The Price v The Value of Music Books

There’s that lovely Oscar Wilde quote about cynics being people who know the price of everything and the value of nothing.  I suspect that piano teachers are the very furthest thing from being cynics, but in regard to print music they certainly exhibit cynical tendencies.

I frequently hear piano teachers telling me that they simply cannot ask parents to buy music books for their children, as the cost is simply beyond the reach of the family budget. On the other hand, I’ve never (ever) had a parent protest that they want their child to learn to play the piano without having to purchase music.

It is a fascinating dichotomy: the teacher who is convinced it is beyond the means of parents to provide print music for the student, and the parent who enjoys providing musical opportunities to their child.

Leaving aside the psychology and the economics for a moment, let’s take a look at the function served by a book of music in the education of a pianist.

Firstly, the book of music provides material for the student to explore, perform, think about and talk about.  The only other way a student can access musical material is by listening to music, and learning by ear.  As beneficial a skill as this is, ‘playing by ear’ is almost entirely outside the skill-set piano teachers are either trained, interested or willing to impart.  And even when piano teachers do work on playing-by-ear skills they, almost without exception, do so working from their own printed score.

Secondly, when a parent sends their child off to piano lessons they generally expect that child to return with a the ability to read (as well as perform) music.  It’s just not possible to learn to read without having reading material. Children at school learning to read are given new reading material every day, and this is the learning-literacy experience that parents have as their touchstone for all other literacies.  Playing (and reading) a lot of music is well within parental expectations and aspirations for their children, if the purpose of taking piano lessons is educational (which in some instances, it is not).

This second point is one of students needing to learn new music all the time, not just one or two pieces every month.  This is not quite the same thing as saying that students need new books of music every month, as fabulous repertoire collections of between 15 and 30 pieces will keep a student occupied for between two to six months (if that is their sole source of musical material). But this second point does lead to the third: to develop musical literacy students should be reading and performing a wide range of musical styles in the course of their lessons and practice.

Parents would be mystified if their children were assigned poetry only for a whole year’s worth of reading, and even more mystified if their 9-year-old were required to only read English prose from the 18th century or novels (in translation) from 19th century Germany.  And yet on the piano these kinds of restrictive and era-inappropriate choices in material are not simply common-place but de rigueur. And the reason given by piano teachers for not using either a wider range or a more contemporary choice of material is almost always that the cost to the parents would be too great.

Meantime, parents scour print music shops hoping to track down music of the current day that their children might be able to play, and the parents and children arrive with eager anticipation at the lesson to present their findings, usually mis-graded for the current skills of the child, and often mis-chosen due to the unpianistic nature of the purchased arrangements.

Parents don’t have a problem with buying cool stuff for their children. This is a mantra I recommend to every piano teacher working today. Parents recognise the value that books of music can bring to their child’s education and enjoyment. Parents like the idea of providing excellent resources for their child to use, of giving their child happy and worthwhile learning experiences.

So where does the problem lie? I suspect the reluctance to purchase new books lies entirely with the teacher, and for some very sound reasons.

Piano teachers are not business people, as a rule, even though they are running their own small business (as a service provider). Further, and I generalise, they have neither the training nor the inclination to work their teaching practice to generate profits beyond a modest annual income. This may not be true in every country and every culture, but this is certainly true of the vast majority of piano teachers I have met around the world.

Nearly every piano teacher I have ever met does not have making money as their motive for teaching the piano. Piano teachers teach because they feel it is an important contribution they can make to the lives of children and their communities.  This is the foundational principle that drives piano teachers the world around.

So we have an altruistic motivation associated with a lower-than-average annual income coming together in the psyche of the typical piano teacher. Piano teachers find themselves trying to save parents money, in the same spirit that they are helping bring music to the lives of their children.  But in this situation this is not altruism of any kind, as using less music as one learns to play the piano simply means that one has learned less.

Teachers are renowned for getting out of this learning bind by providing photocopies of music to their students. What a wonderful solution: for a token fee teachers can provide students with music that would have cost some significant amount more when purchased at the shop.  Well, it’s wonderful in the same way that  shoplifting is wonderful.  Sure, you end up not having to spend much money, but what you are doing is completely illegal, and completely immoral.

Assuming that as piano teachers we wish to deliver both a musical and a behavioural education to our students, handing out stolen music is just not on.

So we are back to print music, and its price.  This does vary significantly from one country to the next.  Here in Australia a book printed in the United Kingdom retails with a significant surcharge built in – currently a book retailing in the UK for £6.95 and in the US for $9.99 retails in Australia for $27.95*, an outrageous discrepancy. But even so, it is a rare book that costs in excess of the price of a single half hour lesson, and many books come well below that figure.  Buying books to the value of say 5 half-hour piano lessons over the course of a year (in whichever country you are living) does not seem an exorbitant ask, and this figure will purchase a pleasing variety of musical styles and learning opportunities.

Piano teachers, wherever you are, please consider the value of the book of music when you are planning your students’ repertoire for the year ahead, and leave the worrying about the price to the people who actually have to pay.

* In early 2011 prices in Australia were lowered dramatically, both in response to the sustained high value of the Australian dollar and to the impact of internet music purchasing; these days a book of music retailing for $US9.95 is unlikely to cost more than $A15.

