Piano Lessons Delivered to the Home
by Barbara J. Savage
bout a year ago I moved to a new home. With a recession in full force, I found that the demographics in the new location were insufficient to support a significant student population in my home studio, so I undertook a dramatic shift in paradigm. I became a traveling piano teacher. I neither planned nor expected to hit the road and be the teacher that goes to the student’s house, yet that is exactly what I do now. I couldn’t be happier. In this article, I'll tell you about my experiences and what I have learned as a traveling piano teacher. Another article, In-Home Lessons, provides tips for prospective in-home students and parents.
Many parents at this time are struggling just to pay the mortgage and keep the lights on. Unfortunately, they see piano lessons for their children as a luxury they cannot afford. More unfortunate is the fact that every time a teacher loses a student, we have a hard time keeping the lights on and paying our bills, as well. If I had not moved to such an inconvenient location for a home studio, I probably would have needed to include some traveling days anyway. It would be very easy to arrange your schedule to allow one to two days for being on the road, while still being available for the local students that you already have. By traveling, I have increased the number of possible students to a percentage that I can’t even begin to calculate. In today’s world, everybody is working harder and longer hours. More households have had to return to both parents working, and it leaves very little time for the children to get to a lesson. More and more, Americans like things delivered. They like to order items from food to furniture on-line and they magically arrive at their front door. Delivered piano lessons seem to fit right into this "bring it to me" attitude.
I began by placing an ad on a local website for services. I indicated very clearly that I would be providing lessons in the student’s home and that a piano or a keyboard would be necessary. I also defined the areas that I was willing to travel to, so I didn’t waste time that could have been filled with lessons on the road between students. My ad was well received and within the first week, I had eight new students signed up. I tried my best to group students by location, so that I could do as many back-to-back lessons in a given area as possible.
I try to schedule my appointments by area, and then by day, planning lessons as close to each other as possible, but usually allowing at least 15 minutes between them. I add in breaks for travel time and a chance to grab a soda if I need to. Time freed up by cancellations allows me to go by the music store to pick up supplies or just to stop by the bookstore to pick up a good read! If traffic holds me up, I always call and notify the parents. If their schedule allows us to start late, I then look for ways to get back on schedule without delaying the remainder of the lessons on that day, but there are those times that I have had to call each following student and let them know that we would be starting 15 minutes later than usual.
I try to encourage longer lessons if the student is old enough and has the attention span. This fills in my schedule and reduces my time on the road. The best-case scenario is when there are multiple siblings and I can do back-to-back lessons in one home. The less time I am on the road the more teaching and income I have. Another thing I do is the grouping or areas on given days. I then can pop from house to house quickly and again my schedule is filled in nicely.
I always have to prepare each day before I take off to teach. I carry copies of my New Student Lesson Policies, just in case for the parents, and I need to go over them again. I also produce a monthly newsletter and keep extra copies of those in my bag as well. I review my notes to see what materials I need for each student on that day. Sometimes it may be the next method book, sheet music, or a new metronome. Proper planning is the key to smooth lessons. With proper planning, taking my studio on the road hasn’t been an issue at all. A sample list of things I always make sure I have includes:
Although teaching in the student home has advantages for both the teacher and student, one must keep in mind that personal security is critical. At all times, remain aware of your surroundings, and especially the location or section of town that you may find yourself in. Make sure that your car has enough gas to get there and your next destination, as well.
When approached by a new student I conduct a telephone interview, similar to lessons in any studio - then I take it a bit further. If the call is a referral from existing students, I can be less stringent, but usually I ask that both parents be available when I arrive for the initial interview. Being a rather petite woman, if only the father is available, then my husband does a ride along with me. He sits in the car and uses the time to catch up on some of his paper work while I conduct the short initial interview. I ascertain what the student’s learning level is, which methodology books would work best, go over tuition payments, and then answer any of their questions. At that time, I also decide if it is a safe location.
I have also met with potential students in public locations. If the phone interview didn’t give me a comfortable feeling I asked that we meet at the local coffee shop instead of their home. That way I could get a better feel for whom they were. So far, this has worked for me.
I follow security procedures that include:
I set my rates according to a system that I developed for myself at a time when the price of gas had skyrocketed. I first set my rates by 30 minute, 45 minute, and 1 hour increments. Then if the student lives 5 miles or less from me there is no additional cost. I increase the rates the further a student is from me. One that is more than 5 miles but less than 10 miles will increase their rates by 2.75 each lesson no matter what the time length of the lesson is. I have only a few lessons that are over 10 to 20 miles from me. On those occasions, I only accept 1 hour lessons and include an extra $5 travel fee for each lesson.
