Simplify Your Studio

Recently a colleague phoned me for help simplifying her studio. At first I thought this was a rather strange request, but the more I thought on it, the more convinced I was that she was on to something important. As we all know, the longer we are in this profession, the more "stuff" we accumulate. My friend's "stuff" was overwhelming her. And she was spending a lot of time attending to "stuff" rather than actually teaching.

Here are some suggestions if you find yourself in a similar quandary.

Divide your studio "stuff" into categories. I recommend: music, CDs and tapes, aids/gadgets, admin and student files, financial data, computer-related materials, and miscellany.

Look at each one and weed out anything that's unnecessary. Have you used it in the last one year? If not, you probably won't use it ever again. Out it goes! Too harsh? How about in the past five years. If you do one category each year, you'll be able to keep a handle on it all the time.


This has to be any teacher's biggest category of "stuff." We have books from our own student days, books which we no longer use for students, books we bought and plan to look at "someday" which might be good to use in the studio program, inspection copies of materials sent from publishers, multiple editions of the same music, and on and on.

Be ruthless in your weeding. For method materials and "maybe useful someday" materials, apply the 1-year rule if you have the guts to do so; if not, then the 5-year rule! Mark the date you thrust the piece into the 5-year category so you'll know when you have to put up or shut up! (Put those "someday" books somewhere near the piano; look at one and evaluate it when a student is late.)

Which of your own old books are worth saving for your grandchildren? Probably several, including your first book and your assignment pads. You'll get a kick out of reading these comments again and reminiscing. I know my teacher always wrote "slower!" on my pad! And I enjoy seeing what they used for technique for me and how long it took me to learn certain pieces. Some real eye-openers!

What about those method materials you won't use or don't use anymore? Donate them to a community program, the public library, or something else (even the recycle bin), but do get rid of them. Same goes for those inspection copies. Maybe your teachers' group has a "rummage sale" of "used" music. What you don't want might be exactly what another teacher needs or uses or could use simply as sight-reading materials. At least this way, your "stuff" will "go to a good use" and your teachers' group can keep the proceeds of the sale as a fund-raiser.


Here's another space-taker! Do you have recordings you do not use? Ever? Even to compare interpretations or as an example of what not to do? Guess what?! Get rid of these items. Donate to a thrift shop. (You can't take a tax write-off for their market value -- which would be on your family's 1040, not your studio's - unless you did not write them off the year you purchased them.)


These multiply, too. Wrappy things for building triads, flashcards, charts, and oh, so many more widgets we buy or are given to us to help teaching. If you haven't used any of these in one year, out they go! No 5-year rule here! One year is all you get!

Maybe a pre-school or a church could use these things. If not, recycle.


One way to simplify is to delegate tasks to others.

MUSIC. Ask students to buy their own music, rather than you buy it and resell it. This will take a -tremendous- load off your shoulders, just getting rid of the inventory and the bookkeeping on music sales.

I know that many teachers sell music to their students (buy wholesale and sell for more) as a way of making a little extra money. If you do this, ask yourself what your profit is on each book. How much a year? Is this amount worth the time and effort on your part?

And what do get in return for this sum? The hassle of ordering. The extra costs of shipping (or the time to do the math required to divvy up this amount among all books in that particular order). The incredible headache of keeping track of who has not paid for what. Or for tracking what I call "draw-from materials accounts." (Each student has a separate account in which she puts $20 or some other amount each year; you subtract the cost of each book from that amount. At the end of the year, you either refund all remaining moneys to each student or you figure out what each student must deposit for the new studio year to come back up to $20.) You also are obligated to use accrual-basis accounting for your taxes because you have inventory.

Your also miss the goodwill relations with your local retailers. Your students will not be able to go in and say, "My teacher, ___, says I need this book." Your retailer will not hear your name with regularity. When you need something strange or on short notice, your retailer will not feel particularly obliged to go all out for you because he's not aware that your students buy from him.

To me, this question is a no-brainer. Even if I made $100 or $200 a year on reselling materials, I wouldn't do it. It would have to be $1000 or $2000 before I'd give it serious thought. And even then I probably wouldn't do it.

Therefore, delegate the task of materials purchase to each student. If there is no good music store near you, find mail-order sources. They will be delighted to send catalogues for each student if you call and explain the situation.

