Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Collecting the “Benjamins”

Below are several situations I’m sure you’ve had to face–about ways to collect lesson payments, including for missed or cancelled lessons–I look forward to your ideas and hope you find these thoughts of interest.

Six or 7 years ago, someone introduced me to the expression, “it’s all about the Benjamins.” I suppose it wasn’t obvious to me because I almost never have an occasion to notice whose face is on the hundred-dollar bill, but yes, it’s Ben(jamin) Franklin.

Business people are sometimes stereotyped as cold-cash-minded, but really, any way you make a living is a business. As in any business, music teachers have to attract and keep students (“customers”), collect money, and pay the bills.

Of course, most musicians don’t go into music thinking “it’s all about the Benjamins.” In fact, popular wisdom says that there’s only one way for a musician to end up with a million dollars: start with 2 million!

But we have to learn about collecting money consistently and with respect, and setting up policies that are reasonable but make for good relations. How would you handle some of these situations?

A student called me today to say her son is sick. Policies say she should pay for his lesson because she gave less than a day’s notice. It did create a hole in my schedule but this parent is ostentatious about her poverty and yet considers lessons important enough to pay for them. Would you charge her for the lesson?

A student is sick and worries about having to pay for the day’s lesson if they miss it. Would you recommend the student stay home and pay, stay home and not pay, or come in sick?

A student calls the day before a lesson and wants to cancel because he doesn’t feel he’s practiced enough and feels unprepared. What do you say to that? (I feel that if they’re always unprepared, then maybe this isn’t for them; but if they’re occasionally unprepared, then a lesson is just what they need to get on track–there’s more to a lesson than just reviewing an assignment.)

Some teachers prefer not to handle student money directly, and work through institutions such as community music schools. But even then, the teacher may be required to chart when lessons are taken, and must therefore decide whether to charge for a missed or cancelled lesson.

Are you more flexible with students who come to lessons at low-demand hours–for example 10:30am or 1:30pm, than with those who are scheduled at peak hours–after school or after work? (If a student is first or last, or gives me a break in a packed day, their cancellation just gives me some time I can make use of, and I’m more inclined to bend the rules. If I have people clamoring for a time, say at 6pm, and someone is being unreliable at that time, it’s much easier to be strict with the policies for them.)

Some teachers offer a flat-rate plan per semester, and hold students responsible for scheduling makeups if they can’t come to a lesson. Some allow payments by the month for this; some take credit card numbers so as to charge the students if payments are late. (This can easily risk losing the good will of some students, however.)

Music Teacher’s Helper allows invoices to be emailed and paid for via PayPal. Have you used this feature?

Do you charge students for lessons on the day of the first lesson they owe for, or do you have them pay in advance of their lessons (e.g., pay for next month’s lessons on the last lesson of the previous month)? (I find it hard to require them to pay in advance, but do require a month or 4 lessons be paid at a time. No IOUs! There’s an ATM a few doors away if needed.)

Do you offer a discount if students pay more lessons in advance?

What happens if the teacher is late to a lesson? What if you arrive 10 minutes late, and the student says he was there on time but left after waiting 5 minutes?

Is it most effective to have a clear policy with no deviations, so everyone knows where they stand? Or is it better to show some flexibility–does this build longer-term relationships? What about teachers who guilt-trip students by emphasizing that they are entitled to a regular income? (My daughter had a music teacher who so insisted that she was deserving of a regular income that I–a music teacher myself–felt like saying, “But you chose to be a music teacher. Surely you knew what you were getting into?”)

I look forward to hearing some of your views on these issues. Thanks to Anna Lisa for her comments on using the ClickForLessons website to help students find her studio. See her comments at the end of the Finding Students for You article.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

6 Comments

  1. Simon

    I had a not particularly great adult student who cancelled a lesson at 1 day’s notice and rescheduled it for the following week. I didn’t charge her. The next week, she failed to turn up, and didn’t answer the phone when I called.

    I invoiced her by Paypal using my MTH account, reminding her at least three times before I gave up. She essentially disappeared, and never returned any of my messages or sent me payment for the lost time.

    And this was an adult student with a reasonably well paid job!

  2. Betty

    I’m fortunate to have been teaching a long time and have created my perfect policy from all the FAQ’s, problems I’ve encountered and corrected, and my “dream” studio ideas. It is printed in strong words and gives a very clear message about the student’s and the parent’s accountability to me. One of the best provisions happened when about 10 years ago 2 parents started giving me an annual check, others followed either semi-annually, or quarterly (13 weeks). Those paying monthly make 10 payments (equal amounts for 10 consecutive months)for receiving a year-round lesson schedule. When they miss a lesson I expect 24 hour notice, and I accept rescheduling for their convenience, but I don’t make up lessons missed. A years program includes receiving 40 lessons out of the 52 week year. A studio calendar shows when the studio is closed. If they want to maximize their number of lessons per year, they need to attend. When they have excessive absences, it is to their deficit, as the cost of the years tuition simply goes higher per lesson. I have a one hour annual charge, and a half hour annual charge. If they wish to terminate, they need to give me 30 days notice. I am thinking about putting into effect an exit conference so we can discuss what was accomplished during our time together, and work through the termination together – making sure it is a logical exit and not an emotional one. There are many ways to do intervention with a student who needs a break, or a change in teachers. We don’t want them to close the door on music lessons, we want to leave it open for their return.

