Setting the Tone on the First Day


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?

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]


  1. Leia

    This is a great post! I absolutely agree that the tone should be set on the first day.

    I, too, come from a classical background and had quite a strict teacher for most of my life, but I don’t want to be too strict with my students. Even though I am mostly a pianist and piano teacher, most of my students are singers – and a lot of them are teenagers or adults. I have found that being the “hippy cool” teacher works better for people who are just wanting to learn how to sing as a fun hobby, but I also make sure they get a solid grounding in music theory as we go along.

    One area in which I am having quite a lot of difficulty is asserting myself in terms of payment and policies. I’m quite a young teacher (24, and just starting out with my private studio – I worked at a school before), and parents don’t always take me seriously. For example, it’s mid-November and I still haven’t received payment for lessons given in October, and I’m not sure how to put my foot down without seeming rude.

    Also, learning music as a fun hobby is fine – as you said, music is FUN and students should feel that way, too! – but students who waste my time and don’t listen to me in class are unbearable. I am finding it hard to “drop” these students. How do you deal with students who are disrespectful? I brought it up with their mother, and said I did not want to teach her children anymore, but she begged and pleaded and even attended some classes to see what the problem was (of course they were absolute saints when she was there).

    Sorry for the essay! 😉 Loved reading your thoughts.

  2. Bella

    Hi Leia,

    Please don’t apologize! I love your questions, because they give me a chance to fill in the gaps here. First off: I feel you. I started teaching just out of high school, and I STILL look very young. Yes, parents can be very rude to you if they think you are young, but it IS possible to set a tone that tells them they may not do that. One way I establish a “respectful” tone from parents is to be careful about how I speak to them. I keep the topic strictly to music and I never share any personal information unless it is relevant to the lesson. They do not know if I am married, single, gay, straight and they do not know my age. People ask, but I always smile and tell them a lady never reveals her age. If they knew my age, they would judge me. Best to keep it to myself. Also- one thing I learned from observing older teachers is that they never apologize for their rules and policies. They have CONFIDENCE. So I always project an unapologetic stance on my rules. Which leads me to your payment situation.

    When I read that you still have not been paid for October, I got so angry! That is terribly disrespectful on the parents part, and for you to bring it up is absolutely not rude. Have you asked for the payment more than once, or have you been too nervous about bringing it up? I think you should send an email to the parent explaining that you cannot continue the lessons until you have been paid for the previous lessons. If you show up and there is no check for you in advance, you turn around and leave. We have to think of our service and time as being equal to a material object in a store. If you walked out holding an unpaid item, the sales associate would not feel rude asking you to pay for it.

    Regarding disrespectful students, I try my best to stay calm and look them straight in the eye and tell them to stop whatever it is they are doing wrong. Interrupting, yelling, whining, etc. I never engage in arguing or negotiating. I say what I need to say and move on. Usually it will go something like this: “When I am talking you need to listen. Ok play the C Major scale with your left hand.” And that’s it. No time for discussion. If they are unbearable, I will give the parents a heads up so that it doesn’t come as a surprise if after 2 or 3 warnings, you make an announcement that you will not be teaching them anymore. I have not had to do that in a long time, but if you have to then you have to.

    Well, hope that helped. I think my next blog will be about payments. I think too many people take advantage of music teachers and it just isn’t right. Get your money! Don’t worry, because you really have the upper hand. They want you to teach and so does your student. You can be firm. You are a teacher!

    🙂 Bella

  3. Leia

    Really appreciate your response, Bella!

    I think I probably portray more “soft” than “confident,” which is what makes parents think they can walk all over me. I will try to do something about that – but it’s hard!

    I have mentioned the payment around three times now. It’s difficult, because the mother does not accompany her children to the lesson, and she rarely answers her phone or responds to e-mails or text messages. Unsurprisingly, it’s *her* children who I am trying to drop! But in fact, I have been trying to be more strict with them, and I think it may work out with them after all – as long as I get paid!

    You know, the truth is, I worry about being strict and telling parents off for non-payment or for undisciplined children mostly because I don’t want to get a bad reputation. Most of my students have come from word of mouth, and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize that. But you’re absolutely right – I shouldn’t let that get in the way of being paid for my services.

    Can’t wait to read your next blog – you are a great writer and as a new teacher I am trying to absorb all the information I can get!

  4. Bella

    Thank you for the compliments, Leia!

    I understand you wanting to protect your reputation, but I would point out that on top of wanting to be seen as a friendly and talented music teacher, you would also want people to respect you and know they can’t walk all over you. Do your students come to you? If I were in your place I would send a straight to the point email and text to the mom explaining that since she had not paid you, you will not plan on teaching the next lesson. That should get her attention, but if she STILL ignores you, and the student shows up, you are going to have to tell whoever brings the child that you sent an email informing the mom about your cancelation due to non-payment. I’m sure whoever it is will get on the phone and work something out. If you drive to them, just don’t go.

    There is no way that refusing services based on non-payment will get you a bad reputation, because imagine how THEY would look if anyone knew they tried to stiff a piano teacher. They wouldn’t dare tell anyone.

    Keep us posted!

