Have you ever been dumped? I have. It feels awful. And not just for me, but I know for a fact that the person dumping me also felt immense discomfort during our break-up. What I’m talking about is not a romantic relationship. I’m talking about music lessons. It’s awkward when one of my student’s parents comes to me, eyes shifting, voice uncertain, “We just need to take a break from lessons right now.” Just like a romantic relationship, I have already sensed the end coming weeks before the Dear John conversation. I can feel the parents pull away, the uneasy tone in their voice or the passive-aggressive text messages. Of course, the worst is when the break-up is done through text or email. Then, it’s truly heartbreaking because I do not get to say goodbye to my student and I am left feeling stunned, angry at the parent and wishing for closure. Most of the time, though, the break-up is done in person and I put on my “I totally understand” face while cringing inside. Is there a way to prevent this intensely strained conversation where outwardly everyone is smiling but deep down anxiety and sadness mushrooms?
Yes, there is a better way.
There is a way to keep the relationship cordial when it is time to end it. And the result is parents who are happier with the process and teachers who can feel a sense of control, knowing which students are going to leave with ample time to take on new students.
Because most music lessons are set up with the student continuing lessons until the parent calls a halt to it, the parents hold all the power to terminate lessons. I know many teachers who have wished to “fire” their students due to not practicing for weeks (or even months!), difficulties when dealing with parents, or simply a bad fit. Of course, this is because music teachers provide a service which parents are paying for. Parents are our customers and they decide whether or not they want our services.
The reason why this is tricky is because we are talking about the relationship between teacher and student, and also between teacher and parent. Teachers develop bonds with their students, and music teachers are lucky to have this relationship last for years. I love being a part of a child’s life, watching them grow and develop into unique human beings through the course of many years. I also relish my relationship with the parents of these students and admire how hard they work to raise their kids while putting in hours of supervising practicing at home. In order to keep this emotionally deep and business-related connection positive, we have to change how we see music lessons and how they are structured.
Here are my rules for breaking up in the music lesson world.
1) Know it will end
First, it is important to acknowledge that all music lesson relationships will end. In a teacher’s dream world, we will teach our students until they graduate from high school, celebrating with them years of musical accomplishments and reveling in the years spent together as this child grew into adulthood. But the reality is that a lot of students will quit playing their instruments (what a sad day for teachers) or they will find another teacher (oh, the betrayal!). So let’s make it easier for parents and teachers to end the relationship by setting up an exit strategy. It’s like signing a pre-nuptial agreement. At the time of signing, you want to be together and hope to be together for years or even the rest of your life, but you also know the rules for breaking up, how the jewelry will be divided, and who will get the Picasso.
2) Commit to a year at a time
I have set up my studio so that parents commit to a school year’s worth of lessons. They pay for lessons twice a year, at the beginning of each semester: Fall Semester runs August to January and Spring Semester runs February to June.
Before the end of the school year, usually in May, I send out an online form asking parents whether or not they plan to enroll their child in lessons in August. If they want to continue in the fall, they must pay a deposit to reserve their spot. This part is very important because parents who pay will more likely follow through and come back in the fall. I also tell parents what my rates will be in the fall so that they know what to expect. Students who want to continue then take summer lessons and we continue seamlessly into the fall.
If parents decide they do not want their child to continue in the fall, that is fine. It’s a natural exit and we sidestep the awkward conversation. We can say our goodbyes and I can genuinely wish them well. Even if the parent finds another teacher for their child, I feel respected in this process. Once I know that a student is not continuing, I can contact people on my waiting list and we begin the process of starting lessons. Because I require all new students to observe four lessons, we can start right away and fill up that upcoming open spot.
3) Communicate regularly
One of the best ways to ensure music lessons are running smoothly is to communicate regularly. Even if a student is in their teens, it is still important for parents and teachers to check in from time to time. What are the parent’s goals in pursuing music lessons? If the child is older, what are their goals? How does this match the teacher’s goals? Checking in regularly ensures that everyone is on the same page and that issues can be brought forth before they get too big.
4) Give clear feedback
Teachers need to have input into how well they think lessons are going and then make a recommendation for continuing lessons or not. I have only had one student who I felt was not fit for continuing with lessons, but that was mainly because the parents were not helping with practicing at home and she clearly needed their support. Teachers need to be very clear about their expectations for parents and students so that those guidelines can be easily followed.
5) Parents pay tuition twice a year, at least a month before the start of each semester
I have learned the hard way that it is important for parents pay fall and spring tuition at least a month in advance. That way, they are committed to music lessons and it is unlikely that your students will quit in the middle of a semester. It is disruptive and complicated to bring on a new student when someone abruptly quits, so this ensures continuity in the music studio. Because I also give group lessons, a student who quits mid-year also affects the group lesson dynamic.
6) Have a quick exit strategy
Sometimes, the relationship has to end in the middle of the school year. If that is the case, I tell parents they need to give me at least two weeks notice. Because they have paid tuition, it is unlikely this will happen. And because it is not easy to simply find a student to fill an open slot, their tuition is non-refundable.
7) Get it in writing
Teachers that put all of their guidelines in writing help parents understand what to expect. It’s not enough to simply tell parents because a lot of these details can be forgotten. Make sure that parents have read the details and signed their names in agreement.
Music teachers do so much, and we want our students to thrive and become skilled musicians. Perhaps these rules will not completely get rid of the sense of loss when a music student quits, but they will make the break-up process so much easier. When teachers create a structure that gives parents clear guidelines, parents will know what to expect and can then navigate lessons more easily and effectively. It also makes our job as a music teacher more stable and enjoyable.