Bartering for Piano Lessons
John M. Zeigler, Ph.D.
he invention of money ranks as one of the greatest of all human accomplishments. For most purposes, including paying for piano lessons, money is the easiest and best way to handle economic transactions. However, sometimes alternative methods of payment are necessary, because the student is short on cash and because the teacher needs help with other areas that the student or his parents can address. Simply exchanging services (yard work for lessons, for example) can be a good way to provide advantages to both the teacher and student, so long as some simple precautions are followed that will help assure that both parties adhere to the agreement. This article will examine how one might make such "trade-outs" (barter) work fairly and effectively for both the student and teacher. It will not discuss tax implications, if any, that may accompany bartering lessons. Please check with your tax advisor if you have tax-related questions. Bartering for lessons may not be something that you should do often, but it will give you greater flexibility when you want to find a way to teach deserving students.
A discussion of bartering for lessons from the standpoint of the student can be found in our section, Paying for Lessons
Perhaps the most common situation where bartering might come into play is when a student wants to learn to play, but he or his parents simply don't have all the money to pay for lessons. In that situation, the teacher must try to gauge the degree of interest of the student and his seriousness (or that of the parents) to decide if a trading of services might be appropriate and workable. Either party can propose the barter, after some discussion of the monetary cost of lessons and the value of the services provided by, or on behalf of, the student, as this will give both parties a sense of what might be fair to propose for the barter. A "trade-out" arrangement for lessons could involve just about any service or item, although services are most commonly exchanged. Yard work, landscaping, cleaning, piano tuning, instruction in a language or on a different instrument, painting, house repair and maintenance and computer services are just some of the things that I have seen bartered for piano lessons. Barter is often more inexpensive than monetary payment, because overhead costs normally associated with providing the services are usually avoided or reduced.
From the teacher's standpoint, the ideal barter situation will be one in which the student is a deserving continuing student of the studio, rather than a new student. Experience with the student will give the teacher some ability to estimate the trustworthiness of the student and/or parents before undertaking a transaction based entirely on trust. Bartering for lessons with new students is considerably riskier, because one doesn't have a track record to base judgments upon. Of course, if the teacher has some independent knowledge of the trustworthiness of the student outside the studio environment, he can use that in making the decision to trade services. If the student is a new transfer student, it might be wise to check with the prior teacher about any payment issues before agreeing to barter for lessons with that student. Barter is a good option in a cases where the teacher might consider trying to help a disadvantaged student with a "scholarship" or where an existing student may consider stopping lessons for lack of cash, since the student is likely to value the lessons more if he has to invest some extra time of his own to pay for them.
A barter agreement need not involve only barter. The student might pay a part of the lesson fee monetarily and work off the remainder in a barter arrangement. In some ways, this is best of both worlds. The teacher gets some cash flow and reimbursement, even if the student doesn't follow through on his end of the bargain.
One critical element of making barter work for both parties is a clear set of understandings about what, exactly, will be done by each party in the exchange. Too often, it's something like "You give lessons and I'll do yard work for you." In extreme cases, that can result in the teacher giving the lessons and the student looking around the yard, but doing no actual work. Of course, one can conceive of problems the other way around, but that seems to be a less common occurrence.
I suggest that the agreement between the teacher and student be written into a document and signed by both parties. It should have explicit statements of what work is to be done and provide milestones for completion. Failure to meet milestones should result in a suspension of lessons until the milestones are achieved. Ideally, the teacher will give no more than three lessons before the first milestone for the student (or parents). If the work to be done in exchange for lessons requires materials, make sure the agreement specifies who will obtain and pay for the materials. Usually, it's best if the materials are purchased by the teacher, as this makes sure that materials are properly obtained and of the desired quality.
The teacher side of the agreement might read something like: "Half-hour lessons are to be given on a weekly basis for 12 weeks in the period between 1/1 and 6/1. As progress in lessons is individual and heavily dependent on effort devoted to practice by the student, results are not guaranteed. The teacher is not responsible for lessons missed by the student. Lessons will be suspended if services are not provided by the student party in accordance with this agreement." The individual teacher can modify this statement to fit his/her needs, but the statement used should be pretty specific as to the teacher's responsibilities.
The student side of the agreement (in this case for a student monitoring a computer theory lab for the teacher) might read something like this: "The student party agrees to monitor usage of the studio computer theory lab Monday through Friday between the hours of 4 and 7 PM in the period between 1/1 and 6/1 on all such days when the lab is being used. Monitoring includes helping students with questions, making sure that the lab is not improperly used by students and making sure that students obey lab rules. In return for this service, lessons will be given at no monetary charge as specified elsewhere in this document." This statement reflects generally an actual situation in which a teacher gave "free" lessons to an continuing good student in return for the student monitoring the teacher's computer theory lab. The student did the monitoring (and gained valuable experience learning aspects of piano teaching) and the teacher gave the lessons. Both parties were happy and continued the arrangement for several semesters.
The barter agreement need not be examined by an attorney, so long as it is written down clearly and legibly and signed by both parties. If the student is to perform the work, he should sign it. If parents are to perform the work, they should sign it. While it's certainly possible to come up with more involved agreements (using legal software, if you have it), the barter arrangement is fundamentally one of trust. If you can't trust the party signing the agreement, the fact that it has all the legal aspects completely correct probably won't help you much anyway. Adhering to the "three lesson rule" I suggested above will mean that it won't be cost-effective to involve an attorney if the student defaults. The purpose of the agreement is simply to provide milestones and avoid misunderstandings about whether there was an agreement and what that agreement entailed.
I have seen teachers lose thousands of dollars over a period of years as a result of failed barter arrangements, although these failed situations constituted a small fraction of the bartering done. Of course, the party who failed to carry through was the guilty one, but even the teacher carried some responsibility! She continued to give lessons, even after it became clear that the other party wasn't following through, because she "didn't want to hurt the kids." That's where the "three lesson rule" I mentioned above comes in. The teacher should give no more than three lessons before the other party does at least part of the agreed-upon work, in accordance with the agreement milestones. That way, if the work isn't done, the teacher's losses are limited to something like $100. If the parent or student don't hold up their end of the bargain, they are the ones "hurting the kids", not the teacher. The teacher must be willing to minimize her losses in cases of non-fulfillment of the agreement.
We are so used to having and using money that we sometimes forget that barter was the primary method of exchange between people for thousands of years before money appeared. It worked then and it can work now for both piano teachers and students, if it is set up properly and responsibly in situations conducive to success. Barter might not be the first choice for paying for lessons, but it can help bring the magic of piano and music to some who, otherwise, would not experience it or not be able to continue.