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Surviving the Slow Months: Summers and the Private Lesson Studio

Jennifer Steinfeldt Warren • String Section • July 16, 2018

Let’s address some of the most common reasons that student levels plummet during the summer months and discuss some tips on how to keep yours from doing so.

Why Students Leave Lessons

What causes students to drop out? In my experience, there are four categories in which most student retention problems fall. There are going to be many factors that affect the willingness of students to let go of their musical growth; the following are the basic circumstances in which students leave the studio or drop out of lessons. Unfortunately, the summer months lend to an increase of two out of the four, neither of which are a reflection of the lesson experience you can control.

Scheduling: This encompasses a wide variety of issues relevant to the management structure of the teaching environment. I will cover a few ways to ensure that you are best using the tools available to you and your type of studio.

Communication/Relations: Navigation through the common stresses placed on the relationship from within the lesson (I am sure we have all, as students, had the occasional tearful lesson. Frustration and discouragement is bound to happen. If not handled well, this can be a direct cause for a student to give up). I will go into significant detail with this one; it affects all that we do and is reflected in the decisions students and teachers make.

Student Relocation: A natural aspect of a mobile society. You will have students who find themselves moving out of the area (or changing jobs etc.) resulting in the impracticality of continued instruction with you. This is where you find the graciousness within to determine the best possible solution for continued musical growth for your student because you care, because you are the person best suited and qualified to make their next endeavors work out well.

Financial Distress: An unhappy circumstance which often requires the family to rescind their child’s paid lessons (or the adult learner can no longer afford the luxury of lessons).

All Studios Struggle from Time to Time

I am sure it is not a unique experience for a studio to enjoy consecutive years in near optimal health. These years are not so very far from those that do not. At some point, every studio or teacher has experienced the struggle for that stasis we equate with feeling successful and able to accomplish.

So many variables can make or break the strength of a teacher’s student base. Though bittersweet, the happiest reason for students to leave your studio is when they come to the point in their lives when they move on (such as leaving for college or being awarded a job that increases their quality of life).

Should other students quit lessons simultaneously, your studio can quickly shrink, seemingly overnight. It often tends to be a few here and there for individual reasons: possibly a few will take time off for a break or need to stop lessons and then don’t come back, despite the best of intentions. You will likely have a few who never really had enough lesson time to develop momentum lessons to begin with. There can be very valid reasons such as extended illness. There might be a single student who was not a good fit and through mutual agreement, found a better option for instruction.

Before you have realized it, your income has taken a dive. You can very quickly go from harried instructor to one who feels slightly unemployed.

General Studio Health

Strive to keep an overall pleasant atmosphere in your studio and interactions. The ability to remain flexible and accepting of circumstances will aid your ability to manage well those moments that can cause unrest or unhappiness. There is a difficult line to draw when it comes to giving in to the student and holding to those concessions in which you are not willing to make. It is helpful to have a studio policy or contract that each student is given and signs before lessons begin. Even so, there are those exceptions that we make for individuals who need them and do not take advantage. Obviously, this is going to be a judgement made on an “as-they-come” basis.

Be careful to not make any extremes often enough to become a habit and/or part of your reputation as an instructor. It is natural and somewhat expected that everyone has their good and their bad days; that teachers and students alike will occasionally struggle to bring a cheerful and positive disposition and mood to the lesson.

As with any strong relationship, usually the teacher/student can withstand an occasional moody lesson. Most will survive the fallout relatively unscathed.

If rapport yet to be established, it is easy to miss cues, misjudge, misread, and/or misinterpret intent on both sides. This is when follow-up communication can make a difference with the student. As long as it is kept within professional appropriate boundaries, and there are no rules against doing so, an email following up on a student after a distressing lesson is something they will appreciate.

Obviously, you will use your best judgment for out-of-lesson communication. I suggest using general encouragement or to suggest participation in special musical events. This is usually more effective in resolving uncomfortable lesson situations as it avoids making an issue even bigger. Obviously, if there is a major problem, it must be addressed. However, in most cases all it takes is an action that expresses confidence in them. It really makes a difference when a student knows that you are being proactive in their interest. Such gestures are a low key and drama-free way to let them know you care and that things are okay.

