Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Payment and Cancellation Policies

Back in March, I wrote a post about how we handle student payments and policies about attendance (Collecting the Benjamins). Because of the interesting responses from teachers, I thought it would be good to review two aspects of this subject again–payment policies and cancellation policies, and to summarize teacher responses. We would all appreciate it if you would be willing to “add a comment” at the end of this post, reflecting on your own thoughts and experiences. This is one topic we all deal with and are happy to learn more about from other experienced teachers. Below are summaries of responses from teachers writing about the earlier post, as well as ideas from my own experience.

(By the way, thanks to Valerie for her recent comment about the Music Ace free demo; see her comment at the end of the post about Online Music Games.)

1. Payment policies.

Betty: Teaches a year-round schedule and students either pay annually, semi-annually, quarterly, or if monthly, she divides the annual rate into 10 parts and they pay this amount monthly for 10 consecutive months. Students can leave with 30 days notice.

Jan: Charges a flat monthly rate based on the number of lessons in a school year divided by the number of months. It’s basically a tuition payment rather than directly relating the payments to the number of lessons in a given month.

Tina: Students pay for the lessons in each month at the first lesson of each month. She has Music Teachers Helper send invoices the first of each month, which works for most students; some need reminders.

Toby: His students pay monthly tuition.

Joe: Requires signed agreement and payment in advance.

Mine: I teach in two places currently. One place has people sign up for a semester (though some people manage to sign up for less); they pay the office and the office pays me based on lessons taught. Students can withdraw before the 5th lesson; otherwise they are committed for the semester. In the other location, students pay me directly, either 4 lessons at a time, or they pay at the first lesson of the month for the whole month. Student commitment is monthly; unfortunately, someone could drop lessons at the beginning of any month.

2. Cancellation policies.

Betty: With 24 hours notice, she’ll keep the payment but reschedule the lesson. There are 40 lessons in a year, and if they miss some or can’t reschedule, they lose those lessons.Jan: No refunds or rescheduling for missed lessons. She explains that student tuition pays not only for reserving the lesson time she spends with students, but also for her prep time and overhead costs. Interestingly, she never talks with students about money–she uses MTH invoices and reminders, and everyone pays their bills (though not always on time).

Tina: With 24 hours notice a lesson can be cancelled without payment; she encourages but does not require rescheduling. Recognizing that sickness, traffic, etc., can get in the way, she allows students to reschedule lessons missed with less than 24 hours notice, but payment is charged at the time of the missed lesson, and the makeup must be scheduled within 30 days. No-shows are charged and not offered makeup lessons.

Toby: He views student payments as monthly tuition, and allows no more than one makeup lesson every 30 days. If 24 hours cancellation notice is given by the student, he will offer a makeup time, as available, within 2 weeks of the cancelled lesson. If available makeup times are not workable for the student, or if more than one lesson is missed in a 30-day period, the lesson is forfeited.

Mine: I teach at one location which allows 1 excused absence per term, with 24 hours notice; all other absences are to be paid for. In reality, teachers are flexible on an individual basis, and with 24 hours notice, I normally schedule a makeup or postpone the lesson until the end of the term. At my other teaching location, 24 hours notice is also required to avoid payment for a missed lesson, but I balance good will against strict policy–if a student has a good reason not to come and if their lesson time is at a time not in great demand, sometimes the good will of allowing the student “off the hook” for the missed lesson can be less stress for all, and can cement a long-term student, rather than a fight over money and possibly losing a student or creating tension. I don’t have much tolerance for repeat offenders, however, because that leads to more stress and distraction from the learning process.

Please at your comment below! We’d all like to hear about your experiences!

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]


  1. Sherie

    I e-mail all of my parents invoices. I usually get 100% payments the first week of the month. I have make-up days at the end of the semester. I also do not give make-ups for “no-shows” or if they do not call 24 hours in advance. That is in my policy and now they just know that is how it is. Everything runs smoothly and fairly.

  2. Toby Fairchild

    Tuition Policy: Revisited:

    I am frequently asked by a number of my colleagues about my tuition policy. They are interested in how they, too, can implement such a policy of their own. This is usually due to lesson payment woes. Some are uneasy with as stern a policy as mine, but most recognize a huge need for change in the way they handle their policy with regard to absenteeism. On the one hand they like my policy and wish to use it, but on the other they are afraid to implement it. When I ask them why they would be uneasy about making use of such a policy, they say that they are afraid of the reaction of their students/parents. They are afraid that a student or two might be offended by having a more restrictive policy. More restrictive usually means, more restrictive than their current policy…which usually is NO POLICY AT ALL, unfortunately. So, I am posting some advice in PRESENTING your updated policy to your students, should you choose to get a better handle on tuition. Maybe as we enter spring, it’s time to do a little spring cleaning in our lesson finances. This article is designed to help you if you should encounter any questions/resistance from students while you’re putting into place a tuition policy that really looks out for your best interest as well as theirs.

