Is Your Teaching Business Successful?

Posted on 3:17 pm

I recently ran across this blog post on Facebook: Running a Successful Teaching Business Means Not Losing Students

Go read the article if you want, it’s not long.

If you don’t want to read it, it basically talks about how to organize your lessons so that you can keep up with what each student is doing and provide materials that students and parents can use at home to practice. The author asserts that attention to these values is one of the main reasons he has such a high retention rate in his studio.

I completely agree that it is great to be organized and to provide valuable teaching aids so that parents and students feel competent at continuing their learning process at home. I would also agree with the idea that the more value you provide students, the more likely you will be to attract and keep students. If you could benefit from being more organized or are interested in how to provide more value to students this article might be able to help you out!

What I have a problem with is the title of the article that states that retention rate is what defines a successful teaching business.

When we decide to provide private lessons instruction are we more focused on the business aspect of things or the teaching aspect of things? In some cases what’s best for one will also be best for the other. However, what happens when there is a conflict of interests?

Is retention rate any more important than the following factors?:

  • quality of instruction
  • student achievement (skill level and knowledge of music)
  • number of students who are involved in local music outlets (orchestras, camps, school groups, jam groups, etc.)
  • number of students who stay in music as adults after going through your studio
  • number of students who go on to study music professionally
  • etc.

Now, if your students go out the door as quickly as they come in on a regular basis, that may be cause for concern, but is retention rate the most important factor? Is it even reasonable to expect a large retention rate in the private lesson business?

I would say my retention rate is about 50%. Meaning that 50% of my students have been with me for 2-5+ years, and the rest less than that. I’m pretty happy with that. In fact, I could have a higher retention rate, but choose not to. Why would I do that? Because sometimes retaining a student is not in my best interest, or is not in the student’s best interest.

Reasons I choose to let a student go:


1. A student is not practicing

This is the biggest reason I “loose students”. In my studio policies I state that I expect students to practice every day. I suggest that students practice the same amount of time per day, as the length of their weekly lesson. There are many reasons why a student may not be putting in the amount of practice time I require:

  • schedule is too busy
  • family circumstances
  • frustration with their instrument or current rep.
  • unwillingness to practice
  • illness
  • personality clashes with parent (with whom they are practicing)

This is not an exhaustive list, but generally sums up the most common reasons for not practicing that I have encountered with my students.

I do not immediately dismiss a student who is not practicing. It is usually easier to retain a student you have than find a new one, and once I have invested in a student I have a great desire to see that student succeed, so it’s in my best interest to try and resolve any practicing issues that arise. Unfortunately it is not always possible to do this. That leaves me with two choices; continue to teach a student who is not meeting my practicing requirements, or dismiss the student.

Depending on the problem and what I learn from the parent and the student in attempting to resolve the issue will determine which step I take.

Rarely do I actually have to kick a student out of my studio. If after attempting to resolve the issue an amenable solution cannot be found, the student (and/or parent) usually chooses to drop lessons or take a break in order to respect my policies. I greatly appreciate this! Retention in a case like this is usually not in my best interest, or the student’s best interest. Students leave under good terms, and if circumstances change they know they are always welcome back at a later date!

Many teachers choose to maintain students regardless of their practicing schedule. Some teachers feel that even if a student is only coming for a weekly lesson that the musical benefit they gain is worth their time and investment.

This is a choice you will have to make for yourself. Neither choice is right or wrong, but if  you choose to have a lower retention rate because you have a higher practicing expectation from students I don’t think it means you are any less successful!

2. A student decides they don’t like the violin/viola

Learning the violin or viola is not right for every student (or parent). I highly recommend students take lessons on a trial basis before committing long term, especially if they are young and require a parent to practice with them. Having that “check-in” time to evaluate together how things are going allows teacher, student and parent to address problem areas, which gives more chance for student success and increases retention rate.

While it would greatly please me to have every student I start on violin or viola love it as much as I do, that expectation is unrealistic. Maybe piano, flute or trumpet is a better fit for some students. As a teacher I think it’s part of my job to help students discover if strings are right for them. If not, the best thing I could do for a student is point them in a direction that will give them more fulfillment and success!

With young students it’s usually the parent who determines the success of the child. Parents often underestimate the work and effort violin or viola lessons requires. Sometimes the violin or viola might not be the right choice because it does not fit into the family schedule.

Having taught both beginning piano and beginning strings I can say that piano studios will most likely have a higher retention rate than string studios. The piano is much easier to teach and to learn at the beginning levels, so naturally the retention rate will be higher among piano students than string students. When considering retention rate and relating that to success I think it’s important to take into consideration the demands of each particular instrument.

