Every business deals with customers who don’t pay their bills, and self-employed music teachers can be significantly impacted when this happens in their studios. Because many musicians earn their living by teaching lessons, it’s important for them to have solid tuition policies in place.
The Business of Teaching Music
Music teachers sell blocks of their time to individual students. There are a limited number of lesson spots in a day, and lessons are scheduled in advance. Once a teacher schedules a student, she/he cannot offer that time to another student. Regardless if the scheduled student attends the lesson or not, the teacher pays rent for the teaching space during that time.
This Might Not Be For You
I meet teachers who don’t feel comfortable creating and implementing a lesson/tuition policy with students, and I meet students who don’t feel comfortable agreeing to a lesson/tuition policy. I’m glad those two groups exist for each other. But if you’re a teacher who would feel better if you were paid on time for your time, I encourage you to adopt an appropriate policy. And if you’re a student who would like more structured and/or professional lessons, look for a teacher with a policy that matches your values.
#1 Policy Consideration: Single Lesson Payment or Monthly Payment?
I remember feeling worried when I used to ask students to pay for each lesson at each lesson. I had very little security because my income depended on all my students paying me each week. If someone didn’t show up, I was stuck.
I also remember feeling uncomfortable asking for lesson payment at the beginning of the lesson. This meant that during our lesson, I worried that the student might not have the money that week. At the end of the lesson, we would often feel hurried to complete the payment transaction while my next student watched us and the clock as it ticked away into their lesson time. Not cool.
I learned to warn students via email that they would be asked for their monthly tuition at the beginning of the lesson and they could save time by having it ready. As the student entered the studio, I usually said something like, “Let’s get the business out of the way first so we can focus on the music.” If a student then took 5 minutes to write a check or count cash, at least that time didn’t eat into the next student’s lesson. Because students paid for the month, this delay only occurred once a month instead of each week, and I could plan my finances much easier.
My Policy: I ask for monthly tuition at the beginning of the last lesson of each month, to pay for the next month of lessons.
#2 Policy Consideration: Should monthly tuition be a flat rate, or determined by the number of lessons (weeks) each month?
I know teachers who charge a flat rate, regardless of the number of lessons in the month. Some months, the students have 5 lessons and some months students have 3 lessons. This system makes it easy for teachers and students to plan their finances each month. It also makes it easier for teachers to take vacations or a sick day when necessary. If you adopt this policy, share your calendar with your students when they sign up, but also expect some students not to understand it and to feel cheated if they sign up on a 3 lesson month.
I determine monthly tuition by the number of lessons in the month. Although I see the appeal in a flat rate monthly tuition, this method keeps my hourly rate consistent, which makes it easier for me to calculate tuition for single lessons and classes.
My policy: Guitar lesson tuition includes a specific number of lessons per month on a predetermined day/time.
#3 Policy Consideration: What Happens When Students (or You) Miss a Lesson?
When I need to miss a lesson, I give students as much notice as possible and I try to reschedule the lesson. If I cannot reschedule the lesson, I credit the student for the following month.
Students miss lessons for many reasons, and sometimes, it’s completely out of the students’ control. Sometimes students can offer weeks of advanced notice and sometimes they just fail to show up at their lesson. I agree that it sounds so harsh to have students pay for their lesson, no matter what, but while it may not be the student’s fault for missing the lesson, it’s not the teacher’s fault either. Students book the teacher’s time, and if a lesson time cannot be used by another student and the teacher is already paying to rent the teaching space, I don’t see an option for teachers other than to charge for the lesson time. In order for good teachers to be able to make a living through teaching, this needs to be understood and respected.
My policy: There are no refunds, no credits and no make-ups if you miss your lesson or class.
How I bend it: If I have time in my schedule later that week, I may offer that time to the student. If I have enough notice that the student will miss a lesson, I try to fill that time with a student on my waiting list. If I do fill the time, I can credit the regular student.
#4 Policy Consideration: How to Make Sure You Are Paid for Your Time, on Time?
For many years, I have asked new students to fill out a questionnaire and sign a contract agreeing to my lesson policies before we meet. The questionnaire helps me understand their current strengths and weaknesses and it helps me remember their goals. The person who is responsible for lesson payment signs the policy agreement, and this helps them understand that my teaching studio is a real business.
Until recently, I have asked students to pay for the month of lessons at the beginning of each month. This has worked well enough for me to keep it in place for many years. But I just started offering more lessons at The Guitar Store in Seattle and online (Skype/FaceTime), and because I am signing up many more new students, I am also having to deal with more students who are failing to pay me for the lessons, even though they have signed my contract. It’s a pain to go to small claims court, so I have had to find a better system.
The best way to prevent not being paid for the lesson time is to require students to pay before the lesson. PayPal is an easy way to bill students and receive payments. If students don’t pay by a certain date, teachers can offer that time to another student.
My policy: Tuition for the first lesson or a single lesson needs to be paid at the time it is scheduled. To reserve your lesson time each month, tuition must be paid in full one week prior to the first lesson of each month. If tuition is not received on time, your lesson spot will be assigned to another student.
The Contract My New Students Must Sign and Return:
I expect you to be prompt and prepared for each lesson and/or class. Tuition for Guitar Lessons and Jam Classes includes a specific number of lessons and/or classes per month on a predetermined day and time. There are no refunds, no credits, and no make-ups if you miss your lesson(s) or class(es). Tuition for your first lesson or a single lesson needs to be paid at the time it is scheduled. To reserve your lesson time each month, tuition must be paid in full one week prior to the first lesson of the new month. If payment is not received on time, your lesson spot will be assigned to another student. Accepted methods of payment include cash, check, or PayPal. Please agree to these policies by signing your name below and returning this form to Susan Palmer before the beginning of your first guitar lesson.
The Importance of Honesty and Consistency
When you decide on your policies, it’s important to share them and use them with all of your students. (It’s also easier to remember them that way.) Some students may not feel comfortable with your lesson policies, and I think that’s ok. You need to work with students who understand your business as well as your lessons if you are going to be a successful music teacher.
Susan Palmer teaches jazz, blues, and rock guitar styles in Seattle and via webcam. Since 2006, she has been the guitar instructor at Seattle University. Palmer created and taught, “The Rock Project” at Cornish College of the Arts from 2010-15, and she was music instructor at Seattle Girls School for the 2016-17 school year. Palmer is the author of, The Guitar Lesson Companion Method Book Series which is used by teachers and students in over 10 countries, including faculty at Berklee College of Music. Her extensive collection of lesson videos and jam tracks are available for free on YouTube. Palmer’s current and former students perform regularly throughout the country, including these Seattle venues: The Comet, The High Dive, Skylark, Neumos, The Hard Rock Cafe, Chop Suey, The Tractor Tavern, The Rendezvous, The Sorrento Hotel, The Crocodile, The Mix, Cafe Racer, The Edgewater Hotel, The Sunset, and other private events.