improving as a teacher, Studio Business

Forum Q&A | When to Say “No” to a Potential Student

For our previous Forum Q&A, I asked about the legal side of being a business – becoming a Sole Proprietorship or an LLC, dealing with taxes, etc.  My previous private teaching has mostly been as an employee of the university’s Community Music School.  I find all the legal stuff for getting set up on your own to be so complicated!  I am thankful for all the infomation online, books in the library, and the advice I’ve been getting from other teachers.

I’m still sorting this all out, but I did decide to be a Sole Proprietor.  Becoming an LLC does have the benefit of protecting your personal assets in the event that someone should sue the business for some reason (they can go after your business assets but not your personal assets).  But setting up an LLC is more complicated and costly than a Sole Proprietorship.  Of course, as a piano teacher, the chances of getting sued are relatively low.  If you do want some protection, extra liability protection can often add something on to your current homeowner’s insurance policy for this purpose.  Oh, and another thing I learned — be sure to check with your city to see if they require a zoning permit for running a home business and having a sign outside for your studio.  Don’t I sound smart?!  I’m learning so much these days!  ;)

Regarding taxes — I decided to hire a CPA to handle my taxes for my first year or two, or until I can learn how to manage it all on my own.  I feel good about my decision.  Keeping track of my income and expenses shouldn’t be too complicated, but estimating quarterly taxes is complicated for me since I don’t really have anything to refer to from previous years.  My CPA should be able to help me get up-and-running.  :)

Anyway — I received a question yesterday from a reader that is perfect for this week’s Forum Q&A.  Here goes:

How do you know when to say “no” to a potential student?  What do you look for when you interview an interested student?  What kinds of questions do you ask to sift out whether you are going to accept the student?  And what do you do when you realize you’ve made a mistake with a student you said “yes” to?  

In all honesty, I kind of wish I had this problem!  Right now, I am saying “yes” to anybody who comes through my door.  Such is the life of a recently-relocated piano teacher.  :)

Advice, anyone, for this reader?

Photo Credit: Valerie Everett | CC 2.0

15 thoughts on “Forum Q&A | When to Say “No” to a Potential Student”

  1. I am with you, Joy. I take anyone who comes through the door – even if they only have a tiny keyboard and just want to “learn a few songs.” You never know where you might be able to lead someone. I’ve had people who only “wanted just a few lessons” who ended up staying with me for years!

    1. I know of many teachers who don’t take on students if they don’t have a real piano. I don’t take it that far, but if a student only has one of those little ones (that only have an octave or two), they won’t be able to practice well right from the start. Even the earliest method books employ the use of the whole keyboard as soon as they learn finger numbers.
      I do agree with your over-all philosophy though, in encouraging students to start learning no matter what. Perhaps then the student should be strongly encouraged/required to have the proper equipment before beginning, as they would be required to do for just about any other “class” or skill they wanted to learn.

  2. So far, I haven’t had much of a problem with this. I relocated in January, so I’ve been starting from scratch. I’ve only turned down one student who was just not ready. I had a trial lesson with him, and he was too young, had no attention span, and wouldn’t participate at all. I just told his mom that I had no more openings at the moment.

  3. The only time that I have turned down students is when I get a bunch of red flags that they will be a major stress in my life. If my gut is telling me that and I’m not feeling good about them then I won’t take them. This doesn’t happen very often. Only a couple times. Once I took them anyway and regretted it. The next time I listened to what my intuition was telling me and cancelled the interview. Felt much better.

    1. Jennifer-
      What reasons did you tell the parent for the cancel? What do you say when you think the student will be fine, but the parent will be a hassle/stress? Gut is SO important, but then how do you word the rejection, is my problem!!

      1. Georgia-

        That is the tricky part and the part I am least comfortable with. For this last one where I was literally feeling sick to my stomach when I thought about taking them I just called the mom and said that after talking with her I didn’t think this was the right time for lessons. The funny thing is she actually agreed with me and then told me even more stuff that was going on that I had no idea of that would have really added complication in getting to lessons, possibly paying on time, etc… I was SO glad that I listened and made the call.

        So I think if you could be up front, but nice about it, that’s usually the best way to go. And maybe just say you don’t feel like you are the right teacher and explain your concerns. Or in some cases don’t explain your concerns just say you aren’t the right teacher. ;)

  4. I think that if you see no help coming from the parent then that is a red flag. Most students need some encouragement to practice and get assignments done. I require parents or guardians to be present at the interview and you can see how helpful they will be.
    I have thought students that do not own a piano. They had access to their grandparents piano and their parents made sure they were able to practice. So overall with every situation, I see if they are getting help at home. I had one student who’s parents didn’t show up to the interview and I accepted them anyway. After about 2 weeks practicing stopped. After about 3 months of no practicing they quit, which wasn’t a surprise to me because no matter how much I tried to encourage them, they had no help coming from home. So overall I think it’s best to interview the parents with the child and ask if they are willing to help at home. Those are just my thoughts on the matter.

  5. I always ask the kids if they want to take lessons at the initial meeting with their family. If they say no, then I think long and hard about whether or not I should take them on. Every child I have accepted that said no in the meeting was gone before the first 2 months were up so it seems to be a good indicator. I think sometimes the parents don’t really hear the “no” until they are sitting in my studio and it gives them a chance to gracefully bow out too.

