August 29, 2014

When It's Time to Drop Your Kid's Piano Lessons

I had a discussion with a parent recently whose son wanted to drop piano lessons. He's been taking lessons with me for a little over two years and has hit a major plateau recently. The student had become frustrated with the difficulty of his pieces and had told his mother that he wanted to quit. She then came to me asking for advice.

Handling this situation is my least favorite part of the job. It puts the teacher in an incredibly awkward position because as I've written about before, although I have relationships with these students and I enjoy teaching them they are also my sources of income. Even if a student should probably drop lessons it is hard to admit this to parents when I know that it means a loss of somewhere between $160 and $500 into the foreseeable future. In the end though, I find that it's valuable to be honest with a parent. The spot will usually get filled within a term or two, and if the student is struggling the lessons usually aren't very fun. It's easy to view these things as a number game, but it's also important to think of the mental toll, and the value of finding a new student who may be more committed.

I think parents understand some of this. They know that I'm thinking of a combination of student happiness, my happiness, parent happiness, and my financial happiness. Often when I'm asked about this, the parents already know the answer. I usually figure that after I'm seriously asked about dropping lessons, the student will only be around for another one or two terms.

The mother in this particular case gave me some of the best reasoning I've heard on this topic. She told me that while she understood her child's frustrations, she also knew that it was a damaging message to send that when something gets difficult, quitting is an easy solution. I've lost several students because piano was "getting too difficult" and I loved that this parent understood that difficulty should not be a contributing factor in choosing when to quit.

There are definitely times when it's okay to stop lessons. When neither the parent or the student are invested, and haven't been for some time, the teacher will often welcome their withdrawal from lessons. I had a student who hadn't practiced for around 4 months but still kept taking lessons. When his mother didn't write me back for scheduling purposes I was extremely relieved. If you find that you, as a parent, have to apologize for your child's lack of practicing for weeks in a row, it's probably a sign that neither of you are ready for it.

If your child is visibly miserable taking lessons, it's probably time to look for another teacher or take a break. I had a student who sometimes cried before coming into lessons and would frequently cry in the lessons. She didn't like piano lessons, didn't like practicing, and didn't really like music. Those are pretty good qualifiers for dropping lessons.

Unfortunately, kids are not always the best judges of their own status and mood. If given the opportunity to drop piano lessons many of them will say yes even if they aren't struggling at all. Parents have to see through their bullshit and work it out on their own. Many of my students have gone through the following phases:

Beginner's Excitement 
Inability to Coast
Loss of Motivation
Want to Drop
Bust Through

It seems simplistic I know, but you'll find with lots of students that the rise in difficulty of music coincides strongly with a loss in motivation. Kids love things that are easy and very few actually want to be challenged. The middle area, when kids plateau and struggle, will be different lengths for different kids. Some of my students emerge quickly, some never struggle through it at all, and some spend months if not years in there. Most of them though, when they get through it, become fine musicians on the other side.

It's important to remember, as a parent, that struggling should not be confused with inability. Musicians have to struggle every day with their craft. Dropping music because of difficulty is never a good route to take. But if you and your child are unhappy, talk to your teacher candidly and ask them to be honest as well. Remember that your child and their teacher have a relationship, and despite any struggled perceived on your end, the teacher may have a different view. Try to judge if the teacher is keeping with your student because they see something, because they enjoy the student, or if they simply need the money. Ultimately the choice is up to you, and it may not be entirely obvious, but try to take everything into consideration and remember, you can always go back again later. Or at least constantly remind them when, as adults, they complain that they shouldn't have dropped piano.

August 25, 2014

Mendota Heights Block Party 8/13, 2014

Yep, I played drums for a gig

August 24, 2014

Advice Stickers

One of my favorite things to do with stickers is to make them into a functional reminder placed directly on the kid's music. Teachers know that simply writing a note or a comment on the page is often not enough to make a kid pay attention to what you want.

I had a student playing a piece in G-major, and I knew he wouldn't remember his F# in the key signature so I wrote a giant F# and put a box around it. He came back the next week without any F#s in the piece. I drew a circle around the F# and put some big arrows pointing toward it. The second week: nothing. If aliens had discovered this page of music by the time we were done with it, they'd assume that we worshiped some sort of god called F#.

Simple pencil marking just don't cut it sometimes. Why not use a sticker to create something eye-grabbing, fun, and possibly even relevant to your point.

"Play strong, like me!"

What better way to tell a student to slow down than with a giant-eyed turtle?

