Tips for Buying a Piano – Guest Post by Coach House Pianos

Buying a piano is not as dissimilar as we think to buying a car. Before we want to hand over a large amount of money to a car dealer, we would want to fully inspect the goods, test it out and make sure it is as described. This is the mindset we should have with any large purchase. A piano is a very personal thing. It is a significant investment and you, and your piano shall likely be together a long time. As such, you must be absolutely sure of your decision before you commit.

To help you have a clear idea what it is you need, Coach House Pianos has put together a few things to consider when you are ready to make this investment:

  1. Cost – do you want a good quality second hand piano? This can cost anywhere up to £18,000 ($29,000), whilst a brand new Steinway could cost in excess of £130,000 ($209,000).
  2. Type of Piano – A Grand Piano or an Upright Piano? You will need to consider carefully its use. For home use, teaching, at a venue and many others.
  3. Quality – This applies when inspecting prospective instruments. We would suggest checking for rust on the iron frame, cracks in the wood (particularly the soundboard) and the condition of the strings.

These are to name just a few of the important features to consider. Your piano is one of the bigger investments you will make and like a car, you will intend for it to last and be with you for a long time. There is benefit to buying your piano from people with experience in these beautiful creations. Speak to someone who understands how important this instrument is going to be and who appreciates that it is going to be your personal creative outlet.


Coach House Pianos is our newest advertiser here on Music Matters Blog and we are grateful for their support of the online music education community! If you are interested in finding out more about how you can promote your company, event, or product, just send me an e-mail and I’ll let you know about our advertising packages.

Monday Mailbag – Year-End Evaluations

A number of people have commented and/or asked questions about the Year-End Evaluations that I hold in my studio. I started doing this ten years ago and it has been so helpful for me and the families! The last lesson of the year one or both parents attend the lesson with their child. The week before this, I send home a Parent Questionnaire and a Student Questionnaire, and I complete a Year-End Student Evaluation. I tweak the questionnaires a bit each year so that I get input and feedback from the parents and students on specific issues. (You can click the above links to download copies of this year’s forms.)

Conducting these evaluations does take a considerable amount of time as I consider each student’s progress and evaluate where they are in different musical areas. But the results of my own time spent doing this and recommending specific goals and ideas for the future, along with the responses on the questionnaires from the parents and students, has proved to be invaluable as I work on a theme and lesson plans for the following year. I highly recommend giving this a try in your studio if you haven’t already! If you conduct Year-End Evaluations in your studio, I’d love to hear what you include and what’s been most helpful to you.

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Monday Mailbag – How to Raise Tuition Fees

I have not raised my rates since I began teaching in 2007.  I charge a flat monthly rate, and am considering increasing each month’s payment by $5 starting in Sept.  I find myself worrying about how my families will react to this change, and how I’ll prepare to answer.  I am very involved with MTNA and my local chapter, which I was not 5 years ago, I have more resources at my finger tips, I attend conferences and workshops, and I earned NCTM… not to mention inflation, and the fact that I recently got married and have a hungry husband to feed every day!  I don’t want to go into too many details, but want to stay professional.  Would it be easier if I just increased monthly tuition by a dollar every year?  How do you handle this?  Any advice?

Continuing in the same vein as the last two weeks with a business-related question, I though this one seemed particularly apropos for this time of year as we evaluate and implement changes in our policies for next fall. I’m sure there are lots of different ways to go about raising rates, but I personally think that a brief statement with a reminder of the studio benefits is probably sufficient.

As much as it’s tempting to want to give long-winded explanations (a.k.a. apologies) for rate increases, as you alluded to, the professional approach is to assume that families will understand the rising costs and place enough value on the services and education they are receiving from you to be completely fine with it. A $5/month increase per month seems very reasonable in light of what you are providing for your students. You might want to read this post on Three Simple Questions to Help You Figure Out What to Charge For Lessons for additional ideas. I also encourage you to read the comments on Do Independent Music Teachers Get Sick Days? and Determining Monthly Tuition for some fabulous perspectives from other teachers!

In case it’s helpful, here’s some sample verbiage that I’m using in my studio update this week to inform families about the new studio rates:

The rate for lessons will be increasing from $__/month to $__/month effective September 1, 2012. This will continue to include weekly private 45-minute lessons as scheduled, participation in all studio group classes, recitals, and creative projects, access to the studio lending library, use of studio technology, and opportunity for involvement in many other community festivals and competitions.

If anyone else has input on how to raise tuition rates in your studio, please feel free to offer suggestions!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Monday Mailbag – Do Independent Music Teachers Get Sick Days?

