For Career Music Teachers … Fair Fees and Rules

When I opened my piano studio twenty-five years ago in Honolulu  shortly after immigrating to the USA, I was immediately confronted with the problem of deciding what fees I should charge for lessons.  I had stellar qualifications with three degrees in music, one of them from Juilliard, but I was a newcomer to Honolulu and hadn’t taught full-time for over twenty years.

So I decided to tackle the problem in the most logical way, which was to contact several teachers listed in the local phone directory and enquire about their fees. AND their qualifications.  It was immediately clear to me that average fees were higher in Honolulu than Montreal and that the largest studio commanded considerably higher fees than the others.  So I balanced the TWO most important factors in deciding a fair fee.  My formal qualifications with my local experience.   I scored on the first one and obviously had yet to meet the second.

I reasoned that since I had decided to settle permanently in these lovely islands, I would prepare for the future by stressing my education and qualifications rather than dwelling on the fact I was a newcomer to Honolulu.   I kept my fees only slightly lower than the top studio teacher and prepared to wait for students to knock at my door.  I was fully confident that once a handful of students signed up, I would have referrals very quickly.   And I did.

Rule ONE        Set your fees commensurate with your qualifications.

I gave a lecture a few years ago for “Career Night’ at a local High School.    When one student piped up that he thought “teaching piano would be an easy way to earn a living”,  I grabbed a piece of chalk and tabulated the years of training, practice and classes and then the costs if you were unable to score scholarships.   When I’d finished it was apparent that it took only slightly less time and effort to become a qualified piano teacher than it did to become a brain surgeon.  ( Remember I’m referring to high level pianists graduating from Juilliard, Eastman and other top institutions not the “hobby” teachers who earn pocket-money on the weekends and have no formal qualifications in the USA and perhaps a Grade 8 from the Royal Conservatory in Commonwealth countries)

So if you have those degrees, then don’t hesitate to fix your fees accordingly  ( You can always arrange “scholarships” privately with talented students if you choose)

I cannot give approximations here because fees vary so widely around the country.   The best I can do is advise the teacher to check with other local teachers and ascertain what the fees are for your area and make your decision accordingly.

Rule TWO:     Charge for lessons in  advance.   One month is appropriate.

I had a lot of problems with this concept.   I am very uneasy about accepting payment for undelivered goods.   But advance payment is the surest way to avoid the huge problems of “missed lessons”.  When they’re paying for the lessons, they will come.   I make it clear at the first interview that bills are due at the beginning of each month and have never had a student or parent object to it.

But a teacher must be fair about this.   I had a hula teacher in Honolulu who refused to allow any student who had forgotten his monthly $40 fee attend the class.  The student would be permitted to sit and watch.  That was it.   I found this mean and unnecessary.  Sometimes a fee is forgotten and I have had as much as two months go by without payment.   But it is very very rare.   Most people  are extremely conscientious. Take a chance!

♥ Don’t try to extend that month pre-payment to three months by calling that time frame a “semester.”   Several teachers in my city do this and it’s grabby and unfair.   Most people live on budgets and three months fees are unnecessarily heavy, particularly if a family has more than one child taking lessons.  Don’t do it.   A piano teacher is NOT offering “semesters”   …

Rule THREE:    If you decide to raise fees, just do it for new students.   There is a constant ebb and flow of students for most teachers and it is much easier to raise your fees on new students signing up for classes than old ones.  It usually balances out pretty well.  If you absolutely must raise fees, give plenty of warning.

Rule FOUR:  Do NOT “make up” missed lessons.   This is a GOLDEN RULE! 

Missed lessons are potentially the biggest bone of contention between teachers and parents.  It is much better to nip this one in the bud and settle the question firmly from Day One.   There are NO make up lessons.   Nada.   Nil.   Zilch.   There is nothing more exasperating for a teacher than trying to fit a missed lesson into the schedule.  And it’s almost a corollary that a student who receives even one “make up” lesson will demand more.  And the excuses will burgeon to include upcoming holidays, school exams, house visitors and the most common one of all … that they didn’t “practice.”  Don’t weaken and don’t do it.  Or you will have an endless avalanche  of missed lessons.

I have had NO problems with this rule because I use a clever psychological ploy when I tell the parents I don’t do “make ups”.   I explain that the rescheduling is too difficult but I offer appealing incentive which most people jump at enthusiastically.   I say “ Some months have five instead of four lesson days and you get that lesson FREE if you haven’t missed any.  Otherwise it’s a “make-up” lesson.  In a year it works out to almost a months’ free lessons”  ( It’s actually averages three days  …. but a month sounds SO much better.   I’m a sneaky as well as happy piano professor.)   This normally settles the issue with all parties content.

