Right now I should be at work. I should be in Burbank waiting for a student who won't show up. The client is a child actor who's currently on a television show. The kid is great. They're smart, eager and attentive.
The problem was the student's parents. To the parents, music was just another thing to add to the resume so the kid could get more roles. A few weeks ago, they just stopped showing up due to forgetting, traffic, auditions, the list goes on. We have a forfeit policy at my work that states when a client doesn't show up for a lesson or doesn't give us 24 hours of notification before canceling, the client is charged anyways. This is a sensible policy that nearly all of our clients understand and have no problem with. For the teachers, it's free money for just being in the building. When this occurs, I've been known to sing:
There are exceptions, like if a kid breaks their hand or starts projectile vomiting on the way to the lesson. I'll let it slide as long as it's apparent that the client is not taking advantage. After all, your relationship with the client is of utmost importance in building your music teaching business.
In this case, the client is just plain forgetting about the lesson, so I'm only happy to charge them for my time. The last two weeks I've been sitting there twiddling my thumbs, waiting around. I gave up and gave the student to another teacher so that he could collect the inevitable forfeit. Here's why:
Money is only one form of currency, albeit an important one. Other forms of currency are things such as time, attention, enjoyment, and completion of personal goals. The sum of money I would get for showing up and not doing anything is not worth the extra time I could spend with my son or working on other projects such as transcriptions for upcoming gigs. My time is valuable and if the client is not respectful of my time I am only so happy to fire them.
It took me a long time to get to this point. In the case of today's "firing", I spent extra time with JP, did some lap swimming and relaxed with my laptop over lunch and started writing this. As much as the extra cash would be nice, it wasn't worth the time allocation for a low-priority client.
What is a low-priority client? To me it is a client who's priorities don't align the fundamental goal of my job.
My #1 priority is to gradually improve the student in the study of music.
Doesn't seem like rocket science, does it? Now let me ask you music teachers out there, do you have any student's that don't practice?
Well, according to my time in the lobby of my work, this is the main complaint of people in my profession. Student's that don't practice. We can complain about this all day, but what can you do about it? Constantly, week after week get frustrated until you resign yourself to not caring anymore and then submitting yourself to utter apathy for thirty minutes once a week? That's what most teachers do and that's why most music teachers hate their job. When you hate your job, you don't do well at it and it becomes a burden. I learned to overcome this by instilling a policy that most music teachers would do well to follow:
- 1 week of no practice. It happens to everyone, don't sweat it. Try again next week.
- 2 weeks in a row of no practice. It's looking like a bad habit, if parents are involved they are alerted either in the lobby or through email.
- 3 weeks in a row of no practice. They get "the lesson", which I'll get to later. They are on thin ice.
- 4 weeks of no practice. Fired, off my schedule and I'm done with them. No questions asked. They've wasted 1 whole month of their life not improving and therefore, have no place on my roster.
I've had a lot of success with the implementation of this. Adults can be tricky since they can lead busy lives but if they're showing up and they're a good hang, we're solid. They usually don't slip for a whole month and in any case, it's their personal money so who am I to judge what they do with it?
Many music teachers are desperate to keep every single student because they need to keep their rent paid. I get it, I was there. What I learned is that the less low-priority students are on your roster, the better off you are. If at all possible, keep filling up your schedule with students who are willing to work hard and "get it". Here's what will happen if you do this:
Suzy works hard and masters "Fur Elise"
When she goes over to her friend Kelly's house, Kelly's parents are impressed with Suzies playing and ask who her teacher is. Suzy says "Phil over at Burbank Music Academy."
Phil gets a new student. Phil now has two students that are on board and make his job enjoyable.
This isn't surprising, now is it? This is actually how I've built my clientele up since 2005, no advertising. My retention rate is high and I constantly get new students because I get results. Let's replace Suzy with Jimmy, who is a low-priority student.
