Your Business Dealings with the Teacher

When your child begins study (or you as an adult begin study), not only do you enter into a teaching relationship with the instructor but also a business relationship. Knowing what the ground rules are will eliminate confusion and possible friction.

The Studio Policy

Each teacher has a group of rules, called a studio policy, which she uses to run her business in an organized way. These deal with such things as when tuition is due, how lessons are rescheduled because of sickness or another reason, whether you may/should attend the lesson, where to park, and so on. A studio policy is a benefit: you know what the teacher expects you to do and what the teacher will do. Moreover, with a set studio policy, you know the teacher will treat everyone exactly the same way.

If the teacher does not offer you a copy of the studio policy at the interview, ask for one. If there is no written policy (not a good sign!), ask questions and take notes. The professional teacher will have thought about how to run her business and will be prepared to give you a written copy of her rules (or at least tell you about these in detail.)

Look over the studio policy. Are these rules reasonable, and do you agree to abide by them? If not, do not begin study with this teacher. There will be constant problems, and this will not make for a productive learning situation for the student.

Many teachers will ask you to sign a statement that you have read, understand, and agree to abide by the studio policies.

Rescheduling Lessons

First, some nomenclature:

Teachers have a variety of ways they do make-up lessons (if they do them; a good number of teachers count missed lessons as forfeits). Some common options:

Be sure you understand exactly what happens when your child is ill. Will the tuition be forfeited? Will the lesson be made up? As you might imagine, rescheduling can be a gigantic hassle for the teacher, as his calendar is probably very full and he has little room to maneuver, so consider other solutions to your scheduling crunch before you call the teacher to ask to change the lesson time.

Sickness, of course, is not something that can be planned! Notify the teacher as soon as you know illness will keep the child from her appointment that day. If you call the teacher after you have missed your lesson appointment, it probably will be a forfeit.

What happens if -you- are ill? Or another child in your family is ill? Teachers usually will not reschedule for these situations because of the chaos it creates in the schedule. It is your responsibility to arrange a back-up system in case you cannot transport your child to the lesson.

How are lessons rescheduled for other reasons? There are many ways teachers handle make-ups not related to the child's illness. Some teachers allow no reschedules. Make-ups are allowed for illness, but there are no reschedules. Some teachers allow non-illness reschedules if the teacher receives 24 hours' notice. Some teachers will give you the names/home phone numbers of other parents, and you may call make your own arrangements for a reschedule by swapping lesson times with another student. Make sure you understand -exactly- what will happen if a soccer game is unexpectedly rescheduled across your child's piano lesson or you forget the lesson or Great Aunt Tillie drops by or you have car trouble or sister Susie is sick.

The great likelihood is that teachers will require that you choose between two conflicting activities if the request for rescheduling does not fall within the teacher's guidelines. Therefore, you may have to make a selection between these two choices: (1) choose the lesson and you get what you paid for; (2) choose the other activity and pay anyway. This is standard procedure, so don't be surprised that this is so. The teacher has your child's time set aside just for her. As I mentioned above, teachers usually have very limited options for reschedules because the calendar is very regimented.

Cancelling Lessons

Almost universally, teachers do not allow cancellations. I mentioned earlier that the student's time is reserved for him. You would be most upset if you arrived for the lesson and found someone else using your child's time but you had to pay anyway.

The teacher feels the same way. Your time spot is reserved for you, so you must pay for it. Therefore, your tuition payment not only pays for the actual teaching but also for the sanctity of your appointment and the teacher's continued thought about what your child needs next and how to solve problems the child may be having with note-reading, counting, and so on.

Do not ask to cancel. You won't like the answer!

Solution: reschedule the problematic lessons. Most teachers will allow you to choose dates before or after the lessons to be missed. Make sure you follow the teacher's rules for how close to the problematic lesson you may request a reschedule.

Make-Ups for Sports Teams' Practices and Games

Almost all teachers groan over the onset of, say, soccer season because this will mean an up-tick of students needing frequent reschedules. Coaches seem to think everyone's schedules revolve around the sport and think nothing of calling an un-scheduled extra practice and expect everyone to be there! (I'm sorry, all you parents who are reading this and are coaches, but this has been my experience since I started to teach!)

If you know that "games are on Saturdays and practices are on Tuesdays and Thursday" and your child's lesson is one of those days, let the teacher know as far in advance as you can. ("Soccer is starting in two weeks. I have the schedule, and we will need make-ups on ___.") This will allow the teacher to tweak the schedule to give you make-ups at the most convenient times for you!

Sometimes a teacher has another lesson spot that will accomodate the sport's season, and you can change to that. Certainly, ask if this is possible. Before changing, however, know that your "old time" might not be available, anymore, after the season ends. Will this changed lesson time work the rest of the year?

