Teachers must be open about any commission they get when a student buys an instrument, argues Ariane Todes
There are surprisingly few aspects of this business that truly make me angry and about which I can categorically say, ‘This is a bad thing’. But one came up in conversation recently and I found my hackles rising instantly. The discussion was about a teacher who was helping a student buy an instrument from a dealer. He was going to get a commission on the sale from that dealer and it seemed likely that the student knew nothing of this transaction. I’m pretty sure that this is not an uncommon practice in the string world. However, to me it presents a clear violation of the trust of the student–teacher relationship and is certainly immoral.
I don’t mean that it’s wrong for dealers or makers to pay a teacher when a student buys from them. Far from it. The process of buying an instrument can be extremely time consuming and emotionally draining and if a teacher is involved right the way through, this is a huge commitment. For a teacher with a large studio this could quickly come at their own detriment. There’s also a level of specialist knowledge and expertise that they are offering the student, and it’s right for this to be recognised. No one likes being taken for granted.
From a dealer’s perspective, it makes perfect business sense to offer commission. Having a teacher onside is the Holy Grail for an ambitious maker or dealer, so of course they will want to nurture this relationship, and again, there’s nothing wrong with that.
Where it all becomes a little bit malodorous is when this is done without the knowledge of the student or their parents, especially where there is a danger of the teacher not necessarily acting in the student’s best interests.
A young student is vulnerable in so many ways, especially because they rarely even realise it. Often, one of the few people they feel they can trust is their professor. They assume that this person is rooting for them, and most of the time this is so. A twelve-year-old student is never going to be cynical, wise or arrogant enough to question their teacher’s behaviour.
There is a certain sanctity to a good student–teacher relationship, with its lofty ideals of creative striving, aesthetic aspiration, idealistic self-improvement. Why risk the nature of that relationship by failing to declare? Surely students and their parents recognise the value of a professional’s time and expertise and are happy either to compensate it financially, or to accept that a dealer has done so. Maybe some teachers feel that it’s wrong to talk about the dirty reality of money in this context. But it’s much worse not to talk about it, and any perceived sense of grubbiness only becomes a real one through what might be at best embarrassed avoidance – at worst, plain deceit.
Vast numbers of teachers give their time and expertise freely in these matters without expectation of reward, and this is an incredibly generous act. Some consider it part and parcel of the responsibilities of a teacher. Some incorporate it into the lesson structure. Others even find creative ways to benefit the student, for example by asking the dealer to take the discount from the cost to the student. These are the noble heroes.
But for those who simply don’t have the time to spare, or have seen too many students come and go to feel like sharing their expertise, there’s nothing wrong with charging for the service, or taking the commission as offered. Teachers just need to be clear with their students from the outset. The pupil is then in a position to try other dealers or makers and to understand the framework of the business. It doesn’t really matter how that is done: what matters is that it’s all out in the open. After all, to misappropriate what Oscar Wilde once said, ‘The only thing worse than being talked about is not being talked about.’