Q. How can I build long-term relationships with my students so that they return to music lessons, year after year?
This article was first published in American Music Teacher Magazine, Feb. 2019, 34–37.
A. As music teachers, we love working with students as they achieve new skills and gain confidence. Observing their musical growth over several years is deeply satisfying. However, every relationship requires maintenance. Our relationships with students can be easily damaged through miscommunication or unresolved conflicts. Consider these ten tips to maintaining healthy relationships with your students:
1. Choose students carefully.
Not every teacher has the luxury of selecting their own students, but if you do, ask yourself these questions:
Is the student already overcommitted? Studies have found that children who have too many extracurricular activities experience a decrease in benefits and an increase in exhaustion and irritability.[i] Ask a potential student about their other activities like dance or hockey and you may learn a lot about their availability to practice. As teachers, we know that learning a musical instrument requires daily practice time, but a potential student may not understand the commitment needed.
Does the student want to take music lessons? It’s better to have some availability in your schedule than turning down a student you’d like to teach. I recently interviewed a student whose mother began the interview by saying, “He isn’t very interested in piano.” Her words were an obvious warning. I knew there was some other child in my community who actually wanted lessons. I just needed to wait.
Will you clash? As a teacher, I am prepared to work with students with a variety of personalities—chatty, introspective, easily excitable, or withdrawn. These variations add interest to my teaching. However, mutual respect is essential to any healthy relationship.
2. Have a fair, concise policy.
Missed lessons and tuition payments can be frequent sources of conflict. Crafting a fair policy and then enforcing it may cause some initial conflict, but over time parents will either stop asking for exceptions or will move to a more lenient studio. Most parents will respect your time and your income, so long as the rules are clear from the beginning.
There are many excellent policy samples available online that can both inspire a new policy or be used as comparisons with a current policy.
3. Clearly communicate your expectations.
Especially at the beginning of a relationship, set clear expectations for practicing, recital involvement, or anything else that is important in your studio. Include these in your policy. If a question arises later, you can refer the student back to that document.
Also, list the perks or benefits that you offer, be it regularly scheduled recitals, loans of music scores or CDs, or extra master classes and activities. The student will realize that although you expect much from them, you will support them on their musical journey.
4. Be somewhat flexible.
Scheduling changes can be a source of contention. As teachers, we know how difficult it is to set up a schedule in the first place and changes are often impossible to accommodate. However, if a student requests a scheduling change only once or twice a year, it’s likely in your best interests to oblige, if possible. In contrast, if a student asks for exceptions several or many times, you may need to direct them to the studio policy for a refresher on the rules. A spirit of fairness and equanimity should guide you though, especially if you need to reschedule lessons due to your professional commitments. And, it goes without saying, if a student cannot accommodate your scheduling conflict, then their lesson fee should be refunded.
5. Charge more.
I’m not advocating pricing yourself out of the local market, but if you are at the low end of what other teachers with similar education and experience are charging, then you should increase your rates. If parents realize that music lessons are an investment, not just a way to fill their child’s time, then they may take the experience more seriously.
6. Present yourself professionally.
Just as you want your students to be committed to music lessons, you need to be committed to yourself and to your profession.
Maintain a quality teaching instrument. Instruments are an investment, and a quality teaching instrument should be one of the first big purchases in a studio. Consider it an essential expense, just as a dentist or a builder would consider purchasing tools necessary to establish their business.
Maintain a clean, tidy studio. Neuroscientists at Princeton found that cluttered environments impair one’s ability to focus.[ii] A metronome, sight-reading books, stubby pencils, multiple colours of highlighters, hole punches, stickers, a syllabus or two, extra books—studio clutter piles up! In my studio, I have a wardrobe with added shelves for all my music and teaching supplies. I shut the doors and the mess is hidden.
Maintain an informative website. Your website is your calling card to the world. Researchers have identified a web presence as being important to establishing professionalism.[iii] Start with your full name, headshot, biography, contact information, and teaching philosophy. If you choose to add studio event details or studio policies, remember to keep those details updated.
In the last five to ten years, web design has become simple. Many hosting services feature “drag and drop” online design applications that do not require coding skills. Try Wix, Weebly, or WordPress.
Inform students about your other professional activities. I use the back page of my year-end recital program to congratulate students on their achievements (extra recitals, competitions, exam results, etc.) and to list my endeavours, such as adjudicating music festivals, volunteering with my music teachers’ association, or examining with a conservatory. My students realize I am connected to the larger musical community and I take my professional development seriously.
7. Give parents feedback. If a problem with a student arises, address it with the parent using positive language early on. Don’t let the situation worsen over several months. It may feel easier to ignore a student’s problematic attitude or lack of practice rather than to speak to the parent, but frustration will only mount with time. In most cases, parents will appreciate being informed. They are investing time and money into music lessons and will want the best possible results.
8. Be nice. Working with students and their parents can be frustrating. But if you let that frustration boil over into a curt or sarcastic response, the student or parent’s grievance will suddenly have some legitimacy. Maintain the upper hand in a conflict by maintaining your cool. Know your limits too. Writing emails or having conversations when you’re tired, rushed or hungry will probably not result in a positive interaction. If you’re not prepared to deal with a potential conflict, ask to revisit the issue later or schedule a phone call. You will have time to reflect on your position and plan your wording. Hopefully, you will diffuse a situation before it threatens a relationship.
9. Apologize, but only if you need to. Sustaining good relationships is an art form. No one is perfect and, even with good intentions, we all make mistakes. If you’ve blundered and know it, apologize. You don’t need to agree to whatever demands are being made of you, but apologizing for contributing to the conflict may change the course of the conversation. If you’ve kept your cool and have been fair, then explain your position without capitulating.
10. Listen carefully. As teachers, we are used to leading conversations and giving directions. Sometimes we forget to listen for potential problems. If a student tells you that she is looking forward to a four-day weekend ski trip, then it is safe to assume that practicing will be minimal in the next week. You can assign theory, flashcards, or listening exercises to be completed while driving and some learning will still occur. The following week’s lessons will be less stressful than if you had thought a full week of practicing had occurred. Hopefully, the parent will appreciate your flexibility and the student will be reminded that music lessons are a full-time commitment, ski trips or not.
[i] Wilson, Nikki. “Impact of extracurricular activities on students.” Thesis PlanB (M.S.)–University of Wisconsin–Stout, 2009, www2.uwstout.edu/content/lib/thesis/2009/2009wilsonn.pdf
[ii] McMains, Stephanie, and Sabine Kastner. “Interactions of top-down and bottom-up mechanisms in human visual cortex.” Journal of Neuroscience, vol. 31, no. 2, 12 Jan. 2011, pp. 587–597., www.jneurosci.org/content/31/2/587.
[iii] Harshman, Ellen M., et al. “Professional Ethics in a Virtual World: The Impact of the Internet on Traditional Notions of Professionalism.” Journal of Business Ethics, vol. 58, no. 1/3, 2005, pp. 227–236. JSTOR, JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/25123514.