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10 thoughts on “The Price v The Value of Music Books

  1. Hear hear! I still blink with disbelief when AMus-level students come into my classes with scrapbooks with the illegally photocopied music glued in. Surely if the student realises the value of all the hours of practice they do, the parents realise the value of the hundreds if not thousands of lessons they’ve had, the teacher should realise the value of owning the original music!

  2. One big problem with photocopying is the student gets such a small amount of music.

    If you got them to buy a book of Bach Preludes and Fugues, instead of just giving them the D major one, the student could have a tinker with others in the book.

    Although I have had students come to me expecting me to photocopy music, because that’s what the last teacher did, I have only occasionally had folk object when I issue the student with a book to purchase.

    In one memorable case, the next week, the boy came back with a beautifully photocopied copy of the entire book I had issued, including the covers, and said “Mum says we can’t afford to buy the book.”

    Interestingly, they belonged to a very strict religious group, and I drily remarked “Didn’t someone say ‘The labourer is worthy of his hire?'”

  3. And it’s not just limited to piano teachers. In recent years I decided to go back to singing lessons and was shocked when I was given photocopied music by my teacher. I hadn’t even asked for it and would have been more than happy to take a trip to the local print music store to buy a real copy (which I did).

    Incidentally, whilst working for a music store in a past life, I was frequently asked by parents if I wouldn’t mind photocopying the “one piece my son/daughter needs for their exam out of this large album of music”. Said parents were quite surprised when I told them it would not be possible.
    “But don’t you have a photocopier back there?” would come the response.
    My reply: “We do, but it is illegal to photocopy music”
    Parents: “So….?”

  4. I just charge a registration/materials fees that covers books, materials, practice incentives, studio concert fees…though I find very few objections to using originals. Plus some people find photocopied music hard to read, I know I do.

  5. We approached a popular (music) publisher almost 10 years ago about digitizing their music and adding educational ‘extras’. We tried to convince them that ‘renting’ this data online could be huge and a solid alternative for consumers in the future . They wanted no part of it and basically said ‘musicians will always want to own and hold a book of music”. I think they were short-sighted and like many in our profession, firmly ensconced in the past. Their idea of planning for the future was to up-date their printing presses and purchase more forests (true story and a light-bulb moment for us).

    They may have been right about one thing…”musicians” may want to own and hold printed music, but an entire new generation of internet driven folks and casual music makers could care less. If given the opportunity to view music online vs. ‘holding’ it, they will take the digital avenue every time. From our meeting with that publisher we decided to create our own digital method – we essentially became our own publishers and never had to invest in a single printing press or tree.

    • This sounds like you found a great new avenue for your digital delivery idea!! The publishers you approached clearly didn’t share your vision!

      Print music sales haven’t declined over the past decade, except in line with the GFC-related cut-back in consumer demand, so the publishers have still been quite occupied with tree felling and so forth! But there has been a shift in the kinds of music books being sought by students and recreational pianists, and the demand for recordings that match the print music books has been quite overwhelming. Once upon a time it was a rarity for a music book to have a CD (either with performances of the pieces or with accompaniments), but these days it is quite common. I suspect that over the next decade we are going to see delivery of these recordings happening via download rather than via a disc, but until iPad/Kindle devices provide the kind of functionality pencil and paper does to the musician sitting at their instrument learning a new piece of music there will be strong demand for print music.

      But this article isn’t even about this. This article is about the value music books provide to students (detailed above!) and about how teachers misperceive parents’ interest in and willingness to buy books for their children’s education. Access to music comes at a price, and teachers do a massive disservice to their students when they assume that that price prohibits their students from that access. Having access to music delivers nearly all the results parents (and students, if they are old enough to be paying for their own lessons) are seeking, and depriving students access to music is short-term thinking on the part of teachers.

  6. Many of the parents of my students question whether they “really” need all these books. Or just simply avoid buying them for as long as possible. Or borrow it from a friend and photocopy things. I’ve had to stop sending home books for a preview (to see fi the student wants to learn from it/the parent wants to pruchase it) because they were coming back with every piece photocopied!! 😦

    • Of course students don’t “really” need any books at all, just like they don’t “really” need piano lessons. But if parents are going to all the effort to have a piano at home and to pay for lessons each week the price of a book seems like an odd place to start balking at providing educational supplies.

      Meantime, the practice of sending a book home for a preview is just asking for rejection! Only send home books that you are assigning. Asking the student to choose their own learning materials communicates a lack of clear direction (which then gives permission to the student/parent to reject those materials).

  7. When the student/parent starts study with me, they sign my studio agreement. In it I state that there will be a coast for music approximately $75 to $150 for each level. The difference depends on how long the student requires to be at each level. Parents pay by the quarter 13 weeks, or the month. They get the initial see if books when they start and then after that, I try to fit the book payments in between. I’ve had a couple of comments from parents, who I then refer to our initial interview and the studio policy. My students use a lot of material, just as I did when I learned to play in the 1960s. They quickly build up repertoire of music they like to play. It’s just part of the way I teach, and I’ve referred parents to your blog at times.

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