Give local dealers a list of the music you contemplate using in the upcoming studio year and, if possible, the number of each book you anticipate needing so that the retailer can have sufficient stock on hand. Holiday music is ordered 2 or 3 months prior to the season, so you need to think ahead if your students are going to be able to go the store and bring the book to the next lesson. Students love holiday music, so it's not really out of order to start studying this kind of music in the month prior. For Christmas, your dealer needs to know your anticipated needs in October if you're going to start carols in November because December is a short month! Don't forget competition/guild materials.

Photocopy a list of your commonly-used books. Include the edition (or publisher) if there may be a question. When a student needs a book, whip out a shopping list and make a checkmark. No hassle writing it in the assignment pad. If there is space, list your retailers' with their addresses and phone numbers. Don't forget to list teaching aids, such as flashcards, and add a couple of blank lines for write-ins.

I suggest you photocopy your shopping list on a bright color of paper. The color makes the list highly-visible, and the parent will ask, "What's this green piece of paper for"? And each time the green sheet arrives at the car, the parent will know that action is needed right away.

COMPETITION AND EVALUATION FEES. This is another task that can be delegated to the students involved. Ask each to send his check directly to the sponsoring organization. If the check is late, the responsibility rests solely on the student, not you.

If you're not ready to take this step, ask the students to give you the checks by a certain date and you will mail them. Be firm about the deadline, too.

I encourage you -not- to pay the entire fee for everyone with a studio check and then have the hassle of going back to see who has not reimbursed you.

You may faint, but some teachers have draw-from accounts just for such participation fees! They must do little more than bookkeeping!

STUDIO ACTIVITES. Examine individually each activity in which you and your students participate -- each audition, each competition, each festival, each seminar, each convention. Is each one a positive contribution to either your student or to you as a professional? If not, weed out the ones which are not giving you good return for time, money, and effort invested.

STUDIO POLICIES. I hope you have written studio policies! If not, please get them on paper without delay.

Even if there are no changes, it's a good idea to hand out fresh copies of the policy at the beginning of the year (September, for most teachers). Many families will have their original copy from the interview, but some will have lost it. This way, everyone has a copy once a year and is reminded of just what to do when a student is sick, when the lesson will be forfeited, etc. This will save you time in phone calls and explanations.

If you prefer, mail the studio policies. Hand-delivery by the student [child] is generally not reliable!

If families frequently call with the same questions, consider making a separate FAQ [Frequently-Asked Questions and their answers]. Use such questions as "What happens about make-ups if my child has a suddenly-called soccer practice?" and "What are the dates for studio vacation?" If you have a Web site, put your policies on it. Make sure your URL and your e-mail are included in any letterhead you have.

PHONE CALLS. Set a time of day to return studio calls. If you reach a machine, in the message you leave be sure to include when you will be available for the family to reach you and that if they can't call at that general time to leave a time when you'll be likely to reach them. Try to avoid telephone tag.

DEADLINES. In addition to notations on your general family calendar, list important deadlines on your appointment book and on any other calendars you have where you "do business" (such as at your desk or computer). This way you'll see the notation more than once and will be less likely to forget it. A good example is due dates for quarterly income tax. If you forget they're due, you will find yourself in a sudden flurry to prepare a bank deposit to cover your taxes or, worse yet, juggling between your accounts to get enough money in your studio account to pay the taxes.

LESSON SCHEDULING. Schedule students back to back, not with a 15-minute break between them. Your idea in this, of course, is to get up and walk around and refresh yourself. What will happen is that you will end up teaching all or part of that time. Why give away your time? Don't schedule with breaks. The next student coming in the door is a very helpful "clock"!

Use the teaching portion of your day wisely and schedule lessons carefully to maximize your free time. For example, don't put one lesson on Monday, two on Tuesday, one on Wednesday, and so on. (This is particularly a problem with teachers just starting out because the studio is not full and there is much latitude for choice in lesson times.) Instead, fill one or two days of the week before "opening" another day. Otherwise, your teaching schedule will look like Swiss cheese! To callers asking for a lesson, say that you "have openings" on Monday and Tuesday. Then the ball is in their court if they want a Wednesday. At some point you will have to open up Wednesday, but if you can get as many students as possible in your allotted teaching period on Monday and Tuesday, you will get a lot more done in the time remaining for the rest of the week!

ANSWERING MACHINE OR VOICE MAIL. As you can see, a lot of simplification is just using time wisely. If you don't have some way to "capture" phone calls which come in during teaching time, you are either missing important calls (if you ignore them) or you are being unprofessional (if you jump up to answer them). Get something and use it!

