The tears were unexpected. I opened my porch door to meet with a piano parent who was returning some music books her daughter had signed out, and in front of me, the mom broke down into tears. You see, it was spring and the end of my lesson year, and this was the moment she was letting me know her daughter was not continuing with piano.
It wasn’t the first time I’d witnessed the tears of a parent. Several years ago a parent (who had paid the holding fee for her daughter’s September lesson spot) called at the beginning of September to let me know her daughter wasn’t coming back. She wept as we spoke.
Piano lessons are tied in with so many hopes and dreams. What is it about the piano that has captured so many imaginations and hearts? Parents sign children up with the knowledge that piano lessons are good for brain development, good for character development and good for artistic development. Teens want to play famous melodies, classic and popular. Adults want to fulfill the long-held desire to play. But besides all of the mindful reasons we decide to begin, there seems to be a true emotional investment in playing piano.
When the lessons kick in, there’s the inevitable adjustment to expectations when the student realizes the time and dedication it actually takes to sound like the dream. All good things take time, and one of them is piano.
I’m not in piano lessons, myself, at the moment (except for the lessons I’m teaching, and through teaching I’m still an active learner). Are you still taking lessons with your first piano teacher? I would guess not.
Someday each and every student is going to discontinue. It is natural and inevitable. No one takes piano lessons forever.
Yet, the emotion of stopping is usually wrapped up in several layers of disappointment or regret. The dream of starting is matched by an equal measure of letdown or sadness when stopping.
Here are some ideas for piano teachers to help all involved navigate the end of a student’s piano lesson chapter with compassion and professionalism.
1. Begin with the end in mind
Educators and novelists alike know that when teaching a unit of study or writing a story, one must begin with the end in mind. Know where this is going. See the entire arc. It is wise for the piano teacher to also begin with the end in mind.
The first time I mention the ending of piano lessons is at the initial interview with a potential parent. I explain: should we mutually agree that we will discontinue lessons in the middle of the lesson year, I require a month’s notice. That’s the short, official version and it is written in my policy.
Then I take the time to put a personal spin on it. Allowing a month after we’ve made the decision to stop gives me the chance to design an exit strategy for the student that will tie up loose ends and leave them with the feeling that they are going out into the world with my blessing.
I realize it sounds like I’m jumping ahead of myself, mentioning the end so early. In truth, it is very rare for a student of mine to stop mid-year. I have a high retention rate. The reason I take this approach is to set a positive tone from the beginning, especially surrounding something so potentially emotional as the eventual end.
When parents know up front that I want piano lessons to be a positive experience, even in the end, they relax a little and know everything is going to be okay.
2. Design flexible lesson options
To avoid a student quitting or to delay the termination of lessons, there are some interesting ways a piano teacher can design an alternative schedule or plan.
Typically, I like starting children who already have experience reading words (so, seven-year-olds). The majority of my students are therefore between the ages of seven and seventeen and they come to regular weekly piano lessons. I imagine that my studio resembles most piano studios. But no one needs a blog post about what normally happens in piano lessons, usually teachers want advice on exceptional cases.
Sometimes I’m contacted by parents of younger children, asking if I’d teach them. I’m usually willing to meet them and if I feel the child is ready and the parents are supportive, I will agree to teach a younger child, on one condition.
Six-week plan. My condition is that parents pay for six weeks at a time, and we only book those six weeks at a time. If within that time it becomes evident that the child has lost interest (keep in mind, these are five-to-six year-olds), or doesn’t have the focus to practice, or the parents find that it’s too much for their family, we’ll already have agreed that six weeks was to be our limit, and the child can discontinue lessons without consequence.
This means I’m preempting quitting by saying I don’t believe that a child that age should be pressured to commit to an entire year’s worth of lessons, and I don’t even let the parents sign them up for it. That way there is no quitting. At the end of each six-week spell there’s always a discussion. Will we continue? How are things going?
This approach has worked for every younger student I’ve had so far. If they continue, we have a year of the child saying, ‘Yes, let’s keep going,’ every six weeks. The constant affirmation and choice to continue is very motivating for the child.
I haven’t had this happen yet, but if the child-parent-teacher triangle noticed something wasn’t working well and decided to discontinue mid-year out of compassion for the child, lessons would naturally come to a close at the end of a six-week period and the child would be spared the idea that they had quit. This leaves the door open wide for them to return to piano lessons on a future date when they’ve matured or their interest has returned.
For my adult students I also only book six weeks at a time, and they are free to come when they are able.
Other plans. I have agreed to other flexible lesson plans for busy teenagers to make it possible for them to stay in piano lessons longer. Some students must travel with parents on sabbatical and are only here for part of the year. An other might be an elite athlete who is still fitting piano in. Still another might be struggling with mental health, so I am willing to be a little flexible. Occasionally for exceptional students like these, I’m willing to adjust to make it possible for them to continue rather than stop, like bi-weekly lessons, or a flex year in which a teen pays for four or five fewer lessons than my regular year and can miss them for travel.
Logistically, this works because I schedule my teen students in my last lesson spots each day because they are able to stay up later. Therefore there is no hole in my schedule; when they come I simply teach later.
These alternative plans may or may not prevent a student from stopping. Sometimes after a flex year a student will inevitably stop. In that case, I see that the flex year extended their lesson experience and expanded their piano skillset by just a little. Other times after a flex year, a student returns to a regular, full year, the flex year having gotten them through a thin time.
