Have you ever needed to increase the fees you charge for piano lessons but agonized over how to make the announcement?
Or, have you ever wondered if there’s an easier way to organize make-up lessons?
There’s one simple solution that holds the power to fix both problems: scheduling a ‘Lesson Year.’
1. Have a defined beginning to your Lesson Year
No matter how many weeks of the year you teach, or whether or not you take a summer break, I recommend that you set a defined ‘Year Start’ for your piano lesson year, each year. An optimal time to have a scheduled ‘reset’ is the same week that your local school district begins classes. Families are already accustomed to their kids starting a new grade level in school, so it will feel natural if you also have a rollover to a new Lesson Year in your piano studio at the same time.
This offers you several advantages in organizing your tuition fees. It also simplifies keeping track of lessons received and what to do with those dreaded missed lessons. Let me walk you through how this amazing scheduling strategy works.
Annual Tuition Fees
With a defined Year Start you’ll be able to charge an Annual Tuition based on the number of lessons you teach in the whole Lesson Year. Whether you teach 36, 42 or 50 weeks, take that number, multiply it by your rate, and voila, you have the year’s tuition.
Equal Monthly Payments
Now divide your year’s tuition into equal monthly payments. Each monthly payment will be exactly the same whether you teach 5, 4, 3, or 2 lessons in any given month. Imagine receiving a steady and predictable income even in months when you take a break, like December.
Parents love equal monthly payments. They always know how much they owe and there’s no ‘figuring out’ what they owe each month. Usually, it lowers the amount of each payment because they’re paying you over time. Yes, they pay more in a 2-lesson month, but they also pay slightly less in all of the 4 and 5-lesson months. This makes piano lessons more affordable for them month-to-month. In short, it makes it easier for them to pay and for you to get paid.
Once you create equal monthly payments, parents will no longer connect the amount they pay each month with the number of lessons they receive in that month. The payments simply go toward the year’s tuition. The lessons received are measured over your full Lesson Year, a much longer timeframe.
Simplify make-up lessons
Let’s consider two scenarios. In the first, a parent has paid for four lessons at the beginning of a month, and then their child misses a lesson. The way they see it, they’ve missed 1/4 of their lessons, or 25% of what they’ve paid for. Of course they’re going to demand a make-up lesson! This week!
In the second scenario, a parent has paid a monthly instalment on the year’s tuition, and then their child misses a lesson. This parent understands that their child has missed 1/36 lessons (or 1/50), a much lower percentage of what they’re paying for — only 2% to 2.77% of their tuition. This parent is much more likely to see that they’re paying for a longer-term educational service and to let the make-up slide for now.
Because you’re dealing with a schedule that covers the Lesson Year, you have many months over which you could offer a make-up lesson, when you are able.
In my studio I only make up my own misses and student medical misses. If the student can’t attend for any other reason, their parent is tasked with switching their time spot with another. With a switch they can still get their lesson, and it keeps my teaching within my regular schedule. It doesn’t take any extra time.
Charging tuition by the Lesson Year (even if you receive payments monthly), sets up the idea that your students are signing up for a full year at a time. This encourages long term student retention.
Most studio parents like the stability of a longer commitment for their children. It helps them teach good values.
If you teach year-round without breaks, it becomes awkward to set pay increases for yourself. However, if you set up an annual Year Start, it gives you an opportunity to make an incremental increase in your fee each year. This avoids lengthy spells with no increases at all and then the discomfort of figuring out how to announce a larger increase all at once.
A sudden large rate increase feels like a jolt to parents. They prefer a small increase each year and usually understand that the sole purpose is to keep up with inflation. Over time you’ll want to have some increases that surpass inflation to reflect the added value of your experience.
Charging What You’re Worth
If you are working year round, you’re not charging enough. Set your rate, charge that in your Annual Tuition, then decrease your schedule by a week or two. That’s how to give yourself a raise and a well-deserved break.
Take breaks to recharge and learn new skills to bring back to your students. Or garden. Or read a book. Your energy level matters. After your break, you’ll have more energy to give to your students, so it’s a win-win.
Then after your break, begin your new lesson year with an email stating this year’s rates. You don’t even need to point out that there’s a small rate increase. Simply say, “This year’s tuition is $__ with equal monthly payments of $__.”
2. Count ‘Lesson Weeks’, not lessons
The ideas I’m about to discuss have the power to transform how your studio parents view lessons and make-up lessons. In the last section I mentioned that having a Year Start and Annual Tuition simplifies keeping track of lesson attendance and make-up lessons. It’s true.
Update your terminology
First, I recommend changing your terminology around piano lessons. Begin calling them ‘Lesson Weeks’. The difference between a ‘Lesson’ and a ‘Lesson Week’ is subtle but important.
A Lesson is a scheduled appointment. It’s a block of time in which a teacher and student engage in learning activities that help both grow musically. A lesson is given and received when time is spent together. If the student or teacher misses this time, it’s as a missed lesson. Depending on the teacher’s studio policies and regardless of the reason for the miss, this might trigger the expectation of a make-up.
On the other hand, a ‘Lesson Week’ is a multi-day period when a teacher has scheduled lessons, and expects students to attend. It’s based on the calendar week, and new weeks in the calendar bring new Lesson Weeks.