Threats of extinction are always effective
Let's ignore the fact that my student chose to write a bunch of note names in and instead focus on the glorious use of an advice sticker.

August 19, 2014

August 18, 2014

Why You Should Never Start Lessons Early (But You Will Anyway)

A while back I wrote about the economic cul-de-sac that is the make-up lesson. Makeups are a losing prospect for teachers, particularly when the makeups are due to a skipped lesson from the student. A less obvious, but equally (maybe even more) tricky situation is what to do with the early student.

Late students are simple to deal with. Their lesson has already technically begun so the student just scrambles in, throws their music on the piano and you make the most of whatever time remains before your next student. There is rarely an expectation from the parent that you will go long to make up for their missed time and if anything you, as the piano teacher, finally get a bathroom break while waiting for the tardy pupil.

But what do you do when and empty slot is interrupted by a kid who shows up 15 minutes early? Or even 5 minutes early? Kids will typically pace around the door, peek in the little window until they catch my eye, and proceed to enter the room. At this point, as the teacher, I have two options: begin the lesson, or kick them out and keep practicing while they wait. I've only ever booted a few students, and only because they were 20 minutes early and I had some sort of deadline that I needed to practice for. But really, is it a big deal? So what if you start their lesson early? You can end earlier right?

The reason for being a stickler to the clock is, of course, money. Well, money and being realistic about how long your lessons typically run. If you go to a piano teacher convention (and who of us hasn't?) you'll inevitably overhear some version of the following statement: "I'd love to do more _____, but I just can't fit it into the lesson!" Then all surrounding teachers will nod knowingly and agree that yes, 30 minutes is too short a time to teach everything that is required. Given extra time, teachers will fill it with extra things.You can try to end a lesson early to even out the time that was taken by the early student, but between adding extra stuff at the piano and having more time to gab with the parents, you've likely just given your 30 minute student a 35 or 40 minute lesson. By starting this lesson earlier, you've just given them an extra 5 minutes that you won't get paid for.

So your first student showed up five minutes early, and most other students show up five minutes you can finish your entire teaching day five minutes early, right? Probably not. You may luck out and have all of your students arrive five minutes early but if the last student arrives on time (and why shouldn't they?) then you're still leaving at the normal time. And, even if a miracle like that were to happen, you'll likely give extra time to your first few students and end up back on your normal schedule anyway.

It's important to remember what it is we're selling as piano teachers. We are in the business of renting our time out. Our expertise is important yes, but the actual product that's being sold is the time. If you start watering down your time by throwing an extra 5 minutes here and 10 minutes there you are losing immense amounts of money. If you start 10 minutes early every day, but still end the day on time, you've lost an entire lesson's worth of time every three days and probably two lessons worth in a week. By the end of the year that adds up to several hundred dollars that you won't see despite putting the hours in.

Think of how you would rather be spending that time as well. I usually practice before students arrive. Let's say that I arrive to work 30 minutes before my first student is scheduled. I practice for 15 minutes and then my student arrives forcing me to stop. I teach that student for 30 minutes, talk to the parent for 5 minutes and then head back into practice. I've probably only got about 5 minutes before my next student will begin loitering outside the studio. My beautiful 30 minute practice period has been nibbled down to 20 minutes and with warm-up time and the near uselessness of a 5-minute chunk, it's really more like 10. Now imagine you have a concert coming up and you see where the extra stress starts to come in.

So, we've established why it's annoying, why it's unproductive (for you), and why it's bad business to start lessons early. Will you continue to do it? Of course you will. It's in the parent's (or student's) best interest to get started early. They don't have to wait around as long, the parent gets to drop the kid off and go run errands, and they might get to go home just a little bit earlier. And even if they do the math and realize that their kid is getting extra time, that's great too! Free lesson time!

It's really difficult to turn a kid away who has already walked through the door. I've chastised kids for not knocking, I've berated them for interrupting my practicing, and I've even continued about my business for minutes while the kid stands in the doorway, but I've only had the guts to turn them away a couple of times. You can make up a policy for entering the room, but only expect a handful of families to observe it. Plus, even if you don't invite the kids in until it's their turn, get ready for little eyes staring at you through the window, and banging as the student leans against the door.

It's unfortunate, but unless you terrify your students so much that they stay away in fear, you'll always have early students. Try to be tough, make your policy known, but don't be surprised when you lose money and time to eager parents and students. Always try to remember though, you are a teacher, but you're also running a business, and you need to think about yourself as much as you think about the students.