Retaining Students Part One: Design a Studio Finger Print

Leila Viss
Leila Viss

While raising my three sons, teaching piano provided a second income that allowed me to stay at home and trade-off child care with my husband. What struck me was how difficult it was to change roles and take my duties as a piano teacher seriously when in the next room and 15 minutes prior to lessons I was feeding the boys, wiping faces, changing diapers and declaring quiet time. It was downright difficult shedding my slippers and donning my teaching MO* a minute or two before a student arrived at the door.

What helped me morph into “teacher mode” was deliberately maintaining a strong sense of myself as a professional.  Over time I developed

  • a mission statement
  • an online presence with a studio website
  • business cards
  • a room designated for teaching only
  • marketing strategies
  • a decent tuition rate
  • a weekly practice routine to maintain and improve playing skills
  • tech-savvy instruction (wished JoyTunes would have been around a LONG time ago!)
  • spare time to exercise
  • policies to protect family time
  • funds to attend workshops and conferences to continue my education
  • and more.

These helped me to recognize that I was in control of my career.  I am the CEO of my “empire” and have the power to design a studio “finger print” – a moniker shared by Philip Johnston in his book, The Dynamic Studio.

My unique finger print or professional outlook continues to expand with more grooves and curves thanks to a determination to provide dynamic instruction vs static instruction—terms also borrowed from Johnston.

Four reasons why I still teach piano today:

  • I avoid settling into a routine. Although I use method books, teach standard classical repertoire, enter students into Festivals, I keep things fresh with studio themes and tech-savvy assignments. This means for a number of weeks or an entire session I focus on a concept such as chords, rhythm, composition, improvisation, pop tunes, etc. Lesson assignments and Music Tech Time tasks are based around the chosen theme which keep me organized and accountable.
  • I change things up in the summer. If I had not done something different in the summer to offset the grueling weekly lesson schedule of September through May, I wouldn’t be teaching any more. Around 5 years ago, I knew I NEEDED something dramatically different to preserve my sanity. With family life, vacations, blogging, practicing, planning, it was evident that there needed to be more time, more space to be “me” and not only to be “Ms Leila.”
  • I surround myself with those who inspire me. From reading blogs, books, magazines, Facebook posts, attending conferences to building lasting relationships with colleagues in the music field, there’s always someone or something contributing to my “bag of tricks” as a teacher.
  • I set policies and a schedule that protects my time. I never teach on Saturdays, and families know and abide by my makeup lesson rules and payment deadlines.

What this might mean for you:

  • Be Unique: Urge yourself to stay away from mindless routines and instead spin wheels to manufacture fresh approaches in your teaching. Intentionally design a unique finger print for your studio and change things ups to avoid a static environment.
  • Teach Creatively: Improvisation, composition, pop music—teach them all but also enjoy the challenge of teaching every element of music making creatively.
  • Protect Yourself: Build policies for your studio that protect what is important to you. If you prefer not to teach on Monday evenings, do not make exceptions. If a student family ignores your prescribed guidelines, fire them. Learn more about stress-free business practices from Wendy Stevens. Click here for her incredibly wise and practical guidelines for studio policies.
  • Be Happy: An overused term, I know. There will be moments of dismay, drudgery, and rolling eyeballs but they will be trumped by your drive to be original, in charge and dynamic. It is up to you to make your profession fun and

While some may say that a successful studio breeds happiness, I believe this could be true as well: happiness breeds a successful studio. 

If you notice students are canceling lessons, not practicing, seem less than enthusiastic to be with you for a lesson, or drop out before summer this could be a reflection of who you are. Are you dashing from folding laundry, stressed and forgetting to don your professional piano teacher poise? Disappointed by families that take advantage of your time? Consider what you could change or add so that you become “happy” with yourself, your career and your studio and watch how it rubs off on your budding musicians. (Hint: take some time to nurture yourself by eating right, exercising, improvising, practicing and limit time online, Facebook, etc.)

Design a unique studio finger print that makes you happy and one that students can’t resist. It will keep them coming back for more.

Part One of this series dedicated to retaining students focuses on YOU, the teacher. Stay tuned for Part Two which will focus on the STUDENT and Part Three—the PARENT.