A student should be (but often is not) aware that their instructor is human; likewise, the instructor must not forget how vulnerable the student experience can be. Relationships are a lot of work and the teacher/student relationship is no exception.

Attendance and The Communication Triangle

Many instructors are independently contracted or employed with a larger studio along with other teachers. Many a music shop, luthier, violin rental, or supplies store have the added service of music lessons offered to customers. There are many different ways this can operate, but in general, there must be a healthy and structured relationship between the teacher, the student/parent, and the front desk or store. Thus, the triangle. If any one of the three have less than effective communication practices, the result is inevitably going to be the loss of continuity with student attendance.

Two missed lessons in a row is generally cause for concern. Whether due to student illness, teacher illness, holiday, vacation, extreme weather, one-time conflicts such as a school concert or soccer game or visiting relatives, it can’t hurt (and can sometimes prevent dropouts) to make a phone call or at the very least, a text, to keep them communicating and the relationship active.

Effective cultivation of a working triangle is a fluid process based on a set of guidelines laid out by the employer. Fitting into an existing system for managing scheduling and student issues may take some time with a few mistakes forgiven, but it is imperative to settle into a system of communication that will support student and teacher’s coming and existing needs in a controlled and smooth manner.

Making it Matter – The Teeter Totter Effect

It makes sense that with increased time and effort invested comes an equal increase in the importance of success.

The stakes get much higher. It is scary to care. When hope becomes part of the equation, vulnerability and fear of failure come with it. There is no aspect of life that is more natural than the evolution into a being actively and passionately involved with what is important in one’s daily life.

Although obvious, it is worth noting. A teacher sensitive to the issues their students are managing is much more likely to be relatable. When a student and teacher pay attention to the material, the process, the emotional realities, and personal contexts, it is more likely that both will bring the best aspects of their lives into the lesson room. And take the lesson room home with them. Both places take on a practical and useful purpose within their thoughts and for problem solving.

When a student uses music, their instrument, or you to manage or accompany events of personal significance, you have achieved something enormous. There is no greater motivation for a teacher than to be included in this manner and there is no substitute for the learning it establishes and indicates.

What about all the other lessons and students? In a perfect world, all of them would be those students. In the world we work and live in, our challenge is to minimize turnover of students so that there is balance, so that you have adequate and harnessed energy for establishing and cultivating the lesson, the student relationship, musical achievement and an apt environment. It is a worthy goal to make students comfortable and secure to the point that the highest levels of learning can come about.

To Return or Not to Return

I would assume that it is most useful focus your energies on students who end up not coming back after a planned break. Realistically, they are the ones more apt to resume regularly scheduled lessons.

Sadly, it seems that the most prominent reason seems to be “not getting around to it” for enough weeks that it begins to feel uncomfortable to deal with. Or just easier. Often there is the kind of low-level dread that comes with taking care of something you know you should have done longer and longer ago. It is a type of shame that doesn’t come from right or wrong.

We can do something with that! However, teachers often fall into the exact same behavior. We didn’t call when they missed the first lesson expected back. Or there was no specific date. Or we were slammed and overlooked the absence. Before a month passes, we have slipped into the same attitude towards the situation as the student.

Creating and Maintaining Momentum

I cannot stress the importance of keeping your students from losing interest. The typical scenario is missed lessons. I would like to add that there is another dangerous practice to allow in your studio. That of the “every other week for an hour” request that many students will make. It seems like a plausible solution to various obstacles a student’s regular lessons are facing. It is usually a temporary solution leading to the inevitable month-long hiatus when one lesson is missed.

One month is enough time for students to lose momentum. I have lost many students in this manner. Each one will try their best to convince you that they are the exception. Don’t let this be the reason a student stops lessons. Don’t give in, no matter how tempting.

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