It sometimes - often! - happens that the lesson and a practice overlap (especially an extra practice). Now what? (1) The student arrives late (or leaves early) and attends the lesson at the scheduled time. This is my recommendation. The coach may not be thrilled, but that's what happens when extra practices are added to the schedule at the last minute. (2) The student skips that practice. The coach needs to know why, of course, as she may be able to schedule the most important drills at a time when most of the team is there.

Tuition Payment

Understand what tuition is and when it is due. Abide by this agreement honorably. Teachers want to spread the joy of music; they don't want to be a collection agency. Don't put the teacher in the position of having to ask you for payment. Pay tuition on time and in full.

Most teachers require payment for the entire month to be made on or before the first lesson of the month. If there is a difficulty, contact the teacher before the due date and make arrangements for a late payment.

Teachers who do not collect tuition monthly set another term, such as a semester or a quarter. Find out how your child's teacher does this.

Some teachers allow weekly payment if you make arrangements in advance. Most parents who begin with weekly payment soon change to monthly because of convenience. Do not worry that the teacher will "cheat" you out of lessons if you pay in advance. The teacher is -very- careful. If this concerns you, be sure to call references when you are looking for a teacher. (Actually, calling references anyway is a good idea!)

Many teachers have a late-pay penalty fee. This fee will be applied systematically to everyone whose tuition is late. If your child's teacher has such a fee, do not ask for an exception. If your payment had not been late, the penalty would not have been applied to your account! The teacher is exceedingly careful to be accurate in this, as, if he were in the position of the parent, he would not like to be charged a penality fee that was not merited!

Know where tuition payment is to be placed. Handed to the teacher? Mailed to a Post Office box? Placed in a drop box somewhere in the studio?

Cash Tuition Payments

If you do pay in cash, you may wish to ask for a receipt.

so if you have a choice, Your teacher may prefer that you pay by check. Others don't care. Uncle Sam gets a bite, no matter how tuition is paid. Ask if the teacher has a preference.

Discounts for Cash Tuition Payments

Do not ask for a discount in the tuition total if you pay cash. This is highly insulting to the teacher's integrity. It implies that you think the teacher is dishonorable and does not pay taxes on cash.

Some teachers, however, will give a discount for payment in advance. For example, you pay for the entire year instead of the semester. This should be covered in the studio policies.

"Family Plan" Discount

A family plan is a tuition reduction for the second or third member of the same family.

Some teachers offer "family plans," but most do not. Here's why: it is -much- more difficult to teach people who are related to each other than it is to teach strangers because of the interpersonal dynamics, the need for the less-advanced student(s) to feel that progress is still of high quality, and the need to find non-duplicating literature.

It won't hurt to ask, but, be prepared to hear "no."

Tuition Refunds

Do not expect the teacher to refund tuition if you suspend lessons before the term is complete (month, semester, year - whatever the teacher's "billilng term" is). It was your idea to stop study. If you do plan to stop lessons, let the teacher know so she can plan the "final lessons" to send you or your child off the best way possible. This might be some material that is below the present level and, thus, can be learned with the present level of skill.

If the Teacher is a Friend or Acquaintance

Music lessons are a business to this teacher. Do not expect, nor should you ask for, a tuition discount because you are friends of the teacher or know him from some other activity (Scouts, church, etc.).

Beyond money dealings, otherwise be very careful to abide by the other rules the teacher sets down. Being friends with the teacher in another area of your lives means the teaching relationship is tricky, tricky. Don't ask for exceptions to the rules. This puts the teacher is a terrible bind: follow sstudio policies applied to everyone else or make an exception that would not be granted anyone else? Asking for special treatment is a very quick way to lose a friend - as well as a teacher. For this reason, many teachers wisely refuse to teach their friends or children of their friends. They value the friendship too much to mix it with business. Tread carefully here.

You will need a frank discussion about policies. You should assure your friend that you will abide by the studio policies strictly: make-up rules and tuition rules. Also assure your friend that you do not expect special treatment. Then, of course, don't ask for any!

Summer Study

Although teachers like to eat every month of the year and money is therefore a consideration, the main reason for summer sessions is that without them the student regresses quite markedly during the 2 1/2 to 3 summer months without study.

With no lessons, the student is very unlikely to practice because he will not be called to account for himself. This is human nature and really is no one's "fault." When lessons begin again in the fall, then, the student is exceedingly frustrated to find that his skills have taken a sharp turn southward. Music he was able to play easily in March and April is no longer accessible; and, of course, he can only slop through his spring recital piece. The child honestly does not make a direct connection between this loss of skills and no practice, even if the parent points this out.

There is no joy on the home front.

The teacher must re-teach what was previously mastered.

Everyone is frustrated and unhappy.

