The unanticipated - What they didn't tell you

Talk with other teachers, exchange tips, participate in polls regarding a teaching studio business

Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Mon Jun 27, 2005 8:38 am

College music training generally provides an excellent musical background for teaching. That said, what would you have liked to learn in college about the "business" of teaching piano that you ended up having to learn in the "school of hard knocks." What aspects of running a teaching studio surprised you, either pleasantly or unpleasantly, the most? Would you recommend some business training as a part of the curriculum of anyone planning a career in music?

We hear from young teachers quite frequently asking these, or very similar, questions. I realize these are not exactly the same questions, but I'm hoping the answers to them, provided by teachers who have been through the whole experience, will be helpful to those starting out as musicians or teachers of music. :)
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Postby Beckywy » Mon Jun 27, 2005 7:37 pm

What I didn't expect to have to deal with - difficult parents.

Parents who blame the teachers for their child not living up to the parent's expectations.

Having to answer to parents when their child doesn't perform to the best of their abilities at festivals and examinations.
"The real purpose of studying music-to unite ourselves with our special gifts in such a way that one would add strength to the other" Seymour Bernstein
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Postby Stretto » Tue Jun 28, 2005 2:02 am

Most of the unpleasant aspects of running a teaching studio that suprised me I think are fairly common for teachers. Most of the solutions to the problems I've faced can be found under the "Teaching Studio" tips on this site and searching through previous threads. I'm not sure if there would be any business classes that would prepare a teacher to handle these problems. Perhaps training on writing a studio policy would be helpful:

Unpleasant aspects:

1. ' Last minute' cancellations or no shows (outside of illness, emergencies, or inclement weather)
- solution: written policy requiring cancellations be made by a certain time or no-make up lesson would be given and fees would still be due
2. Cancellations for anything and everything (shopping, swimming, going to a friend's house, going out to eat, etc.)/requests to change piano lesson time when signing up for sports due to practices and games conflicting with lesson
- solution: written policy that fees will still be due and make-ups or schedule changes be made only if teachers schedule permits (some teachers require the student find someone else to trade times with)
3. Students being spread so thin by activities leaving literally no time to practice
- solution: require a minimum amount of practice each week and suggest the student break up daily practice time in 5-15 minute sessions (they usually get hooked and end up practicing longer)
4. Not returning borrowed materials
- solution: charge an upfront deposit fee
5. Dropping out of lessons without calling or sending a note at least to simply let the teacher know of the decision (This happened to me only once from someone I was on very good terms with. I suspect the student became too busy with high school sports and school activities and the parents were too busy to take the time to notify me or felt ackward notifying me.)
- solution: charge an upfront deposit fee with a written policy requiring a certain amount of notice/if a student stops coming without notice, the fees for the time specified can be taken out of the deposit
6. Students not paying attention when the teacher is giving directions (i.e. playing around on the piano while teacher is talking)/students flat out refusing to follow directions (i.e. practicing counting or learning the left hand)
- solution: ?? This is the biggest problem for me. Anyone have any ideas? It has helped some to get their attention by saying their name and then "I want to tell you something".

(What suprises me the most is the amount of irresponsibility in not cancelling lessons in a timely manner and therefore the inconsideration of the teacher's time. It is unfortunate that we would need such strict policies. I was lenient on cancellations and no-shows when I first started teaching because I wasn't worried about the money but just gaining experience. However, I felt taken advantage of and had to set policies just to keep people responsible.)

Pleasantries:

1. Student's enthusiasm
2. Giving students an overall appreciation for music that will carry into adulthood
3. Loving teaching students (I can't wait for them to come to the next lesson so I can teach them more about playing the piano and music in general)

Training at the university level really helped prepare me musically. I would never have been able to teach theory, music history, analysis of a score, composition, or teach a student enough to help prepare them if they did choose to study music at the college level if I had never had that training. Classes that would have helped me perhaps would be one that deals with communicating with people including children, computer classes, and a basic running your own business class with advice on taxes and liability issues.
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Jun 28, 2005 8:16 am

Stretto wrote:Most of the solutions to the problems I've faced can be found under the "Teaching Studio" tips on this site and searching through previous threads.

Unpleasant aspects:


6. Students not paying attention when the teacher is giving directions (i.e. playing around on the piano while teacher is talking)/students flat out refusing to follow directions (i.e. practicing counting or learning the left hand)
- solution: ?? This is the biggest problem for me. Anyone have any ideas? It has helped some to get their attention by saying their name and then "I want to tell you something".

Classes that would have helped me perhaps would be one that deals with communicating with people including children, computer classes, and a basic running your own business class with advice on taxes and liability issues.

Stretto,

Your post is so filled with good advice and useful information that it is hard to comment on all of it. First, let me say thanks for your acknowledgement of The Teaching Studio. A lot of work by a lot of people went into it. I'm glad you found it useful, or, at least, affirming in what you were already doing.