Though I don’t like hanging on to the per lesson price part of my plan, I don’t see a way around it to be fair to the parents if I have to miss a lesson.  Do you ever have to miss a lesson, Natalie, anyone?  What do you do?

Last week’s Monday Mailbag post on Determining Monthly Tuition got a lot of great feedback, including the above question. I purposely titled the post “Do Independent Music Teachers Get Sick Days?” because this is how we really need to think about the question. We have to keep in mind that we are business owners employing ourselves, so it’s imperative to consider what benefits we should include in our policies. If we were working for another school or organization, we would probably expect to get a certain amount of time for vacation and sick days. Since we are our own employers, we should figure out a way to incorporate those into our payment plan. This has been a really helpful perspective to keep in mind over the years as I’ve established my studio and set policies in place.

My approach is pretty simple. I just state in my policies that I reserve the right to cancel one additional non-scheduled week off each semester. This is to be done at my discretion, however, I’ve only used it a couple of times – once when I traveled out of the country, and once when I was sick. If I don’t take that time off, the student benefits from an extra lesson that semester, which is usually what happens. Also, because most of the teachers in my area still offer makeup lessons of some sort, I keep my rates a little lower to compensate for the fact that I don’t offer makeups for missed lessons.

Are there any other thoughts or perspectives on building room for vacation, personal, and sick days into your schedule? What has worked well in your studio?

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Monday Mailbag – Determining Monthly Tuition

After the past few months of lost income due to students canceling lessons for injuries, soccer games, vacations, etc., I am realizing how wise you and other teachers are for charging monthly tuition rather than per-lesson fees! Switching to such a policy for this fall is top on my priority list, but I am curious about one thing: how do you handle monthly tuition when students have different lesson lengths? Do you charge one tuition for everyone, or is it dependent on length of lessons?

Glad you are finally seeing the light! Unfortunately, most of us have to learn the hard way. Having a parent call a few minutes after their lesson is supposed to start to say they can’t make it because they are at the mall shopping and lost track of time makes you start re-evaluating your business practices real quick! [True story, by the way…]

The only lesson times I offer are 45-minute and 1-hour. I charge a different flat monthly rate for each of those and the families pay accordingly. I’ve been offering 45-minute lessons as the minimum now in my studio for many years and I can’t imagine teaching 30-minute lessons. You can read a post I wrote several years ago about How to Transition to Longer Lessons.

Some teachers pro-rate longer lessons, but it makes more sense to me to charge the same base rate and just bill the family based on whether they opt for the 45-minute lessons or something longer. Some teachers actually prefer to charge by the semester, which I think is a great option as well. For now, the monthly seems to work best for my studio. As you’re switching over to this new tuition model, you might want to check out another post I wrote on Three Simple Questions to Help You Figure Out What to Charge for Lessons.

I would love to have input from other teachers on this important subject as well, especially those who have made the transition from per lesson fees to monthly or semester tuition!

Remember, if you have a question you’d like to contribute to next week’s Monday Mailbag, leave it in the comments below or send me an e-mail sometime this week with Monday Mailbag in the subject line!

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Part Three: Plan a Systematic Approach

From the moment we set our snowboards down on the powder, it was obvious that our instructor had a clearly laid out plan for teaching us. He gave descriptive explanations and walked us through each step, familiarizing us with the board and what we should expect from the class. This was an incredible confidence-booster and helped us quickly trust him for the direction we needed.

Similarly, an organized music teacher, with established studio guidelines and a systematic teaching approach will promote an attitude of confidence and trust in her studio families. One of the best things I started doing years ago was conducting student interviews for prospective students and their parents. The interview includes a time of getting to know the student, assessing their musical aptitude and skills, and having the parent complete a questionnaire (the forms I use can be downloaded for free on the Student Interviews post). When the family arrives at the studio for their interview, I always have the questionnaire, a media release form, and one of my studio business cards affixed to a clipboard and sitting on a chair. I have a separate interview and evaluation form on another clipboard that I use with the student. It’s amazing how even a little touch like this speaks volumes of your professionalism and builds confidence in your organization and excellence as a teacher! Establishing Clear-Cut Studio Procedures is a great first step for setting up a systematic approach to the business-side of studio operations.

Then there’s the teaching side. As independent music teachers we have the freedom and flexibility to use a variety of teaching methods and approaches according to what we think is best for each student. On the flip side there is also the potential for a teacher to completely wing it and never establish any semblance of organization in his teaching methods. When I first started teaching, I definitely belonged to the latter group. Thankfully, God brought many experienced teachers into my life to help me “see the light” and guide me toward resources that have been invaluable! By far, the greatest asset to my teaching structure has been our state Music Progressions curriculum. It is a 10-level program that outlines skills a student should have in performance, keyboard facility, applied theory, rhythm, sight-playing, listening, and written theory. Local associations hold evaluation days during the spring semester so that students can participate at their various levels and be evaluated by another teacher. Even though I don’t require my students to participate in this evaluation, the curriculum provides a wonderful framework for working with students and making sure that they receive a well-rounded music education.

