Thinking Twice About Strict Make-Up Lesson Policies

Get any group of 100 private music teachers into the same room, and more than likely a few of their discussions will find their way to the passionate subject of make-up lesson policy. Why such passion over something that seems so mundane? The passion comes out most often as a natural result of conflict teachers experience with their own clients. I do agree that we have all had the misfortune of serving clients who are difficult to please, but I believe teachers are more often to blame for this conflict than most would admit, and this proposition runs contrary to what I generally hear promoted within the teaching community (journals, conferences, blogs, and forums). Some make-up lesson policies, such as the no-make-up lesson policy, are so unfair that the resulting poisonous disputes within teaching studios are as predictable as the scenario shown in The Last Castle (Robert Redford), in which a fight on a prison basketball court breaks out after the warden deliberately provides inmates with only one basketball. Certain restrictive make-up lesson policies could be regarded as a similarly perfect design for conflict to take place.

pcyMy contrary stance here isn’t as bold as it might seem, because none of the opposing positions that I can find are supported with any kind of research; it’s more based on the experience and “business sense” of the author or speaker. That is all I can offer in this article, although I will also refer to other articles, which I guess technically makes this article “quasi-researched.” Regardless, I hope that the main difference between this article and mainstream thought will be the depth of analysis. First, some disclaimers:

  1. This article is written mostly for the at-home private teacher.  Having said that, teachers who travel to a store, school or campus can still use a similar policy successfully.  It is the “traveling teacher” (the teacher who travels to each student’s home) who has the most reason to have a strict make-up lesson policy.
  2. Long ago I had a policy that restricted make-up lessons in a way that resembled a no-make-up lesson policy to certain clients within my studio, so my past policy is among those policies this article criticizes.
  3. I will disagree with some colleagues very directly, but I hold every last person I reference below in high regard, so whenever possible, I’m going to refer to authors anonymously to keep focused on ideas rather than on people.

Also, it is critical to note that when a teacher charges for each lesson rather than having up-front payments, inevitably students who cancel lessons experience financial reward for their cancellation (no lessons to pay for that week). A teacher whose livelihood is affected by this difficult policy will be tempted to overreact and try out a “no make-ups” policy in order to protect their income. I never considered it an option to charge for each individual lesson, because unlike plumbers, dentists and auto mechanics, we teachers must rely on very small group of clients each week for our livelihoods, which means empty slots can’t be filled by clients who call each week. If a student wishes for a teacher to commit a time slot to them each week, the student must commit to paying for it each week. Additionally, under a system of flat monthly payments, some students do not request make-up lessons and instead just say, “See you next week,” even despite being offered alternate times. This article is written with the flat monthly or semesterly payment being assumed. (For more on this, see my article Flat Tuition Payments For Private Music Lessons.)

Let’s begin by analyzing rationalization behind the no-make-up-lesson policy. There are five reasons I’ve heard teachers give for having this policy, and one of them isn’t actually a “reason”, although I’m still going to address it.

1. Refusal To Engage

First, some no-make-up lesson teachers don’t explain it – they just say, “That’s just my policy,” and they cloak their refusal to discuss their policy as a mark of professionalism, even drawing proud attention to it among colleagues. In It’s All Your Business: Towards a Higher Definition of Professionalism (American Music Teacher, Aug/Sep 2007), the author writes, “When answering questions about your studio policy or business, clarify; there is no reason to apologize or justify.” I take the phrase “don’t justify” to mean, “Do not give reasons for your policy.” I believe that this confuses the already-poorly-defined concept of professionalism with respect, control and authority, when in fact professionalism includes so many more things such as honesty, friendliness, fairness, and respect in the other direction. Not ever giving make-up lessons is already difficult enough for clients to swallow; in my opinion, refusing to explain why to anyone is disrespectful and therefore quite unprofessional.

2. Respect

A reader’s comment on a blog post on this subject says something I’ve heard countless times before:

“It’s a respect issue, if you miss a doctor or lawyers appointment you can bet they are going to charge you. Teaching clients should view you as the same.”

The problem is that this policy of doctors, lawyers, plumbers and dentists is not the result of their attempt to posture themselves and gain respect; the policy is a very practical function of the fact that none of these professionals work from home, so when you miss your appointment with them, they really do lose that time. It is a policy of necessity. What is really funny about this argument is that I can’t even remember the last time I was charged for forgetting an appointment. Over the past couple decades, I’ve forgotten a couple of car dealership service appointments in addition to a dentist and doctor appointment, and I was not charged for the no-call-no-show even though they very well could have charged me. Again, as I stated in the beginning of this article, I am referring to teachers who teach at home and who therefore do not truly lose that time when a student does not show up.

I’ve also heard the respect argument many times in the context of sports, plays or dance lessons: “Why are private music teachers always given the last priority when competing with other activities?” The answer is simple, and it has nothing to do with respect: They do this because all of these other activities are group activities. One cannot ask an entire sports team to show up on a different day, nor can one ask an entire dance class or the entire cast of a play to show up on a different day; one would have to think the schedules of 10, 20 or 30 other people are cumulatively less important than one’s own schedule! In light of that, asking the piano teacher to bend around these other schedules is the only thing any intelligent, reasonable person can do. And suggesting that anyone taking piano lessons should never join a baseball team, sign up for karate lessons or audition for a play would be unreasonable. Nobody who signs up for these other activities has any idea what the schedule is going to be until the coach or teacher hands it out. If a conflict arises, we teachers need to be understanding of this.

The idea of “respect” can be tied to busyness, and the same reader quoted above comments:

“If you are busy, then have a ‘no make-up’ policy. I know plenty of teachers that do this and are booked solid.”

I agree that one can build a big studio with restrictive policies. But just because we can do something doesn’t mean we should do it. We can increase prices or restrict access to things in high demand, but taken too far, we are taking advantage of people, similar to charging $10 (or even $2) for a bottle of water after a natural disaster. As for the idea that private teachers are “busy” or “overworked,” I will address this point soon.