  5. Leia


    You have inspired me to be more firm about my teaching practice! When I started out, I had planned to take Sundays off (I’m married, and it’s the only day I get to spend with hubby!). One mother practically forced me to take her daughter for a singing lesson at 10 am on Sunday morning (groan!) and also forced me to give her 1 hour lessons, when I normally start with 30 minutes. I sound like a pushover, don’t I?! I absolutely wasn’t enjoying this arrangement – and she hadn’t paid after 3 lessons either – so I decided to be firm and put my foot down and tell her that unless she could find another suitable day/time, I couldn’t teach her daughter.

    I think that being/looking young and being overly flexible allows people to think they can take advantage of you. But I’ve started putting my foot down. Thanks for helping me do so 🙂

  6. Tiffany

    Hi Bella and Leia,

    Thanks so much for sharing your experiences. I’m also a young teacher and it is so true that people will try all sorts of tricks on you. It’s tough to put your foot down, and I’ve recently lost a student because of a situation like the ones you’ve described. It is sad, as I love my students and hate to see them go because of a negative situation, but I’ve learned that the amount of anxiety I experience when I feel I’m being taken advantage of is not worth holding onto those clients. As far as reputation is concerned, if you are a good teacher that will speak for itself. You really want referrals from those students you enjoy teaching. The difficult students are likely to refer more people just like themselves.

    I could use advice from you both on how not to let these situations affect my passion for teaching. I love what I do, but this stuff really gets to me. It makes me gun-shy with my good students!

  7. Bella


    Congratulations! Stay strong! Tiffany: honestly, I think it just comes from staying focused on your good traits and reminding you of this, because sometimes you have to be firm, and this does not make you a bad person or a bad teacher. You also have to remind yourself that you are learning every single day. Sometimes the lessons are difficult, but they make future situations easier to deal with. I try to remember the firm teachers I had in school and think about how they would handle a parent who is difficult. They sure wouldn’t care about being liked. They cared about getting their job done. At the end of the day, you are a TEACHER, not a sales associate, not a nanny, not a waitress, not a housekeeper, so you just need to get the job done and be respected for it as well. A teacher is always in charge. If anyone disrespects you, then you need to deal with it and not back down. You are a teacher. Just remember that! Good luck!

  8. Barb

    Regarding getting paid, I find it much easier to require payment in advance of each term. Many teachers also charge a late fee. I have only had a few occasions where payment was late, but it has not been a problem for me. If it were a problem I might try to have a discussion with the parent letting them know it is a problem for me, and if it continues a late fee would be applied. Then follow through if need be!

    If behavior is an issue in lessons, I will cut a lesson short (with no refund). The child and parent know this in advance, and if behavior is not appropriate I tell them so and remind them that they are at risk of losing their lesson if it continues. I’ve only had to do it once or twice.

    Having a policy in writing ahead of time makes it easier to put the foot down sometimes – you can have things regarding payments as well as behavior in your policy. Sometimes people ask for exceptions. Depending on what it is, usually I just smile and say no. I try to follow Barbara Coloroso’s advice to not be a brick wall or a jellyfish, but a backbone teacher.

    Good article, and thanks for the additional discussion all, too!

  9. Eric Beaty

    This is a great and much needed post, Bella. Love your work as always. I’ve always had problems worrying about being perceived as the “bad guy” when it comes to enforcing my policies, even recently. But this is the kick in the pants we all need from time to time to get us back on track. Thanks!

  10. Don

    I have everything written in a 2 1/2 page document. I go through the main points verbally with each student or students parents the first day they start. If there are any surprises on there side I ask them if they read the policy sheets I gave them because everything is stated clearly. I will verbally explain it to them again though.

    As far as payment they either pay me on time or the following lesson or lessons will no be given until payment is received. If they do not make payment by the second week after the due date their timeslot will be opened back up for someone else to take.

    I also was a very relaxed type of teacher when I began because I was afraid of being looked at as the bad guy or losing students. The reality though is that if you are strict with certain policies like payments than you will be respected more and you look more professional. This will only improve your reputation. You don’t want to be known as a pushover. If you are not serious about students following your policies it will give off the impression that you are not serious about your business which of course is teaching.

    Always remember that this is YOUR business and you need to run it in the way you want to. Don’t ever let the students or students parents dictate how you will run your business. If you don’t want to teach on a certain day or more then a half hour then don’t do it. This is your business and either they except what you have to offer or they go find someone else.

    You need to find students that are the right fit for you. Not only in styles but also with how you run your business. If someone doesn’t want to follow the policies then send them packing and find other students that are willing to follow your policies. Do you want a studio full of students who you are catering to as far a changing schedules, accepting late payment etc… or do you want a studio full of students that follow all your policies which will then allow you to concentrate on the teaching side of the business?

    You’ll find alot of the students that are giving you problems will somehow figure out a way to adjust to your policies once you get serous about enforcing them. If not then they are not a good match for you and it’s time to let them go.

    I don’t get mad or really show much emotion when addressing these problems with students or parents. Even if they have all the greatest excuses in the world I explain that these are my policies and through the years I’ve learned that to be fair to everybody I need to stay strict to my policies. Very few will give you any problems. Again if they do then they are not right for you and they need to move along to let someone else in!

  11. Bella

    Don and Barb- Thanks for your comments. I fully agree with you!
    Eric- Glad it helped! Stay committed to yourself and your policies.