The Teacher-Student-Parent Initial Interview - A Teacher's Perspective
by Nancy Ostromencki
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
e cannot stress too much the importance of always having an initial interview in person before accepting a student into your studio. NEVER take a student over the phone without the initial in-person interview. The teacher can gain many insights by conducting the initial meeting/interview with the prospective student and parents. Whether you charge a fee or conduct the initial interview for free is up to you. Ask yourself the question, "Do other professionals do an initial consultation or interview for free?" Many teachers do this initial interview as a free "service" and recruiting tool, others offer it as a free incentive to come into the studio. That choice is yours, but it is a wasted opportunity not to get full benefit from the initial interview.
Be sure to find out from the initial contact if the prospective student has any learning disabilities, behavioral disorders, or physical disabilities. Not all piano teachers are trained to teach all students. Some teachers specialize in teaching students with learning disabilities, while some have had no training in dealing with disabilities. As a responsible teacher you need to ask the question and know your own talents and limitations as a teacher.
Invite both parents of the student to attend the initial interview and then observe carefully the relationship between the parents and the student. Does the student cling to either parent? Is there a lot of verbal resistance or arguing between parents and student? Also try to determine if the parents are musical, either serious amateurs or professional musicians, and if so, find out what their expectations are for their child. Very often a child cannot live up to a parent's expectations in music, especially if the parents are successful musicians themselves. Stress the importance of positive parental involvement in practice sessions and lessons. If a parent does not want to bother with being involved in the child's music lessons, do you as a teacher want to get involved yourself?
While keeping a mutual respect for all adults involved, urge free communication with the parents. Recommend them to contact you during regular teaching hours to confer about motivation, practice techniques, concerts or recitals for the students to attend. Always have the parents address you by your professional name: Mrs. Bryant, Mr. Todd, Dr. Simpson, and, accordingly, address them formally: Mrs. Copper, Mr. Gold, Reverend Smith. Although open dialogue is essential, keeping a professional attitude and/or distance shows respect for both your talents and education as teacher and shows the parents the respect they are due as well.
Let parents know during the initial interview that lessons are a professional service you are providing; you expect to be paid on time, and you will do your part by seeing that lesson times are kept on schedule and free from outside interruptions. Let parents know that, even though most teachers conduct their lessons from their home, you do have regularly scheduled business hours and regularly scheduled off-time. Phone calls made at 7 A.M. or after 9 P.M are not acceptable, or whatever other times your business schedule makes appropriate.
Always have a studio policy in effect and have the financially responsible parent not only read the studio policy, but sign two copies. Then have the adult take one copy of the studio policy for their records and keep the other signed copy of the studio policy for your own files. In this day of people being trigger happy with lawsuits and/or threats of lawsuits, the more legally binding and complete the documentation you have, the better off you will be. It is highly desirable from a legal standpoint for you go through the policy point-by-point, as most parents do not read such documentation and will hold you responsible for their failures in the event of a dispute. A well-written studio policy also will help instill a sense of professional respect for what you are doing, and will help avert any abuse or misuse of free communication between parent and teacher. It may also help avoid misunderstandings later on and will certainly improve your legal position in the event a bad situation develops.
Let the student and parents know from the start that there will need to be structured practice time made available and that you expect the student to practice between lessons. Discuss openly with the parents and student how much and how often you expect the student to practice. If you meet a lot of resistance to the notion of practice, from either the parents or student, or a combination of the two, think twice about accepting this student into your studio. In that event, advise the parents that learning the piano is a commitment that will waste a lot of their money if not properly shouldered.
We think that one of the best things a teacher can do in the initial
mini-lesson is to give the parents and student a good idea of what they
should expect from good quality piano lessons and a good quality piano. If
people really understand the difference between good and average lessons
(and instruments) they might be more inclined to make a better choice, even
if it doesn't happen to be you. Either way, you've done the prospective
clients a service.
When conducting the initial interview, talk to the student to get to know him or her. Ask the student questions about school, if they like it or not. If they don't like it, ask them why they don't. If the child states they don't like doing homework or doing what the teachers asks them to do, be careful; you might be headed for a disastrous teaching situation that will evolve more into a battle of wills than a relationship of healthy music teaching.
If the prospective student is 5 or 6 years old or younger, find out if the student has been in a pre-school or kindergarten situation where there are structured teaching/learning situations. If you think about it, lesson time with you will be structured, as will practice time. It will make your job as piano teacher a lot easier if the student has already had some exposure to a structured learning environment.
Ask the student if there is music in school and find out how they teach note reading, etc. This way, the communication methods of musical terms can be consistent. Many schools utilize a do-re-mi approach to note reading, others utilize the Kodaly method, both of which are pedagogically sound and correct, but you want to make sure that the discussion is being done in the same musical language. If not, you might have to develop the ability to communicate in the different musical languages.