    If you have a high tolerance for losing money then read no further. This article will not be useful to you. If on the other hand you want to be able to, with relative certainty, budget your lesson income each month then this just might be for you.

    First of all present the new, firmer policy in writing… in person. Present the policy with a smile as a “Win-Win” for both you and the student. The student wins because they are now assured that the teacher is of the highest quality. A teacher that takes their students, profession and business seriously enough to ask (in writing) to be treated the same as any other professional in any other field. We are professionals, aren’t we? Then ask in writing (i.e. a policy), to be treated as such, and it goes without saying….conduct yourself and business as such. You win because you will get paid irrespective of whether students decide to show up or not this week, thus your time will be respected as any other professional’s would be. If you link your paycheck to whether or not your students show up to lessons, you are in for a world of financial pain. The only question that will remain is what will be your tolerance for that pain. Only you can answer that one.
    Here is the way I respond to objections to my policy. I only hear these objections once every blue moon, but enough that I know how to handle them.

    Here’s the most common question/objection:

    Parent: “What if we miss a couple of lessons in the month of ________. Do we still have to pay for the full month?”

    Me: “Absolutely.”

    Parent: “I would rather not have to pay for the lessons we don’t get” or: “Why can’t we just pay for the lessons we come to?”

    Vacation Response:
    “I can certainly understand that, Mr./Ms. ______. No one likes to pay for services they don’t receive, do they. (Answer: No). May I ask you a question? Did you take a vacation last year? (Answer: Yes) Did you ask your mortgage company to not charge you for the two weeks you were not able to enjoy your home because you were away. (Answer: No) Of course not. What if your car is in the repair shop for a week? Does your car note get pro-rated because you were not able to actually drive the car for a week? (No). What about your other child in college. If she gets sick and misses 4 days of classes does the university cut you a check back for the days she didn’t actually attend classes. (No) Certainly not any college I ever heard of anyway. My point is that no respectable financial arrangement is handled in the manner in which you propose. Do you consider my lesson practice any less respectable than the others I’ve mentioned? (Answer: No, no … certainly not.) You don’t, great. Then did you want to pay for today’s lesson today or should I just include it on your invoice which will be sent in a few days? END.

    It really doesn’t matter which alternative they choose. Either choice they make conveys a willingness to move forward past this matter and signifies that they understand and are in agreement of your policy. Also by finishing with an “alternate of choice” question, you diffuse any possible tension and re-route the conversation back on track in a positive manner. It is important to note that these responses should be delivered pleasantly with a smile, and not in a rude or condescending manner. After all the prospective student/parent merely wishes to gain understanding, so be pleasant when using these examples. Also when hearing a student/parent’s problem with your policy WAIT until they are finished talking and be genuinely empathetic to their feelings. Even though, with your long experience teaching, you know exactly what they are going to say….NEVER cut them off in order that you may talk. Let them completely air out their feelings before you respond. Be forewarned, if you cut them off and start into your responses without really listening to them first (even though you know where they’re going with their objection…and you’ve heard this and handled it a thousand times), you will soon be arguing rather than persuading. In that scenario, everyone loses.

    Soda Response:
    “For the same reason I can’t go to the convenience store and buy one third of a soft drink. It comes packaged in a plastic bottle and is sold by the bottle. If, by chance, the clerk let you open a bottle of soda and take 5 sips and only charged you for what you drank, could he then sell what soda is left? (Answer: I guess not). Of course not. Nobody else wants someone else’s leftovers. The same is true of lesson slots. Almost all new students want to receive a MONTH’S worth of lessons, not the few lessons in a given time slot that are left over from another student’s absences. Your unused and unpaid for lesson slots then become useless to everyone. You see, even though you would pay for the times you came to a lesson, you would render all the other time slots you decided not to come, unsellable, much like the scenario with the store clerk and the soda. It would cost me a fortune to keep you on as a student under those circumstances and that would be really unfair to me. Does that make sense? (Answer: Yes). It does? Great. Would Thursdays be better suited for you or would Tuesdays?” End

    You may from time to time hear a suggestion like this:

    Parent: “Couldn’t you just use the lessons we miss for make-ups or something for your other students?”

    Me: “I could, but In order to earn a living, I need to generate actual income with the limited time slots that I have to offer. I don’t get paid any money for make-ups. They are a courtesy that I extend for which I do not charge. If, however, I charged full price for a make-up time slot, then it wouldn’t really be a make-up, then would it?” (Answer: NO)… You can see how that scenario wouldn’t really be useful to me, can’t you? (Answer: Yeah, I guess so). Great. Then did you want to pay for today’s lesson today or should I just include it on your invoice which will be sent in a few days? END.

