More Than a Side Hustle: What I Learn from Teaching Music

Teaching music is often a way for independent musicians to supplement their income from performing. To use a modern term, it’s a side hustle. For me, it’s become an increasingly central part of my life when I’m not on the road. I teach private lessons on guitar and fiddle, group classes and ensembles at the Passim School of Music in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and various kinds of workshops at music camps and festivals in the summer. (If you live anywhere near Boston, check out the Passim school – it’s great!)

Perhaps my favorite context in which to teach is the harmony singing class that my bandmate, Ellie Buckland, and I started at Passim several years ago. As a harmony-driven band, we found that we often got comments from people who were mystified by harmony singing, seeing it as some kind of opaque alchemy. We thought that people might be interested in attempting to demystify it a bit, so we started a harmony singing class. A couple of years later, I’ve lost count of how many sessions of this class we’ve offered. The students are mostly middle-aged or older, and many were in choruses in high school and college but haven’t sung since. For some, it’s their first time singing with other people.

The class has made me a much more confident teacher, and these days I like to think I’m getting pretty good at it. I started teaching the class mainly because I needed the extra cash. But I chose that subject because the feeling of singing in harmony with another person is, as far as I’m aware, one of the best feelings it is possible to have in this life, and I’ve realized that if I let my enthusiasm for music drive my teaching, it will probably be successful. Music teachers, in my opinion, have an incredibly important responsibility to take their work seriously, even if it’s just a side hustle. They may have the power to make or break someone’s enjoyment of a subject forever. (Ask anyone from my high school if they hate driving, and if they say yes, they probably had the same driver’s ed teacher I did.)

Recently, I taught a guitar lesson to a high school-aged girl who I’ve been teaching off and on for a while. She was shy during our first lessons, and I was a bit hesitant, too, because I was less experienced teaching one-on-one – I tend to be more comfortable teaching groups. She was also quite busy with homework and other activities and didn’t have time to practice much, so I sometimes wondered if she even enjoyed our lessons. Eventually, though, she opened up and started to make real progress with her playing, and I began to feel more confident in my teaching abilities.

At our most recent lesson, we were working on Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” in the key of C major. You know the version I mean – the arpeggios played by Jeff Buckley in 1994 have since been imitated by many a budding guitarist. We got to the end of the verse (after the bit where Cohen has managed to pull off a set of lyrics about the song’s chord progression: “it goes like this, the fourth, the fifth, the minor fall, the major lift”), and we reached the E chord. As soon as I played it, her face lit up. “Whoa. That’s a cool chord!” she said. And then my face lit up, too. “You’re totally right! It is a cool chord! And I can explain to you why it sounds so cool.”

I explained to her that we were playing in the key of C major, so the chords we were playing contained only the notes of the C major scale. But sometimes there are ways to use chords that are outside of the key (or non-diatonic, in musician terms) to create more interesting and complex sounds. I demonstrated that the E major chord contains a G-sharp note, when our ears are subconsciously expecting to hear the G-natural that belongs to the C major scale instead. By just changing that one note, I said, we’ve added a brand-new sonic ingredient and a bit of tension to the song. A lot of those tiny, thrilling musical moments come from a non-diatonic note or chord put in just the right place.

Those exchanges mean a lot to me. Seeing my young guitar student’s face light up, realizing that her ears had picked up on the presence of a new sound, made me feel like I was doing my job right. And it reminded me why teaching isn’t just a “side hustle” for me.

I’ve been playing music for a long time; the sound of an E major chord in the key of C is not news to me. But I remember when I was my guitar student’s age, when I started cracking that code, figuring out why an unexpected note or chord made me feel the way it did. It was thrilling. I felt like I was uncovering things that some part of me had known for my entire life, but didn’t have the language to explain. I find that it feels that way for a lot of other people, too. My teaching is an effort to make those magical moments accessible to other people, and it has the pleasant side effect of reminding me how magical music can be.

Artist Isa Burke

Nice article/essay Isa...there is magic in certain chord changes, and in the sound of harmony vocalizing...the "why" or explanation of how the magic happens is elusive...I spent a long time 40 years ago learning a bunch of James Taylor songs simply because I liked the sound of the chords he uses, and the voicings and the way he picks the chords...same thing with Paul Simon...I don't know that I could articulate all the things I learned from doing that (which is what you are doing when teaching it to your young student), but it was a lot...