Johannes Brahms is regarded as one of the greatest composers in history. I never tire of his sonatas for violin or cello, and his piano works are pure magic. I go through whole periods of listening and marveling at his capacity for melodic development. I can’t read enough biographies. Beyond his incurable love for Clara Schumann – I’m convinced his over-the-top adoration of her acted like a narcotic that fired up his creativity to generate such astonishing melodies – one strange fact stands out to me.

Piano Teachers
Image source: Woodleywonderworks – Flickr
Piano Teachers

The code is not a mandate, but a statement of a common practice in the industry. It is a matter of courtesy, really.Brahms’s main source of income was revenue he earned from teaching piano lessons. He invested his meager income in the stock market and this was the only reason he lived a financially comfortable life in old age. As for his compositions, forget it. Their aesthetic value as musical creations is indisputable; their economic value in his life, however, was very low.

Even as a performer, he could never make a go of it. His true love Clara travelled all over Europe – even though she was the mother of eight kids! – and packed the concert halls. People paid her astonishing amounts of money to play. The crowds went wild. But Johannes? No such luck. He never achieved any fame as a performer. No, he was a piano teacher. He knew it, and he was sad about it.

As a teacher, however, he also produced some incredible books of student exercises. You look at them today and wonder how anyone could play them at all given their technical demands. It just goes to show you that no matter how phenomenal you are, you can never stop practicing, doing exercises, and studying under the great masters.

I point out this tiny snippet from musical history to observe this: as difficult as it is to believe, it all happened without the Federal Trade Commission!

Piano Teachers – Harassing Teachers

Of course any student can change teachers at any time.What’s the FTC got to do with it? Well, early in 2016, the agency took it upon itself to intervene heavily in the market for piano teaching.The FTC sent a small nonprofit – the Music Teachers National Association – a letter accusing it of promoting anticompetitive trade practices. This is all because their manual discourages teachers from aggressively poaching students from other teachers.

The code is not a mandate, but a statement of a common practice in the industry. It is a matter of courtesy, really. It’s never been enforced. It doesn’t have to be. These teachers depend on the support of the community for recitals, ideas, referrals, and general support. They are a happy community and this kind of behavior, by tradition, is regarded as unsporting.

Of course any student can change teachers at any time, as you might know if you have ever been part of this community. You can leave one teacher and go to another. If you do that, however, you must be nice about it, just so that you can keep peace in the community. Another factor here is that every teacher has his or her own method and pacing. Hopping from teacher to teacher isn’t always the best way to learn.

In any case, the FTC seized on the sentences in the Association’s manual and declared it to be incompatible with the bureaucracy’s version of what constitutes genuine competition. Their economists have models, don’t you know, and these models determine what is good for students and teachers. The Association – which no piano teacher has to join in order to teach – immediately offered to take the sentence out of its code. That wasn’t enough.

As Kim Strassel reports in the Wall Street Journal:

With a dozen employees and a $2 million budget…the MTNA staff still had to devote months compiling thousands of documents demanded by the agency, some going back 20 years: reports, the organization’s magazines, everything Mr. Ingle had ever written that touched on the code. Mr. Ingle estimates he has spent “hundreds upon hundreds” of hours since March complying with this federal colonoscopy.

This October, MTNA signed a consent decree—its contents as ludicrous as the investigation. The association did not have to admit or deny guilt. It must, however, read a statement out loud at every future national MTNA event warning members against talking about prices or recruitment. It must send this statement to all 22,000 members and post it on its website. It must contact all of its 500-plus affiliates and get them to sign a compliance statement.

The association must also develop a sweeping antitrust compliance program that will require annual training of its state presidents on the potential crimes of robber-baron piano teachers. It must submit regular reports to the FTC and appoint an antitrust compliance officer. (The FTC wanted the officer to be an attorney, but Mr. Ingle explained that this would “break the bank,” so the agency—how gracious—is allowing him to fill the post.) And it must comply with most of this for the next 20 years.

Yes, this is what bureaucracies do. To make work for themselves, they have these models on their desks and scrounge around for instances of reality that do not conform. Maybe they are just googling around and find something objectionable. They flex their muscles by issuing menacing letters. They completely disregard the normal course of human interaction (and human decency too) to force behavior into their preferred path. Once they are finished, and lives and whole institutions are wrecked, they call it a success. They then move on to the next victim.

Piano Teachers – It’s a Process

Making a living in music is hard enough as it is without dealing with this sort of nonsense.As countless economists have said for the last 100 years, the FTC’s vision of what constitutes competition is a complete mess. It takes a snapshot in time and discerns whether it complies with its own view of how the world should work. But economics is not about snapshots in time; economics is about a process of ebb and flow, with one state of being sending signals to actors to gradually create a new state of being. To freeze time and judge is to miss the whole point of the evolving process.

The victims of the errant theory used by the FTC are legion, from Standard Oil to Microsoft. But for the FTC to be reduced to bullying piano teachers is just too much. It turns tragedy to farce. There is not one child learning their arpeggios who will benefit from this, and not one teacher who will experience the glories of competition to a greater extent than he otherwise would.

Making a living in music is hard enough as it is without dealing with this sort of nonsense emanating from the bowels of bureaucracy. Musical education has done just fine for thousands of years without them, and, as Brahms would testify, competition does not need to be created; it exists as an inherent part of the industry itself.

 

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