3. Dispense with the word ‘quit’ altogether
There is no quitting in my studio anymore. The truth is, I don’t believe it is possible to quit playing the piano. ‘Quit’ is too final a word.
One teen (who decided at the end of a lesson year that she wouldn’t return in the fall) expressed she was worried she would regret it. “You’ll only regret it if you stop playing altogether.” I encouraged, “So, keep playing.”
I secretly found out that my daughter who stopped piano lessons still plays when no one else is home.
My biggest message for students is that I hope they will stay in touch with their own music-making. That may be piano, another instrument, singing in a choir, or even returning to piano lessons someday with me or another teacher.
There’s a whole lifetime ahead for this person. Let them know there’s always the option to change their mind and return.
When you remove the word ‘quit’ from the situation and replace it with encouraging words, you will help the parents feel better about the situation, which will ease parent-child relations surrounding the choice. You could have a perfect exit strategy in place for the child, but if the parent continues to put negative pressure on the child at home about ‘quitting,’ there will still be a sour taste lingering after piano. Your goal in removing the word ‘quit’ from the exit vocabulary is to leave the door open a crack for the child to someday want to return to music and piano.
It is important to have a conversation on the phone or in person with the parent to let them know that it’s okay for their child to stop lessons for now.
4. The child’s piano experience doesn’t hinge on you
As much as we’d like to think that our lessons are the best thing for the child, the truth is that there are many piano teachers with many different approaches. Some teachers emphasize artistry, others fun. Some composition, others theory only. Some exams, others popular music. Perhaps another teacher has a program better suited to this child.
Furthermore, there are many other activities out there: soccer, art, swimming, guitar, chess, tennis, and the list goes on. What if Liona Boyd‘s mother had insisted on her taking piano lessons? Or Serena Williams‘s? Piano lessons are only one track to success in life. It isn’t fair to make anyone feel like a failure for quitting piano.
And your career doesn’t hinge on this child continuing, either. I say this in the kindest way possible. Accept that it is going to be okay.
5. Focus on what is best for the child
I realize that as piano teachers we make our living teaching piano lessons and it is concerning when a student decides to discontinue. But I feel it is more important to consider what is best for the child at this moment and relax and realize that you are going to be okay. Other students have discontinued in the past and you are still okay. This child will discontinue lessons, and they will still be okay. Everything is going to be okay.
Take this opportunity to relax about your own business needs and see a bigger picture. The two most important things right now are to help the parents feel glad they chose piano with you and to help the child see how much they’ve learned with you.
Child-centred teaching always puts the needs of the child first. As the professional, you can help the parent see the big picture, too.
Back to the opening story of this blog post , the moment I saw the mom tearing up in my porch I was able to say, “Aw, could I give you a hug?” And I hugged her to help her feel better and said things to comfort her, like, “There’s always the option for her to come back to lessons anytime,” and, “You never know, she might start playing again as an adult someday.”
[Update: This student came back to lessons with me after one year away. Because the ending had been positive and open-ended, she felt comfortable getting back in touch and is now practicing harder than ever!]
6. Transition strategies make the end a soft landing
Normally I teach a program of piano skills mixed with elements that the student has chosen. With students on the exit track, for their final month of lessons I focus for the most part only on their own choices.
Special project. One student wanted to learn how to play Sail by Awolnation. It can be played mostly on the black keys. In the student’s last month, we learned it from the recording by ear, then arranged and played it as a duo on the piano and keyboard set to pizzicato strings. Find something your student wants to do that you may never have had time for in the regular routine of piano lessons.
In-studio performance. If parent-student-teacher relations are still open, see if everyone would agree to a mini-recital or performance in the last 10-15 minutes of the last lesson, in the studio itself. Parents would simply arrive early to pick up their child and listen to the performance. This could give the parents a moment of closure and allow them the chance to celebrate their child’s accomplishment to that date. It would help end on a high note.
7. Stay in touch with former students and their parents
The end of lessons need not feel like a dramatic breakup. Please don’t feel rejected, and please don’t let a child feel like you are rejecting them. People will remember the way you made them feel, and to them you represent piano lessons. Leave happy memories, even in the end.
See former students as people who once chose to join you. You helped that child and family experience music for a while. If you run into them in the community or at school events, connect. Find out how they are doing. Ask if they’ve tried playing the piano again. Or, don’t ask about piano. Show interest in them as people beyond the subject of music.
You will be doing the greater world of trained musicians, concert performers, music consumers, listeners, instrument makers and music teachers a huge favour by infusing the ending of piano lessons with hints of good things, cliffhangers, ‘to be continued,’ and ‘more to come.’
“Someday, you might decide to continue.”
The end of piano lessons need not be treated as The End. It might feel like the end of a chapter, but there can be more music to come in a follow-up chapter. It might feel like the end of a book, but there’s always room for a sequel. As the piano teacher, you are in the position to help the student (and parents) feel good enough, even in the end, to see that there’s still room for more.
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The main intention of this post is to help teachers (including me) help everyone through the end of lessons after discussions and decisions have been made. Sometimes circumstances are beyond a child’s control and lessons must stop (family or school circumstances change). Sometimes you’ve already ‘saved’ them from quitting once or twice. However, if a student or parent is undecided and not sure what to do, why not encourage them to keep going? Please read Jennifer Foxx’s recent blog post for ideas on how to keep your student in lessons. Here’s the link: