My quartet recently contacted a prominent Chicago musician to inquire about setting up a coaching. We’d heard wonderful things about this person’s teaching over the years, and had always wanted to play for them.

The response: Sure, I’d be happy to give you a coaching! That’ll be two hundred and fifty dollars.

While we had sticker shock, we also knew that for classical musicians, this kind of rate is not unheard of. I paid somewhere around $150 for a lesson with a Northwestern faculty member before my audition. Another DePaul faculty member regularly charges close to $200 for prospective students to have a lesson with him. For freelancers lucky to earn $1500 a month, or ensembles with tight budgets, it’s a high threshold to cross.

The real question is, how the h*ll are we supposed to pay for it? And do our musical mentors have any responsibility to teach us at a rate we could actually afford?

When my husband hears about professors charging rates like this, he’s somewhat horrified. In the professional academic world, it’s common for graduate students to reach out to a faculty member at another college and ask to sit down with them, or ask if they’ll read your paper and give you some feedback. For this professor to ask you for two hundred dollars for the pleasure & privilege? Not done. Because these people have institutional backing — a university that’s paying their salary, contributing to a 401k, providing them space to work, and ensuring their job security — it wouldn’t be appropriate to ask a graduate student, earning $20,000 a year, to pay this kind of premium rate for their time. They routinely give their time to young scholars in the interest of contributing to scholarship. 

I know, I know. I kind of sound like those people who want you to play a wedding for free because music is “what you love.” I don’t mean to imply that any of these distinguished teachers should work for free. I certainly wouldn’t give a free lesson to any old student who sent me an email. But I do think we should taken an honest look at the financial situations of young professional musicians, and ask whether the “market” is fair to them.