It is best for all if piano study continues during the school's summer vacation. Many teachers do take several weeks off (often in August), so normally lessons do not actually last year 'round.

As many as four consecutive weeks off (say, the month of August) will do noticeable damage - - even the student -will- notice that his skills aren't as sharp come September - - but ten weeks' vacation (mid-June to Labor Day) is brutal!

So, ask about the summer schedule and when the teacher will take his vacation and try to work around that with your own summer vacation plans.

If you must miss lessons during the summer term, make them up in advance of your departure rather than after your return, when children are likely to be back in school and the schedule much more solidly-packed.

Cancellation is not an option for summer study. Either you attend lessons and pay; or you reschedule lessons and pay. (Another option is not attend but pay anyway in order to secure your lesson time assignment. This is a type of voluntary forfeiture.)

If you un-enroll (stop study) rather than reschedule or voluntarily forfeit missed summer lessons, be aware that your spot may well be filled when you return in the fall. Teachers are not obliged to honor a mutual obligation when the other party reneges. If another student wants that spot, the teacher will give it him. (Remember the problem with a marked drop in skills, however.)

If you want to lock in your fall lesson assignment, continue study in the summer according to the teacher's policies, schedule make-up lessons for the weeks you will be absent, or forfeit but pay anyway. Canceling lessons will have the effect opposite what you wish.

Some teachers give priority in lesson time assignment (keeping the time from the last school year -or- changing to a more appealing time) to those who study in the summer. Ask what the teacher's policy is on this.

Lesson Time Assignment

Your lesson time will be important because you will have to work around it every week. In most studios, the after-school times of 3:00 to 6:00 are most coveted, especially by parents of younger students. (High school teens can function pretty well until about 8:00, but younger ones run out of steam and need dinner and a rest.) In some communities, evening and Saturday lessons are also prized because parents are unable to ferry children during the workday hours.

If you need or wish a time during sought-after periods, try to be flexible about what day your lesson is. Teachers will kiss your feet if you do not announce, "I must have a time on Tuesday, and it must be either 4:30 or 5:00." Take stock of the other activities and see which ones might be moved around in order to allow the teacher to give you an after-school time. The more day and time flexibility you offer, the more likely the teacher will be to find am after-school time.

Naturally, once you have a primo time, you will want to keep it. Most teachers allow students to keep "their" lesson time from year to year. This is helpful to parents because other activities can be scheduled with confidence because the piano lesson time is unchanging. Again, many teachers use summer study as a requirement for keeping a previous lesson time or moving to a more desirable time. Find out how your child's teacher does this.

Adults: Do not be surprised when the teacher does not schedule you in the 3:00 to 6:00 period. The teacher needs these times for youngsters. If you can come mid-day (say, your lunch hour) or if you are self-employed or otherwise have a flexible schedule, you will find much more latitude in lesson times available.

Instrument

Your child needs an instrument in good working order. My technician offers this very apt analogy: "Parents wouldn't stand for it if their child's computer made an X every time the child pressed E and did nothing when the child pressed Enter, yet they are willing to have the child practice on a piano that is out of tune or has notes that don't play at all."

Piano study is an investment, and this includes the investment of funds for an instrument that works.

Whether you rent or buy an instrument - - and whether that instrument is new or used - - doesn't matter as much as the fact that the child doesn't have to "fight" her instrument in addition to the various demands of learning to play it!

Yes, an electronic piano - - either a digital piano or an electronic keyboard - - is ok to begin study, in my opinion, but in six months the child should have a real piano (up to a year for a child 5 or younger, but the sooner the child has a piano the sooner she can learn the piano touch).

Do not listen to salespeople when they tell you "this is just like a piano!" If it's "just like a real piano," then it is a real piano. If it's an electronic of any kind, including an expensive digital piano, it's still not a piano. Your child can't learn to ride a unicycle if she's given a tricycle to ride on at home all week. It doesn't feel the same and it doesn't perform the same way.

Better to rent something temporarily than to sink $2000-$3000 in an electronic you will want to replace soon.

Yes, the bells and whistles on the electronics can be fun and can foster creativity, so you may want to keep the electronic for that purpose or to take to Grandma's, especially if it is an electronic keyboard (that is, not a digital piano). On the other hand, you might rather trade it in toward the purchase of the Real Thing. It doesn't hurt to ask the dealer if trade-ins are offered.

Note: Every student who has come to me for lessons, having already purchased an electronic keyboard, has said he wished he hadn't bought it. And then he has purchased a real piano.

Materials

Materials are usually understood to mean printed music books, but materials also might include games/flashcards, computer disks, cassette tapes, notebooks, 3-ring binders, and other things.