My wife teaches special ed for emotionally fragile kids at our local high school, a school nationally-recognized as innovative in teaching. Her students' abilities range from "kids" whose mental functioning is at the kindergarten level to gifted kids who are well-beyond the high school level. The gifted kids tend to get bored and the slow kids tend to lose focus easily. The most common factor running through most of her students is that they have poor home environments, which provide no motivation or encouragement for academic accomplishment.

One technique that she uses with all her kids, when needed, is to stop trying to teach them when they have lost focus and give them five minutes or so to do something else they want to do. Preferably, this is something at least peripherally related to the lessons of the day, but can be something like letting the kids sit in an easy chair she has in the classroom for that purpose, or letting them draw, etc. The kids then come back focused and ready to do more, rather than bored and burned out. If the kids have a sense that they will get a reward (i.e. a break from lessons) if they work hard, it's usually easy to get cooperation.

Because this seems to work with students who have temporary or permanent attention deficit problems at most levels of mental capacity, it might be useful to you. Yes, you give up a few minutes of the lesson, but the rest of the lesson is likely to be more effective. For example, one possible thing you could do to help the kids focus is to play a section of the piece he's working on so that he can hear how it's supposed to sound, or, you could listen to a CD of the work, or just give him a brief comfort break. The point is that the student should choose, although you can provide considerable direction within the confines of the student's wishes and educational needs. What motivates each student is up to you to find out, but there is always something.

Finally, your comment about basic business classes is one of the things I was thinking about when I started this thread. So many teachers seem to be really great as musicians and teachers, but way underprepared when it comes to the complexities of running a modern business.
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Postby Stretto » Tue Jun 28, 2005 10:06 am

One technique that she uses with all her kids, when needed, is to stop trying to teach them when they have lost focus and give them 5 minutes or so to do something else they want to do.


Thanks for the tips! I can tell when kid's 'brains are on overload' and we're not going to get any further. They are usually already full of information from school and tired from the day. I have done some switching to fun theory games or listening to music but didn't think of switching back and forth to prevent the overload to begin with. Perhaps a class related to teaching children in general would come in handy. I'm sure the Music Ed. majors have a better grasp on this area. This is one area I have had to experiment by trial and error.

When it comes to business classes, back in the 80's when I started out in college pursuing a fashion design degree (because everyone advised me there's no money in music), I tried to take a business and computer class and was not permitted to because the classes where too full with business majors. Sadly, the university did not permit anyone to take business-related courses if they were not a requirement of their degree. I wonder if this is still the case. Fortunately, my 'teaching studio' is small enough that I can run it without the advantage of business knowledge. If I ever wanted to have a large studio and lease a space, for example, I would have no clue where to start and be way over my head. Do any universities require or offer business-related classes for music majors? Perhaps a music degree with an emphasis in business would be nice. Is there such a thing? I guess one could minor in business. I wonder what other musicians have done to gain business knowledge.
If I were to take business-related classes, however, they would have to be designed and taught in simple terminology for artistic-minded people like me and targeted for those in the arts. Complicated business courses would go way over my head and probably not be practically useful in the 'real world'. Perhaps music departments would be better off to design their own courses as they specifically relate to the music field. One thing that helped me tremendously is that the university I attended (I transferred years later and switched majors), is the vast amount of writing that classes required. The university was responding to complaints by corporations that students are coming out of college with poor writing skills. So, in almost every class I took from A - Z, I had to write papers and more papers and more papers, as well as a lot of written work on exams. Believe it or not, I always hated writing papers and trying to formulate words clearly and concisely (I still haven't arrived at the concise part). But now I don't mind writing and almost enjoy it because of having to write so much in college.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jun 28, 2005 1:08 pm

The New Mexico State U. Music Dept. installed a business course for music majors several years ago, geared to running a studio; it's optional for most but mandatory for Piano Pedagogy majors. If you were unable to get into a business course without a business major, it was doubtless due to overcrowding of classes--there's a lot of this now, with universities' budget problems. We have to deny a LOT of non-music majors who want to take Functional Piano because the classes are always over full.

RE Stretto No. 6: what I do when they keep playing when I'm trying to talk to them is close the keyboard lid--on their hands if necessary (gently, of course!).

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Wed Jun 29, 2005 11:26 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:The New Mexico State U. Music Dept. installed a business course for music majors several years ago, geared to running a studio; it's optional for most but mandatory for Piano Pedagogy majors.

Although I can probably guess a lot of the topics in the NMSU course on business for piano pedagogy majors, could you expand a little on the content of the course (accounting, taxes, licenses, legal needs and requirements, etc.?).
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Jun 30, 2005 10:36 am

I'll try, but it'll have to wait until Fall semester starts. Having never taken nor taught this course, I'm not familiar with the syllabus, so I'll have to communicate with the instructor then. At the moment I understand she's in Hawaii.