Many states have a similar curriculum and there are even some that are available on a national level. If you’ve never used a leveled curriculum like this, I encourage you to get a copy of one somewhere and study it in great detail. Then start using it with your students. The best thing you can do is arm yourself with the knowledge of where you want to take your students and how you can get them there one step at a time. It’s inevitable that everyone will have gaps here and there in their education, music and otherwise, but the more organized your thinking and teaching is, the more likely your students are to have the confidence and skills to succeed!

Read the rest of the Teaching Tips from Snowboard School series: Introduction | Part One: Be a Pro | Part Two: Give Students a Vision of Success

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Part Two: Give Students a Vision of Success

When I first fastened my boots onto the snowboard, the prospect of whizzing down the slopes like the other snowboarders I had observed for years propelled me forward. From my experience years ago, though, I learned that the gap between where I want to be and where I actually am can quickly seem insurmountable (i.e. lofty visions of expert maneuvering don’t survive long when every turn ends in a faceplant…:-)) . I’ve experienced the same phenomenon with numerous students – their view of where they want to be musically is so far beyond their current level that they soon lose hope of achieving success. But what they really need is someone to give them a realistic vision of success.

Our instructor didn’t point to the proficient boarders at the top of the mountain and tell us to imagine ourselves traversing the mogul-covered double-black diamond trails. Instead he pointed to the gently sloping greens and said that by the end of the day we’d feel comfortable making our way down them. Now that was something I could believe and work toward! Oh sure, I still watched every snowboarder intently, but my focus now was on learning from their examples so that I could reach my immediate goal – making it down the lower mountain slopes intact.

So, how do we do this for our students? First, we have to have a clear vision in our own minds of our students’ potential. Start by picturing your students ten years from now. What will they be like? What will they be capable of doing on their instrument? How will they be using their musical skills? Now picture them a year from now. What image comes to mind? Will they have acquired better musical skills and participated in enriching musical experiences? How will they be different then from their lesson last week?

Once we – the teacher – have a vision, the purpose and direction of each lesson will take on new meaning. When we point to the experts as a model (via YouTube, recordings, or live recitals) it’s not to set our students up with the expectation of being like them, but so that they can apply what they observe to their more immediate goals and difficulties. This vision also encourages us to be more intent on teaching concepts than on simply making corrections in a given piece of repertoire. Confused expressions will give rise to more creative approaches as we develop methods for helping students overcome obstacles. Students are contagiously infused with a greater sense of purpose in their musical studies, but it also gives us a foundation from which to project, “by this time next month I think you will have mastered the dotted quarter note-eighth note rhythm” or “you’ll be playing every Major pentascale flawlessly by the end of the year” or “you’ll be ready to start learning some of Beethoven’s early compositions if you continue on this track,” etc.

I have seen this element of our Year-End Evaluations (click here for the free downloadable forms) build excitement and renewed interest in students many times, but as I consider this I’m reminded of the importance of approaching every lesson with that same forward-thinking mindset. And I’m excited about the prospect of doing a better job painting this vision of success for each of my students in the weeks ahead.

Read the rest of the Teaching Tips from Snowboard School series: Introduction | Part One: Be a Pro

Do You Keep a Studio Journal?

I’ve been an avid journaler since before I turned 10. And at least three of the pedagogy courses I took required some form of journaling. Perhaps that’s why I made a point years ago to start a studio journal of sorts. There are probably a variety of ways one could use a studio journal, but I’ve opted to use mine to record memorable and/or humorous remarks made by students. I usually jot these down on a piece of note paper right after they occur and then transfer them over to the journal later. As I was going through some files I came across one where I had recorded a few such student remarks. Reading this one brought back such a great memory, and I thought you all would get a kick out of it, too :-):

While playing his Christmas song, Luke came to one point and stopped to figure out the correct note. I was proudly observing that he appeared to be mentally working through the staff notes to figure out the correct one when I heard him say, “Hmm…what would sound good with ‘is’?”

~November, 2009

So I’m curious…do any of you keep a studio journal? What do you use it for? Do you record memorable remarks from students?

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Part One: Be a Pro

Like I mentioned in my Introduction to this series last week, I think the instructor we had in Snowboard School was one of the best on the slopes. The interesting thing to me was that he knew it and wasn’t shy about “tooting his own horn.” Many people are afraid of coming off as arrogant, so they wouldn’t think of extolling their own virtues to prospective or current students. And then there are those who use their own personal accomplishments to compensate for continued growth and excellence in their field. Neither of these are a helpful attitude for building a successful studio.