STUDENT FILES. Each year, cull files, especially for those who move or graduate. Get rid of anything that can't be replaced. Is your recommendation letter on the computer? If so, get rid of the hard copy. Can this item be bought again or found somewhere else? Out! Of course, there are precious drawings, compositions, photos, and other flotsam that make us feel good inside to revisit; these we don't pitch! But there's a lot of stuff in your files that can go to the recycling bin! I betcha!


TAX FORMS. Some authorities say it's ok to throw out tax returns after seven years. I keep all of mine forever. I do pitch my checking statements and things like this after seven years.

BANKING. Preparing bank deposits can be a very time-consuming task. This task is when the buck stops. You have to dig around and find out who has not paid, who has paid the wrong amount, what this check is supposed to be for, and so on.

To simplify making bank deposits, don't let posting payments received get behind. Once a week a optimum. If you go beyond 4 weeks, you'll have checks from different months, and then the data are even harder to sort out. You'll have a tangle requiring 3-4 hours, which, if handled in a timely fashion, could have taken 30 minutes or less. Wretched experience is speaking here!! When your posting is current, then it's a snap to make your deposit slips. You already know what the check is for.

Please don't deposit any check that you have not "identified." (Is this one for March lessons? For 2 in February and all of March?) There is going to be a problem, I guarantee you, and once that check is in the bank, you are sunk. You have no primary source material from which to work. For example, if the family insists the check was for $50, and you remember it's being only for $20, what do you do? If you can't prove it was for $20, you have to eat the $30. How often do you want to do this?

Obviously, collecting tuition in hunks larger than a month also will streamline the tuition-tracking processes.

INVOICES. A lot of time also can be spent preparing invoices on a monthly basis. Solutions? Here are a couple.

Don't mail invoices. Hand them out. Save the postage.

Ask for tuition on a quarterly, semi-annual, or annual basis. Far fewer invoices this way.

Do not issue invoices at all. Tell students what amount is due and when. Follow up only with those who are tardy. If you use an obvious system ($80 each month, always) soon everyone will know what to do.

And if you charge a "delinquent fee," every year you should have fewer tardies.

What amount for this fee? Something that will get their attention. Five dollars or so is not going to move students who have decided they will pay you when it's convenient for them. I suggest at least the equivalent of a lesson fee (hourly students will have a larger delinquent fee than half-hour students, naturally). This grabs students by the collar. "I have to pay for a 'lesson' I don't get? No way! Yeah, I can make your deadline." Of course, you must be absolutely rock-hard about your policy and not change it at all for any circumstance or any person.

RETIREMENT ACCOUNTS. Try to contribute monthly to your retirement account.

At tax time, your accountant will be able to estimate fairly accurately what amount will fund your retirement account in full for the coming year (assuming there are no big changes in your studio; you don't want to overpay - believe it or not, there's a penalty for saving too much!). Divide that amount by the number of months you teach and deposit that amount each month. In "good" months, deposit double if you know that one month of the teaching year is usually "bad" or if you want to leave yourself a loophole. Sure beats having to dredge up several thousand on April 14! Also, your money will be working for you all year long, earning interest.

TAX ACCOUNT. This same principle applies to tax payments. Set up a simple passbook account at your bank and transfer money from your studio checking account to the passbook account each month for that month's portion of the quarterly estimated taxes. At tax time, you funnel the money back into your checking account to pay your taxes. If it's not in your account, you can't spend it. (Well, at least it's harder to get to!)

MATERIALS. Keep your financial paperwork and paraphernalia all together and in a place you can find it easily. This will encourage you not to put off the large chore of tuition-tracking and bank deposit preparation. You probably will gather deposit slips, check endorsement stamp (please get one if you don't have one!), letterhead (invoicehead for invoices), stamps, bank statements, and so on.

ADVERTISING. Keep a list of currently-running ads, the price of each, and the expiration date of each. Before the ad runs out, count up the number of calls you received from that ad and the number of those calls that turned into new students. Some ads you might not want to renew -- but make sure the ad has been out there long enough to give you an accurate picture of its pulling power (usually a month is the minimum time).

Computer-Related Materials

What sort of books, software, manuals and things do you have for programs that you no longer use? For programs which you have updated and received new documentation? For computers for which the programs are no longer compatible? You know what to do!


This might include articles you clipped from magazines because you decided they were "worth keeping." Are they still worth it? Have you incorporated their suggestions in your teaching? Then you don't need the reminder any more. Decided those suggestions aren't germane to your studio? You sure don't need it!


Take time for yourself for stress reduction. Exercise, a hobby, and just time alone sitting still with no distractions are all proven and recommended techniques. Running a business in addition to teaching can overwhelm anybody, so take steps to head it off!

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

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