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All of Your Private Students Are Gonna Quit – Don’t Let Them

SAKURAKO - Piano lesson.

It’s a harsh reality that the private music students you’re teaching right now will not be the same students you’re teaching a year or two from now. Every business goes through it. In the recurring revenue business world we call it “churn”, that is what percentage of your students quit from period to period. If you don’t refill the coffers with new students, eventually you won’t have a studio left. But what if you could just reduce your churn? What if you could keep your students much longer?

I’ve connected thousands of students to music teachers over the years, and have heard every reason in the book for why the student has to quit. Don’t just accept it! You can have a lot of control over whether or not your students continue.

The First Lessons are the Most Important

You’ve probably noticed that you have a lot of fall off after one or two lessons with new students. Let’s talk numbers. About 32% of all students who take one lesson will not take a second lesson. That’s 1 in 3! Ouch. But beyond that how does it look? It actually gets worse. There is a 62% chance that you will never give a fifth lesson to any one student. That means if you get 10 new students only 4 of them will get a 5th lesson. And here’s the kicker. 85% of your students will never get a 10th lesson. What?! Yes, about 1.5 out of 10 will continue with you long term.

These are numbers from an aggregate of hundreds of teachers and thousands of students. Not all teachers, and not all students, are created equally of course. I’ll talk more about that in detail later in the post. What we need to understand from these numbers though is that you need to do something to keep these students past the first 9 lessons. Because guess what? The numbers after this get much much better. Students that take their 10th lesson have about a 70% chance to take a 50th lesson.

How to Get Students to the 10th Lesson

Over the years we have implemented strategies to help get more music students to the coveted 10th lesson. They have decreased our churn dramatically, and they’ll do the same for you.

1. Bill 10 Lessons Up Front

Seems crazy right? Before you give the first lesson, take payment for 10 or more. Will anyone do it? Yes! Here’s the deal. You can offer many different ways to pay. One lesson at the normal price, 5 lessons they get 5% off, and 10 lessons they get 10% off. You don’t have to follow these discounts exactly, the goal is to just offer them deals when they pay for more lessons.

The thing that was always holding me back from doing this is what if they DO end up quitting? Are you really going to take all their money? Well you could. But odds are the only students that will take you up on this offer are your students that have been around for years. That’s because they know they’re going to stick around. Someone who starts new doesn’t know that.

You’ll need to offer a money back guarantee. Yup if they don’t want to continue with you, you’ll refund every penny of unused credit they have. Unused is the key here.

You’re probably asking, “But wait, if I do that, everyone will do it and I’m just giving a free discount!” You got it! The goal is to get everyone to do it. If you get your student to the tenth lesson, you’ll make much more than you would lose by giving the discount.

Psychologically when a person pays for something, most people consider that money gone. They don’t really think of the possibility of it returning. Even if you offer the money back guarantee, a very small percentage of students will ask for a refund at all. I’ve seen students who wanted to quit, called me up and said “How much credit do I have left? We just want to finish that off first, Suzy just doesn’t like piano.” I tell them “You have 5 more lessons in credit.” You know what they say 90% of the time? “Ok we’ll take those 5 lessons, and be done.” All they would have to say at that point is, “give me a refund” and the money would be in their account. But they already paid for the lessons, so they take them.

The magical thing that happens almost every time, is that student ends up forgetting they called me at all, and they end up staying much longer. What’s the moral of this story? Have your students pay for as many lessons as possible up front!

2. Don’t Disappoint

Disappointment is the difference between expectations and reality. It’s our job as teachers to make sure no one is disappointed with their lessons. That can be a tall order, because a lot of parents are imagining that little Matthew is going to be the next Mozart without any practice. So what can we do? First find out exactly what the student is expecting, and become that teacher.

The Lesson Survey

Every teacher should send a new student a survey before the first lesson. You can create a simple free survey, and send it by email with Survey Monkey. Questions that you should consider asking are things like:

  • How strict do you want your teacher to be?
    • Very Strict – Make sure my kid practices!
    • Not too strict, but not too laid back
    • Completely laid back, this is just for fun!
  • What kind of music do you want your child to learn?
    • Only classical
    • Classical and popular music
    • No classical please!
  • How long has your child been playing for?
  • Do you already have teaching material you would like me to use? If so, please list the book titles.
  • How much do you think your child can practice every day?

You can come up with some more ideas, but that should get you started. You may ask, “Why make a survey? Why not just ask them over the phone?” One reason is professionalism. It’s pretty impressive to have a survey for all of your students ahead of time. Another very important reason is that students don’t really know how to answer some questions, and it may be uncomfortable to answer some questions like “How strict do you want me to be” over the phone. Make sure every answer is multiple choice, so they don’t have to think and actually write a response.

Now here’s the key: actually be the teacher the survey tells you to be! Are you typically strict? Well some students don’t respond well to that. Are you typically laid back? Some students respond to a strict teacher better. With the survey you’re not going in blind, and you can actually work with the students expectations, and not disappoint.

