The following quote is from the article “Mysteries of the Market” by Mary VanClay from the November “1996 Resource Guide” of Strings magazine.
… Given the complexity of buying a stringed instrument, it’s no wonder many players are desperate for advice from a source they can trust. For many, this source is their teacher. But adding teachers to the market mix brings us to another passionate argument, one that raised hackles in our survey responses and in conversations with people throughout the trade; teacher commissions.
Nearly everyone has heard about them, even if they haven’t personally paid or received one. If a teacher helps a student pick out an instrument and the seller then pays the teacher; that teacher has received a commission. It usually comes in the form of a check, the amount being some percentage of the sale price of the instrument. Few people would argue that teachers who help students make such an important purchase deserve some repayment for their time and expertise. Indeed, some teachers charge their students up front, requesting compensation by the hour, for example, just as they would for music lesson time.
The problem arises when payment comes from the seller rather than the student. Sometimes teachers badger shops for payment after a sale, and sometimes shops extend the offer. Unscrupulous teachers can give advice to students based on the money they can make off a sale, rather than on the quality of the instrument or the student’s needs. The student effectively pays a hidden fee, the seller’s commission cost having been built into the final price of the instrument. The danger to the consumer becomes especially acute if the student has no idea that the teacher is being rewarded for bringing in a sale, which is often the case.
Cellist Susan Moyer, who plays in the Florida Philharmonic in Fort Lauderdale, learned about the practice at an early age, because her mother was a private violin teacher. One year, one of her students bought an instrument from a large East Coast dealership. “And a check arrived in the mail,” Moyer remembers, “with a little thank-you note from the shop. (My mother) was incensed. She signed (the check) over to the parents of the student.”
“A lot of teachers decide not to take commissions, and I respect that,” says Lee. “But I know teachers who have spent, literally, days looking for instruments for people, driving around to see things. That all takes time, and there should be a way to compensate them for that. I would say most of the time [students know it’s happening]. I don’t really make an issue about it. If I thought there was a teacher doing it behind [students’] backs and not doing it objectively – if they were just in it for the commission – I wouldn’t deal with them.”
But such assurances do little to comfort the wary parent or student. “There are a lot of teachers who benefit from this who don’t want to say that they do,” notes Galen Wixson, the executive director of the American String Teachers Association. “Who loses? The students do, because they’re paying too much for the instruments.”
However, he adds, ASTA does not take a stand on the controversy. “We debated taking a position on that within the last year,” he says. “We’ve chosen to stay out of that right now. We want to do some more thinking about it, because it’s a delicate issue.”
Delicate indeed. The trust built over years is shattered if a student realizes a teacher has been dishonest about advice given and benefits received. Suspicions players already harbor about dealers are intensified. And businesses that don’t pay commissions bitterly resent those that do, believing they would have more customers if teachers weren’t steering students elsewhere in order to make a profit.
The situation is a notoriously difficult one to discuss openly, let alone solve. Few teachers or businesses want to admit to the practice. But there is no question that it occurs. We asked all of the businesses participating in our anonymous survey whether they paid commissions to teachers, and 23 percent answered “yes” (another 15 percent did not respond at all). Of that group 😯 percent answered “no” when asked whether students were aware of the practice.
Like ASTA, the American Federation of Violin and Bow Makers (AFVBM) has taken no official stand on the practice. Maker and dealer Michael Becker is the organization’s president. When asked whether the group could call for a ban, or even for a publicized and regulated teacher-commission rate, Becker replies, “We are not in a position where we want to mandate how everyone should run his or her own business. And even if we did take a position, how could we ever enforce it? There’s no way to regulate who’s paying what. Some firms pay larger [commissions] than others. Some firms write checks, some pay teachers in other ways, maybe exchanging merchandise. There’s no level playing field. I don’t see any solution for it.”