MTAC, music teachers association of california, New York City, New York City High School of Performing Arts, New York University, Oberlin, Oberlin Conservatory, pianist, piano, piano addict, piano instruction, piano instructor, piano lesson, piano lessons, piano pedagogy, piano student, piano teacher, piano teaching repertoire, Piano World,,, pianoworld,, playing piano, self-analysis, Shirley Kirsten, Shirley Kirsten blog, Shirley Smith Kirsten,, Teach Street, teaching piano, teaching piano to children, teaching piano to teenagers, traditional piano teaching, uk-piano-forums, word press,

Piano Lessons and dropout rates: How the initial interview is better than a crystal ball

I’ve been eyeing the forums lately at Piano World, and a hot topic is why students drop out of lessons, some after only a few months. A related thread had jabber about a circulating statistic that level 2 method books took a significant marketplace nose dive. What could it mean?

I looked into my crystal ball, examined the second issue, and posted an unanticipated reply. Perhaps teachers were fed up with the Method Book track after plodding through Primer Lesson, Performance, Technique/Artistry and Theory Books, and might be considering other options. They could be driven to hunt down repertoire with harmonic variety in unorthodox sources. (Why not find some Venezuelan folkloric melodies in 5/8, or a hauntingly engaging Gregorian Chant as replacement for perpetual, middle C obsessive musical clichés)

Others on the forums insisted that the doom and gloom sales of Method Book 2, had, again, to do with increased rates of students quitting piano in the early stages of learning. Most agreed that teenagers were, in any case, the most vulnerable demographic with blooming academic pressures, homework demands, placements tests, you name it.

So having processed feedback on the Discussion Boards, I stepped back, ex post facto, and delivered a more straightforward answer to the riveting question swirling around the Internet. I started by posting a NEW THREAD titled: The Early Warning Signs: Why the Initial Interview will reveal everything you need to know about the future of piano lessons–(without gazing into a crystal ball, or shuffling through Tarot Cards)

First and foremost, I recommend that the initial lesson consultation be FREE of charge, so there are no obligations for parents to sign up for classes, or for the teacher to agree to undertake a teaching relationship with the child or young adult. (Let’s focus here on the younger set of potential students who bring their parents, HOPEFULLY to the interview)

RED FLAG observation: If the student is dropped off for this first meeting, you can be sure things will be heading downhill fast. Parental involvement is a must from the very start of any teacher/student relationship.

Or, if the parent thought she was at the Day Care Center interview, and drove off, leaving Junior behind with an allergy list, then lessons in the near future are ipso facto on the skids.

Even worse, if mom brings a younger sib to the first consult who whizzes around the studio with his toy fire engine, screaming bloody murder at the top of his lungs, then lessons will be snuffed out before they have a chance to materialize.

All things being equal, if a parent and child are present without imminent blockbusting interruptions, ascertain the following:

1) Will the student have a piano to practice on? If the answer is, “yes” but mom describes a 61-key bell and whistle job, you can be sure that after two lessons, if not less, Junior will not find all the notes needed to prepare his assignment and he may want to bail out before anxiety levels engulf him.

So be certain that an acoustic piano is available, or at least an 88-key weighted digital keyboard. The former, if in good maintenance is preferred and shows an investment in piano lessons that is sincere and serious.

2) Were piano lessons taken in the past and with how many teachers?

On the Beginner level, a preponderance of instructors might mean that the “right chemistry” was never attained. Phrases like “my six-year-old didn’t click with the teacher” or it just wasn’t “fun for him” may mean that the grass-is-greener music studio will always be lurking around the corner. It may also boil down to the equivalent of Greek Goddess, Terpsichore, having to wisp out of the forest to make lessons an ethereal experience. (So it will never happen, and Junior will not be “stimulated” or “inspired” enough to stay with piano)

3) Next, ask, Why does Junior want to take piano?

If Mom replies that he needs a “well-rounded education” and music programs are being slashed in the School District, that may be a promising start to an enduring student/teacher relationship because realizing the importance of music lessons and giving them value are essential in creating a positive learning environment.

RED FLAG: if Junior is at odds with mom, wanting to break out his Game Boy and make the nearest exit, you can be sure his enthusiasm about being in the hot seat at the piano bench will spiral out of control and hit the treads. He could care less about what pie-in-the-sky reasons mom gives for signing him up.

Such a budding struggle may mean that lesson termination is waiting in the wings.

Or, if Junior’s best friends are NOT taking piano, then he will not think it “cool” to enroll.

Worse yet, if Junior or his feminine equivalent know that friends are taking piano with another teacher down the block, the riveting question will be, why is mom schlepping us a mile or so from home?

(P.S. The neighborhood teacher always has the advantage of keeping students from going AWOL, because she can indulge everyone on the block with stickers, cupcakes, and other extra musical treats) It’s the social framework that keeps them coming.

4) Next, ask, how many after school activities junior is enrolled in during the week? (applies to young children, and preadolescents)

If a parent enumerates a host of sports obligations including soccer, flag football, lacrosse, gymnastics, as well as self-defense and religious classes, Japanese, Latin and French tutoring, BEWARE of adding one more obligation to the overcrowded roster. An overbooked child may not have energy reserves to wiggle his fingers and make eye contact with music propped on the rack. Before long, he’ll just be another statistic. (drop in, drop out)

5) Finally, ask about family vacation periods, out-of-country trips, early afternoon or evening barbecues, cake sales, open houses, and the rest.

If a teacher calculates less than 30 weeks of lessons per year, Junior will be taking more furloughs from piano than attending classes. In no time he will be another registered dropout.

So in the last analysis, who needs to know why Method Book 2 is a hard sell. Just having a pad and pencil during the getting-to-know-you interview phase will be all the teacher needs to calculate dropout potential.

Hopefully, more students will stay with piano long enough to achieve a satisfying depth of involvement, making music an enduring part of their lives.


4 thoughts on “Piano Lessons and dropout rates: How the initial interview is better than a crystal ball”

  1. “Or, if Junior’s best friends are NOT taking piano, then he will not think it “cool” to enroll.”

    Speaking from the perspective of someone who has not any goals set in music in general, piano playing is an activity which helps fighting depression. I notice that even if I play it for only 15 minutes after work I feel relieved from the day’s tension. If you think for a minute, playing the piano (or any other instrument) is highly beneficial to an adult, and the fact I used to play as a kid helps me a lot.
    However, if you try to explain this to a kid he/she won’t understand what you mean. Kids have other problems – there’s peer pressure, “kool” factor, parents factor and what not. Can you believe as a kid I was taunted by my peers because I used to play the violin?
    So, I understand the difficulties you face while practicing your profession.


    1. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, playing the piano is a nice sanctuary from daily life pressures, and perhaps as adults look back on their youthful studies they can be glad they had the opportunity to take lessons. And, hopefully, parents can help their children with any teasing associated with learning any instrument, including the violin. (as I understand the depth of what you must have experienced)


  2. Great post! One other thing that I have done the last couple years that really made a positive difference in the drop out rates was to add more performance opportunities (about every other month) during the year. I found by doing this and making them fun performance events that students look forward to them each year and don’t want to miss out. It’s made a huge difference.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.