Sanity Saving Studio Policies

When you are your own boss, it is easy to fall into the trap of making exceptions for “just one kid” or “just this once.”  A studio policy lays out the expectations for the year, reinforces your professional image, and gives you something to fall back on when parents want you to make an exception that is unreasonable.

One of the worst mistakes you can make in your first years of teaching is to see yourself as an amateur teacher.  Parents sense this, and won’t take you seriously.   Even if you only have 5 students, remember that you are a professional in your chosen field!  You’ve trained most of your life to do this, and you possess a special skill set that is worth paying for.

Even if you teach at a studio that handles all of the business end of things, I would still write a “practicing policy” out to parents at the beginning of the year, outlining what you will be working on in the lesson and how much you expect your students to practice.  Just do a quick check in with your boss to make sure that this is okay.

What makes up a studio policy?

Your studio policy should contain a short welcome introduction, instructions on how you will be paid, dates that you are teaching, dates of recitals and competitions, housekeeping items and your rules regarding lateness, make-up lessons, accompanists, and practicing.

Your introduction

Keep it short and sweet.  Mention your excitement for teaching or any new offerings in your studio.  Thank parents for their commitment to music lessons.  Here’s what I did in my studio last year:

Welcome to another awesome year of making music!  I am so excited to begin lessons with your son or daughter.  A huge welcome to all the new students that will be joining us this year.  This year everyone will receive a practicing book to help you keep track of everything.  Each month there are new challenges to accomplish, which I hope will make your practicing more fun.

Show me the money!

Clearly lay out to parents how you arrived at what you are charging for lessons.  Most lessons in my studio are 30 minutes and I currently charge a rate of $50 per hour.  I give parents the yearly total and what it works out to monthly.  I give them the option of paying all at once, monthly with a post-dated cheque for the first of the month, or tell them to let me know if there’s some other way that makes more sense for their family.

Almost all parents will follow your system, and the few that come up with some other way of paying (in September & January, every two weeks, etc.) will be grateful that you gave them some flexibility.

Do not allow pay as you go lessons!!!  It is a nightmare trying to keep track of everything and easier for someone to short you.  The only exception to this rule for me is adult students who just want one or two lessons to help with a specific performance.  They pay in cash or cheque at the end of each lesson.

If you are in a situation where your schedule is unpredictable and pay as you go might make more sense, I urge you to consider selling lessons in sets of 5 or 10.  This way you get money up front, and the student is more likely to commit when they’ve already paid for a set amount of lessons.

To get my numbers for the year, I consult the school calendars of the school divisions I’m in and set my start and end dates.  In my area, the second week of September to the 2nd week of May works well for me and parents.  I find if I try to push the year earlier or later I have late starts and people quitting early.  Your area may be different, so decide on a course of action and tweak it next year if you have too many problems.

If I’m travelling to teach, I also subtract one lesson to give myself a snow day that I don’t have to make up.  I also do not teach during Thanksgiving, Remembrance Day, Christmas Break, February Break, and Easter Break.  I count the recitals as lessons to cover the costs of rentals, food, and accompanist.  I count the week of Music Festival as a lesson to cover my time at the competition and the cost of 2nd copies of music that I inevitably have to buy.

So after all that, my numbers look something like this:

30 lessons + 2 recitals = 32 lessons

32 x $25 (30 minute lesson) = $800 per year

9 months divided by $800 = $89 per month

If you did the math, and are all like “No way, it’s $88.89!!” then fine, it’s your studio, charge what you want.  I think it’s just easier if it’s a number that ends in 0 or 50.

Important Dates

Parents are busy and calendars are full.  Put all the important dates in a sidebar or box in your policy so its visually easy to find.  If possible, book your recital venues in the summer so that you have recital dates already confirmed.  If you don’t know a date, list the approximate week (ex- 2nd week in December) so that parents have it on their radar.

Side note about the Christmas Recital: It gets really tricky at Christmas to find a time and venue if you’ve left everything to the last minute.  Also have parents keep their ears open for when their child’s school Christmas concert is so you don’t conflict.  Sunday or Monday evenings are fairly safe bets.  I try to avoid Fridays and Saturdays for Christmas concerts, but find those days are fine in the Spring.

Grab your copy of Recital Tips for Parents.

Housekeeping

Let your families know where to park and how to enter your home.  (In the back?  Ring the doorbell?  Just walk in?)  If you have a waiting room, coffee or tea, or internet access, mention these things.  Are siblings or anyone else allowed to sit in on the lesson?  I don’t recommend it, although a committed music parent who just listens & reinforces your teaching at home is awesome to have in class.

This is also where you can let parents know how you run your lessons.  Here’s what I wrote for my voice students after I went over what days I teach and where to park.

