A few years ago, I wrote a post about reasons I would “fire” a student. As time passes, I’m discovering that there are as many ways for the student-teacher relationship to sour as there are for it to flourish.

Student X

This woman came to me as a complete beginner and showed much promise right off the bat. She was the last student I had found through a referral service, and when I ended my dealings with them a year on, I did the whole “due diligence” thing and offered her another teacher in their stable, hoping like crazy she would want to stick with me.

To my delight, she did. On the first lesson of the new series, she went to write a check for the month and asked what the total would be. I had decided to offer her the same rate (20% less than standard) she had been paying the referral company. She balked. To her, I was getting a raise and I guess that triggered something meaningful enough for her to talk about financial hardship and not being able to continue lessons at that cost. Already uncomfortable, I tried to strike a bargain and offered her a “scholarship”, as I do with military students and other worthy storylines. The scholarship is contingent on financial need, and is reviewed every month to see if a return to standard fees is possible. I take this seriously, because teaching is my primary source of income- which is already incredibly fickle. This August, for example, I made exactly 30% of what I made in June. There is no guarantee that students will show up, or pay on time, or not bounce checks, or not steal books, or pay for four lessons and then take one lesson a month for four months.

So when I offer a scholarship, it’s a big deal.

We proceeded to have lessons for a year at the reduced rate. Each month, I would bill the full rate and then show a “hardship” discount before the total. Over the course of that year, she paid over $1000 less than other students who took the same number of lessons. (I’m being nice here and estimating only 3 lessons a month) Over the course of the same year, she took multiple trips to Colorado and Maine, returning with stories of crisp air, winding roads and fresh lobster.

This woman doesn’t have financial hardship. She has different priorities.

I decided to talk to her about coming up to my full rate, no discount. She said, “Well that is really going to force me to make some decisions.” I told her I understood. She continued, “I mean, that is so much more than I make per hour!”


And that’s what I get for ever offering a discount. As if there are 40 hours per week at that rate. As if I’m not paying taxes through the nose on what I do make. As if the cost of doing business doesn’t eat another third of what’s left. As if there is any job security. Moreover, as if my rates are contingent on what people deem her pay scale to be? 


So I fired her. It churned away in my guts while I tried to rationalize a way to keep her on board. I kept thinking maybe I should have gone for that DMA and then people wouldn’t have a problem with my rates (which are still easily 30% lower than other colleagues with similar experience and degrees). Or maybe if I wasn’t the kind of teacher I am: maybe if I pushed them into recitals more or had the infrastructure for group classes, they’d see the value in what I do more clearly.


Basically, the lamest internal monologue ever.


In the end, this is just another example of money making people weird. It hurt to write the check refunding her monthly tuition. I am up to my nostrils in expenses, and I could have used that money to pay Uncle Sam or buy some new strings. Heck, I still have over $7000 left to pay on Henri! But as soon as I saw it clear the bank, I felt like I had written a check to myself.



Pay to the order of Worth It, in the amount of Enough. 



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6 Responses

  1. Who are these people?! It would never occur to me to try and haggle on lesson price. And obviously it’s more an hour than someone working a 40-hour week would make, because you don’t teach lessons every hour from 9-5, not to mention overhead, equipment, studio rental (even if it’s in your home, as you need a home with space to teach and that costs money). And you are such a great teacher. Bloody hell it makes me mad.

  2. Atta girl!

    This doesn’t work for everyone, but have you tried having your students sign an “Agreement?” Thereby at least buying you a few months of job security? When I do this, I split the total cost of their lessons by the number of months they’re committing to, this way it’s the same amount every month.

    I totally feel ya on giving yourself what you need. We are all better teachers when this happens.

  3. I pay a pretty low rate for cello lessons because I’m taking them from an undergrad music student at a local college who is training to become a music teacher. The school sets the rate their students receive for private lessons. However, my sons take violin lessons with a professional musician & teacher. She makes us pay for all of the lessons in a month up front, no refunds, no rescheduling, no excuses. My son could be throwing up, or it could be a blinding snowstorm….we still have to pay the cost of the lesson even if we are unable to attend. I have to say that, while difficult at times, we take lessons (and practicing for them) more seriously because it’s no longer optional to miss. I wouldn’t feel bad about being stricter with your payment policy; you get what you pay for, and your students are lucky to have you!

  4. Here’s one from the shoe-on-the-other-foot department: About a year ago I switched teachers. My new teacher charged 25% less than my former teacher (who charges the going rate in our area). The teachers know each other (they are friends and colleagues), and my new teacher knows what my old teacher charged.

    Anyway, I’m really happy with this teacher and have learned a lot from him. He went away for the summer and during that time I took lessons from my former teacher, paying her the usual rate. When my teacher got back, he announced that he was going to raise his rates by a whole dollar! I countered that I wanted to pay him the going rate instead – I’d paid the other teacher that rate all summer and it was silly to pay less for something I valued more. There was some hemming and hawing on his part, and I told him if it really bugged him I wouldn’t press the point, but he seemed ok with it. So I’ve been paying the going rate for 4 or 5 weeks now, and every time he looks at the check he makes a face, and I say “If it really bugs, you, let me know,” but he says nothing more about it. Still, I wonder if I was rude or crossed a line somehow. What would you do if a student wanted to pay you more than you charged? Not scads more, just the going rate.

    1. I have had a number of students pay me at a higher rate, and it’s never bothered me; I’ve done the same with other people in my life. My old dance instructor would bill me the going rate, but I thought she deserved more and I was in a position to give more. I think it’s probably a combination of personal feelings on the issue and life circumstance. I can’t wait for the day when I am again in a position to chip in a little extra for the folks in my life that make it so much better.

  5. First, your former pupil sounds a total pill and a user. One doesn’t like to believe that about people. Sometimes it slowly sinks in. Not a nice process; indeed, a kind of grieving. But, to paraphrase what you say, it felt good to conclude your obligations toward her. (She was obviously not so scrupulous toward you.)

    There is a funny story in Alan Rusbridger’s wonderful book Play it again about one of his teachers saying something along the lines of “Well, you know, I’m not sure I can show you much more at this stage”. Alan Rusbridger thinks “Great, now I’m getting sacked by my teacher!” I told my cello teacher this story and she related how she had a pupil who never practiced. Eventually she told him that, if he wanted to do some practice, he could have a lesson. I’m sure it gets tedious when a pupil never progresses.

    Musicians can be funny about money. I used to tell my first teacher that she didn’t get a discount at the supermarket, the petrol station, or on her insurance or council rates (etc.) because she was a music teacher. I still think I was right. I forgot to pay my current teacher once, and on another occasion accidentally gave her too little, and I was mortified both times. Now I make sure that is all sorted the night before our lesson. That way I make sure the business side of the relationship is working; then we can get on with the reason I’m there. If the business side isn’t working, there’s no musical relationship. She has put up her rates by $5 an hour in eight years. She can’t live on air, or love, and neither can you.

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