Here’s something that hit me a while back: not only can you be really, really good in your field and still not know the answer to the things your students and/or their parents ask you, having an attitude of still learning and developing expertise in your field is one of the marks of someone who is really, really good. Being a pro involves acknowledging the extent of your own expertise and also taking advantage of opportunities to continue learning and advancing.

Here are three specific tips for how to Be a Pro:

1. Know Your Subject – nothing can take the place of real knowledge. True confidence is not something that can be fabricated; it is the result of intentional study and investment in your field. If you are teaching general music or an instrument, take time to learn as much as possible about music theory and history. Study various educational philosophies and teaching methods. Be able to share stories about different composers. And when you are whole-heartedly investing your time and energy to educate yourself, you will be confident enough to admit when you don’t know information or have an answer for something. For musicians, knowing their subject usually also involves being skilled on an instrument. The better you play, the better your students will play. Play often and learn new repertoire (even if it’s the repertoire your advanced students are working on!) so that you can address potential problem areas, share practice tips, and…commiserate with your students about the woes of tackling and overcoming difficulties. 🙂

2. Gain Experience – be open to lots of different avenues for teaching, performing, and being involved in the music community. Our snowboard instructor began his teaching on the east coast, then migrated west and taught at multiple ski resorts. Each place brought him into contact with new people and helped him gain valuable insights into what was effective teaching-wise on a broad scale. On the east coast, the beginner class was only an hour and a half; in the mountains of Colorado the beginner class is an all-day affair. If he was able to turn out successful snowboarders in an hour and a half, you better believe he had some sure-fire tips for quickly improving your skill level on the board! In the same way, a teacher who incorporates group classes, private lessons, duo sessions, distance learning, special workshops, mentoring relationships, and more will probably become more of a pro than the one who restricts himself to only one mode of teaching. Every avenue provides the impetus to communicate more clearly, interact on new levels, and fine-tune teaching skills to meet the needs of many types of students.

3. Market Yourself as a Professional – don’t undersell yourself. Whether it’s via a personal website, in conversations with new acquaintances or friends, or in gatherings with other professionals, the way you carry yourself will dictate how others treat you. If you love what you do and believe that the work you are doing is meaningful, communicate that with both body language and the words you use. It’s not mere semantics to answer an inquiry as to what you do as “I run a music studio” instead of “I’m a piano teacher.” If you are serious about the importance of your teaching, be convincing! You should want every person you meet to leave their conversation with you with a greater appreciation for the impact of music on culture, its important role in the lives of people, and an interest in becoming more involved on a personal level (i.e. they should want to do whatever it takes to become a part of your studio!). Idealistic? Probably, but that’s my preferred perspective on life. 🙂

In essence, being a pro puts you in a position to inspire others to take up what you’re teaching for themselves. Does it work? Well, it may not be a no-fail guarantee, but I do know that our snowboard pro converted me to snowboarding for life!

Read the rest of the Teaching Tips from Snowboard School series: Introduction

Teaching Tips from Snowboard School – Introduction

Last week my family and a couple of friends and I headed up to the slopes of Summit County, Colorado for our annual ski trip. After many years of skiing, several of us thought it would be a great adventure to give snowboarding a try. This was actually my second attempt at the new sport. Some other friends and I tried it about 10 years ago, but…well, let’s just say it didn’t take. 🙂

This time was an entirely different story. And I’m pretty sure I know why. Last time we grabbed our boards, managed to take our seats on the lift, and disembarked in a less-than-graceful fashion at the top. We then tumbled and crashed our way down the mountain with nothing but a backside full of bruises and sore wrists to show for it at the bottom. In contrast, last Monday, by the time the lifts closed in the afternoon, I had completed two successful runs down the mountain and was quickly getting the hang of the techniques required to be a good snowboarder. The difference? Snowboard School.

After my failed experience a decade ago, I determined that if I was to ever try snowboarding again I would enroll in lessons instead of going at it on my own. We had one of the best instructors on the slope (in my opinion) and I took lots of mental notes of his teaching approach so that I could relate it to my own teaching and better identify with beginning students in my studio. I learned so much from the experience that I feel like I could almost write the whole trip off as a business expense. Almost. 🙂

In light of that, I’ve decided to put together a 10-part series here on Music Matters Blog: Teaching Tips from Snowboard School. Check back every Thursday morning for each installment of the series. I hope this will be helpful to new and experienced teachers alike as we all strive to be excellent teachers so that our students will become successful musicians and have a lot of fun in the process!