A post for teachers: Studio Rules

This is less a post for students and more for fellow music teachers. I discovered that I’m not at all alone in my “issues”. I find I wrote some advice for parents into this too, so read on…

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This is less a post for students and more for fellow music teachers.  I discovered that I’m not at all alone in my “issues”.  I find I wrote some advice for parents into this too, so read on…

I came across an eye-opener of a blog post in a group on LinkedIn.

It seems where it comes to rules compliance, missed lessons, notice of stopping lessons and the timely payment of fees, I’m in a boat with most private violin teachers, internationally.

We render a service.

The service is always optional; the contract is always one of goodwill.  Music is optional.  (Music has a myriad of benefits.  Benefits are optional.)

I found my studio rules validated amongst a host of colleagues doing exactly what I do, from all over.

In a recent post I explained my studio rules in 6 or 7 simple steps.  Five are for the student; two for the parent.

They are:

Student:

1. Come to class!
2. Have a good attitude.
3. Have all the materials ready that I prescribe. Books, metronome – you need them!
4. PRACTICE!
5. Come to the Studio Concerts and functions.

Parents:

6) Enable and enforce 1 through 5, above.
7) Pay the lesson fees on time.

If there are problems, they are usually with any of these.  Let’s analyze:

Missed lessons:

This is an issue with 1. and can spill over into an issue with 7.  The common policy amongst teachers internationally seems to be that if a)  the teacher misses the lesson, it gets caught up; if b) the student misses the lesson, it is forfeited (but cannot be refunded).

I found some considerable variance as to how teachers handle b).  The general policy is that the student forfeits the lesson; nevertheless out of dedication, most (certainly not all) teachers at least try to catch up lessons that were missed fairly (given notice in time, or due to illness or other unavoidable circumstance).  Lessons that were missed unfairly (e.g. something random was prioritized over it) are generally not caught up; once again, if the student is dedicated and practices well and the family generally honours the studio rules, such instances tend to be forgiven and caught up anyway.

Another important factor in catching up missed lessons is the teacher’s time availability; in a studio that is full to the brim, it is very hard to find a time to catch up a lesson.  (In the early days when my mother helped me with studio admin, she made a proper science out of finding slots for catch-up lessons. No music teacher really has the time for that much admin though.)

On the other hand, if a student misses a lesson every second week, then that is an indication of another problem.  Perhaps the time slot doesn’t suit and needs to be revised; or the student is over-committed and needs to prioritize. Or perhaps, in some cases, the student really doesn’t want the lessons. Either way, frequent missed lessons need to be addressed and solved.

2. Attitude:

Sing you a song!  The song’s name is practice.  Students who don’t practice, tend to be dodgy and worried at the lessons and try to distract the teacher.  Some do this by being very chatty and “cute”. I want to tell you kids: Don’t think we don’t know this!  But it isn’t going to get you off the hook.

Here I’d like to call on the moms (or dads) to take an active hand.  Take an interest in your child’s music!  Especially if the child chose the instrument himself.  Violin is a tough path (and many other instruments are too).  Support; boost.  Put on his favourite Andre Rieux CD and let him “improvise” along.  If you play an instrument too, play chamber music!  Just for fun; music is about high spirits. Let the sibs participate – allow younger siblings to dance to the music when their big sister is practicing. Kids need to be appreciated for their efforts; all work and no play and all that; it’s called “playing” an instrument, so allow them to be playful.

Also, make sure they practice when they are physically feeling well.  “Bored” is probably the best moment!  And switch off the TV and the computer games and use them for blackmail: “You are not allowed to play ‘Shoot-the-orcs’ until you’ve practiced for 30 minutes” (timing must be age appropriate). We call it blackmail now but when we were little it was known as “rules” and “Mommy has spoken”.

3. Materials:

This point brings me to tears. I’m a mother too and know how expensive school can be, how they jump camps, new uniforms, sudden books and events on parents.  And here the music teacher does more of the same?

The fact is, until we have electronic music stands and I can download everything from IMSLP, music books are the food for your child’s musical development. He can’t progress without it.  I do write pieces, songs and exercises into their notebooks when I’m in a pickle for sheet music; but one can only do this up to a certain level.  And there is nothing that makes me sadder than to see a good, enthusiastic student who practices well, get stuck because of lack of books.

4.  Look at point 2.  Practice.

5. Concerts and other studio events:

Missing the concert is like taking the reward out of it for your child.  I have a whole different write-up on concert etiquette somewhere on this blog; but the most important thing is, be there.

Teachers, you cannot emphasize enough how important live performing is to the child’s learning curve. This is where self-image is built, coping skills are developed, character is grown, the player develops a sense of “can-do”. It’s a life attitude that is laid down at the concerts.