3. False Alternatives

The most common reason for a policy of no make-ups is, “I cannot fill that time slot with someone else if you don’t show up, and if I make the lesson up, I have to reserve extra time in my weekly schedule for that one student.” The problem with this rationale is that it assumes that whatever alternate time is scheduled for the make-up lesson would have been personal time for the teacher, when in fact every teacher knows that in a studio of 20, 30, 40 or 50 students, hardly a week goes by without at least one cancellation. Cancellations of other students are perfect opportunities for make-up lessons. That is why I don’t even require 24 hours of notice to reschedule a lesson. In fact, if someone calls three minutes before their lesson would have begun, it still isn’t a big deal for me to take one or two minutes of my time to offer them an alternate time. If no cancellation time exists, I simply tell them there is no time this week, and I ask them to remind me to look again at my schedule during next week’s lesson (or tell them to monitor my Google Calendar and request to fill in gaps as they appear).

Putting yourself in the shoes of the client, how would you feel if your teacher thought it was more acceptable for you to lose the $30, $40, $50 or $60 you paid for that lesson than it is for the teacher to lose one or two minutes of their time confirming an alternate time that was part of their allotted teaching schedule anyway? If I were the client, I would most definitely think that the teacher is just trying to score themselves a paid break in their teaching schedule at my expense no matter what they say to try to justify it.

What we have here, and what I’ve observed from top professionals who advocate these policies at meetings, conferences and in journals, is the fallacy of false alternatives: pretending that the only alternative to giving no make-up lessons is to give them during the teacher’s personal time. I myself have given make-up lessons very generously over the years, and I have done so without any infringement on my personal time, other than when I am the one to cancel a lesson. Teachers with a no-make-up policy sometimes assure students that the time is being used to create lesson plans or other things related to that student, but this is not assuring, because in the end, the teacher still gains personal time since the time that would have normally been spent creating those lesson plans is now freed up.

As for teachers who teach at a university or at a music store (or especially who travel to students’ homes), they can still operate in the same spirit of generosity, giving make-up lessons whenever possible, but this is where less flexible make-up lesson policies show a little more function: there is more need for giving 24 hours notice, make-up lessons of course still need to be given during the normal teaching hours of the teacher, and the make-up lesson shouldn’t cause the teacher to have to drive extra miles. It is wise to ask students to try to give 24 hours notice when possible so that the resulting cancellation time slot can be used to give other make-up lessons, but I would only word this as a request in the policy (not a mandate). Giving 24 hours of notice isn’t always possible, especially in the case of sickness, but if students understand how advance notice of a cancellation helps to contribute to this make-up lesson system, they will put forth their best effort.

If teachers offers rationale for their no-make-up lesson policy and they don’t rely on explanations of respect or false alternatives, all that is left to do is exaggerate the down side of making up lessons. Let’s examine a couple of these exaggerations.

4. Exaggeration #1: We’re Overworked

First of all, remember that the make-up lesson policy I’m advocating for – making up every lesson students want made up as long as it occurs during the teacher’s normal teaching schedule – takes up negligible personal time on the part of the teacher anyway, so this is a moot point. But just for fun, let’s suppose it did infringe on more than a negligible amount of the teacher’s personal time. High school English teachers can easily work 50-60 hours per week, spending 2 to 6 hours of personal time each night preparing lesson plans and grading papers. These are people who truly can say that even the short 42-second phone call from a student is asking too much. College music professors are also generally overworked, but this is because of the demands of being salaried music faculty, not the demands of the private teaching they may opt to do on the side. Private music teachers aren’t even in the same universe as teachers at schools and institutions: we consider our schedules “full” when we reach somewhere between 20 and 50 students, which usually translates to anywhere from 10 to 35 hours per week.

Even if most of us spend two hours every day being so-called workaholics outside of our teaching hours, I still don’t buy that our hours even add up to what is considered “full time,” let alone “workaholic” time. Granted, I spend some time ordering books for students, working out fingerings of advanced pieces for students (I once spent five hours working out fingerings to three Prokofiev pieces I assigned to students), planning repertoire for students to play for festivals, etc., but this is work that only occurs occasionally throughout the year.  We private teachers are the spoiled brats of the teaching field – we work less hours than K-12 teachers and earn more per year for it, and yet we still act like victims when asked to give students time that they’ve already paid for! Unless the teacher is actually spending hours selecting repertoire, practicing advanced repertoire their students are learning, scheduling make-up lessons, etc. every work day of every week of the year, the teacher is in no position to complain about one- or two-minute phone calls.

5. Exaggeration #2: People Abuse Lenient Policies

First, offering make-up lessons generously is not lenient. In my opinion, this is a fair policy, while offering no make-ups is strict. Offering make-ups outside of one’s normal teaching hours on a regular basis is what I would call “lenient.” That’s not what we’re talking about here – we’re talking about a fair policy of offering make-up lessons during teaching hours.

Second, I believe this so-called “abuse” I hear teachers complain about is most often not abuse; it is the feeling teachers get when clients don’t approve of one of their teacher’s unfair policies, so understandably, the client tries to extract as much benefit/time from the teacher as they possibly can so that the client feels less abused. The vast majority of people are only going to engage in a battle of tug-of-war when they feel they need to, and when a policy is truly fair to everyone, virtually everyone will operate with a happy, generous mindset. Under this different mindset, the same clients who might have argued about a make-up lesson might instead tell the teacher, “Aw, don’t worry about it – just enjoy the free personal time. We’ll see you next week.”

I know what many teachers are thinking here: sometimes the abuse isn’t a result of tug-of-war; sometimes it happens unintentionally. Some people cancel for just about any reason on Earth and expect the teacher to accommodate them. To address that, let’s examine a “lenient” policy of mine (again, I don’t think it’s lenient, but readers who most need to read this article would). If my students want to “bank” missed lessons for several weeks (or even months!) before finally making them up, that is also fine with me, again as long as the make-up lessons are scheduled during the cancellations of other students. I don’t keep track of them – I trust that if someone tells me they’re missing a lesson, 99 times out of 100 they’re going to be right. If the cost of this policy is that I have to give out a free lesson 1 time out of 100 (and I don’t think it is – I don’t think I’ve ever once been conned into giving a free lesson), this is totally acceptable anyway – we cannot pretend that this is intolerable when classroom teachers are required to hold extra office hours every single week.

But it’s very difficult for anyone to abuse this policy anyway, because again, whenever we finally decide to have the make-up lesson, it’s going to be during normal teaching hours. That means that even if someone has a tendency to reschedule every other lesson because soccer is more important to them, my policy allows me to not care. I can easily reschedule every other lesson. Nobody is upset. It’s just as much trouble for the client to spend that one or two minutes rescheduling the lesson as it is for me, so if they’re willing to go to the trouble, so am I. In fact, most clients are going to start feeling embarrassed when they request to reschedule really often, even as flexible and friendly as I am, so when they ask, I know that within the context of their world, they must have a great reason1. Not only that, but I’ve constructed a policy that gives incentive to both me and the student to make up all those missed lessons: if students get a make-up lesson that creates two lessons in one week (which is what happens when they don’t make up a missed lesson within a couple days of missing it), they must also put in extra practice time that week to make the extra lesson worthwhile. If students are willing to invest the time to justify those two lessons, then so am I.

The Cost of No-Make-Up Lesson Policies

My principles would be enough by themselves to convince me that it’s wrong to not give make-up lessons, but practicality only reinforces my argument. If your studio is a running engine, a flexible policy is the oil and grease that makes it run smoothly, and a no-make-up lesson policy is rust and corrosion. Speaking from experience of once being a teacher with an inflexible make-up lesson policy (i.e. students had to make up missed lessons within 2 weeks or they were forfeited), I believe that in every studio, somewhere between 5 and 15 percent of students/parents have strong objections to the concept of paying for time slots rather than for time with the teacher, and even more have mild objections that are deliberately hidden from the teacher out of politeness. Can we blame them for it? No matter how many times teachers remind their students, “You’re not paying for lessons, you’re paying for me to reserve time slots in my schedule,” certain students and parents still continue to believe that they’re paying for lessons. Go figure! This is a game of tug-of-war that cannot be won by either side by simply pulling harder. In fact, the harder one side pulls in this case, the more likely they are to lose the game (e.g. the teacher finally drops the student, or the student finally withdraws from the teacher’s studio). Teachers continue to poison their own studios each year with these policies, causing the loss of a student here and there because of bitter disagreements.

Worse, teachers rationalize this loss with “good riddance” thinking. Think of all the times we have heard ourselves and our colleagues speak like a reader’s comment on this article, which reads:

It [having people read about the teacher’s rigid make-up lesson policy up front] weeds out the people who may disrespect our time (or the ones who are totally clueless about piano teaching being a serious PROFESSION)…

Dr. Robert Solomon, in his course The Passions: Philosophy and the Intelligence of Emotions, classifies this kind of thinking as resentment, when “we make it sound as if we are lucky not to have those things that we want [highest retention and greatest happiness in our piano studios] but don’t have. We feel self-righteous precisely because we are not rich [or precisely because certain students withdraw from our studio].” I used to succumb to this kind of thinking until one day I realized that a simple change of policy (changing a rigid, unfair policy into a flexible, fair one) would turn all of these so-called “people to be weeded out” into clients who are just as happy and joyful to be in my studio as everyone else. Instead of these people sowing poisonous “stay away from that teacher” comments into the community, they continue to give me positive word of mouth. Often it is the people who are willing to express dissent who are the most committed to greatness – the people who, much like ourselves, do not sit quietly and idly when they feel a sense of injustice (or who are more sensitive to it). Have you ever noticed that some of our very best students have parents who are the most “difficult” to work with? I don’t think this is a coincidence, and with the right policy, this “difficulty” disappears.

Students also pay another kind of price for no-make-up lesson policies: they are much more likely to show up to their piano lesson sick a couple times each year, transmitting their germs to other students. We do want students to give attendance at lessons a high priority, but exactly how high? We can disinfect piano keys all we want, but germs are transmitted in many other ways, including the bench, doorknob, couch, the rest of the piano, and air itself. No teacher is that thorough disinfecting their studio. And do we really want our students getting lessons when they’re operating at 50% or less capacity anyway? This will happen if our make-up lesson policy is too restrictive.

The Benefits Of My Make-Up Lesson Policy

What does this policy of freely giving make-up lessons during my normal teaching hours cost me, really? One or two minutes each time. How does it benefit me? Not only does investing more time into my students always result in better students, which furthers my reputation as a teacher, I also have an extremely low turnover rate in my studio and very happy parents, which in turn makes me very happy all the time. There are virtually never any disagreements about anything, no bickering, and no having to engage in mental gymnastics in order to justify policies that give the teacher a sweeter deal at great expense of students. In this article, the author writes, “It’s amazing how quickly conflicts over the business-side of running a studio can zap you of enthusiasm.” I wholeheartedly agree, and I would argue that experiencing this zap even once or twice a year is way too much. Once every few years, we’ll all have some unreasonable person to deal with before they finally leave and go terrorize some other poor teacher, but this shouldn’t happen more than once every 3-5 years, if it happens at all.

Think about the kind of mindset my generous policy creates. From my point of view, I’m offering something that is completely fair to everyone.2 From students’ point of view, I’m being generous, because clients get everything they want. No student who has wanted a make-up lesson for any reason has ever been denied the lesson. Because of this one simple policy in my studio which comes at nearly no cost to me, there is a lot more happiness and even love between myself and my clients. It facilitates a priceless, genuine attitude of gratitude for me when I teach, which means I experience feelings of teaching fatigue or burnout a lot less often and a lot less intensely.

Make-Up Lesson Lip Service

There are a lot of teachers who recognize how unfair it is to not give make-up lessons at all, so under the illusion of fairness to everyone, they offer make-up lessons with various limitations. For example, they might offer one single group make-up lesson each month for all students who have missed lessons. I’ve even spoken with two teachers who have this policy who are very deliberately aware of (and smilingly gloat about) the fact that it is nothing more than lip service to “get those penny pinchers off my back” [this is a real, direct quote]. This is “lip service” because, supposing 5 students miss lessons that month and show up to the group make-up lesson, we have that the teacher is being paid 5 times their normal rate for this single lesson (the teacher was paid for all 5 of the time slots the students missed), and each of the 5 students is getting one-fifth the individual instruction they normally get.