Whether it’s the parent who decides lessons are too much work, or the student who decides they don’t want to take a particular instrument, it’s hard to lose a student you have invested in, even if only for a short time, but sometimes that’s the right decision.

3. A student doesn’t have the time to commit to a weekly lesson

Sometimes a student may want to practice and attend lessons, but difficulty in school, a challenging home situation, financial constraints, personal illness, care taking for children/parents, a move, etc. may prohibit effective study temporarily or permanently.

For students who have been with me for awhile I will often make exceptions to my general rule that students attend weekly lessons. I may offer for a student to come every-other week for a time, or even once a month (depending on the situation and the student). Again, it’s to everyone’s benefit for me to work to keep a hard working student who’s going through a difficult challenge.

However, sometimes things become too complicated. Lessons may become too sporadic to be of benefit. Or maybe progress is not occurring because while the student has time to practice, their mind is elsewhere and they can’t make their practice time effective for a season. Sometimes retaining the student in these circumstances is not the best choice. In order to avoid bad habits taking root it may be better to put the instrument down for a time, give full attention to whatever challenge is in the student’s life, and then the student can come back refreshed and available to learn!

4. Conflict with parent/student

Very rarely do I have conflict with parents or students, but let’s be honest, it sometimes does occur. It’s unpleasant, but sometimes unavoidable. Personality differences, expectation differences, and other factors can cause relational conflict. For me the cause of these types of situations usually falls within one of the following categories:

  • parent/student is unwilling to comply with studio polices
  • parent expects you to alter your policies for their “emergencies”
  • parent disagrees with the expectations you have for their child (either behaviorally or educationally)
  • parent dislikes how you handled a situation and gets angry

Generally I think it’s best to terminate lessons if there is significant conflict that cannot be resolved. If you find yourself dreading a certain lesson every week because of interpersonal issues, or if you’re stressed out dealing with a difficult parent/student or worrying about what big blow-up is going to come your way next, it may be in the best interest of your health and sanity to terminate lessons. Sometimes we may try to “stick it out” for the sake of a talented, hard working or pleasant student. There’s nothing wrong with trying to make things work – but we should also we willing to admit when it’s hurting ourselves to do so.

5. A student could benefit more from another teacher

In the String Methods Class I teach at Mississippi College I teach about the three different general categories of teacher:

  • the method teacher
  • the creative pedagogue
  • the coach

One of these is not better than another, and sometimes a teacher may fall into more than one of these categories.

Definitionally speaking the method teacher is the instructor who teaches by the book. Suzuki trained teachers are probably the best example of this type of teacher, but there are other methods by which teachers teach and even traditional teachers can be “method teachers”. The method teacher has a methodical approach to lessons with a common thread that goes through how they approach each student and move students through the different levels of study.  The method teacher is usually most effective in teaching beginning students.

The creative pedagogue generally caters lessons toward each student, relying on some methods, but also being flexible with how those methods are used in lessons. Creative pedagogues often come up with their own repertoire to fit the needs of their students, develop new ways of teaching and generally approach teaching by pulling from their vast pedagogical sources and applying what would be most effective in any given situation. Creative pedagogues are usually most effective teachers for intermediate students, or beginning students who find the method teacher to employ too strict a box.

The coach is the teacher who teaches by example. They often teach with few words and prefer to rely on demonstration of skills to instruct their pupils. The coach does not teach by rote (that is a method of learning a piece of music), rather the “copy” aspect of the coach focuses on technique and musicality. You will usually find coach teachers employed in university and colleges because their teaching style generally works best with advanced students.

When discussing the retention of students, we have to address what type of teacher a student needs at any given time. Retention therefore needs to be discussed within the framework of a teacher’s ability. Knowing what type of teacher you are is essential in giving your students the best instruction. I have yet to meet a teacher who excels in all three categories. Most often a teacher will fall into one or two, therefore it is imperative we know when to move a student on to a different style of teacher.

If you are a solid method teacher, you might have a higher turn-over rate in your studio than a teacher who is both a method teacher and a creative pedagogue simply because your expertise is more narrow. This does not make you a less successful teacher. In fact, I would say that the teacher who knows their teaching strengths as well as their weaknesses and moves students through their studio accordingly is running a more successful studio than the teacher who has a high retention rate, but is sacrificing their student’s learning (however unintentionally) because they are unaware of when their students could benefit more from another teacher.

In conclusion, I believe there is more to running a successful business in private music lessons than retention rate. Retention rate is certainly an important aspect to consider, but it is not the only factor that needs to be looked at.


I hope these five reasons on when it might be best to let a student go has helped you evaluate your own priorities in what makes your lesson studio successful!

You may also enjoy: The “Hard” Teacher – How High Standards Make Music Fun!

Emily Williams is the creator of Strategic Strings: An Online Course for Violin and Viola Teachers

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