It doesn't matter if Jimmy is the coolest kid in the world. Even if he can quote "The Big Lebowski" line by line, which is my main metric for "coolness", he's not improving and therefore he doesn't fit with the #1 priority of my job, improvement. He is not a strong representation of what my lessons provide, therefore I do not want him representing what I do. He is wasting his parent's money and he's taking up the spot of someone who could potentially be a joy to work with. Is it a cold way to look at things? No, it's business and someone who doesn't handle their business well doesn't deserve to be successful.
You want less Jimmy's on your schedule and more Suzies. This is very difficult to do, especially when you haven't built a reputation for getting results. I have and now I have the freedom to fire my students when they slack off or they don't improve. I don't mind it. I've dealt with all kinds of cases, a student who's too thin-skinned to handle criticism when they don't do well (it's our JOB to critique!), students who cried because I called them out for not being a good reader, kids who are so entitled that putting them in a setting with structured lessons upset their entire belief system of how the world works.
I'm not a monster or a drill instructor. I'm kind and affable, especially if I'm working with a student that cares about improving. I also insist on improving week by week so that constant progress is made. If that doesn't happen, no hard feelings but there's the door. I hear all kinds of things from the front desk staff after I fire a student:
You want a teacher who will tolerate your kids laziness. Go ahead and find one.
You and your kid are not qualified to determine what they should or shouldn't learn. I am. If sufficient progress is made, then I am happy to apply our time to learning songs outside of my regular curriculum, but you have to earn it.
Doubt it. I don't make value judgments about you as a person, that's not my style. What most likely happened is that you fumbled your way through a song you didn't know, looked at me for approval and I said, "Well, that was terrible." I do my students the service of being frank with them so that we have a place to go from there. Plus, the world doesn't operate on the "everyone's a winner" philosophy, a way of thinking which is a service that I also provide. Kids are tough and adaptable. Give them a challenge and they can achieve amazing things. If they can't take critique on their playing, then yeah go somewhere else for both of our sake.
I don't believe in making kids feel good just because they exist. I believe in order to respect music as an artform they have to understand that it will be difficult, but always worth their efforts. If a student gives me good, solid effort, then the student and their parents will get what they paid for: 30 minutes to an hour with the full attention and guidance from an experienced and knowledgeable professional music teacher. I get paid for providing a service and if that service doesn't get results, then I don't deserve people's business. Neither should you.
"What about INSPIRING the student so that they want to practice?"
I'm not in the business of inspiration, I'm in the business of presenting musical facts and guiding young players to improve. Inspiration came from the moment they bought an instrument and stepped into the building. Here's the inspiration, practice and you'll get good. Don't practice and you'll be just like most people, you'll own an instrument but won't be able to use it.
So, here's "the lesson". The place you don't want to be when you're three weeks deep into not doing any significant amount of practice.
- I write the number "60" on the board. The student wonders what that means. "Does Phil mean that I need to practice 60 minutes a day?" Yeah right, try 5.
- I tell the student that I have about 60 spots on my lesson schedule per week, one of which is theirs.
- I then explain that I love my job and enjoy what I do, but not when a student is wasting my time. I have a very full schedule and I don't need a lazy student who is not prioritizing music into their lives on my roster.
- I also follow up with telling them that I like them personally (I DO, seriously!) and that this in not at all personal. I would love to have them on my schedule, if they make practice a daily habitual part of their lives. If they do not, then things cannot remain the way they are.
- I then lay this on them:
You'd be surprised what happens when you stop pandering to a kid and treat them like an adult. They sometimes correct their behavior and get with the program. Very often, they drop. I've lost students that I seriously enjoyed and had a long standing relationship with professionally. All the same, if they stop making musical progress a priority, we do not need things to continue. I will not babysit. I will not pander to the kids need for approval. I will provide results because that is what I am being paid to do.
The result? I'm a very busy music teacher. Hold yourself and your students to a higher standard and a higher standard is what you will get.
I'm not mean though, I swear. I mean, I get tears once a month or so, but that's just par for course.