6.  Parental involvement:

In young children, enforcing practicing falls to the parent who is present the most. Setting routines in your child’s life is a critically important part of parenting. Learning to do certain things at certain times even if you don’t “feel like it” is a highly important part of life. Do you let your child get away without brushing her teeth?

But music needs more than just routine.  See my second point, attitude.  What’s in it for the parent:  It’s “special time” with your child, and this makes for nicer teenagers.  Your time investment shall yield dividends, don’t you worry.

7.  Show me the money: The greatest headache of all times.

Yes.  Speaking to the teachers again; if parents try to haggle, not pay for missed lessons, drop you at short notice, take “breaks”…  you are not alone.

I have certain things I’m flexible about; others are not negotiable.  You may want to compare notes, maybe you have a better way.

  1. My fees are my fees.  Basta.  You want lower fees, look for a cheaper teacher.  This is a point of professional pride and you won’t find other professionals (graphic designers, web masters, Tai Chi masters) lowering their fees on demand either.
  2. Term fees:  There is a reason I charge term fees, payable in advance. If you don’t want a full term’s lessons, you’d better be able to explain exactly why – and the chances are I won’t agree with you.  One can’t learn violin in a day, week, month – not even in a single term, it is a physical growth process that takes years.  (There is no way of “crash-farming” avocados either, if you need a comparison.)  But if you are going to “try” violin (in other words just see if you like it), I want you to give yourself at least a term. Three months, or ten lessons, is enough to determine if you can’t stand the sound.  Less than that is not trying.
  3. Of course you can spread the hefty term fee over the three months of the term.  Just remember it’s three equal installments, not per-lesson fees. And seeing that the term is calculated on 10 lessons, you can’t get “discount” for the last month of the term that has 2 weeks of holiday.  This term fee policy has put an end to years of agonized haggling; very rarely does a parent still dispute it.  I don’t charge per lesson.  That is that.
  4. Missed lessons are never refunded.  They are caught up – if eligible. See above.  This is a bottom line.  (Young inexperienced teachers tend to make this mistake on occasion.  You bankrupt yourself, promise!)  Understand that you pay for reserving the time slot.  You pay for my expert knowledge; but if you waste my expert time by arbitrarily not being there you shall pay for it at my expert rates anyway.  Thankyou very much, (*bows*) autographs later!  😉

So far to the inflexible parts.  Now as for flexibility:

Timing.

I am a mother too.  I so very much understand how you suffer, how you scramble to pay for all the murals, extramurals and supermurals the school imposes. I know – don’t I have the same overheads too!  So… if you struggle to pay me on the first, let me know.  Don’t bite your lip and stay quiet. I understand!!  And a plan will be made, put your trust in me.

But:  If I get the feeling you’re just messing me around and you could be paying me on time, I’ll get tough. This is not a superiority contest.  I give an expert service; you’re buying the expert service in order to do something special for your child; it is 100% a relationship of professional mutual respect.

So you see the subtlety here, dear reader: It is in the attitude. Those who respect me (and I have to add that is all of my studio’s current parents and students) will find me quite flexible.

And as for taking breaks:

Yes, students do. It’s not good for the steady progress; but sometimes a holiday is as good as a holiday.

In general, if a student tells me they want to “take a break” I read between the lines and presume they are quitting, and are just not wanting to admit it – often not even to themselves.  Quitting music (especially if you like the teacher) is not easy. So I tell them warmly that any time they are ready to restart they must just let me know.  I don’t keep their time slot for them though (unless they give me a specific return date not too far off).

But often my pessimism is unfounded. In quite a number of cases they do return after a fair break (which is sometimes a month or two, sometimes a year), telling me that they really want to do this and they’ve decided violin is it for them.  We teachers need to see realities:  Children today get overloaded with activities, and eventually they have to make choices.  And often we are that choice.

In conclusion:

The key  is communication.  Parents don’t realize what strange experiences a music teacher has in decades of teaching.  An open, upfront approach to the rules, fees, lesson policies etc is crucial. I send my studio rules along with my fee structure and literature to every prospective student. Those who disagree, don’t sign on.  This saves me having to deal with issues later on.

But what if a parent gives you grief despite the rules and it gets past the point at which you can deal with it?

You need to remember that as a teacher you have one, and only one, defense:

Stop the lessons.  Only continue if the issue is cleared up; otherwise treat the matter as one more unsuitable student.

Sometimes all it needs is for the parent who is messing you around, to realize that you are serious about your rules and are not going to let yourself be pushed into a corner.  However, if the parent refuses to budge, let that be that.  You are a professional; parents who are professionals themselves will respect that.  And without respect, there can’t be any effective teaching anyway.

Please feel free to discuss how you deal with such issues.  ^_^

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