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11 minutes reading time (2147 words)

Studio policies for your sporadic adult students

I am a very happy and fairly healthy "Baby Boomer"—my father was a World War II veteran, and I was born in the fifties. We "Boomers" are your current and upcoming adult piano students. Why? Because we realize we have more to learn—we are excited learners. We are not isolated but are well read and intelligent—we are logical learners. We are wonderful people who will be great piano students! EXCEPT—we have a country home in Pennsylvania that we want to hang out in for the month of June, and our Florida condo is just too tempting in January. Oh, and since we want to stay healthy, we have a personal trainer and are taking golf lessons. Our parents are old, and we must take care of them. Mom wants to visit a friend, and I am her designated driver. The doctor visits are endless—what can you do? Admittedly, we aren't getting any younger—the new standards of blood pressure and cholesterol counts have us taking medicine and seeing our own specialists. That small tweak we felt last week—is it arthritis? Better have it checked out. We need you to work around our full schedules—can't you make an exception? After all, we are wonderful people who will be great piano students. We are more than willing to pay for the lessons we can make—we just can't make a lot. Unfortunately, being a great student doesn't pay the bills of the professional piano teacher. Two very successful teachers have agreed to share their ideas and successes with these inevitable problems.—Michelle Conda 

Preventing income scrambling

by Wendy Stevens

 I'd like to approach this question from a business and policy perspective. Sometimes when an adult or any student is absent, we automatically feel that we must make up his lesson. This feeling is often because our policy is structured in such a way that we lose income when a student is absent. But what if the answer to this question isn't found in what we do to make up income, but in how our tuition policy is structured to generate income in the first place. Wouldn't we rather prevent a loss of income rather than have to scramble to make up the loss when adult students are absent?

Sporadic study

 As we all know, each of our students represents a specific block of time that is reserved for that student alone. We cannot just plug another income-generating activity in that time slot if that student is not there and is allowed to deduct those absences from his payment. Therefore, it is important that we are careful about how we present the piano lesson package to the adult student each term. Instead of offering a specific number of lessons for a specific price, we can offer "tuition packages" that are specific to the needs of the adult.

The emphasis of this tuition package should be how we can offer the adult quality and value even if they are sporadic in their study. For example, instead of saying that tuition guarantees that the adult student will receive thirty weeks of lessons in an academic year, you can say that tuition includes:

•A specific lesson time set aside for them each teaching week

•Performance opportunities (this could be optional)

•Time spent curating music for their individual needs 

•Continuing education in how to teach the adult student

Tuition can then be calculated based on the number of weeks that you make yourself available to teach, but not based on the number of weeks that they attend. If their absences are only sporadic, then missed lessons will be a non-issue because you are still offering them value even when they are absent. If this is hard for you to believe, then just keep track of how much time you spend working for your students during the year outside of lesson time. If this is still not convincing, and, if you still feel guilty that they are paying when absent or have a difficult time understanding the tuition package concept, you can use their specific lesson time to curate music for them, do research on how adults learn, brainstorm about how to help their technique, or do any other pedagogical planning related to that specific adult. 


I would encourage teachers to make their make- up lesson policies regarding illness the same for both adults and children. Here is an example:

"Students who are ill should not come to piano lessons. The swap list is a great resource to use in case of illness. In the case of a mild illness, feel free to take your lesson via Skype, FaceTime, or by phone."

If you also offer group performance opportunities for adults, as many teachers do, you can state, "In the case of illness, you can view the free performance classes as a make-up for this lesson."

The idea is that you are offering a number of viable options for anyone who is sick. In the end though, it is important to remember that you are offering a "tuition package" for each student and even if that student cannot come to lessons, they are still getting an excellent value because you work for each student far more than just their lesson time. Encourage your families to review the "Where Does My Tuition Go?" brochure to help them understand this.1 Consistently reassuring your students (and yourself) of this will help your studio adjust to this policy.

Gone for the winter

In the case of adult students who know they will be gone for the winter, it might be unfair to charge them for all that time. If they plan to re-enroll in the spring, then a "holding fee" might be appropriate. But finding ways of replacing that income is important. Here are some possible options:

Look at the "gone for the winter adult student" as a replacement of the "gone for the summer child student." Structure your calendar for the adults in such a way that they begin summer lessons as your other students are beginning to take summer vacations.

In the case of the above schedules not intersecting well, consider a longer than average summer schedule (for the adults) and slightly shorter academic year schedule for a child. For example, you could teach a session of adult lessons from May 1 - August 31 and school age children from September - April.