Please bring a recording device, notebook, pencil, binder for your music, and a smile to each lesson.  I find it helpful to have tabs for different types of songs so things stay more organized.  A digital recording device is mandatory unless you have enough piano skills to play for yourself.  A basic model can be purchased from the electronics store for around $50.  Most mac devices have a recording function or you can download an app.

When you arrive, please walk right in and wait until it is your start time.  If I have not wrapped up the previous lesson, please wait quietly.  A usual lesson begins with some warm-ups and technique exercises, then moves on to song literature.  During the course of the year students can expect to learn sight-reading, ear training, and very basic music theory for those who can not read music.  Older students will be introduced to at least one song in another language (French, German, or Italian) and will learn songs in the classical, folk, and musical theatre genres.  Pop music is not taught unless it is being performed for a special occasion.

Again, there will be endless variations on this for your particular situation, but this should get you started.

Lateness

Let your students know that lessons start on time, and they should arrive 5-10 minutes beforehand.  If a child is more than 15 minutes late I will not run the lesson.  Usually after 10 minutes I assume they are not coming.

However, if you are running late, honour the full lesson time.  Parents would much rather you be late and get the full 30 minutes, than not get the full time.

Make-up Lessons

Make-up lessons are the bane of every music teacher I know.  There are a couple routes that you can go, but whatever you choose, don’t make up every single lesson a child may miss for any excuse.  It’s a nightmare and your time is valuable.  If you feel guilty, remember that when someone signs up for lessons, they are buying your regular attendance every week.  You can’t get that time back!!  However, if you miss a lesson, always make up that lesson or refund the money.

Option 1: No Make-ups.  This is my preferred way of operating, although its not always practical.  If your community has a bunch of other music teachers who always do make-ups, you’re going to have a hard time making this one stick.

Option 2: Trades Allowed.  This way allows students to trade lesson times with someone else that week.  Make sure that the parents of both kids let you know.

Option 3: Set times in your schedule.  This is what I personally use.  I have Friday afternoons from 3-5:30 open for anyone who may have missed their lesson that week.  I will not do a make-up lesson after a week has passed, except for unusual circumstances like extreme sickness and deaths in the family.  One of my musician friends leaves 2 weeks at the end of her teaching year.  Do what works best for your situation

Option 4: 2 Strikes and you’re out.  Some teachers will make up lessons any time that fits in their schedule, but each student is allowed only 2 make-ups.  After that, the teacher will not make up any lessons that the student has missed.

Accompanists

If you are a piano teacher, this probably isn’t going to apply to you.  Everyone else, listen up!  If you can not play for your students performances, book a studio accompanist.  Let parents know ahead of time when rehearsals will be for what performances, and how the accompanist is to be paid.

Ideally, parents should deal directly with the accompanist, who will have his or her own method of being paid.  Some accompanists are uncomfortable with this and would prefer you to organize payment.  Be clear with your accompanist ahead of time.

If you are in a smaller community where accompanists have generally played for free, please stress that it is not fair and that it’s time for that to change.  Accompanists can’t feed their families with gifts, however thoughtful.

I personally pay my accompanist for the recitals (and recover this cost in the lesson fees) but make the parents pay for the accompanist for festival and competitions.  Another teacher I know works the accompanist fee into the yearly fees and takes care of paying the accompanist for everything.  Whatever you decide to do, communicate often and early!

Practicing

Most kids don’t like to practice.  I personally was one of those weird, highly motivated kids who just practiced without being told, but that is not the norm!  (Side note: in a studio of 50 kids, you will likely have 2 or 3 students like this.  The rest will need extra motivation.)

In your policy you must have some sort of statement of how practicing = success in music.  I also give general guidelines for how much time I expect per week depending on their age.  This will vary wildly depending on what instrument you teach and if you have musical parents who are able to help them at home.  This also weeds out the less serious people.

You might say to me, “but I need the less serious people so I actually have students!!”  I understand, as I felt the same way my first year of teaching.  The less serious people usually ended up quitting after a month or two.  Its just not worth it in my opinion.  You want to build a quality studio that provides you with a somewhat steady income.  You don’t want to give away your prime teaching times to people who won’t commit.

To give you an example, these are the guidelines I give for my voice studio.

Every student will need a different amount of practice to meet their musical goals for the year.  Some guidelines are as follows:

  • Age 8-11: 10-15 minutes 4-5 days a week. 
  • Age 12-14: 20-30 minutes 5 days a week
  • Age 15 and up: 30 minutes plus 5 days a week.

During music festivals and recitals students will need to practice more than usual to be fully prepared.  I will be emailing practicing hints throughout the year and will also post them to my website.

That’s all there’s to it!  Allow at least 2 hours to create your document, then after that its a quick edit every July or August.

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