I have a policy in my studio of never accepting a student who cancels their first lesson. What a meanie, right? And yet, the few times in the past when I have caved into the pressure to be amenable, I have regretted it.

The torrential rains of last month were a fantastic gauntlet for my students and me. We braved the flooding canyons and closed streets, but mostly it was the cell-phone SUV Distracto-Moms that plague even the mildest LA day that proved most exciting. Sodden cellists splashed their way to me in the afternoon, and I zig zagged up Beverly Glen to my housecall in the height of the downpour. I was a little bit late, but I told them I might be: all was well.

There are patterns I recognize in student behavior: when I calculate, I have taught over 700 people. I would say that’s enough to hone instincts, especially since half of those people bailed on, before, or right after their first lesson. These patterns are what form my policies and encourage me to enforce them, so when a woman called me two days in a row to leave insistent voicemails about how serious she was about learning the cello, the red flags started going up.

I already have another post in the works called “Show and Tell”, about the most difficult students I deal with: those who need to tell me about how little ego they have, how they want me to be hard on them, how serious they are about the cello. After about ten minutes of their ridiculous spew, I ask them how their scale went or want to hear their piece, and it’s clear that they have not done any substantive work. These people always initially contact me with a series of intense emails or voicemail, just like Woman X did about three weeks ago.

Woman X wanted me to know she was an artist. Woman X has a very busy schedule. Woman X and I made an appointment for an afternoon two weeks in the future. I always send emails to my new students, and then especially before an initial lesson, email or call to confirm. Yes, yes, said Woman X, I’ll be there. Our lesson was scheduled for 1:30. At 11am, my phone rings, and I knew it! Red flag=confirmed. She wanted to cancel the lesson because she expected traffic because of the rain.

Wow. LA? Traffic? I have never heard of that.

I offered her a little flexibility and asked about other times. Woman X has a busy schedule. She could not. She also did not offer to compensate me for my time, which is supremely disrespectful. Generally when people offer, I rarely accept because the offer is an indicator they understand the nature of the exchange. That they are my clients, that I do not work for them, but rather along with them.

So I told her that I don’t accept ongoing students who cancel their first lesson, especially at the last minute. Woman X was outraged. Of course, the more someone throws a temper-tantrum, the more secure I feel in enforcing my policy. You see, it’s part of a pattern. People like that are always three things:

1) Not dedicated. They want to appear as if they are cellists, not actually be cello students.

2) Notorious cancelers. And they always force the indelicate fight about the 24 hour policy.

3) Not worth my time. For every hour these bozos pollute my calendar, my amazing crop of students has less flexibility in their own scheduling. As strict as I am with this policy, I am accommodating of the people who show dedication and respect for me, for the process, and for themselves.

So I don’t take students who cancel their first lesson. It never works out well when I have. And incidentally: when it rains, I leave the house a full hour earlier than I normally would if the lesson is more than 3 miles away. Because that’s what you do when you’re dedicated to holding up your end of the bargain.

Famous photo by Doisneau.

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9 Responses

  1. First, I've always loved that photograph. I need to get a print of that.

    Second, rock on with the policy! And do you tell people when they schedule the first lesson that if they cancel that first lesson, you won't take them as a student? That would be great ammo with people like Woman X, because when they get pouty and indignant, you can sweetly remind them that you'd already told them about the cancellation policy.

    Third, it would be great to see a post on the opposite problem – teachers who frequently cancel/re-schedule lessons, even if they are, in fact, good teachers. When you can pin them down for a lesson.

  2. My teaching friend has an interesting first lesson policy. A nonrefundable deposit on account mailed to him before the student is even accepted. Keep soaring with the eagles.

  3. C: I'm churning out a post today/tomorrow! "Half of life is just showing up". I write volumes about what happens after we show up, but maybe I should delve into the actual getting there, too!

    M:I know some people who have that deposit policy on the first lesson: I think that's the way to go from here on out. How are you? Hard to believe it's been a year since I saw you in lovely Miami. *sigh* Such a great place.

    B: I'm popping over to your place right now!

  4. Thank you for writing this! It is brave and real. I, too, have this policy, but it has always been informal. I am about ready to formalize it. At my school, I'm thinking about a six-week minimum trial as well. It just saves so much energy.

    You're setting a great example.

  5. Oh, people who want to have a classification of "Cellist" in their own personal RPG. Frankly, it's a lot cheaper to LARP as a violinist. Or harmonica player – although those don't give you the kick-ass heavy case of doom to smite the LARPing ConductorOrcs. Plus, cellists get an extra roll for Charisma points.

    Not that I would have any experience with any of the above.

  6. All very interesting, as are Emily's other thoughts about the teacher-pupil relationship. (Please read Anna Goldsworhty's memoir Piano lessons for a brilliant description of this wonderful and delicate relationship from childhood to virtuoso-dom!) As the song goes, I've seen this from both sides now, having had a teacher who was bad for me, and one who is as near perfect as humanly possible. Interestingly, my first lesson with the latter, she cancelled! I was in a lighting shop buying fans when she rang me. It was a heatwave and she had just come back from a gig and her house was unbearably hot. I said, that's fine. We made another time. So began the most important musical relationship in my life.

    Will try to get hold of your book. Best


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