privately: An Interview with Mike McAdam

Jonathan Feist


Mike McAdam has taught guitar to thousands of students since 1994. He is director of two North Main Music schools, in Nashua and Bedford, New Hampshire, and also runs the guitar department at Rivier University in Nashua, NH. Mike is a graduate of Berklee College of Music. In this interview, Mike gives some insight into how to run a successful music studio. For more information, including many extra insights aimed specifically at guitar teachers, check out his recent book The Private Guitar Studio Handbook (Berklee Press, 2014).

Do you need special training to give private music lessons?

Interesting question because I feel that there are two myths about giving lessons:

The first myth is that you have to be a sensational player to teach music. This is not necessarily true; the most important thing is that you need to work well with people and be able to communicate what you do know.

The other myth is the exact opposite—that because you are a great player, this automatically qualifies you to teach music. While this is true to some extent, becoming a great teacher is a process, just like learning an instrument is. You need to do it for the right reasons.

The Private Guitar Studio Handbook dispels these myths and emphasizes that it’s important to understand the business elements of giving music lessons if you are hoping to support yourself with your teaching.

How is preparing to give a private lesson different from giving a class?

I think it is different because in a private lesson it’s really important to evaluate and roll with the one person that is right in front of you. What mood are they in? What gets them excited? I think group classes tend to stick to what you prepare in your lessons plan, whereas private lessons can often go off the script. I think it’s important to be flexible enough to recognize that and to work to individualize your one-on-one lessons.

Is it legal to give private lessons out of your apartment/house? Do you need special insurance or permits?

Each state has different requirements, so I would find out the particular zoning laws where you live. Many people start off giving lessons in their home without getting permits or zoning for a home based business. I was in this situation myself, so I get it. I have also seen this become a problem when a person starts getting many students and their neighbors complain about the extra traffic. This is one of many reasons I advocate getting a commercial space sooner rather than later.

What do you do about students who don’t show up at their lesson times?

I usually will be informed about students who are missing their lessons. One of the key ways to avoid students blowing you off is to set up a prepayment plan. This type of payment system is explored in depth in my book. Oftentimes, not having these policies can open the door to people not showing up or just disappearing!

How do you encourage students to practice?

It is important to find out what motivated them to pick up an instrument in the first place. If you can relate everything you do to that and try to develop their love of music from there, it can work wonders. Try not to have one method of teaching. Be flexible. One small change can get the student on track. You also have to understand that sometimes, no matter what you do, it just isn’t the right thing for the student to be taking lessons. It’s not for everyone, and that’s okay. Understand that most students are playing for recreation, so make it fun.

What are some of the common mistakes teachers make in their lesson studios, and how would you direct them otherwise?

The biggest mistake would be neglecting the business end. Focusing on the financial health of your business is a necessary evil. And like your own playing, you are always getting better, or you are getting worse;  it’s a constant that you have to monitor. It shouldn’t be the reason for teaching, but I always say about the business, “You get it, or it gets you.” Allocate time for taxes, marketing, and things internally that can make the experience better for students and you as a teacher.

Do you have any advice about pricing?

The biggest mistake I see teachers make is to short-sell themselves. Their thought process is that if they are just a bit cheaper than everyone else, they will attract students. While this will work with a small amount of consumers, it’s ultimately a dead end. You need to honestly evaluate what you bring to the market and price it accordingly. This can be based on many things: your profile as a musician, your education, the availability of guitar lessons in your community etc. Study what your competitors are doing in terms of pricing and see where you rate.

How do you deal with students who don’t want to take lessons but are being forced to do it by their parents?

That can be a tough one. I would start by trying to lead the student into ideally, a love for music. Or at least a like! It’s okay to get small wins here. If the student does not enjoy playing and you have used up your bag of tricks, do tell the parents that you don’t think it‘s a good idea for the to continue lessons, at least for right now. Some students have actually come back and succeeded after not being “into it” the first time. The other side is, I have known teachers who don’t want to let go of these types of students because it’s a source of income for them. The money will always be replaced, and in the end, it’s a disservice to both of you.

Any other tips?

Yes…not to sound trite, but keep in mind that building a successful lesson roster takes time and patience. There are many people that expect instant results once they have made a website or have some marketing material, but it takes time and patience. I really feel the more you put into your business, the more results you will see. The quality of what you do is so important.


Study Guitar at Berklee Online!


Jonathan Feist
Jonathan Feist

Jonathan Feist is editor in chief of Berklee Press, where he has been bringing hundreds of music education products to a worldwide market since 1998. He is the author of "Project Management for Musicians," among other Berklee Press books and Berklee Online courses. He holds a bachelor's and master's degree in composition from New England Conservatory of Music, and tends to various farm animals and a sweet little orchard in his backyard.

Leave a Reply