Teachers are aware of the limitations of group instruction, which is why these lessons typically cover subject areas that are more cognitive in nature, such as music theory, music history, or music appreciation (or perhaps it covers ensemble playing with electronic keyboards, in which case it would be a very basic lesson on sight-reading, rhythm and note accuracy, paying very little or no attention to finer musical or technical elements of individual performance). Group instruction simply doesn’t offer the same opportunity to provide the thorough one-on-one instruction that is required by music. Teachers who teach in a group environment never charge what is charged for individual instruction – they normally charge half or less the rate that those paying for private lessons pay, because group instruction is never as valuable as one-on-one instruction. Unfortunately, students who receive lip-service group make-up lessons never get 50% or 80% of their lesson payments refunded.

Good, But Not Good Enough

Another attempt to bring more fairness to a no-make-up-lesson policy is the swap list, wherein students can call each other to switch times. Unfortunately, this only works when students know they will be gone well in advance and they have time to send e-mails or make phone calls. It also doesn’t work perfectly for those with unconventional time slots, such as a family of 3 siblings who occupy a 2-hour time slot.

I’m all for the swap list. I’ve maintained an online swap list for students since the year 1999, but I’d never use it as a substitute for giving make-up lessons. I use a swap list in addition to being fair with make-up lessons. In my studio, the swap list is only there to give people the maximum number of options for getting everything they pay for. There are also Skype or phone lessons that can substitute for the in-person lesson in the case of sickness, but like the swap list, this is just a scratch on the surface of fairness. This will only work for specific scenarios such as having no transportation or being too sick to travel but not too sick to sit at the piano. This option does not suffice for the student who has a schedule conflict or who is very ill.

Finally, giving lessons to others (a grandmother, cousin, sibling or neighbor) is a wonderful option. This can sometimes result in the gain another student. I see all of these things as healthy additions to include in one’s policy, but again, not as sufficient effort to remedy the no-make-up-lesson policy. Even if all of these alternatives allowed a majority of missed lessons to be made up, there’s a lot to be said for the message we send to our students by telling them, “I don’t give make-up lessons, but here are some things to suffice,” vs. the message we send by telling them, “I give whatever make-up lessons are needed, and here are some other options on top of that.”

Some Truly Painful Alternatives

In To Give or Not To Give Make-up Lessons, the author does a good job presenting a comprehensive list of ways to minimize the number of extra hours teachers work (thanks to her for reminding me of Skype/phone lessons and giving lessons to siblings as alternatives to make-ups). One of these ways is that teachers can create an extra teaching week to give lessons to all those who missed lessons. Depending on how often this happens, this may be better or worse than the lip-service group make-up lesson. A student who missed 10 lessons during the year ought to feel gypped when offered one single annual make-up lesson to balance things out, and a student who missed 5 lessons each year would make out like a bandit if an extra lesson were scheduled once every two months. I can’t imagine any teacher scheduling an extra teaching week more than once or twice per year, and that probably means that this policy is always an even less effective attempt at lip service than the monthly group make-up lesson. Worse, the teacher must sacrifice non-teaching weeks to provide this lip service, which is why I would consider this the worst possible way to provide make-up lessons – everyone loses!

Another terrible way to approach make-up lessons, this time being way too generous to students at my own expense (this was my policy for my first couple years of teaching), is when I gave “vacation weeks” to all of my students. Students were free to take as many as 4 vacation weeks per year (kind of like sick days for employees) and not have to pay for the lessons. The huge problem this created for me is that it meant I was only being paid for 48 out of 52 weeks per year, but I never got the benefit of those 4 weeks off! Instead of getting chunks of time off, I got unpaid absences sprinkled here and there throughout every week of every year. Worse, probably half of the total vacation weeks used per year were used during the months of June and August, meaning I had a hard time paying bills during those months. As a result of this policy, I only took one week of my own off that year, and that was during Christmas. I was absolutely starved for vacation time, and I couldn’t wait to revise my policy for the next teaching year.

Rationale For My Past Mistakes

After that huge policy blunder, I over-corrected. I went from being unfair to myself to being unfair to students: I required people to make up any missed lessons within 2 weeks of missing them, otherwise the lesson was forfeited. I also had a swap list, and I allowed lessons to be taken by siblings or neighbors. Interestingly, this is the same as my policy today, except that the 2-week limitation is now gone. You see, even this seemingly small difference still probably caused me to lose 1 or 2 students per year, and it was enough to reduce a fair make-up lesson policy to the status of very unfair to certain people, especially those who left on long vacations during the summer and could only get two make-up lessons when they got back. My rationale for the policy was that once a couple weeks went by without making up the missed lesson, any make-up lesson at that point was almost acting like a penance for the teacher to pay with not much gain on the student’s part because of creating two lessons in one week (so half the normal practicing occurred between lessons). If only I had considered having students practice extra during those 2-lesson weeks, I wouldn’t have lost so many students because of parents feeling gypped by the 2-week clause in my make-up lesson policy.

I would also often tell people about how I used to miss lessons once in a while when studying piano in college. I paid for my own piano lessons with an extra $300-per-semester “lab fee” on top of the normal per-credit tuition, but I was still happy to give my teachers free practice time during those rare weeks when I couldn’t attend. I continue to behave the same way today, insisting on paying my kids’ tennis instructor for lessons we cancel and don’t make up (i.e. if we’re gone visiting family for a week), but that doesn’t make it right to impose this personal preference onto all of my students by saying, “I’m okay forfeiting lessons, so you should be too.” This is an example of the mind projection fallacy. Similarly, if I were a student today, I would never be one to “bank” missed lessons for another date, asking my teacher to make up a missed lesson weeks or months after I missed it. But it’s obviously not petty to everyone since some people request it, and it’s my goal to make everyone in my studio feel welcomed rather than alienated. In general, we should be careful about thinking our policies are valid only because we would approve of them from the other point of view. We must instead pick policies based on the actual reality of how our clients view our policies.

Where the really sad rationalization began was where I found myself telling people about all the extra services I provided and overhead I had: free recitals, group classes, outside performance opportunities created by my music teachers association, my own attendance when guest clinicians give me a continuing education opportunity, various fees such as liability insurance and MTA membership fees, etc. The reality is that these things are all part of the whole package of assumed expenses and advertised services, and therefore they are already accounted for by my rates. We shouldn’t bait and switch our students by advertising certain features of our teaching, only to use them later as justification for charging students for lessons they don’t receive. The only services that are truly “extra” are expenses that are specific to one student (e.g., traveling with the student to an out-of-state competition), expenses that we don’t know about in advance and therefore don’t offset them with lesson payments (e.g., a recital venue changes its policy and now charges $100 more to host a studio recital), or benefits we do not advertise to prospective students (e.g., giving extra free lessons to advanced students when a festival or competition approaches). Also, think about the message that is really sent here: “The way I define and have designed my business model is as follows: in order to be fully compensated for my services during the year, at least X number of people must miss their lessons but still pay for them.” This is the wrong way to go about seeking compensation.

