Piano Teachers’ Rules: Working Hours, Pupil Numbers, Fees and Cancellations
Without some sort of ‘rules’ your life as a piano teacher will become chaotic and you’ll struggle to make a consistent income.
Limit your Teaching Hours
If you don’t limit your hours, you’re in danger of being available 12 hours a day and will find it impossible to have any kind of social or family life. Running a business of any kind requires strong organisation and time management skills.
If you’re teaching children in your home, obviously you’re limited to after school or weekends. My own choice was to keep weekends free, and to start my evening work at 6pm and finish at 8pm. The reason for this was I wanted to be available to meet my own children from school (around 3.20pm) and spend some time with them before teaching, and again before bed. This means we have our main meal very early (around 5pm) but we’ve adjusted to this and it suits the ‘children’ (now teenagers) as they’re hungry then.
However, some parents find it more convenient to take their children to piano lessons straight after school and – particularly if you don’t have your own family – you may find starting teaching at 3.30 or 4pm a better option. I also teach at home in the mornings and try to encourage new adult pupils to come then if possible, keeping the evening free for youngsters.
Some days I teach in our local school, where I start at 12.30pm (enabling one pupil to have his lesson during the school lunch break). In the past, when I’ve taught in school during the morning period as well, I’ve always made sure I had a maximum of five pupils in succession. After this I find my concentration (and patience) begins to suffer.
Take a Day Off?
If you decide to keep one day free during the week, it’s worth considering carefully which day to choose. Wednesday may seem the obvious one as it’s a nice idea to have a break half way through the week. However, Monday may be a more practical choice for two reasons: firstly, if you like to spend weekends away from home, this gives you an extra day and secondly it means you won’t lose out financially during weeks which include a Bank Holiday Monday.
However, you may find that Friday is the natural day to take off as this is the most unpopular choice of day for pupils. This is because a lot of children whose parents have split up, go to their ‘other’ parent’s house on a Friday and – in some cases – this means it’s not convenient for them to attend piano lessons.
I teach in half-hourly slots. The exceptions to this are pupils working towards their grade 5 theory exam, higher practical grades (6 or above) and a few adults who find it more convenient to attend hourly lessons once a fortnight (although sometimes they increase this to weekly if they feel it’s necessary).
For children, half an hour is long enough and, for the youngest, even then piano-playing time needs to be broken with a few minutes of note-drawing or ‘spot-the-note’ interludes, otherwise they become fidgety and lose concentration.
When a pupil decides to stop piano lessons, I sometimes ask if another student would be willing to move to the vacated time slot in order to close up the ‘gap’. Otherwise I find that this half-hour is wasted, unpaid time – and sometimes parents who are aware that I don’t have another student immediately after their child will take advantage and arrive late to him pick up.
How Many Pupils do you Intend to Teach?
It’s not easy to work out how many pupils to take on when you haven’t even started … and, to be honest, it’s not really something you need to consider for a while … unless of course your finances are totally dependent on it.
The chances are that your numbers will increase slowly … and then fluctuate as pupils come and go. In my case, the highest number I have had at one time is 40 which, to be honest I found too many as I still see myself as primarily a housewife and mother, and don’t feel I have enough mental energy to split so many ways.
According to a survey carried out in 2010, the average number of piano pupils per teacher in the UK was 22. My optimum number is 25-30 and I generally say ‘no’ to ‘extras’ if it would mean teaching outside my usual hours (although I still feel a bit uncomfortable turning away potential learners knowing in future I may well lose some of my existing ones).
I usually take details from anyone enquiring about lessons and – although I suggest trying elsewhere if I consider my timetable is ‘full’– sometimes they don’t bother phoning anyone else (particularly if I’m the nearest to them geographically) and are still interested when I contact them with a vacated time slot at a later date.
Decide How Much You’re Going to Charge
When I started out (in 2004) I was paying £8 per half hour to the teacher who guided me through grades 5-7. This rate was lower than the average for our area (one of the reasons I chose him in the first place) but I felt I had to charge even less as he obviously had more experience than I did so I opted for £7.50.
Since then I have had five price increases and now charge £11 which is still relatively low but, in the current economic climate, I don’t feel I can increase it for a while.
When I do increase the charge, I send out a letter giving pupils or parents three months notice of my intention to do so. This, I feel, is fair warning. (I must admit, I am surprised that even increases of 50p cause a raised eyebrow and in some cases a decision to stop lessons). I usually plan my fee increase months before this so I’m able to inform new pupils of the likelihood of it happening when I first speak to them.
How Do You Want to be Paid?
I feel I’m being fair with my pupils and expect them to treat me fairly in return. Although most do – especially those whom I’ve been teaching for several years – I have had some payment problems and have had to become more rigid in applying my ‘rules’.
Although I never ask for money in advance, some prefer to pay by cheque (or cash) for a month’s worth of lessons or – occasionally three months – which I am, of course, happy to accept. If they request a receipt, I provide a typed one but otherwise I just make sure I write the amount paid immediately underneath the date in the pupil’s notebook, followed by, for example: “paid 1/5 – thank you” and the following week: “paid 2/5 – thank you”.
When I started out, I was a little more flexible (‘naïve’ might be a better word) and allowed occasional payments a week or two in arrears, as I felt I could trust people. However, even those who appeared the most trustworthy sometimes let me down and when their child decided to discontinue lessons I was left short.
Learn from my mistakes! And, most importantly, don’t feel you can rely on people just because they’re family or friends – often these are the worst culprits when it comes to taking advantage.
What About Cancellations?
When a new pupil starts, I supply an information sheet which explains my ‘rule’ as follows:
This might all seem a bit ‘cold’ and formal but it does help to avoid frustrations, arguments and bad-feeling.
Of course, even with these ‘rules’ all clearly laid out, the situation is not always that straight-forward. People phone me with last minute cancellations caused by cars breaking down, dogs escaping and children being over-tired or having too much homework.
I then have to use my discretion in deciding which of these ‘excuses’ should be paid for: sadly economic hardship coupled with what I believe to be a decline in good manners and decency means far too many people try to avoid paying at all costs – no matter how much inconvenience they cause.
You can try explaining that any last-minute cancellation results in a drop in your weekly income (unlike a planned cancellation which can sometimes be filled by another pupil rearranging or booking an extra lesson – in the run-up to an exam, for example) … and then either take the ‘heavy’ approach, insisting on payment at the risk of losing their custom, or trust that respect for you or a guilty conscience will make them pay up.
(continued on next page …)