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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Thu Jun 30, 2005 10:39 am

Dr. Bill Leland wrote:I'll try, but it'll have to wait until Fall semester starts. Having never taken nor taught this course, I'm not familiar with the syllabus, so I'll have to communicate with the instructor then. At the moment I understand she's in Hawaii.

No doubt, at a business conference. :laugh:
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Postby Wild Rose » Tue Jul 05, 2005 9:04 am

Hi All!

I'm back again. My son got married on June 20. ':D'
300 guest wedding. It was beautiful!

I loved your post Stretto! Right On about most of the problems we all face. The one about missed lessons without prior cancellation is what really gets to me. And when the Student DOES show up, it is generally with an attitude that YOU are So Mean! And that they will probably start looking for a New & Improved Teacher - possible before the next lesson.

I actually agree with Dr. John's implied statement that students that tend to "drift" have a problem at home - at least that has been my experience.

My own personal solution is a bunch of jokes remembered from 6th Grade (just about the level they are working on). The more visual the better.

Say "What's this?"
1)Push the sides of the hands into cheeks.
answer:"Driver please open the door."
2)Hold one hand over the other, touching fingers:close and seperate, then repeat.
answer:"Spider doing push-ups on a mirror."
3)(for girls)Hold hands at edge of scalp and pull away from eyes.
answer:"Mommy, I think my braids are too tight."

It gets their attention. It's good for a laugh. And most importantly, they feel that I'm on their side and not judging. Making lessons a "safer" place to be can be soul saving for some of these kids.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Tue Jul 05, 2005 1:48 pm

How about: "If a fly didn't have wings, would it be called a walk?"
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Postby Stretto » Tue Jul 05, 2005 5:48 pm

Wild Rose and Dr. Leland:
Thanks for the tips on using humor as an attention getter in lessons. Although I try to make the lessons lighthearted, I probably need to 'lighten up' about kids not paying attention as there are easy and creative ways to solve this.

Another common business-related problem I thought could be discussed on this thread is the importance, in general, of being able to say 'no' or set limits on far-fetched requests. Last minute cancellations falls in this category also. I know some people who run their own business (not piano teaching) and are constantly talking about customers who expect special favors, for example opening the building after hours or Holidays for them. These customers get mad when no one will cater to their 'above and beyond' requests.

I don't think people purposely try to take advantage of me or walk all over me, but when I try to be "Mr. Nice Guy" for make-ups and not having to pay for last minute cancellations, people expect it more and more vs. a one-time favor.

The ability to say "no" and set limits to 'above and beyond' requests is a must for a small business owner like a piano teacher with a private studio.

Dr. Zeigler or anyone with advice on this subject:
What types of business classes or books teach small business owners to firmly but politely say "no" to excessive customer requests? Does anyone have any tips or advice regarding this. ???
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Postby Dr. John Zeigler - PEP Ed » Tue Jul 05, 2005 9:14 pm

Stretto wrote:Dr. Zeigler or anyone with advice on this subject:
What types of business classes or books teach small business owners to firmly but politely say "no" to excessive customer requests? Does anyone have any tips or advice regarding this. ???

The cardinal rule for this situation is that you have to do what you feel comfortable with. If you don't feel good about advice you get, you can't effectively implement it. So, get it firmly in mind what you want to do in given situation, then stick to your guns.

That said, one way to deal with this situation is to define as many as possible of these special requests that you would like to say no to in your studio policy. If the policy covers the situation explicitly, then it's much easier to say "I have a policy on that which I follow. That policy does not allow me to grant your request, just as I can't grant it for others."

Dr. Leland has recommended several times James Bastien's book "How to Teach Piano Successfully." It has lots of good business advice in it. We have also dealt with this issue in several ways in some of the articles in The Teaching Studio, though perhaps we should expand on this aspect a little more.
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Postby Dr. Bill Leland » Thu Jul 07, 2005 9:47 am

I've found, too, that perhaps the most effective overall solution to this problem is to have a PRINTED document, clearly stated and covering all the rules and fees, which is given to students and parents before they even sign up. Then there is no doubt about what your policies are from the very outset.

I know a lot of you already do this; has it been effective?

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Postby 108-1121887355 » Sat Jul 23, 2005 5:31 pm

When I had a lot of neighborhood students, I recall parents calling to say that they could not find their child! I decided it was time for some billing process, which I hated to do. I worked out a tri-mester system that worked very well. Payment was made in advance and make up lessons for illness were worked out. Other lessons were not made up. It is amazing how children did not get lost the next year.
As for distractions - I have several young children (3 boys) two of whom, especially, have a hard time. I will ask them if they are making up a song if they are playing when I am talking, and we might work on it together. I may have them get up and walk, run to a rhythm (quarter notes to walk)and so on. Usually they come back and I have their attention for a while. I don't write their lesson down until we are finished as I have to stay 'ahead" of them. You can chat about school or their favorite song, too.
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