111 – Conferencing Small and Large

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Episode Summary

Opportunities for independent teachers to get conference-type professional development in both large and small-scale formats, including the pros and cons of each setting.


Items Mentioned

Episode 013 – How to Make Music Teacher Friends

Episode 059 – Get More From Your Conference Experience

Episode 110 – Peter Mack on Teaching, Life, and MTNA 2024

NCKP: The Piano Conference

MTNA National Conferences

Piano Teacher Retreat (hosted by Joy Morin)

Creative Teaching Conference (hosted by Clinton Pratt, Tony Parlapiano, and Christopher Oill)

Piano Pantry Retreat (hosted by Amy Chaplin)

Piano Inspires




In just a few weeks, music teachers from all over will be congregating in Atlanta, Georgia to partake in the 2024 MTNA Conference. This is the annual conference for the Music Teachers National Association – the professional organization for independent music teachers and collegiate music faculty.

Conferencing is something I try to do at least once a year, and this year, I’m excited to be back in person at MTNA since I missed Reno in 2023. If you’re coming, I would love to see you at my session, which will be on Monday, March 18, at 2:55 pm, called The Wow Factor: Crafting Winning Proposals and Engaging Presentations.

In today’s episode, I wanted to highlight some opportunities for independent teachers to engage in conference-type professional development in both large and small-scale formats. Besides highlighting opportunities, we’ll also talk about some of the pros and cons of each setting.

I’m Amy Chaplin, and this is episode 111 of The Piano Pantry Podcast. If you would like to support the work here, join me on Patreon for as little as $4 a month. If you would like a few extras from me as a thank you for your support, join at the $7 monthly level. Visit PianoPantry.com/patreon for more details.

Let’s dive in.

Talking about the value of participating in and attending conferences is not a topic that’s been avoided around here in the least. In fact, one of my personal favorite episodes – 013 How to Make Music Teacher Friends – especially hammers it home.

I strongly believe that being in a profession like ours—which is frequently a solo act—means we have to be much more forward and proactive in developing and cultivating these important relationships.

In fact, Seattle-based teacher Peter Mack and I talked about this topic a lot in last week’s episode – number 110. I absolutely loved hearing about some of the fun and unique outings Peter and his local crew of teachers embark on together.

While the title of this episode says it’s about small and large conference formats, the more I think about it, there really are 3-size options.

First off are your large-scale conferences. In our independent teacher world, there are basically two of these: the Music Teachers National Association Conference, mentioned in the intro, and NCKP: The Piano Conference. NCKP stands for “National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy.”

The former is held annually in different locations around the US, and the latter – put on by the Francis Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy, is held in Chicago, Illinois, every two years. It’s my understanding that somewhere in the realm of 600-1,000 teachers attend, but I really don’t have the numbers. That’s just what I’ve roughly gathered hearing from others over the years.

Some of the benefits of attending a large-scale conference include the opportunity to connect with a wider community of teachers, perhaps a more diverse selection of session options, big-name concerts, and, in the case of MTNA, the opportunity to visit a fun location.

The most obvious downside is the package cost. The biggest fixed expense is the registration fee – which sits around the $500 mark these days. The only way to really cut that down is to help an exhibitor and get an exhibitor pass or to present (although presenter discounts aren’t always offered and, if anything, it’s a small token discount of maybe $50 – which we still appreciate.) That, of course, will vary by event.

Flights, housing for 3-5 nights, and food can add up, but with a little creativity and partnering up with colleagues, some of those travel expenses can be lightened.

It’s important to know that there are opportunities to help finance your professional development through grants, whether at a local, state, or national level. MTNA gives away many teacher enrichment grants of up to $750 annually. You usually just have to plan a year in advance as you generally submit grants for the upcoming year.

You’ll find links to those and everything else mentioned today in the show notes which live at PianoPantry.com/podcast/episode111.

Another reason I’ve seen teachers shy away from large multi-day events is loss of income because you obviously can’t teach those days.

The solution to that dilemma comes down to your mindset in setting your rates. Are you approaching it in more of a nickel-and-dime-by-the-hour approach, or are you looking at what you need for an annual salary and what you need in terms of time off and time for professional development, and then packaging it into an annual fee with payment options?

That is the mindset our profession is working hard to move toward – but is not entirely there yet. We have to charge enough so we can justify taking the time to attend these events. You ARE working when you go to a conference. While they’re sometimes in fun locations – it’s not the same as a vacation.

Let’s take a step down now into mid-size conferences. Depending on what state you live in, this is the place where you may not have many mid-size opportunities. If you live in a large state, like Texas or California, your state conference might be as big as some of the national ones – maybe even bigger – I don’t know.