    As to the unprepared students who would want to skip the lesson, we need to emphasize that they need this lesson more than normally. You can put into place better practice habits, time management, and try to help them identify why and how to fix their problem which is the unprepared problem. We also need to define if we are dealing with an excuse maker, a low achiever, a perfectionist, a procrastinator, an overloaded but well intentioned person, or someone who really doesn’t want to be here. There are different ways to handle each. It’s important to reduce the problems in the relationship or the teacher will always be bearing the load for the actions of unresponsible people.

    I’m interested in learning more about how other teachers effectively cover these problems which cause the student to expect special treatment for himself, and for the teacher to carry the burden.

    The business ($) end of piano teaching is an acquired skill. The relationship end is another area to define for yourself by setting rules in writing and setting policy of how you will treat a particular situation.

    The music content and music making are joys! Busy with present moment thinking, satisfaction, hopes for the future. This is where we flow! Taking care of all the other things that irritate us, allows our full participation in the joy!

    Betty

  3. Jan Christensen

    I charge a flat rate each month. The number of lessons during the school year (apprx 30 Sept-May)is multiplied by the lesson fee (say $15 x 30) and then the monthly tuition is found by dividing this $ by the 9 months. There is no refund for any sort of missed lesson because I charge ‘tuition’ which reflects not only the time I spend with students, but my prep time and overhead costs as well. This is super easy and works well (easy to explain also!) Unfortunately, there are a couple of families over the budget I suppose, because they don’t pay regularly but fortunately, MTH keeps a record of balance due.’ On the 15th of the month, I pull down the ‘manual invoice’ option and both email and print/mail a snail mail copy. I never talk with students about money. The reminders seem to be enough for most people and I receive the money. Hope this helps someone. I firmly believe in the tuition/no make-up flat fee policy. It has worked for me in my saxophone studio and in my marimba groups. Jan

  4. Tina

    We tend to be fairly flexible. With 24 hours notice, a lesson may be cancelled with no charge. (We always encourage a “reschedule” or make-up lesson rather than a cancellation when possible).

    Of course, things happen – people get sick, stuck in traffic, etc. – that don’t always allow 24 hours notice. With less than 24 hours notice, the lesson is charged at the regular rate and a makeup lesson may be taken within 30 days.

    “No show” lessons – where no notice was provided of the absence – are charged the regular lesson rate with no makeup.

    Parents and students seem to think this policy is fair.

    We charge per lesson, payable monthly on the first lesson of each month. I send out invoices from MTH on the first of each month. Not all students are great about paying on time and sometimes we have to remind them.

    The Paypal link on the MTH invoice is proving to be quite popular and several students who were slow payers are now using the link and paying promptly.

  5. Toby Fairchild

    I like Betty have been teaching for quite awhile and my policy also serves to correct common tuition problems. I do not pro-rate a students tuition for lessons missed by the student under any circumstances. I do however offer a make-up lesson for up to one lesson per 30 day period. In other words only 1 missed lesson per 30 day period will qualify to be considered for a makeup. Any missed lessons in excess of 1 per month are not considered for a make-up. I will search for and offer any open slots in my schedule up to two weeks past the date of the missed lesson. If the makeup times offered are not convenient or agreeable to the student, then the lesson is forefeited, as makeup lessons are not a guarantee or entitlement. The makeup slots are subject to availability of openings in my schedule. You don’t want makeup lessons “rolling-over” from month to month. Soon a student will be demanding that you owe them 7 makeup lessons from as far back as 8 onths ago. Multiply that times 50 or so students and you begin to see the dilemma. Also in order to “qualify” for a make-up, the lesson must be cancelled at least 24 hours in advance. My policy is on the more strict side, however, I’ve had very few, if any, complaints about it. In my opinion, it is better to have a strict policy in writing, thus deterring many problems, while still retaining the ability to “bend” the policy in favor of a student from time-to-time than having a wimpy policy and then trying to enforce rules in your favor that you don’t even have or at best are wishy-washy, on the backside. I have never lost a student because of my “iron clad” policy in 20 years of teaching and if I did lose a prospective student to it….I’m pretty sure that I wouldn’t want that student on roster anyway..so it’s a win/win. Anyhoo… that’s just the way I do it. To each his/her own.

  6. In response to Simon (Comment #1) with the Adult student that didn’t come back…I ask, Why did you schedule her without payment and signing an Agreement? If she didn’t show up and/or you don’t get paid for your lost time, it is your fault because you did not set the boundries. Just because it’s an Adult with a good job, doesn’t make them responsible. “Be clear from the beginning.” That is the only rule you need to follow.

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