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In and out of the closet: The business and practice of private piano teaching

I once posted a blog about this very subject, then deleted it, thinking it sounded like a series of whiny complaints that would pin me as bitter and unrelenting.

Then, to my surprise, ten readers contacted me wondering what happened to the writing? They had apparently strongly identified with its content.

Well, I had safely tucked a copy/paste of it in my files for easy retrieval, but forgot the subject header, (“I’m tearing my hair out!” perhaps)

So I’ll start from scratch:

“Ouch!” It hurts to gripe about this.

For many piano teachers, some single and totally self-supporting; others cushioned by a second income-generating spouse (or partner), monthly teaching revenue may be pivotal to sustaining a private practice.

In this regard most instructors will have printed policies in place that cover the matters of fee obligations and cancellations.

In the latter, (a missed lesson planned) I usually ask parents or adult pupils for 24-hours notice, unless there is some kind of medical emergency that precludes such notification.

Since I communicate largely by email, receiving one of these that pertains to a missed class is appreciated a.s.a.p.

In the past month, one student let me know of her absence 5 minutes before her lesson. It was registered with the Subject line “feeling tired today. Had too much to drink last night.”

The following week, when monthly payment was due, the cancellation e-mail header read, “Grandkids are a handful. See you next week.”

In response to that one, I asked for more than ten minutes notice, and requested that the check be dropped off at my studio a.s.a.p. or snail mailed pronto.

You can pretty much guess that while my rent was due on that day, with a waiver margin of 3 days courteously granted by the landlord, piano fees did not arrive until the following week when the adult student finally made it to her lesson.

It took a bit of haggling to reverse the trend of Last Minute Larry cancelled lessons and late payments.

How many other private teachers, I wonder, invest time in these extra-musical dramas.

Two weeks ago a 9-year old never made it to her scheduled lesson–the parents didn’t call or send an e-mail. The student following her, a stalwart, highly dedicated adult student wanted to come earlier, but I was in the dark to heed his request.

Later that evening, I was informed, after I made the inquiring call that dad was on a video shoot, and mom had no time to bring their daughter.

Why no email or phone call?

Prior to this casual absence, the student had sauntered into her lesson 25 minutes late with no notice or explanation. An otherwise hard-working kid, who made huge progress this past year, she was yanked from lessons, when I more than whispered my disapproval of the lateness and absence without notification.

So these are the landmines of a private piano teaching landscape.


As far as payment, I, like others, charge by the month regardless of the whether such contains 4 or 5 weeks. The extra “free” lesson is credited as a make-up for future absences. This policy seems fair because during the traditional school year, at least 4 or even 5 months have the extra lesson that is defrayed against some holidays that occur on a particular day during the week. It more than evens out. (I’m not applying this practice to summer months where some students disappear for 2 or even more at a time if you count the early ending to school, and the Labor Day holiday as the start of a teaching year)

I’ve written in the past about the shrinking instructional year. Summer for sure, can make or break a piano teacher.

At the Piano Online forums, some teachers post that they will not guarantee a place in the fall for students who don’t take at least one month of lessons, either in July or August. That is, they will fill the spot with another student.

For others, a deposit is requested for the new teaching year to hold a particular day and time.

Speaking of:

It can often be a challenge to keep the studio percolating and hosting students each week at assigned times if parents decide that piano is last on the priority list of after-school activities.

With yearly and sometimes, semi-annual requests for lesson day changes made by parents due to Dance class adjustments, or for Self Defense re-scheduling, the poor piano teacher sometimes has no choice but to accommodate, which involves a chess board of changes affecting a handful of other pupils.

I recently received the following e-mail from a parent informing me of her child’s new mid-stream schedule. As would be expected it was dance-related:

“These are the dates she will be competing with her dance team:
March 10
March 24
April 13
April 17
May 18”

The information had bearing on her child’s piano lessons and my end-of-year recital that I had planned for months. As expected, any number of dates that I offered, had one or more parents up in arms. These posited days apparently interfered with soccer championship, tutu dance extravaganza, tap dance finale, and or hip hop hoe down. You name it, every conflict under the sun, would be on display in the land of agriculture and Bulldog fever.

So I’m still wondering, will anyone make it to the recital in May? Replies are trickling in like molasses flowing through a sieve.

More business Woes

In the matter of monthly payments, I like, many of my colleagues, have to send reminders to some parents about fees, or I run the risk of receiving checks two or three weeks past due as happened with the adult student previously referenced.

Some teachers attach penalty fees in these situations, I don’t. I think that would be the straw that broke the camel’s back. (or in Fresno, the cow’s)

A teacher out in Selma is very strict about timely payments, and she can afford to be because her spouse is a successful C.P.A.

For others, it’s a month to month diversion of energy from the high culture pursuit of private teaching to mundane check collecting expeditions.

Fortunately, the vast majority of students make it to lessons on their assigned day, pay on time, and enjoy the musical journey. This makes all the complaining seem petty by comparison. Just the same, it may be eye-opening when the dark side of private teaching comes out of the closet once in a while.

I found this pertinent link

6 thoughts on “In and out of the closet: The business and practice of private piano teaching”

  1. Well at least your hung-over student was honest! 🙂 And you are brave to post your experiences — let’s hope they raise some awareness. Good grief – parents making self-serving excuses for a child’s no-show without notification? What utter lack of manners, with such blatant disrespect for the needs of the teacher, and the culture of self-absorption is clearly modeled for the hapless child. Piano lessons for me sometimes became a battle of wills when I was young, but when it was discovered that I had an aptitude, there was no question that parental discipline would be imposed with the caveat “you’ll thank us later.” (Yes Mom and Dad – have I thanked you lately?) Even if the parents find another teacher, the same issues will inevitably surface, and the child will be the one to pay the price.


  2. I think you’ve struck a chord with every music teacher/personal trainer/dentist out there. It doesn’t take long after the first few months of running a new business to realize why policies are set in place. It only takes one or two clients who cancel all the time but still want you to reserve a time slot for them. Most of my students and parents are good, but after my first 6 months of the same sets of parents cancelling on me the day of and still expecting me to make up a lesson, I introduced a lesson policy and made them sign it at the beginning of the second year. One father actually said (after signing it) that he could probably give me 48 hours notice (this was if they were going to go away skiing for the weekend, but never ever for being sick or another legitimate reason). That said, the two parents have been much better this year about not cancelling so freely because they knew they would be charged regardless. Still some hiccups sometimes.


  3. Thanks for your blog, I enjoy reading your articles, and revisit your teaching videos for a new perspective on things. I can certainly relate to your cancellation/late payment woes…sometimes it is incredible what parents will try! Two years ago I finally introduced a “studio policy” regarding cancellations, and required post-dated checks for the first of each month (these to be provided at the beginning of September, and returned if the student quits lessons.) One mother got upset and told me, “The only reason we come to you is because we can change our schedule whenever we want.” When they couldn’t change at random anymore, they left….and so did most of my headaches! No problems with any of the other families; they all respect the policies and seem to appreciate having the checks taken care of all at once.


    1. Great idea with the post dated checks. Thanks for sharing this. Yes, there are always going to be those who will participate in the the extra musical dramas if given an opportunity to act out the script ad nauseum.

      But then by contrast, we have some who conform to the well thought out policies that we spell out without a hint of improvisation. Thank Goddess for that..


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