Having unreasonable policies – even policies that were moderately unreasonable like the one I had myself – turns even the best of us into desperate rationalizers. Very few of us will actually ponder the error of our ways and change our policy after we realize that one of our clients’ complaints about our policy actually has more logical merit than our defense of the policy. It’s difficult to admit a mistake, and it’s even more difficult to admit a mistake that is etched in writing, handed out to all our students, posted on our studio’s cork board and website, and possibly even signed and returned to us by all our students. This is the real reason why some teachers offer little or no explanation to clients when their policies are questioned. It’s not about respect, it’s about the teacher’s own discomfort of knowing deep down that their policy is unfair. Teachers might convince themselves that they’re withholding pearls from swine, but in reality they’re simply trying to avoid being on the losing side of confrontation.

Responding to the strongest argument I could find

Vicky Barham, an economics professor and parent of a student (or perhaps a student herself), wrote an article titled Make-Up Lessons From An Economist’s Point of View. She is not a music teacher, and she firmly advocates against giving make-up lessons. The strongest point this article relies on is the claim that piano lessons fall into the “non-returnable merchandise” (or “non-durable goods”) category since a Monday slot at 3:30 cannot be turned around and sold again once the time passes. Again, this relies on presenting false alternatives: either a teacher must not give make-up lessons, or the teacher must give make-up lessons during personal time. It ignores the option of giving make-up lessons during time slot cancellations.

In Vicky’s defense, since she is a client and not a teacher, it is likely that she innocently believes this false alternative to be true since that’s probably the way her teacher presented it to her, and she trusts her teacher. She probably doesn’t realize how easy it is to give make-up lessons during one’s normally-scheduled teaching time. I wonder how Vicky’s perspective might change after spending a year in my studio, seeing how quickly and easily I make up every last lesson that students request to make up… and then some more, since sometimes I’m the one to suggest the make-up lesson, such as when a recital, festival or competition approaches, or when the student has missed a lot of lessons recently.

Vicky brings up a point I hear a lot regarding make-up lessons: that teachers who adopt no-make-up lesson policies are saving themselves from burnout. I believe a no-make-up lesson policy (or even a policy that restricts make-up lessons) may burn teachers out faster than a fair policy does because of all the negative emotional baggage it creates during the inevitable disputes or “uncomfortable discussions” it creates each year. Not only that, but even if refusing to give make-up lessons does prevent burnout for some, I don’t believe this is an ethical way to achieve it. There are other ways to prevent burnout, the most obvious ways being to cut down on the number of students one teaches each week or learn to say no when asked to take on other commitments. Remember, you and I are responsible for our own busy schedules; we can only blame ourselves if we are too busy.

That said, if we find that we are teaching more students than we can handle emotionally and we simply can’t handle a fair policy, then we must be prepared to sympathize with our students when they complain. We must explain to them that we wish we could do better, but we just can’t. We should say, “While I really hope you’ll decide to stay, I will certainly understand if this isn’t acceptable to you, because I realize my policy is not ideal.” At least then, there is no dispute; only validation of their complaint and a calm decision to be made with no hard feelings on either side no matter which way it goes.

In the third paragraph, Vicki points out that classroom teachers (such as herself, an economics professor at a university) don’t offer individual make-up tutoring sessions for students who miss class, and therefore neither should private teachers. I can’t count how many times I’ve heard this line of reasoning. There are three big problems with this comparison:

  1. Student absences from classes do not give college professors extra personal time: Professors still conduct their 50-minute class as planned, regardless of which students are present. Private teachers don’t do this – even when the teacher spends the student’s lesson “creating lesson plans or worksheets,” such work would have otherwise been done during the teacher’s personal time had it not been for the cancellation, so in the end, this cancellation still ultimately gives the teacher more personal time.
  2. Private students don’t have any way to recover the full benefit of a lost lesson: In the case of an absence, classroom students can borrow notes from friends or have friends obtain an audio recording or video of the lecture and derive the same benefit from the lecture as if they were there. This is not the case for the private music student. Private teachers teach one student at a time interactively. We don’t give lectures, we give lessons, because we’re not only disseminating cognitive information, we’re also diagnosing problems and preparing the student to practice over the next week. Without the ability to interact with the student, there is virtually nothing the teacher can do with that time that provides even remotely equal benefit to the student who lost the time and who needs problems to be diagnosed.
  3. We don’t give our students weekly office hours: One of the requirements for being a salaried college professor is to hold make-up lesson time in the form of weekly office hours that are mandated by their school, sometimes even every day, but usually 2-3 hours per week in addition to “by appointment” hours since some students have conflict during the professor’s M/W/F or T/Th office hours. No private music teachers hold weekly open “office hours” for their students to take advantage of that week if they miss their lesson.

Vicki also points out that teachers are victims of their clients’ expectations of make-up lessons since they personally feel pressure to accommodate expectations in order to keep their clients from going to another teacher (and therefore continue to run a profitable business). This is a dysphemism for saying, “In order to run a successful business, we must be competitive.” Pressure itself is not inherently bad. If I never put on any studio recitals for my students, I would probably feel pressure from a few of them to do so, and this is pressure I would deserve to feel since the students are right to hold me to those expectations. Likewise, students are right to expect that their teacher give them make-up lessons when the cost to the teacher of doing so is so minimal compared to the benefit derived by the student. With exception to those rare individuals who are truly miserable to do business with, teachers are generally not victims of their clients’ expectations. The vast majority of people are reasonable and know an unfair deal when they see one.

Where Did We Get This Concept of “Professionalism”?

Over the years, I’ve felt more and more bothered by the association of professionalism with unreasonable make-up lesson policies (among other associations which are outside the scope of this article). The straw the broke the camel’s back came after I moved across the country and read through the Recommendations for Studio Policy document distributed by one of the music teachers associations here that I joined. In this document, only four policies are recommended, listed in order of most strict to most lenient:

  1. No make-ups, no swaps.
  2. Swap list with no make-ups.
  3. Swap list with make-ups for lessons missed due to illness, death in the family.
  4. Make-ups at the discretion of the teacher.