I try to remain flexible and open to new ideas. Every situation is different. If I have a family with three children taking back-to-back lessons, but they live further than 10 miles away, I may relax the extra fees because of the benefit of scheduling. So far, this seems to have worked well for all of us.
In order to be able to teach in the home of the student, there must be a usable piano or keyboard with full size keys available. I also ensure that there is a quiet space in the home where there are few interruptions. Usually, I teach in a formal living or dining room, although I do have some students that have set their guest rooms up as the teaching room. The overall atmosphere of the home must be one of learning. I have to be able to answer the question: Do the parents want their child to learn or am I just entertaining their child? I expect there to be some interruptions, like phones ringing or people coming and going through the room, but it can’t be Grand Central Station. So far, I haven’t had any issues with this at all.
Having the parents in the home while teaching has its good points and its not-so-good points. Obviously, they are there to take care of any behavior problems. It also is convenient if I need to share information with them. I don’t have to run out to the street to talk to them through their car window. I can also give them immediate feedback on how their child is doing and answer any questions that they may have. Some older children react differently when their parents hover through the lesson; they may be reluctant to ask questions and seem more stressed to play their lesson perfect. These children may do better if the parent allows them a little more space. Younger children may rely on their parents to ask questions or be on top of the instruction that I’m giving. They may interact better, again, if given some space. There are those students, though, that focus better and behave better if their parents stay in the room. Usually, I have found that the parents realize this about their own children and act accordingly. I always tell the parents that they are welcome to attend the lesson, but there is no reason that they must stay.
I expect each of my minor students to perform in recitals. I hold two recitals each year, a formal Spring Recital and a less formal Holiday Recital at a church that has a wonderful choir practice room with a baby grand piano that suits us perfectly. I expect my students to have songs memorized and ready for playing.
The production concludes with a reception, which the children call their after-party. I try to mix things up each year. Once I held a contest for the most hours practices over a six month period. I gave the winner a $50 gift card to a "big-box" store. This year for the Holiday Recital each student will play their solo pieces, but then they all must play a duet with either me or another person. During the reception, my family’s garage band (The Savage Garage Band) will perform, as well as, any parents of the students that wish to. I’m calling it our Play Along, Sing Along. These recitals allow the students and parents to get to know each other, develop confidence in playing, and become part of a cohesive group.
Although I fully endorse traveling teaching, either as a sole teaching mode or to fill in the gaps of your studio, I feel it only fair to discuss some of the drawbacks to being a traveling teacher. It seems that every house I enter has at least one pet; most have multiples. I love animals, so this is not a problem for me. I have learned not to be too surprised when a cat or small dog flies out of nowhere and lands in my lap just at the moment that I am correcting a student. I have found that you can’t be shy about asking the rest of the household to turn down the TV. I have found ways to have the overzealous parent stop talking about the lessons they had as a child. It is actually easy, suggest that they start taking lessons again, and quickly they leave the area. I have had just a few occasions where I arrived and low and behold, there is no one home. You have to enforce the no-show policy and expect payment for the missed lesson. I also have a ten-minute rule. If they haven’t called, or I can’t contact them, I only wait for ten minutes before heading to the nearest coffee-shop for a few minutes to do some paperwork prior to my next scheduled meeting.
On the other side of the coin, there are some excellent advantages to delivering lessons. I arrive and leave on my schedule without any delays. My teaching doesn’t interfere with my family members' home life, and more important their activities don’t interfere with my teaching. My students never have the problem of forgetting their books or materials. I never have a child sitting on my couch waiting for their parent’s late arrival to pick them up. Parents are available to discuss each lesson or the next recital. I can stop teaching a few minutes early to allow time for these discussions. Tuition is always paid on time, because they can’t give me the excuse that the left their checkbook at home! My students are comfortable in their home setting and don’t have the trouble of playing on a piano that is slightly different than their own. I can also identify any problems that their instrument might have and suggest when it needs to be tuned or repaired. My students are the joy of my life, and many of them are waiting on their front porches for my arrival each week. It warms my heart.
In-home piano lessons have a long history. Even 50 years ago they were common, as many homes had "parlor pianos" available to the children. Piano lessons then were seen as an essential part of the "training" of children. While societal attitudes may have changed, there is still a need and an opportunity for piano lessons in the home of the student. Although they may be somewhat more demanding on the teacher, with proper planning, the traveling studio works well for both teacher and students.