    Boss Response:

    “Suppose you went to work every day. Sometimes your boss would be there and sometimes not. What if your boss decided that no matter how many hours you were at your place of employment (at hours you were scheduled to be there under the terms of your employment) that he was only going to pay you for the time that he himself was actually on site at the workplace. If he was only there two hours that day, and you were there 8 hours, you would only be paid for two hours…the hours that the boss was actually there. How long would you work there? Like most of us, you’d probably quit immediately because no reasonable person would work under such conditions, would they (Answer: No)….and neither will I. Does that make sense? (Answer: Yes). Great, did you want an e-mail invoice or regular mail? “ END.

    “I also take lessons” Response:
    “I too take lessons occasionally and once in a while something I deem more important comes up than my scheduled lesson for that week. When that happens I call my teacher and I cancel the lesson as soon as I’ve decided to be absent. Then I go do whatever I need to do, but I still pay my teacher because that was my decision to miss, and my teacher should not suffer financially because I had something else to do. I have no problem paying for a lesson I did not receive as long as it was my decision not to attend. If the teacher can’t be there for my lesson, then that’s another story. Does that make sense? (Answer: Yes). It does, Great. Did you want an e-mail invoice or regular mail?” END.

    Not every policy is right for every teacher or situation, certainly. But at some point you have to look out for yourself and make sure that your time is respected and not abused. It’s funny but my policy would not really be necessary for most of my students. The majority ‘get it’ already. But for the ones that don’t, I have to make sure that it is spelled out explicitly so there is no misunderstanding. Also a well drawn policy is a breeze to present upon first signing up a student (when no tuition problems or bad habits yet exist). But if you wait until problems surface to pull out your policy, you have an uphill battle…whether you are right or wrong. So it’s important, whatever your policy is to present it with a smile 1) in writing, 2) in person and 3) at your first meeting. Also enforce your policy with regularity and you will find that soon you will not need to enforce it much at all.

    I hope some of these ideas might prove useful for some of my fellow teachers out there. Feel free to e-mail me with any comments or questions. Although, I give and review my policy with every one of my private students, I do not post my tuition policy publicly on my website, as it would serve no purpose in attracting new students. Having said that, for those of you interested in taking a look at my policy, I would be happy to send any teacher a .pdf of it. You may look it over and use any of it you might find helpful and discard any of it that’s not particularly useful to you.

    -Toby Fairchild
    Private Percussion Teacher
    Roberson’s Music
    Fredericksburg, VA

  3. Chris Hoovler

    Great work and very well thought out. I especially liked the mortgage and car payment analogies! You really have it together.


  4. John Darden

    I teach at a local music store and did some research recently on my attendance for the past several months. I found that of the 1,059 lessons that were scheduled, the students only showed up for 714. Which means they missed 345.

    In other words, my students show up only 67% of the time. So one out of 3 lessons scheduled, is not given.

    So let’s say I charge $20 per lesson. With 1,059 lessons, that comes to $21,180. But, if I charge only when they show up, I only make $14,280. So basically I lose $6,900.

    Before I did this research, I thought my attendance was much better than that. Has anyone else really looked at their records?

    The reason I’m posting this is that of the payment and cancellation policies listed by Mr. Pearlman, how do we know which one is most effective?

    The only way to really know is by looking at the historical records of their effectiveness.

    I encourage teachers not only to post what their methods are, but how effective they are, using historical data.

    If we all share our experiences, then I think everyone can benefit from it.

    I would really appreciate any feedback on this.

  5. Ed Pearlman

    John, I checked with one fellow teacher who said last year his cancellations were close to 40%, and this year somewhere around 25-30%. He recently spoke of the idea of charging a flat monthly rate with no cancellations, allowing sometimes 5 lessons in a month, and other times 3 if there’s a holiday or someone is sick or on vacation.

    I find that a hard one to sell because people like paying for what they get, and distrust plans that they suspect (rightly) to be engineered in someone else’s favor.

    Another teacher here allows 3 cancellations every 6 months, and when someone uses up their allowance, they have to forfeit payment when they cancel for any reason. Food for thought.

  6. Ms Jane

    I found your discussion on Cancellation Policys refreshing.
    Its such a shame that we need to do this..
    I am going to reinforce the policy, AGAIN.
    I myself have problems with the younger generation being to confident in there ways of cancellation, I have a test, I need to study, I have an assesment due.. etc.. Therefore I cant attend class today..
    The parents are trying to put forward a sence of responsibilities, but cancellation policys do apply when they parents are paying for the lessons.
    How do you handle situations like these without upsetting my income loss and the students?
    I like the response with taking lessons myself as a new idea.

    Thanks Again

  7. Toby Fairchild

    Just to clarify for those who missed my original posting: I DO offer make-up lessons for properly cancelled lessons by a student. I do limit it (normally) to one per month and it is subject to available times in my schedule. I DO NOT allow absences by a student to go unpaid for or get pro-rated. I prefer to offer a make-up lesson and keep my income steady rather than take a financial hit every time a student cancels. That wouldn’t be fair to me or be very repectful of my time. Some of you may have read my article above without having read my original posting. I think the offer of a make-up rather than pro-rating is a fair trade all around.

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