Of course, we don't always have the perfect balance of "gone for the summer students" and "gone for the winter students," and rarely are intersecting schedules perfect. So deciding how you replace that winter income might depend upon your strengths and your teaching niche. Here are some examples:

Do you teach composition, arranging, lead sheets, etc.? Offer supplemental composition or other lessons for a specific number of weeks. Students of other piano teachers could even take these temporary lessons.

Mothers of school-age children that you teach might be interested in learning holiday music from October through December. A short term day class is the perfect sized commitment for a busy mom.School plays and accompaniment jobs usually only occur during the academic year, so finding these kinds of jobs for lost income can also be helpful.

The best solution

The most important thing to remember is that having the right tuition structure and package deal for the adult will prevent the need to scramble for additional income sources. A well thought out policy and tuition structure can greatly assist you as you deal with absentee adult students.

Showing professionalism

by Kenneth Christensen

One of the many challenges of an independent music teacher is maintaining a steady and consistent monthly income. We all know there are a plethora of reasons why students miss lessons: extra-curricular activities, family vacations, illness—the list goes on! Independent teachers have developed studio policies which manage make-up lessons and help prevent sporadic income by requiring a monthly tuition fee. I am delighted to see that these policies do work and that many of my independent teacher colleagues who diligently follow their policies are much happier and have less frustration in regard to fluctuating monthly income.

The right tuition structure will prevent the need to scramble for additional income sources

 As an independent piano teacher, the majority of my income is made from teaching. My studio consists of highly advanced pre-college students as well as many adults. My adult class includes people with varied backgrounds including retired individuals and career professionals. Included are several area music teachers studying with me for their continued education. Because my independent studio is fifty percent adult students, I need to create and manage a studio policy that guarantees a steady income for me. However, I am not insensitive to the challenges adult students face with their ever-changing needs and schedules. 

Adult students will continue to have their own set of challenges. Reasons for their erratic commitment range from manipulating their schedules to fit in a last minute doctor's appointment to scheduling a session with a personal trainer! My colleagues have often expressed frustration at the continually changing schedule of their adult students.

Inevitably, an adult student will surface who plans on taking a vacation for several months during the academic year and then expects to resume lessons upon returning. The teacher has scheduled this student in a time slot every week and expects income from that student. Acquiescing to their wishes can be a daunting task which leads to nothing but frustration and loss of income.

To address the issues posed by the adult student, I have adopted a policy that is described below. It is up to each teacher to develop his or her own policy depending upon your student, your income needs, and your own comfort level. No policy will fit all situations, but the takeaway from my article is to have a policy and enforce it. In presenting this to my adult students I strongly point out that my independent studio is a business and this is how I manage and operate my business.

I require that my students study with me for the entire academic year. Instruction begins in September, concludes the last week of May, and a schedule is given to students at the beginning of the academic year. Throughout this period each student is guaranteed a specific number of lessons. All holidays and my professional activities, for which I am unable to teach lessons, are included in this calendar. I clearly state that I will not make up any lessons that are cancelled by the student due to conflicts, vacations, forgetfulness, professional activities, etc. I will make an exception for illness or if I have to cancel the lesson.

My compensation for teaching is based on a yearly tuition fee which can be paid in full or by the month. Monthly payments are due on the first lesson of the month. As noted on the calendar of lessons the monthly tuition payment is the same regardless of how many lessons occur during the month. I am pleased to mention that at the beginning of the upcoming teaching year all payments will be made electronically to ensure on-time payment and easier management of income.

For those situations where the adult student is planning a vacation or will be going away for an extended period of time, my policy states he will be required to pay a retainer fee which amounts to the monthly tuition cost. I express to the student that this retainer fee reserves their time of instruction with me and if they choose not to do this, I have the option to fill their time slot and that there will be no guarantee of a space for them upon their return.

Occasionally I have an adult student who wishes to study only sporadically. My policy for those particular individuals is clearly based upon my availability. I will schedule them if I have an opening. They are charged my hourly fee and payment is due upon their arrival at the lesson. For the summer months, I provide a policy and calendar that states exactly the same information mentioned above.

Since instituting this policy I have had great success! My adult students are dedicated to their musical instruction and their lessons are a top priority for them. I also have found that in addition to the instruction I give them, they respect my business integrity and have no problem with the requests of my studio policy. I have clearly shown them my professionalism, and in return I am treated as a professional.

Whether this policy will work for you depends upon any number of variables. The important thing is to write a solid policy that addresses the issues that have been discussed in this article. I can honestly say that a strong policy works, and, if you, the independent teacher, consistently enforce your policy, you will be much happier and will be compensated in the way you deserve.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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