Be Professional

Your Attitude

As I have said in many other articles and Q&As here on my home page, the teacher who acts as a professional is treated that way. The teacher who does not conduct himself in this way is treated exactly as he deserves: as a provider of a short-term, come-and-go service (like baby-sitting); as someone who will be paid when it is convenient; as someone whose time is not worth considering; and as someone whose skills and talents are not held in high regard. In short, as a doormat. Would you like to be considered a professional?

The first step is to decide you -are- one and are worthy of being treated as one. This is perhaps the most difficult part of being treated as a professional: your personal decision. Many piano teachers (and teachers of other instruments, of course) do not indicate by their behavior, personal mien, and business practices that they think they are important or that what they do is of value. Down deep, they [hope they] do value themselves, but they have no aura about them to communicate this to others.

Music teaching, as in many other fields, has its share of practitioners who suffer from what's commonly called The Impostor Syndrome: people who feel they are really not competent in their "purported field" and fear they will be "found out" to be presenting themselves as something they are not. This especially true in artistic endeavors because confirmation of good work is such a subjective judgement.

If you are suffering from this point of view, you'll need to correct it before you can feel confident about presenting yourself as a professional music teacher.

Start by making a "Ben Franklin," so called because Benjamin himself did this. A Ben Franklin is a list of two opposites, such as pros and cons. In the case here, you're going to list all the things you do well on one side of the page and all the things you do not so well on the other side.

Now look at the list. Do you see immediately that the good far outweighs the bad?! How could you be thinking you are an impostor!

Just to be sure, though, make sure you keep up with your music education, through pursuing a music degree [or another music degree] or by a constant program of continuing development of reading and exchanges with colleagues.

Your Appearance

How do you look when you teach? Working at home, as many of us do, tempts us into dressing as we would for a comfortable weekend with the family. Resist this temptation. Cutoffs and an oversized "Baja Ha-Ha" t-shirt do not constitute appropriate teaching attire!

Slacks or decent jeans are fine, as long as they are clean and don't look as though you also hose down the stable in them. T-shirts without advertising or other printing on them, sweaters, turtleneck shirts, and so on are fine. Your clothing should look like it's at least one cut above what you'd wear to grub around in the yard.

If you teach at an off-site studio, gentlemen may substitute a collar shirt or dress shirt/tie and nice-looking casual slacks. Ladies may prefer a dress, skirt/blouse, tailored slacks/blouse; add a jacket if desired.

Give attention to personal grooming. Brush your teeth right before you sit down at the piano; keep breath mints nearby for use between students. Wear deodorant. Keep your fingernails short and clean. Keep your hands clean. Pin back your hair so it doesn't swing in the student's face. Limit use of fragrance, as some students are allergic to it but are reluctant to say so. Don't chew gum, sip coffee, smoke cigarettes, etc. during the lesson.

See this question in the QA on business from a teacher who was perceived as young for her age and was having authority difficulties.

Studio Policy

After getting your head on straight and your person presentable, a studio policyis the most important thing you can have to present yourself as a professional and to be considered in the same way. This compilation of the rules by which you run your business is the cornerstone of your professional persona.

You must have a studio policy, and it must be in writing.

Interruptions and Distractions During the Lesson

If you teach at home, interruptions are a sizable problem because you have to consider your family/housemate(s), who share this space with you and your business. Several of the items below also apply to an off-site studio (that is, a studio not located in the home), such as the telephone and door-to-door solicitors, but most of these remarks are for the teacher who teaches from his home.

With the common use of answering machines and voicemail, telephone interruptions are not the problem it used to be, as callers are getting accustomed to "talking to machines," and callees do not leap for the phone as if the Queen of England were calling. When I first began working with private music teachers in business matters (1980), answering machines were still new-fangled gadgets and therefore not entirely to be trusted!

If you have a telephone in your studio, you must tame it. Either purchase an answering machine or get voicemail from the phone company. Those who wish to talk to you will leave a message or call back. (You will be amazed at the number of hang-up "clicks" you'll have - - all telemarketers and other solicitors with whom you don't have to deal!) With either a machine/voice mail, turn off the bell to your telephone set(s).

Of course, you -also- must train your family not to answer the phone while you're teaching because some of these calls will be business-related, and you can bet that the message that is lost or gets scrambled will be a business call for you. Training the family to ignore the phone is particularly difficult for teens, as they are sure every call coming in is for them. (And often they are correct!) I've found a pager works well for my kids. The phone is not answered, but the kids are not incommunicado (and, of course, they may call out). Another option - - and certainly more hip - - is a cellular phone. Make sure the phone is set to vibrate. You certainly don't want to hear the "1812 Overture" while a student is playing the Brahms "Lullabye."