Notice that even the most lenient policy advocated here by an association of professional music teachers is still a policy that is unfair to students, since it doesn’t even guarantee that the teacher will make their best effort to make up the lesson. Under this “most lenient” policy, the teacher still has the freedom to reject make-up lesson requests at whim.

Earlier in the recommendations document, it reads, “It is recommended that the teacher write a stricter policy than what, in fact, may be followed.” Is it really more professional for one teacher to constantly make exceptions to their unfair policy than it is for another teacher to do exactly what their fair policy states? It seems that Angela Myles Beeching might agree with me when she says in an interview (American Music Teacher, December 2011), “…good business practice also includes having a clear studio policy and standing by it…”. The AMT article I referenced in the “Refusal to Engage” section is also in agreement: “Integrity of the studio policy: Do you enforce it consistently and fairly?”

I don’t mean to pick on one particular music teachers association here, and in fact I think it’s a fantastic organization. It just happens to be the unlucky end of a very long string of journal articles (both AMT and Clavier Companion) I’ve read, conference I’ve attended, conversations I’ve had, etc. that keep feeding me definitions of professionalism that don’t sit well with me. This is what lead me to develop a theory about where our messed-up meaning of “professionalism” may have come from, and it starts with big business.

Simulating Corporate Disconnect

The age of big business has been upon us for a long time, and yet I’m still saddened that we can no longer call a 1-800 number with even the most remote expectation of talking immediately to a person, thanks to our never-ending pursuit of cheaper prices (good customer service comes at a price). We demand predictability and familiarity at restaurants and retail stores, causing many mom ‘n’ pop places to go out of business. What troubles me the most about our big business society is the additional power it gives to businesses themselves, one example of which is the power to care less about the overall fairness of their policies. Top decision makers in corporations don’t have to ever speak with a single customer way down below unless they actively seek them out (which they should do, but often don’t), and this disconnect shows in their policies.

Take cell phone service as an example. Years ago, my wife and I paid AT&T approximately 5 cents per minute if we divided the number of minutes allowed per month by the flat rate we were charged for those minutes. It was once AT&T’s policy to charge 35 cents per minute when we exceeded our plan. It never actually cost cell phone providers 7 times the normal rate for customers to exceed their planned usage. The only purpose, and I mean the only purpose of this policy, was to make AT&T criminal profits. Calling customer support and asking them to explain why those extra minutes cost so much would have been futile since there is no explanation other than greed, and you aren’t going to find “Explain to customer our philosophy of greed” instructions on any call center flowcharts. The only answer we would have gotten was, “I’m sorry you feel that way, but that’s just our policy.” When the only real justification behind a policy is greed, we are told that it exists because it exists. Policies that justify themselves circularly are red flags. [See “Refusal to Engage” toward the beginning of this article.]

The disconnect between corporation decision makers and outsourced call center employees in India is extremely unsettling, but at least we understand the mechanism behind the creation and maintaining of these policies. But I believe this senseless greed has infiltrated small businesses too, despite the fact that no such disconnection mechanism exists for small businesses. Small businesses do not outsource their customer service, and for sole proprietors, the business owner is the call center, billing, tech support, etc. I believe that many small business owners have come to associate harsh, rigid policies that benefit the business owner at the customer’s expense with “professionalism,” or perhaps they even knowingly cloak certain unfavorable policies behind the concept of professionalism. Private music teachers are among these small businesses, and I’ve observed several teachers speaking at local, state and national conferences and who write articles in blogs and journals that encourage teachers to “be more professional” by adopting strict policies and “standing your ground” when a customer disputes one of these policies. I believe that many business owners think (at least, subconsciously) that if the biggest successful corporations act this way, this must be part of why they are so successful, and therefore small business owners too must act this way in order to signal to others that they are more “professional.” This is my theory, anyway, for why there are so many private music studios today who are proud of their harsh make-up lesson policies.

My theory, of course, would be very hard to prove or disprove, but no matter. Whether or not this greedy policy can be traced back to an infiltration of corporate business mindset into the general populace doesn’t change the rationale for why this kind of policy is so very unprofessional.

In an article called It’s All Your Business: In Search of Excellence (American Music Teacher, December 2007), we are asked to strive for a higher meaning of professionalism by examining eight “best practices” followed by the most successful businesses according to Peters and Waterman in their bestseller (In Search of Excellence, 1982). The “best practice” #2 on the list is “Close to the Customer”, and the author writes:

Our students are our customers; do we consistently listen to what they are interested in? Goal setting in the initial lessons is not enough; children go through many growth phases: intellectual, emotional, spiritual, physical. We must be responsive to each phase and take the time in every lesson to listen to their concerns and interests. As a local or state association, do we ask for and then listen carefully to ideas and suggestions from our members, advertisers, and communities?

True enough – we listen to students during lessons and we listen to outsiders who give our MTAs feedback, but what about listening to our clients when it comes to our business policies? Haven’t we all lost students who were thriving in our studios because the parents had a disagreement with us that has nothing whatsoever to do with our teaching? In these cases, we can meditate to the students’ pulses all we want; it won’t do a shred of good. When a teacher listens to clients during lessons but fails to listen to them outside of lessons, no-make-up lesson policies and other rigid make-up lesson policies are born (or maintained). Nobody with rigid make-up lesson policies can say yet that they abide by all eight “best practices” outlined by this book. Amazingly, most teachers lacking in category #2 aim to convince us that this lacking is precisely what makes them more professional than those who listen!

Achieving Balance, Honoring The Customer

I absolutely agree that our policies absolutely must protect ourselves, but I believe the policies that seem to be advocated within music teachers associations, blogs and journals are policies that go too far – they provide too much benefit to ourselves at our students’ expense. We want the benefits of charging “tuition” without any of the drawbacks. We nod our heads when we hear that “the customer is always right”, but our policies say otherwise. Policies that are truly professional should not exist to ensure a 100% perfectly desirable environment for the business at any cost to the customer. They should exist to strike a perfect balance of fairness between both business and customer.