Rule FIVE:   Vacations.   In Canada there is an extended summer vacation for schools and colleges.   I always told my students I was teaching through the summer and if they wanted a month or so off, I’d keep their places open for them.   By mentioning a “month” rather than three months, I kept a remarkably high percentage of my students throughout the summer.   In Hawaii we have an endless summer and most students study with me all year round.   I am always flexible about genuine vacations.  But I don’t mention the word “vacation” and leave it to the student and parents to decide.  Surprisingly, most do attend through the year.

The bottom line here is that if the student is enjoying the lessons, they’ll be less eager to take time off.

Rule SIX.   Teaching locale.  I am always astounded when a prospective student or parent asks if I teach in the student’s home.  This is rather like expecting the dentist, the barber, the librarian or the class teacher to make a special trip to a customer’s residence.  A professional career teacher will not teach in the student’s home.   It is a question of the worth of her time balanced with the loss of that time travelling to and from her studio for the convenience of a student.

Like those “make-up” lessons,  don’t let yourself be coaxed into agreeing to this.  The only exception might be if you teach in a community some distance from your studio.   Then you might give classes in a host home for several students.   I have made exceptions for  students recovering from an accident or serious sickness and for three exceptionally talented sisters whose parents had three jobs between them and no car.

But for everyone else, I make it clear from the first interview, that I teach only in my own studio.    Most people understand  this when I joking explain that my “traveling” expenses would be more costly than a “double” lesson.  For persistent parents insisting on their child being shy or more comfortable at home, I then explain that only “hobby” teachers work outside their studios.

Rule SEVEN.  This is another GOLDEN RULE   The most important one of all …

BE GENEROUS

If you genuinely love music and love teaching, then you’ll find a lot of opportunities to help your students above and beyond those lessons.   When money is an issue  … and it is for many young families, you can “award” sheet music and books.  If there’s a missed lesson, then fill in the gap by sharing the extra time with students in the time slot before or after the missing student’s appointment.

And you can always offer a “scholarship” now and then.  I remember one adult student, a lovely lady who adored her lessons.  She wanted to learn piano so she could play in her Church.   She never missed a lesson, paid on time and her only request was that she have a 6 o’clock lesson so she could go to her night shift directly afterwards.  One day I noticed her hands looked terribly scratched and blistered.  I turned them over and was startled by the damage.  She swiped at them with a handkerchief when I asked what had happened.  And my heart broke when she told me,

She was cleaning city buses on her evening shift.

So I had to devise a “scholarship” plan for her.   I knew she was too canny to accept a sudden offer of free lessons so I waited two weeks and told her she’d won the “bursary” for the next six months.  Which meant her lessons would be half rate.  I told her that I’d gone through all my students and that she and another young boy had won the bursaries.

You can give extra time for talented students.   One of my teachers in Canada gave me “double time” for the two years I was preparing to enter the Quebec Conservatoire.  I never forgot that kindness which opened the door for me to win my first major award.

So be amenable to offering a little more time and an extra lesson now and then when there’s some school performance or event.  Give a little extra and see the rewards.

******

These rules may seem a  tad draconian to many teachers when they set up their first  teaching studio.   But I have found that by making myself clear from that first  interview what my expectations are, then future problems rarely crop up.   If the parent or student knows that fees are due at the beginning of the month, that there are no make-up lessons and that I don’t travel to the student’s home, then there will rarely be problems with these common complaints between teacher and pupil or parent.

And then you can concentrate on those lessons.   Making them as enjoyable as possible while sneaking as much music as you can into that half hour  … and into your student’s lives.

*****

Caveat …  These suggestions from the Happy Piano Professor are guidelines.  And they are applicable to serious career music teachers in the bigger cities  Situations will vary widely … some cities will offer a huge choice of teachers with a larger number of people eager for lessons, while some smaller communities may only have one or two people who have any training at all and much fewer prospective pupils.   You may not be able to set your fees commensurate with your training if you’re living in a smaller city or town.   Some situations such as an accident or illness may allow you relax your rules about teaching in the student’s home.  And perhaps you feel obligated to give those “make up” lessons and can find time to so it without upsetting your schedule if you do not have too many students.  Maybe you prefer the three-month summer vacation and opt for this extended recess.  Potentially there are lots of different situations.

It’s your choice and you have to find a good balance acceptable to you and to your students.   Most people are happy to follow a few simple rules if they’re fair and if they’re explained clearly at the first lesson.

The Happy Piano Professor

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One Response to For Career Music Teachers … Fair Fees and Rules

  1. Philip Low says:

    I’m glad I’m not the only one who thinks that building a piano teaching career takes as much time and effort as a medical career. It certainly does! I also applaud you for insisting on having no makeup lessons. I have a suggestion regarding raising fees. Since many students study with me for 5 years or more, keeping their fees exactly the same results in lost income due to inflation. Use an online inflation calculator to make sure that your rates are keeping up with inflation. The amount is always very, very small for each student, but makes a significant difference for the teacher. And it’s only fair since the cost of living goes up every year. If you hike your rates more than inflation, perhaps reserve that for incoming students. (As for me, though, I keep everyone at the same rate and raise for all alike.)

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