Another people-related problem is folks knocking on the door. A sign sometimes helps ("I'm teaching. Please do not ring bell or knock.") The implication is for solicitors to go away, and this usually happens. If a non-student does knock, ignore it. If the person is persistent, go to the door and, before a word can come out of the mouth, smile and say, "I'm sorry, but I cannot talk to you right now." Do not explain why. Gently close and door; do not let the salesperson even begin his spiel; if you do, you will have to be rude and shut the door mid-pitch. Better to get in the first words.

If you teach at home, your children will have to ask their friends not to knock during teaching hours. You may need to call parents, as children tend not to remember what they don't want to.

Other noise in the home which should be eliminated: TV, radio, video games, singing, whistling, practicing, garage band, and so on. Your students deserve a quiet atmosphere conducive to learning. This impacts your family, certainly, but on the other hand they like regular meals, so it's a fair trade-off, in my opinion.

Meals, if your responsibility, must be planned around teaching time. You can't get up to baste the chicken in the middle of a lesson.

Attend to your pets before sitting down to teach.

The bottom line here is that your students are paying for 100% of your time, and they should get it. -You- deal with the interruptions to make sure your students receive what they are paying for.


This is a -big- problem, especially for women teachers, as childcare responsibilities somehow devolve on us by default, fair or not. (Maybe it's because we're so good at feeling guilty when we leave our children in the care of someone else when we have to go out and earn a living.)

When a baby comes to your house, consider carefully when (if) you want to go back to teaching. You may decide to retire, or you may decide to teach reduced hours until the baby is old enough to function well at after-school care. A wonderful thing about studio teaching is that we can stop doing it for big hunks of time and get right back in the swim of things with a minimum of trouble. (After all, Mozart and Beethoven won't have written very much new material in the time it takes to rear children to high school age!)

Suppose, however, you wish to go back to teaching 8-12 weeks after the baby's arrival. If you are feeling rested, fine. If you are not getting a decent night's sleep, you might want to extend your maternity leave a little longer. When you go back, you must make arrangements for your infant. The best thing is for Grandma to come to your home to care for the child. You are there in case of difficulty, and if you are nursing, you can plan your teaching schedule to accommodate this.

Lacking a local grandma or other relative, having a responsible high school student come to your home is the next best thing. Find out what minimum wage is these days and make sure you pay at least that (I recommend paying a little more), or you'll lose the quality kids (read "responsible kids you'd trust") to other jobs.

Another option is taking your child to another person's home. This is often a better option than a childcare center, but you must screen carefully, call references (and any county or city department that licenses day care facilities), check for proper certification and registry, and keep on top of how things "look" to you (clean? overcrowded? too quiet? too loud?). Don't be afraid to follow your intuition. Likely, if you even entertain the thought that something might be amiss, it is. Take action.

Soon your child will be ready for pre-school and then kindergarten. At this point, you may be able to arrange for the child's "school day" to coincide with your teaching block. If not, there may be on-site after school care.

At about the age of 9 or 10, your child may be able to function at home well enough without direct supervision. It's comforting to know you're within 50 yards of each other should a problem arise. Teens are usually busy with schoolwork and other activities, so they work well "on their own," too. In both cases, keep in touch with teachers/leaders and, again, follow your intuition.

Check with your tax advisor about which childcare expenses are deductible as a business expense.

Physical Aspects of the Studio

What is the best way to arrange your studio for maximum efficiency? Where should instruments be, relative to each other? Where will you sit as you teach? Where will visiting parents sit? Where will you put the clock? Where will students wait prior to lessons? Can they get to the bathroom without going through the private parts of your home? Follow the hot link above for more detailed information on this topic.

Keep your studio as clutter-free as possible. If you teach at home, this is a formidable challenge because we all know that, overnight, while we are all sleeping soundly and not suspecting anything, clutter quadruples.

Clear coffee cups and eating utensils from the studio area. Also ash trays (Gee! I hope you're not smoking! It's bad for you!). Put today's newspaper elsewhere and tidy stacks of magazines or other things. If your studio looks like a trash heap, your customers will wonder if that's a reflection of how you teach, too.

Your materials should be at hand. You should not have to spend even 5 minutes of precious lesson time trying to find the book you need. Which materials do you use often? Identify them and put them where you can get at them within 30 seconds. Which books do students often forget? Make sure you have copies of them, too. Organize the rest of your materials so you can get to them within 60 seconds (or can find them with relative ease for the student's next lesson).