I believe there are some teachers who are genuinely striving for the greatest possible fairness for everyone, while others are striving for the policy that gives the greatest possible benefit to themselves. Because the latter group of teachers still know they will lose a lot of students if their policies come at too high a cost for students, these teachers still seek a “balance” in their policies, but instead of this balance being based on a purely theoretical and inherently good fairness (a sense of justice for everyone), it is instead based on the question, “How much can I get away with without my students’ objections to my policy becoming too vocal and too frequent / How much can I get away with without losing too many students?” Remember, this is the same question that results in 35-cent-per-minute overage charges and $35 one-day late fees. Some may argue that capitalism itself is built around this question, but that still doesn’t make me want to be greedy. Even Adam Smith believed that greed is a vice.

If there is any one piece of advice I can give to teachers that would encapsulate the philosophy behind my entire studio policy, it would be to embrace the cliché, “The customer is always right.” As consumers, we piano teachers are no different from anyone else when we bring a complaint to the Target or Home Depot Customer Service desk:

This employee better darned-well take every word I say as truth, or I’m going to raise hell. I am not a liar. I will not be cheated, and if I think I’ve been cheated and the store doesn’t, I’m right and the store is wrong.

And you know what? If that’s how we feel about it, then a vast majority of times, we’re right. We have been cheated. We know this, and yet we turn around and construct a studio policy that cheats other people by design and tells people, “My way or the highway.” We let our waiting lists and reputations go to our head and create policies that simply have no place in the realm of ethical behavior, justifying it with fallacies and broken analogies. We brag that our studios are full even despite our unfair policies, which doesn’t mean as much as we think it means since just about any average teacher will eventually have a full studio given enough time (this is just a simple matter of demand for lessons). It is true that we can get away with more when we’re in greater demand, but do we really want to abuse our status? This makes us no different from crooked politicians who operate above the law once sufficient power has been gained. An unethical policy is no good no matter who we are.

(c) 2013 Cerebroom

  1. This is a good time to point out another attitude problem I’ve been guilty of myself in the past: the idea that giving anything (dance, soccer, gymnastics) priority over piano is unacceptable. We cannot expect music to take the same place in everyone’s lives as it does in our own – not everyone is as passionate about music as those who teach it. If we hold so few recitals per year that a student’s absence devastates the recital, then perhaps that’s a sign that we should hold more recitals per year. I hold three per year, which I regard as a minimum, I have six group classes per year that allow students to perform for each other and critique each other, and I also put my students into various recitals, festivals and competitions (if they’re willing of course) put on by local music teachers associations. When there are that many performance opportunities for students throughout the year, it’s not vitally important that every last one of my students plays in any particular event.
  2. Some might suggest I’m “more than fair” because sometimes the one- to two-minute phone calls occur during non-teaching hours, but considering the fact that all other business owners must spend uncompensated time on phone calls as part of their business model, I really don’t think it’s valid to think of phone call time with students as something “extra” that we “shouldn’t” have to do. It’s just part of the job, and we need to normalize it.

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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78 responses to Thinking Twice About Strict Make-Up Lesson Policies

  1. Chad, Great article which expresses stuff I’ve been saying for years and years. In the 25 years I’ve taught keyboards the only folks (a VERY small number of the hundreds and hundreds of folks I’ve instructed, have accused me of “non-professionalism” right before they delivered their abuse.) Most, the vast majority, are decent people who wouldn’t abuse a fly. This is so true that I have decided that those who want special favors are just con artists by nature. My current Studio Policies feature a very easy make-up policy ( for the simple reason that almost nobody abuses it and anyway, as you point out so well above, the 24 hour cancellation rule is just plain silly. Nobody thinks that a dead car battery is something you know about before it happens, and ditto you or your kid being ill.

    I’d love you even more (if possible!) if you could address the issue of how hard the piano is to learn and how much better for most folks it is to learn chords and keyboards.

    • Hi Dan, thanks and glad you liked the article! I have many articles in my drafts folder, so I’m not sure when I might get to an article about the difficulty of learning keyboard / benefits of learning keyboard / music theory, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind!

  2. So, what is your policy? Do they have to call ahead? Or do you give them make ups even when they don’t call or show? I offer make up lessons to those who call ahead – even just a few minutes before their lesson time. But I don’t give make ups to people who just don’t show up. And how do you enforce having your students do double the practice before agreeing to give them a make up lesson?

    I have read so many articles on having a no- make up policy. It was interesting reading your article that was the complete opposite.

    Thanks for the food for thought.

    • I don’t specify in my policy whether they must call ahead or not. I think people already know that calling ahead is always better, but sometimes last minute cancellations can’t be helped. As for the no-call, no-show, yes, I do offer make-up lessons if I have a place to put them in my schedule (but I never “bank” those missed lessons – and nobody has ever asked or expected me to). If the same person kept doing it over and over again, I would probably start to feel less generous, but that has never happened. I simply recognize that occasionally forgetting things is part of being human – on rare occasion, I forgot to attend lessons when I was younger, and as a teacher I’ve forgotten to show up to lessons before. And when I’m waiting for a student to show up, I end up practicing either my own repertoire or repertoire of students, which is something I’d normally do outside of my teaching hours, so again I’m not losing any time.

    • As for enforcing double practice time, it’s really not enforceable. I’d lose students if I sent them home when they come in and laugh off the fact that they couldn’t get double practice. But they usually do get more practice between lessons than they would have if the rule didn’t exist, and if they do get extra practice, I’m happy. The real kicker? If they don’t practice at all, I can still give the student a lesson that is very valuable to them. I can act as their practice facilitator (like their parent might do at home) and tell them to just practice like they do at home, pretending I am not there. Some teachers speak as if doing this is beneath them, and yet the best pedagogues have made it very clear that the ultimate purpose of a good lesson is to prepare the student to practice successfully at home, and nothing does this more effectively than having a lesson once in a while where we just monitor our students’ practicing and show them how to practice efficiently.

      I too have read tons of articles about having a no-make-up-lesson policy – we’ve probably read the same ones. 🙂 Thanks for your comment.

