In the 9 years I’ve been teaching music I’ve never complained about a private student who won’t practice or is uninterested. I’ve never had to hustle to keep a full roster of students. I’ve never had to chase parents around for money.
The struggles that I’ve listened to my fellow private instructors talk share just haven’t been mine and I think I’ve figured out why. It all comes down to setting and enforcing expectations. Right now I teach 11 students primarily on Monday and Tuesday afternoons and I’m always excited to go in to work because I know I’m going to love it.
The secret for me hasn’t just been setting the practice expectations but setting them early.
Before the first lesson I email the parent my lesson policy and ask them to go over it with the student. You can view that here and you’re more than welcome to make use of it as a starting point for your own if you want. One of the most important parts of the policy is the clear practice standards. Everyone knows before they walk into the room for the first lesson that they’re expected to practice 30 minutes a day. For the first couple lessons when this is a new and exciting experience I almost never have to bring up practicing. But right around lesson number four is usually when I have to enforce expectations.
As a private teacher I’m limited to what “enforce” can mean. I obviously can’t dock their grade at school or directly affect their schedule at home. However, I can allow them to be embarrassed by their lack of work. Once it becomes evident that the work hasn’t been done I let them struggle for awhile. It gets awkward and the awkward is good. They need to feel the discomfort that comes from not working hard. Once they realize they’re not getting anywhere they usually look at me sheepishly and I look right back at them, probably with a minuscule grin and a raised eye brow.
“How much time did you spend on this?”
“Not very much…”
“I know. It doesn’t feel very good does it?”
This is all done with a small smile on. I don’t want them thinking I’m angry, I’m not. Obviously the outcome I’m looking for is better practice discipline, not a sad student so I don’t want it to feel too confrontational. Just enough to elicit a proper response.
After this I remind them about the practice expectations and ask them if they’re going to blow me away next lesson with the good work they put in. Then they’ll say yes and then we’ll continue the lesson as though the problem never came up. After that it’ll be months before we have this conversation again, if ever. Expectations established.
In the very rare case that I have to discuss practice discipline with a student a second time I’m much more serious about it. I usually end the lesson early after guilting them (which is included in the lesson policy). When this moment comes up I promise them they won’t meet their goals unless they put the work in. I remind them that I’m not cheap and that mom and dad are making sacrifices so that they can have this opportunity. Lastly I tell them “If this happens again I’ll have to stop lessons. I don’t want your parents wasting money and I have a waiting list of students who want to do the work.” There have only been 3 or 4 instances where this was necessary in the entire time I’ve taught.
I have the full latitude I need to do something like this because I work for myself and not at a music store. I bet if you work work at a music store you may have cringed at reading that. Being independent, I’m able to worry more about quality of students than quantity. The only boss I need to please is myself. This results in engaged students who’ve studied with me throughout their entire high school careers.
That longevity comes from students being challenged. Kids are not dumb and kids don’t want to be lazy. They want to be industrious. They asked for lessons because they want to put some of their industry into making music. If i don’t challenge them they won’t get what they asked for, they’ll get bored and they’ll quit.
One of my favorite things to do is say “Remember back when you couldn’t play the snare drum at all? Look at you now!” “Remember when you couldn’t read music at all? “Look at you now!” When they’re reminded of the fruits of their work they want to work harder!
One of the things my policy shows is I am not entertainment. Students don’t ask their parents for lessons to be entertained. They want to learn about music so I’m here to teach. Of course we have fun but the fun is a byproduct of the work, not the other way around.
Lastly and most importantly we celebrate. The hi fives I’ve given students are probably upwards of 700 by now. When a student comes prepared to lessons they know I’ll be excited about it. I’m not the hard teacher who frowns when it’s bad and just un-frowns when it’s good. When it’s good I might have too much energy to stay sitting. I might have to let a not-so-quiet “whoo!” out. They will hear “Good job, I’m proud of you.”
Rewarding the best behavior is just as important as discouraging the undesirable one.
Within the first 4 lessons every student knows exactly what to expect from me and knows what I expect from them. If they come unprepared it’s going to be a drag. If they come prepared it’s going to be a party and we’re going to get some excellent work done.
What can I say? We have a lot of parties!
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