Of all the business pains in the neck, organizing records of finances and student data are probably on the top of most teachers' lists. You must devise a detailed system to take care of these matters and then keep on top of them. The record-keeping fiend would just love to clutch you to its scaly breast! Beware!

Staying on Schedule

You must abide meticulously by your lesson schedule. If a student arrives late, her lesson must end at her scheduled time anyway, even if you need just 2 minutes more. ("Sorry. We have to stop. It's Kevin's time.")


Parents can be an asset or a headache or anything in between. Think about how you want to interact with parents and what you would like them to do to enhance their child's learning and help your teaching of the child.

Your studio policy will lay out the rules for make-up lessons and when tuition payment is due. It also should spell out whether parents (and siblings) are welcome at lessons, how/where parents should purchase requested materials, information about parking/security gates/waiting area in the studio, and other things necessary to the smooth conduct of the teaching relationship.

Nevertheless, parental problems will arise! (I hear you chuckling!) Here are some of the most common problems with parents:

If you have a parent who is a "helper," have a telephone chat and mention that the child is torn between listening to you and to his parent, and it's making the teaching situation fragmented. Ask if the parent would like to have the first couple minutes to give you a report on the week's activities at home, ask questions, make points he wants you to listen for, etc. Stress that you rely on him at home for help in carrying out the assignment but that during the lesson is it really difficult for the child.

Those seeking "free baby-sitting," should be told that having the sibling in attendance is a great distraction for the student and that the student "will have a better lesson if Leah is taken to the park" or "visits at a friend's house". Note that your request was not phrased in a punitive manner ("You are making me crazy!"), but as a benefit to the student. As soon as the sibling is absent, praise the parent by mentioning how much better the student's attention was without the distraction of her younger sister.

The parent who needs excessive hand-holding can be treated in the same fashion as the parent who wants to help, except that the "parent's time" is near the end of the lesson. (Not "at" the end of the lesson because invariably the parent will have more to say than time allotted, and you risk running into the next student's time.) Here you praise specific good work at this week's lesson and summarize what needs to be done at home during the coming week, pointing out any places in particular that the parent's assistance will be appreciated. After a couple of weeks with this system in place, ask the parent if this is helpful in terms of offering regular feedback. Naturally, this can be done only if the parent attends the lesson. If the parent is not attending and wishes a 20-minute report each week, ask the parent to begin attending the lesson; you do not have time to do this on a weekly basis - - or even a monthly basis. If the parent wants detailed feedback, he should get himself to the lesson to see for himself. As illustrated above, couch this in terms of how this behavior change will benefit the student: "It would be so helpful if you could begin attending lessons every week. I do appreciate your help so much at home, and if you're here I can give you direct feedback and demonstrate how things should and should not be done. And then I don't have to bother you with a phone call after the lesson."

An exception is the new student. Parents appreciate a call mid-week for the first two or three weeks, wherein you inquire how things are going and if there are any problems you might be able to handle by phone. If the child is coming in alone to the lesson, your call will discuss what went on, what was done well, and what still needs some fine-tuning. After three weeks, tell the parent you will not be calling anymore unless you have concerns, but that she should not hesitate to call you any time if there are questions.

As to requested materials that have not be brought to the lesson, one way to solve this is to make a "shopping list" of your most-used materials and check off the item requested this time. Ask the child to hand-carry this list "to your mom and put it right in her hand," rather than pack it up with the rest of the books. You also might want to hedge your bet with an e-mail: "I asked Tucker to put the request for a new book right in your hand as soon as he got into the car, but sometimes kids forget, so I'm just following up with you via e-mail. Would you please get___? Thanks so much!"

A phone call may be necessary after two lessons without the new materials. There may be a misunderstanding at the other end ("Where do we get this?" or "I thought this was needed next month."). Many music dealers will do mail order. Tell the parent who is forgetful or has limited time for running errands to call the store and order by phone. (You call the dealer and alert her about what is to happen. Of course, you have -first- called the dealer to make sure she will do mail order!)

If a parent moves at a really glacial pace in buying materials, request whatever you will need for the next six months, three months in advance.

By and large, though, "your" parents will be cooperative and a wonderful asset to your studio.

Courtesy and Other Acceptable Behaviors from Students

Children are brought up with a wide range of ideas about what constitutes proper courtesy to teachers and other adults. Some are exceedingly well behaved, and others give you cause to wonder what is valued in that home.

If you expect to be treated courteously, you must be a model of courtesy yourself. "Please" and "thank you" should be a part of every request asked or granted.

Decide how you wish to be addressed. Mrs. Jones is a common form of address, but sometimes a little one feels more at ease with Mrs. Mary or Teacher Mary. Is this ok with you?