  6. One of the most rewarding students I’ve taught was one who didn’t want to take lessons for his first three years of lessons. He is Mormon, and I know Mormons are big on music (in many families it’s not seen as an option not to study music). I made the best of it and even encouraged sarcasm on his part during lessons as a healthy way to vent (and I was also sarcastic – e.g. “I know you’re going to be devastated to hear this, but there won’t be any lessons next week…”). Now he enjoys music because his “chore” of piano was done so consistently (thanks to mom).

    This leads me to say that the only students that I would choose to not take in retrospect are those young students who have no parental support practicing at home (in those cases it would have been better not to study at all than to study what they did under such frustration). But determining which ones this will be in the interview is very hard – sometimes parents who seem like they will be involved end up not being very involved, while other parents can witness the frustration of their child and, after a talk with me, can be motivated to get more involved.

    Also, whenever I get a transfer student, I ask if it’s ok to call the previous teacher, and usually it is. If it’s not, that would be a red flag.

  7. I completely missed this forum last week, but agree with Jennifer’s comment about going with your gut.

    I recently had an inquiry from an adult who wanted to take lessons, and we had emailed a bit and she seemed fine, and then had a LONG phone conversation where I could just tell that she was going to be a stressful student. As I discussed with her my teaching philosophy, she in some way argued with almost every point I was making (for example, I told her that I like all of my students to become acquainted with the music of the great composers, and she interrupted saying how she HATES listening to classical music; I told her that my students spend 15 minutes each week on the studio computer working on music theory, and she said that she HATES computers…). I could just tell this was not going to work out and was going to be a MAJOR stress in my life. I was too nice, though, and set up an appointment for an audition anyway.

    I felt awful about it, so finally about an hour later I contacted her again, telling her that I didn’t feel like I was the type of teacher she was looking for to meet her needs. She was very nice about it and I felt SO relieved.

  8. I always interview students first, which isn’t perfect but definitely helps. The few times I have turned down students are for the following reasons:
    1. I just didn’t mesh with the family. Their personality wouldn’t have worked with mine or they expected something different from what I had to offer.
    2. There were big, big red flags about how they would treat the business side of taking lessons (one parent asked to pay for the year of lessons in advance but then asked that I refund her money if she needed the money mid-year)
    3. The student just wasn’t ready.

    Usually at the end of the interview, I tell the family that I’ll call them back or email them to discuss scheduling so we can both have a day to think it over. I admit that I don’t always call back the families in situations 1 and 2. For those that call me back or the ones that I call, I explain that I didn’t feel I was the right teacher for them. For students that weren’t ready, I tried to point them towards early childhood music classes or teachers that took younger students.

  9. I had a recent situation where a 7-year old student was recommended to me for lessons by the parent of one of my current pupils up in the Bay area..In addition, the prospective student and family lived practically around the corner.. two important motivators, you would think. I was supposed to give a “trial lesson,” and I emphasize the word TRIAL in this encounter because my term of art is sample lesson. The parent decided it was a TRIAL.

    The mother had already ditched the primer teacher for an unspecified reason, and her daughter exhibited a marked aversion to taking piano. The playing was a good index of her overall attitude. Plus she retreated to her mother’s lap at least 4 times in 30 minutes.

    By the end of the “trial” that dragged on for too long, I had managed to convert Gestapo-like note attacks into a semblance of a singing tone, though I’m sure the mother couldn’t make head or tail of it. I also noted that the previous teacher had annotations in the music or suggestions, that were right on the mark.

    Finally, at the conclusion of this TRIAL, mom informed me that she had scheduled interviews with two other teachers, and would get back to me with her “decision” by email the following day. Incidentally I do not charge for such TRIAL lessons.

    Before mom had a chance to render her VERDICT, I beat her to the punch, and emailed MY DECISION (Subject heading) to her.

    In a nutshell, I DECLINED the opportunity to teach the 7 year old and wished the mother well in her pursuit of the RIGHT TEACHER..

    UP there in the Bay area where I travel once per week, I call it the great candy store… where mothers want “self actualized” children every waking hour, and are in hot pursuit of the GARDEN of EDEN teacher who will INSPIRE their child and transform them into floating fairies of the forest.. No joke.

    Anyway, that’s my latest rejection slip… and sad to say, another primer student whose mom similarly tossed a teacher overboard, because junior didn’t “click” with instructor (or more accurately was not swept off his feet) was not one I chose to accept.

    More often than not, I will take students that I shouldn’t, but up north, I can be a bit more discriminating.

    WATCH for RED FLAGS of primer students who are dissatisfied with teachers.. and tabulate how many of these devoted instructors have walked the plank,

  10. I might have been one of those red flag students when I began taking lessons. I used to be extremely shy and sat as far away from my teacher as I could. My teacher thought (as she told me later) that I wouldn’t take lessons for long. Yet, playing piano allowed me to open up and slowly I matured into an ardent lover of the piano. I took lessons off of that teacher for 10 years and now am pursuing a minor in music in college. So my advice to teachers is to not give up on the student(s) that you think might not stick with it. Sure, there might be students that quit, but there might also be the ones that will surprise you if you give them the chance to grow.

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