I’ve experienced other state conferences that host anywhere from 30 to 300. My state of Indiana has usually hovered in the range of 50-100.

The pros and cons of these mid-size conferences are inner-mixed. They may be on a smaller scale but often try to line up one or two bigger names to provide value. So, you might have a great pedagogy clinician and conference artist, but only one option available per session during the conference day – two if you’re lucky – rather than 5 or more at a national conference.

The cost is probably in the range of 20% of what the national ones are, and you likely don’t have to put as much time and money into travel to go as far. So, for many, state conferences may feel a little more accessible.

Plus, you get to connect on a smaller level with those in your vicinity, even if they’re not your direct local community of teachers, which brings us to the small-scale level.

I teetered a bit with the title of this episode because when you get down to these smaller-level options, they aren’t always called conferences. So, I quickly looked up the formal definition of conference, and, as expected, as a noun, it means a formal meeting or discussion, so the term can apply to the smaller level even if they’re not formally titled as such.

First off are opportunities through local groups. Most state associations have smaller districts or local associations that provide professional development opportunities through individual workshops and meetings. These are a great way to get to know other teachers in your area and work to support each other. Sometimes, the groups are self-forming and supporting, and sometimes, they are an umbrella of a larger national and state organization such as MTNA.

The second type of small-scale event—which has been much more viable with the growth in technology and social media in the past 10-15 years—is those developed by individual teachers and offered either online or in person. These small-scale conferences range from 6 to 30 teachers in a more intimate setting—often, the teacher’s own studio.

Leila Viss and Bradley Sowash hosted one of the earliest ones I remember. I think it was called the 88 Creative Keys Conference or something like that. These small-scale conferences will come and go as teachers’ lives and offerings evolve. Still, they are fun and unique ways of gathering with other teachers in a more personal and interactive setting. Topics tend to be more focused rather than aiming for broad and wide-reaching, as the mid- or large-size conferences might be.

The cost will be higher for these smaller events than mid-size state conferences but cheaper than large-scale conferences because individuals are running them, not an organization. So a large conference might run $400-$600, a state conference might run $80-$150, and these smaller gatherings might run $200-$400. The restriction of designing a smaller, more intimate event means a higher cost than for something like a state or national conference, which has more attendance to cover expenses.

I know of three small-scale events you might want to check out this summer.

You may have heard me mention Joy Morin’s Piano Teacher Retreat on here before, which I’ve helped prepare food for most years and will this year as well. This retreat is held in Joy’s home in Michigan and is focused on a different pedagogical topic each year.

Clinton Pratt, Tony Parlapiano, and Christopher Oill have teamed up and are preparing the 2nd Creative Teaching Conference, which will be held in July in Cincinnati, Ohio.

Lastly, I will be hosting the 5th Piano Pantry Retreat in my home in Northeast Indiana. This retreat is focused on basic-level digital organization skills like document management, device organization, media storage, email cleanup and management, and more.

As of now, I only take on half the number of people than the two gatherings just mentioned, as the content requires a more hands-on/one-on-one approach from me to help you get your digital workspace in order.

This digital organization series has two formats: the online version and the in-person retreat. If you can swing it, I strongly suggest going for the in-person version, as I can offer a lot more personalized attention and help.

I can’t tell you how many times it has made a world of difference for teachers, having me be able to walk right up to their computer, sit next to them, and walk through how to do something. I specifically remember one instance with a teacher where the sidebar of her File Explorer was covered in various storage locations, and she wasn’t even sure where they were coming from.

I was able to dig into her computer a bit and help configure some settings to really clean it up. So, when I say hands-on, I mean hands-on. That’s the kind of thing that I can’t do through the online version.

In last week’s episode, I first announced the dates of this year’s retreat. It will be June 12-15, and there will only be one this year rather than two as in previous years. It is such a fun time and since registration includes some meals prepared by me – you know you’re going to eat well while you’re there! Visit PianoPantry.com/retreat for more details.

If you’re interested but can’t sign up this year, I have a special first-notification list you can join, which will give you a one-week advanced notice before details are opened to the public. I do this since I can only take such a small number. Again, that’s PianoPantry.com/retreat

I hope this episode opened your eyes a bit to the fact that professional development is widely available in a variety of sizes and formats. While this episode was focused on conferences especially, there are all kinds of digital courses and webinars available from individual content creators as well as larger organizations like MTNA. So, there’s no excuse. Find something that works for you, and get engaged!

This is the last episode before the 2024 conference in Atlanta. If you see me there, please stop me to say hello and introduce yourself. It’s my favorite part of attending so don’t be shy!

I’ll see some of you soon!

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