Keep track of Lesson Weeks
Keep track of Lesson Weeks in your students’ dictation books. I print my own DIY piano dictation books. There’s a new blank page for each planned piano lesson in my schedule. At the top I have ‘Lesson Week’ with a blank where I write in the number. In the first week of my Lesson Year, I’ll write ‘Lesson Week 1’.
Responsibility to attend
When you teach 36, 42 or 50 weeks a year and your Lesson Year has a beginning and an end, your tuition is now charged based on the number of weeks you teach, not the number of lessons students attend.
When you count weeks and not lessons, you reverse the onus of attendance onto your students.
Take a moment to let this idea sink in.
Rather than feeling the responsibility yourself to deliver lessons that have been paid for, the responsibility is now on them to attend the weeks in your Lesson Year.
When you have a Lesson Week, it will come and go for your entire studio in the same timeframe. It’s therefore up to each student to come to their own piano lesson.
Let’s look at two scenarios. In the first, a student doesn’t attend their lesson because they have a basketball game. A teacher who has received payment for four lessons that month may feel pressured to find time to make up that missed lesson. After all, the parents have paid for four lessons and want to receive all four lessons, otherwise they lose 25% of what they’ve paid for.
In the second scenario, the teacher had a Year Start and receives equal monthly payments for the Lesson Year and counts Lesson Weeks. The student chooses their basketball game over piano lessons. It’s their choice to miss. Let’s say the basketball game is in Lesson Week 17. Lesson Week 17 still happens without this student.
The onus was on the student to attend, and the student did not. The following week when they attend, the teacher’s studio has moved on to Lesson Week 18. True, the last time they attended it was Lesson Week 16. But, they chose to miss Lesson Week 17, so even though they missed, it’s still now Lesson Week 18. This piano teacher has no clear obligation to make up the missed lesson, because tuition was based on the Lesson Week — not the lesson itself.
Acknowledge the miss with sensitivity
When the student returns after a miss, I make note of it at the bottom of the last page used in their dictation book (“Lesson Week 17 miss – basketball game”), then on the next page I write “Lesson Week 18.”
As I write, I acknowledge to the student that there was a miss. If the miss qualifies for a make-up (illness), I will say, “We’ll do our best to make that up at some point.” If the miss does not qualify for a make-up (basketball game/trip to Disney), I’ll say, “I hope you had fun last week. As you know, I’m not able to make it up.”
It’s important to be sensitive in how you handle a miss that doesn’t qualify for a make-up lesson. That’s why I write it at the bottom of the dictation page. It’s written there and I’m being open, but it’s not ‘in-your-face.’ If I wrote it at the top of a page, it would be more highly visible and might cause annoyance in the parent or student. At the bottom of the page it’s a gentle reminder as to why the numbers at the top of the page jump from “Lesson Week 16” to “Lesson Week 18.”
Note reasons for misses
I also keep an attendance record in a separate book. I keep track of dates and reasons for misses. If the miss qualifies for a make-up lesson, there’s space for the date when I give the make-up, so I know the matter is closed.
In the same section of my book, I also make note of student lesson switches. I like keeping a record of switches as a way to demonstrate how I’ve accommodated the needs of my studio families.
It is also a record that shows that switch lessons work.
If there were ever a question as to whether a lesson was given or received, switched or missed, I would be able to refer to my notes to explain my understanding of the situation.
If a parent ever complained about a missed lesson for which I couldn’t give a make-up, I’d turn to the student’s attendance record and be able to show that of the five weeks they couldn’t come to their regular time, they only missed one because they were able to switch the other four. In this way my attendance record is important for showing that even with one miss, our flexible set-up has been a success. It helps me highlight the bright side.
Double-check lessons given
Towards the end of my Lesson Year, I choose a week when I’ll conduct a review of Lesson Week numbers in my students’ dictation books. During each lesson I’ll ask the student to play for a little while so I can have a moment to leaf through their dictation book.
The purpose is to count the actual number of lessons given (each page represents a lesson) and check on misses to see if the Lesson Week numbers match up. Sometimes with holidays and mid-year make-up lessons I’ll give a make-up but forget to make note of it in my record of attendance, so it still shows that it’s owing. If something doesn’t seem right with this cross-reference I’ll correct any mistakes.
Having a Lesson Year and Lesson Weeks
What’s in a name? Everything, when it comes to running a business. The terminology you use to define your Lesson Year, how you charge fees, how you refer to Lesson Weeks rather than lessons…all of these wording adjustments work hard to define your professional parameters.
You’ll have an easier time getting paid with equal monthly payments towards the Lesson Year tuition.
You’ll have an easier time raising your rates at the beginning of each Year Start.
You’ll have an easier time defining what missed lessons qualify for make-up lessons and what misses don’t.
You’ll have a longer timeframe in which make-up lessons can be fulfilled.
You’ll encourage long-term commitment from families and good student retention.
And with Lesson Weeks, you’ll have a mechanism for setting up your schedule according to your teaching availability and make your client families responsible for their own attendance.
It’s time for you to reclaim your power over these things that are yours to manage: your time and how you get paid.
Do you have any further tips? Please leave them in the comments!
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Video of the Week
Yellow Boots (Intermediate, Level 4). A piano solo in the style of a hybrid rag, “For friends who splash in puddles of sunshine together.” From the print and eBook The Color Collection, or check out the Yellow Boots eSheet!