Setting the Tone on the First Day

November 14th, 2012 by


When you perform a song, you know that first note is the most important. It sets the tone for the WHOLE song. If you blow it, the whole song is shot. Same goes for a concert. That opening number sets the tone for the WHOLE show. And what about the dynamics of that first section? Do you start off strong? Or soft and build up from there? Do you want your style to be perceived as contemporary or classical? There are a lot of factors to consider when you think about tone. So what about your teaching? What tone will you set on the first day with a new student? It is very similar to starting a song. The first day says everything about you. Are you strong? Funny? Strict? Laid back? Too laid back? Too strict?

Over the past several years, I have worked on my teaching style and have learned a lot from each new student. Everyone is different, and private instructions require a certain flexibility on the teachers part, but I have now realized that no matter who I am teaching, that first day says everything about me and how I expect the lessons to work. The first thing I must consider in setting tone is what kind of teacher I want to be perceived as. In marketing terms, I guess you would call this your “brand.” There are all kinds of teachers out there, and I have been a lot of them! The fun hippy laid back type (yeah– 10 minutes a day of practice is fine!) and have tried the super strict teacher (excuse me? you mean you didn’t practice even when you were sick??) and through lots of trial and error, I think I have landed on a good brand that works for a lot of people and still maintains the integrity that my classical teachers passed on to me. 

I don’t want to push my brand onto you. Every teacher is different and I actually like it that way. Some kids need a very strict and traditional teacher, while some need the hippy type until they are ready to get serious. Knowing who YOU are is important for setting the tone on that first day. Like I said, I’m not interested in pushing my agenda on you, but to help you understand how I do this, I will tell you about my brand and how I set the tone.

First of all, I have a classical background, so I expect kids to work. I don’t believe in NOT practicing. Or lazy practicing. Or short 5 minute practicing. In fact, you can probably already tell that this is something that really irritates me, but I have learned that I can’t get mad or show my frustration about this. Instead, I have learned to take a calm and unemotional approach to practice while addressing it from day one. More on that later. Second, I am currently a Pop musician who plays Jazz non-professionally in my free time. I have ventured far, far away from my roots and I love teaching contemporary music. And third, I want to have fun in my lessons just as much as they do. Music is FUN! And I get just as much out of the lessons as the kids, especially when we make up songs together.  And fourth, I will not tolerate disrespectful behavior. PERIOD.  That is the kind of teacher I am, and here is how I set the tone.


Whether you are in your own studio or someone else’s home, it is your job to make everyone feel at home. It goes without saying that you should smile and ask some personal questions about school and hobbies to get to know the student a bit. I like to joke around in that first meeting and ask them about their favorite songs and singers or TV shows, just to break the ice. Teachers are intimidating by nature, and I don’t want anyone to be scared of me. It’s important that the first impression is one of friendliness.


With that said, it is important that being friendly is not confused with being a doormat. I have found that sometimes a friendly teacher is equated with being easily manipulated. I now know that you can set a tone of being friendly and caring, while also having high expectations for your student. It’s called confidence. After the ice is broken and everyone feels comfy, it’s time to break out the rules and explain how the lessons will work. That will include any lesson rules or practice standards you have. This will require unapologetic confidence on your part. No negotiations on practice requirements or lesson fees are allowed, because you set a confident tone when you explain your policies.  If you have confidence about who you are, I have found that 99% of the time, the kids and parents develop a high amount of respect for you and you can get your job done efficiently.


I try to state my policies very clearly on the first day. I have a few rules that are important for my business to run smoothly and they must be stated on day one. First is my payment policies. Parents need to know that I expect to be paid on time and in full and that there is no wiggle room here. A lot of parents are great, but I have learned a few hard lessons over the years. Unfortunately, being a parent does not equal being a saint. I have been too loose with my policy more than once, and have paid the price (pun totally intended.) Make yourself clear and make sure you get paid.

With students, the most important topic to discuss is what is expected of them when they practice. I explain that practice is the the only way to ensure any success for them. I remove any emotion from the idea of practice, because some kids want to tell you their whole schedule as a way of getting out, to which I respond “Whether you practice or not does not matter to my feelings at all. I will not be mad at you if you don’t practice. I am just telling you what needs to be done in order to learn this instrument. If you don’t practice it will take you much longer to learn and it will be more frustrating. If you practice everyday, you will learn quickly and it will be more fun. But to me, your schedule is not an issue. You just have to find the time.”  I do my best to show zero annoyance at the negotiating tactics, and stick to sentiments in the above statement.  This approach has been the best so far!

So that’s it for me. What do you do to set the tone? Any tips for the rest of us?

Posted in Financial Business, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

About the Author

Bella Payne
While working on a degree in Sociology with plans to become a Social Worker, I fell into teaching piano lessons as a way to pay my bills. I had no idea I was stumbling into a totally fulfilling, creative and exciting career! Every day, I teach several students in their homes, in my home, and online how to play piano from scratch. Over the last 10 years, I have seen kids and adults go from timid b... [Read more]

Related Content