Another "material" your teacher may require is a metronome. This is a machine that produces a "tick" at precise intervals, and the student will use it to learn to play at a steady tempo and for other purposes. The kind of metronome you buy is important; this is not a trivial purchase. Ask the teacher to discuss options with you and to indicate if she has a preference and why it is for that particular metronome or that type metronome.

Purchase requested materials promptly. Not having these items slows down your child's progress. It also embarrasses your child to respond that, no, you haven't gotten to the music store yet.

If you find it difficult to get to the music store during normal store hours, ask the store if it will take a telephone order with a credit card and mail the item to you; many do. And, of course, there are on-line sources, though I encourage you to patronize your local brick-and-mortar store, as the owner will give you help in finding something unusual, track down rare material, and generally give you service that indicates your business is appreciated. Just as important: your purchases keep the store in business, for the betterment of all students and teachers in the community; and for the economy of the community itself.

If your schedule is tight but you can make it to the store if you plan, you may wish to ask the teacher to give you a list of all materials that will be needed in the next three to six months so your one trip can forestall other trips later.

Unless the teacher says otherwise, purchase exactly what the teacher requests. Do not listen to the music store clerk who says that this book or item is "just like" or "equivalent to" the item on your shopping list. If it were, the teacher would have told you that such-and-such alternatives were acceptable! If you are unsure, contact the teacher before completing the transaction. Music stores will not accept returns.

Attendance at Lessons

Parents

Ask the teacher if you may/should attend lessons. Some pedagogical systems, notably the Suzuki Method, require parental attendance at lessons because the parent is the "home teacher."

Even if the teacher doesn't recommend attendance, ask to attend for at least the first four to six months. Here's why:

Obviously, the last reason is by far the most important!

If attending the lesson with the child is an important consideration in choosing a teacher, be sure to ask when you contact the teacher by phone.

In my studio, I welcome and encourage parental attendance. I have them sit right in the room where the piano is, as opposed to the area where the next student waits.

Siblings

If you have an infant or a young one, make other arrangements for him so you can attend the lesson and also -attend to- the lesson! Do not ask the teacher if you may bounce the toddler on your knee in the lesson area!

I have never heard of a colleague who would allow siblings to sit in the room where the piano is. A good many (myself included) will allow and older grade-school student (4th grade, at least) to sit in the waiting area, however. The teacher will specify that misbehavior or noise will suspend this privilege! If your older child cannot sit quietly and read or do homework, do not ask if he may wait during the lesson. If there is no separated waiting area, don't even ask!

If you hear suspicious behavior from the other room, excuse yourself to check; put the kabosh on things immediately. A second infraction means the privilege is suspended. Don't force the teacher to discipline your child.

I recommend that the sibling -not- sit in the car. No matter how safe the neighborhood, a child should not wait away from an adult presence.

If the teacher says you may not attend the lesson, find out why. It might be a problem that is easily solved, such as your having brought along siblings in times past. If there seems to be no reasonable explanation, you are right to question whether the teacher is hiding something. As lamentable as it may be, there have been those very rare cases where music teachers have behaved inappropriately. I would say that prohibition from lesson attendance - particularly a vigorous "no!" - without a very good reason is a big red flag. Even so, I'd drop in unannoucned and insist on staying every so often.

Some teachers do not announce their policy on parental attendance but have no objection.

Be sure you are clear on these aspects of the teacher's policy, especially if you have an infant, toddler, or school-age child in the 3rd grade or younger.

The reason teachers have rules about sibling attendance is for you! The teacher wants to give your child (or you) full value for your tuition! It's not to set up an inconvenience to you! If the teacher must keep one ear open to what's going on in the other room or must leave the piano to stop unacceptable behavior, the lesson is interrupted.

Note: If, by chance, your child breaks, defaces, etc. the teacher's property, don't deny that your child is at fault. Own up to it right away. Expect to pay for replacement or repair. The teacher can figure out what happened if something is broken or missing, and Susie was the only sibling to wait that day in the family room.

Recitals and Competitions

You already may have spoken to the teacher during the telephone and studio visit stages and found out about these activities. If not, ask now.

Most teachers have at least one recital per year. Many have several recitals. Some teachers have students-only "workshop recitals" in addition to formal recitals to which the family is invited to attend. Information that will help you:

Competitions generally are optional activities, but there is wide variation here, with some teachers requiring certain competitions for all students and letting the rest of them be optional. Some teachers do not participate in competitions at all. Particulars:

Conclusion

Joining a teacher's studio is sort of like joining someone's family. Emotional ties will be strong. Don't strain those by mishandling the business aspects of the relationship. Not ony does the teacher want to give the very best in way of teaching, but also positive experience for all and fair dealing for the parent. A lack of cooperation on your part distracts the teacher from his real goal: teaching your child to love music and to make it for himself and others by playing the piano.

copyright 1998-2013, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
Contact me about reprint permission.


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