Then have some fun with some 'games" which will tell you a lot about the readiness of the student. Doing wiggle finger games is fun, and helps the teacher see how developed the coordination skills are. Have the child place both hands up in the air and ask them to wiggle finger 5 in both hands at the same time; continue with this skipping around to different finger numbers and eventually evolve it to involve asking the student to wiggle finger 4 in the left hand. Another game that can help you gauge a student's readiness is the clapping game. Show flash cards to the prospective student that have rhythmic values on them like 3 quarter notes, and have him clap the notes with his hands, while singing or saying aloud 'quarter, quarter, quarter". Then add other things like a rest. For the rest, have the student just separate their hands or have them put their hands up in the air with the fingers hanging down towards the floor, while saying rest.
Show the student the geography of the keyboard using a game such as finding all the groups of two black keys all over the keyboard as fast as they can. Next introduce the concept of high, low and middle of the keyboard, and see how well they do with remembering the concept, while trying to find the groups of two or three black keys. If the student makes a mistake, de-emphasize the mistake, just keep the flow of the musical concepts going instead. Very often it is interesting to see just how a student does react to a mistake - do they get easily frustrated and want to quit because of one mistake, or can they laugh along with you and work with you to try it again? Again the purpose of all these games from your standpoint is to judge the readiness and willingness of the prospective student for productive lessons.
The physical size of a student is not all that important. Coordination and motivation are much more important factors. Remember that, for a smaller student, you'll need to have a footstool available for the student to place their feet, and make sure that foot stool is strong and secure. The focus of the weight of the student should always be on the footstool, not seated way far back on the piano bench.
When interviewing a transfer student, ask both the parents and the student directly why they are seeking to transfer from another teacher to you. Make it clear that you will make no exceptions to the studio policy or the business facets of your studio for anyone. Ask the parents about their past experiences with private piano lessons; were they positive or negative experiences? If negative experiences, try to communicate to the parents that their negative experience will probably not be repeated if there is an open dialogue between parent and teacher. In other words, try to make positive suggestions for improving lessons, rather than just criticizing the student.
It goes without saying that you must keep in mind that you will only hear one side of anything negative that you hear about the prior teacher. If something you hear concerns you, contact the prior teacher, if possible. Ask the teacher not only about the reasons for the student leaving, but also use the opportunity to find out if there were problems in dealing with the parents, if lessons were promptly paid for, and if the student showed a real interest in lessons. You'll have to evaluate carefully the answers you get, but at least you'll find out about any really bad situation you might be stepping into.
Have the student play something for you, but do not be bowled over by raw talent. Very often, students who exhibit talent often have an attitude to accompany that talent, as do their parents, and sometimes they seem to expect you to pay them for the privilege of teaching. Ask to see a repertoire list and a technique listing; do sight-reading with them at the initial interview. Ask them about performance experiences, either in recitals or competitions. Find out if the recitals were formally conducted, with the students having to memorize their music and follow correct stage protocol. Do they have accompanying experience, ensemble experience? And most importantly, why do they want to study with you?
I have found it helpful to invite the transfer student and parents to a Studio Concert, or one of the studio's formal recitals, so that the student and parents can hear my other students perform and meet the other students and parents of students who study at my Studio. This way, the transfer student and/or parents know that you are who you say you are and get a sense of what you expect from students and their parents.
In the end, remember that even if you have conducted the initial interview with the student and/or parents and cannot identify any specific problem areas, if something about the situation or the dynamics makes you feel uncomfortable with the student and/or the parents, do not take the student. Although you may be tempted to accept a student for monetary or emotional reasons, despite misgivings, in the long run, you will be better off having followed your instincts. You will avert a possibly bad, unhealthy and unproductive teaching situation, not to mention the possibility of lawsuits, non payments of tuition bills, etc.
If, after the interview or during the course of the interview, it seems that a certain student would not be a good "fit" for the studio, urge the parents and all involved to go home to reassess their study with you, and, if need be, give them a listing of alternative teachers to contact. Usually by giving the parents and student a chance to assess the situation carefully, you think more about it yourself and can graciously give them referrals to other competent teachers, where appropriate. If necessary, place the "blame" for the non-acceptance of the student into your studio on your own head, rather than expressing any concerns or misgivings about a potentially unhealthy teaching situation.
Towards the end of the initial interview the parents of the student might express a desire to have the student start lessons with you straight away. Always express my positive interest in having the student study at your studio, if indeed you are interested. However, also tell the parents to go home and carefully read and discuss the studio policy and literature, then to give you a call in a day or two so you can get the paperwork going before lessons officially begin. Should mutual agreement be reached on the student starting lessons, make it clear to the parents that all fees, deposits and other start-up responsibilities must be taken care of before lessons actually begin. It's best to require a refundable music deposit, plus either the full semester payment, or semester payment to be made before the start of lessons at the Studio. With all the paperwork and tuition payments made, you and your new student can then put the focus exclusively on the piano lessons.
We want the teaching and study of music via piano lessons to be a productive, positive experience for all involved. Of course, there will be bad days and/or bad practice weeks for all of us, but if the initial motivation is clear and the mutual respect is maintained, it can be a relationship, not only with the art of teaching piano, but with music itself, that can last from generation to generation.