If you have a long name or one difficult to pronounce, settle on some alternate way for students to address you. During the audition, tell the child straight out that he may call you Mrs. Brundlyczevich or Mrs. B, as he prefers. I like to do this right at the door when I introduce myself to the student.

Often a teen will refer to you by your first name at lessons or when talking to you on the phone because this is what you are called at his house. Is this acceptable? If not (and I am of this school!), at the first reference to you in this too-casual way, say, "Please do not call me Christine. I'd like you to call me Mrs. Smith because I'm your teacher."

If any students continue with you after high school graduation, you may want to invite them to call you by your first name, as a recognition that they are now adults.

If a student is rude, do not hesitate to let him know that this will not be acceptable in your studio. "Joe, I won't let you speak to me rudely, as you have just done, because I am your teacher."

Some students may abuse items in your home/studio (by accident or by carelessness): shoes on upholstered furniture, wet soda can on wooden surfaces, poking in kitchen cabinets, looking in the refrigerator, teasing the pet, and so on. Speak up right away.

Mixing Business and Pleasure

I strongly warn you not to do this.

Do not ask your students to baby-sit for you (or let your children baby-sit for them).

Do not socialize with your adult students and their spouses (except at studio functions).

This can only lead to problems. Trust me.


How you treat colleagues is a major part of being professional. If you treat your colleagues well, you'll receive referrals from them when their studios are full and you can call on them if you're trying to locate a score or need a duet partner at the last minute.

Some guidelines that you should tattoo on your arm:

Telephone Queries

The telephone query is not your chance to "sell" lessons or your own competence as a teacher. It is your chance to decide whether you want to offer an audition to this caller and whether your program and the caller's goals are a good match.

How you handle the call about lessons is your first contact with a potential student. Do you come off as confident and professional or as confused and weak?

Make a list of what information you want to find out to help track your advertising efforts.

Be ready to find out what the caller -really- wants and to tailor your phone presentation to that caller's concerns. Have note cards ready as prompters in case the call gets off track.

Make a list of questions to which you need answers before you can decide whether to offer this student an audition.

It's your business, and you're in charge. If you sound organized and direct, your caller will decide you are a professional.


When students come to audition with you prior to your accepting them, be organized. Show that you expect the student and his family. Be dressed appropriately, have the studio neat, make arrangements for young children, put pets elsewhere, and so on. First impressions -do- count! The impression you want to make is that you are a professional because you want this family to treat you that way (if you decide to enroll the student, that is).

Have a plan for the audition. This is the first time these people have laid eyes on you or seen how you speak/think in person! Where will everyone sit? How will you handle siblings? How will you begin the interview? with questions? playing? What questions will you ask the student? the parent? How much playing do you want to hear? What sorts of things do you want to hear? What lesson times are available? Are you willing to "stretch" the schedule if this student is stupendous? How will you measure stupendous?

Your goal for the audition is to obtain the information you need in order to make the decision whether to accept or decline this student. How will you reach your goal? Basically, the information you need to find out is where the student is in her musical training, make a good guess as to what should be done next, and then ask whether such a student and her preparation are a good fit for your curriculum. See the other two files on telephone queries and auditions for details.

It's your business, so you're running the audition. Be prepared. Don't improvise.


Be frank about your fee. Don't beat around the bush. State it plainly and firmly; and without apology or justification: "Half-hour lessons are $12, and hour lessons are $24 per week."

In a telephone query, be prepared to answer questions about whether you offer a family plan or a discount if payment is made in cash. If people sense that you are uneasy about your fees, they'll nail you (ask for a reduced tuition rate, pay whenever they like, expect to cancel lessons outright and not pay, and so on).

If a student cannot afford your tuition, it is best that both parties know this at the telephone stage so no time is wasted with a studio visit.

Never reduce your fee - - that is, allow someone to negotiate your fee downward - - after you have stated it. If you do, this says, "I'm not worth what I originally asked." (As well as: "I think so poorly of myself that I'm willing to let you help me run my business.") Naturally, the student will wonder if you're worth the reduced fee and whether he might have gotten your teaching for even less. In any event, your value both financially and as professional has just plummeted.

Professional Development

Many professionals are required to take a certain number of hours of continuing education in order to retain their certificates to practice that profession. Music teachers have no such mandate, so we must police ourselves.

It should be a matter of professional pride to keep up with new developments in our field.

If you want to be treated like a professional, be a professional! Bet you knew that already!

copyright 1998-2004, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me for reprint permission.

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Last updated on October 12, 2007.