I can’t tell you how many times I got a call from a student saying their teacher was not a good match after the first lesson. When asked why, it’s almost always something the teacher could easily change on the second lesson. Unfortunately it’s too late. They don’t get the chance to, because the customers mind is already made. Find out what they want BEFORE you screw up.

3. Get the Parents Involved

All too often parents have no idea what is being taught in their kids lessons. I’m a strong believer that parents should be a part of every music lesson. If you have kids of your own, you know that almost all children do not have the patience and diligence to practice the way you told them to. They really need you there every day to help them. Well you can’t do that. But their parents can. If they know what you expect for practice, and you let the parents know they should help out, the students will progress much more quickly.

This will also make the parents feel they are a part of the lessons, so quitting the lessons would also feel like they are quitting themselves, and no one likes quitting.

4. Make Lessons Social

The word is private lessons, right? Yeah, most of us give private lessons, but the problem is that takes out social accountability. Do kids quit half way through their soccer season? Almost never. Why? There’s an accountability to the team and other parents. We need to build this into our lessons.

If you give lessons in your home or studio, have students play for each other at the beginning and end of their lessons. Make introductions between the kids and parents. This is also a great opportunity to have your students practice performing. They may even get inspired by other, perhaps more advanced, students.

Hold regular recitals. This is a great opportunity for parents to talk, and students to get to know each other better. Hold as many as you can!

Here is one quick little hack you should try for your winter recital. Have it the second week of January instead of the beginning of December. A lot of people leave for the holidays, and this way they’ll be more likely to take lessons with you through their time off, in preparation for the recital.

Find Good Students

The numbers I quoted earlier, are in aggregate. If you were to take the numbers of different types of students, you’ll see they are not all the same. If your studio is built mainly on referrals, then you’ll likely look at those numbers and say “Not MY studio!” That’s because referrals are the best kind of students. They have a degree of social obligation built in to taking lessons with you. If they quit, they have to tell their friend. That’s always awkward. Not only that, but obviously someone they know likes you, so odds are good they will too. What’s the best way to find referrals? Get more students! Once you have quite a few students, referrals from your current students will likely fill in the gaps of the students who quit.

Conclusion

Don’t think you’re done when you give the first lesson. Make sure you’re working diligently to be the best teacher you can be from the beginning. This will result in more referrals, and eventually the freedom you want for your music studio. What do you think? Are there any other ways you keep your students around longer? Please share in the comments!

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About the Author

Brian Jenkins
I'm a pianist, teacher, entrepreneur, and owner of YourMusicLessons. YourMusicLessons has now connected hundreds of teachers with thousands of students, and collectively we have taught tens of thousands of lessons. I've learned a lot from teaching, and making these connections. I'm now feverishly working on national expansion. I love sharing my journey, with both music, and entrepreneurship throug... [Read more]

5 Comments

  1. Marc

    If it’s helpful to anyone, my percentages of retained students are much much higher than the average mentioned in the article. It’s hard for me to say why because I’m not completely sure, but I think there are a few things I do that help keep people around. One is Music Teachers Helper adds another level to the whole learning experience. Getting lesson notes after each lesson, email reminders, convenient billing and payment options, being able to log practice times, etc. (Great job MTH!). Other things I do is treat my students like friends (which they are), I do movie nights for all my students so they can meet each other and hang out and feel more like a family. It’s also I think the little things like making sure the learning area is comfortable, spacious, quiet, and has a professional atmosphere. I think I’m a pretty good teacher after all these years, but it’s all the extras and the little things to go the extra mile that keep people around. I hear so many horror stories from students about past teachers that didn’t even remember their names when they came for lessons and had no lesson prepared at all. Treat your students like you really care about them and they will care about your business in return. One last thing: charge what you are worth! Too many teachers find themselves charging way to little in an effort to get more students. In my experience it backfires every time because if you price low you get all the people who aren’t serious about lessons and are likely to leave early. Charge what you are worth and get less students, but students that are serious about learning and stay with you for months or even years, it’s worth it.

  2. Brian Jenkins

    Some great advice! Sounds like you’re doing it right. I love the idea of having a movie night, it really includes that social aspect of lessons.

    One thing I didn’t really mention in the post is there are definitely teachers who are outliers. There are teachers that for whatever reason keep most of their students. You definitely seem like one of those teachers.

  3. Marc

    Thanks Brian! Great article, lots of really good points here, thanks for sharing it with us!

  4. Stephanie Larsen

    Here’s a tip I’ve learned over the years:
    To get to really know the piano, practice your scales. They really improve your dexterity and go hand in hand with theory. If you know what key you are in when you start a song, your fingers will “know” the sharps and flats and you will play without thinking too much.
    Work on your scales but don’t overdo it. Just work on them when you warm up. Play them a few times and move on. Don’t worry if it’s not perfect, you will get better.
    As one of my first piano teachers told me, play your scales slowly at first. You don’t need to play fast to get the benefit.
    Here are some more useful piano tips if you are interested: http://bit.ly/1OG2NKg

  5. Susy

    check it out!