  3. I switched to a no make-up policy when my studio had grown to 57 students. I appreciate your thoughts on being able to offer make-ups lessons during business hours but what if a teacher does not have any extra business hours to offer make-ups? I was teaching 9am-5pm most days (many homeschooled students allowed me to do this) with just a lunch break. Some of those days involved teaching at my house part of the day and driving to students the second half. The schedule was tight with no option to vary it with makeups. The option of scheduling make-up lessons during cancelled lessons sounds like a good solution but would be much more complicated than you’ve described it. At least it would be in my studio with a mixture of public school and homeschool students. Let’s say a public school student needs a makeup lesson. It’s not going to work for the public school student to take any cancelled morning lesson slots. And then there’s the problem of a family of three needing to reschedule their lessons and only one-student slots being cancelled here or there. Not to mention the tight schedules of the families themselves as they wait for a a cancelled lesson slot to come up that finally fits with their schedule and lesson-length. This ends up being just crazy and most of my families seems relieved when I stopped offering makeups. They were freed of the obligation of working out a make-up lesson time or attending two lessons in a week. I admire you and your families for being able to work this out so seamlessly but I can not see this working out for teachers with large studios consisting of busy families.

    • Hi Sarah, my article already addresses many of the things that you mention in your reply, and I’d be interested to hear what you have to say after you read the article in its entirety. For example, the article already specifically addresses what to do when a teacher has “too many” students to allow for a fair policy, and it already mentions the scenario where a large sibling family has to use the swap list.

      As for public / home schooled students, this is a moot point because no teacher would ever make the claim that all teaching hours ought to be equally compatible with all students to swap with. How compatible your swap list schedule is with students’ individual schedules has all to do with the students and the choices they make for their own schedules, not with you, and people intuitively understand this – you don’t have to even explain it to them. I thought about this for like 1 second while writing the article but didn’t feel it merited mentioning because it’s like pointing out that the problem with a car is that it is not a truck.

      When I put “too many” in quotes in my first paragraph responding to you, this was very deliberate. The very act of allowing one’s studio to grow to that large size is a choice that the teacher makes, not students, not society… it’s the teacher’s decision. Teachers can say that life circumstances forced them to have to teach more hours in order to pay bills (that’s the most respectable explanation I can think of for taking on too many students), but this does not answer the question “why is it right or wrong to give make-up lessons or not give make-up lessons” – it only answers the question “what am I capable of offering, given the business size I have chosen to build in order to support the lifestyle I desire?” And again, when this is the case, my article already addresses how this should be approached. And believe it or not, I think you’ll agree with the conclusion I draw there, based on what you’ve already told me. You will find that the conclusion does not attempt to persuade you to change your policy as you seem to believe the article does.

      Also, I’d like to note that I had this policy back in Reno when I had 45 piano students (I taught 36 hours per week: Sunday through Friday, 1:00 to 7:00 – many of these students had 1-hour lessons because I had a lot of advanced students). A good number of them (probably 8 or 10 of them) were home schooled students.

      • Also regarding when you said, “…what if a teacher does not have any extra business hours to offer make-ups?” This seems to miss the point of my policy, which is to not give make-up lessons during any kind of “extra” hours but instead to give make-up lessons during cancellation time slots.

    • Sue

      I do agree with you, Sarah!

  4. Chad,
    Thanks for your reply. I understand where you are coming from with “too many students.” If the teacher’s schedule is too tight to permit good business practices (which you would consider no-makeups as falling into this category) then they have too many students. I will consider that point.
    I did read your article in its entirety. I did see where you discussed under “Good, not good enough,” how working with a large sibling family can make a swap list difficult but did not see where you offered a solution. Yes, you mentioned a sibling using another sibling’s lesson time but I am referring to when entire families are out sick, gone on family emergency, or on vacation. I work with many large families and most of the time when they cancel, it’s the whole family out for the week. My apologies if I missed where you discussed the “large family problem” further.
    I agree that it seems like an easy solution to offer a student who can not make their lesson a slot that was recently opened up. And even with my no-makeup policy, I have done that when there was a cancellation the same week. But if there is not another cancellation that week (I do not often get two cancellations in one week), do you ask the student to keep checking back with you to see if there is a cancellation in future weeks or do you keep a list of those who are waiting for makeups and then call through the list when a slot opens up?
    When you offer a student a canceled time slot and it does not work for their schedule, do they forfeit the make-up lesson or can they keep checking back about future opened time slots? If they can keep checking back, doesn’t that end up being a long list of students waiting for a makeup lesson and how do you fairly manage that? I am intrigued by the idea you ave presented but I’m curious how the details work.
    Thank you for your time.

    • Sarah, thanks for your thoughtful reply. Regarding siblings and the swap list, my article’s point is talking exactly about what you’re talking about, when lessons of the entire family are missed. My whole reason for bringing this up in the article is that there is no solution. That’s one of many reasons why the swap list is insufficient as an alternative to offering a fair make-up lesson policy. I offer a swap list and many other alternatives, but as I argue in the article, these alternatives aren’t enough by themselves to account for the unfairness of a no-make-up-lesson policy. So when you point out that there is no solution, you’re making my point for me. Exactly. That’s why we can’t pretend that the swap list offers enough of an alternative to students who can’t make up lessons, because even with a swap list, students still miss lessons.

      Regarding how I handle scheduling the lessons, I put students in charge and tell them to ask me to check my schedule every week at the beginning of their lesson, which is a very quick (almost instantaneous) thing for me to do (and it’s done on their time). No open time slot? Ok, ask me again next week. Sometimes there are 3 weeks in a row with no cancellations, and sometimes there is one week with 3 cancellations. But I always tell them that people don’t typically cancel more than a week in advance, so it makes the most sense to just keep asking each lesson. I don’t put any energy whatsoever into trying to remember who I owe lessons to – I just let nature take its course. Nobody gets priority – it’s just the luck of when people ask me. Those asking for make-up lessons does not pile up.

      I haven’t even discussed long vacation policy, but perhaps this would be a good place to do so. When people have to leave for 6 weeks, they ask what to do. I tell them they have 3 choices: 1) pay for all lessons 100% and we make up all of them (or as many as they want) over the course of the year (the responsibility of asking me to check my schedule is on their shoulders), 2) pay a 50% holding fee for all lessons (no make-up lessons), or 3) pay nothing and risk losing the time slot. I’ve had people pick all 3 of those options, and this last year I had a couple students opt for #1 because these kids said they wanted to improve more. 🙂 This is not printed in my written policy though, because some people just pay for the time slot in full, which obviously I prefer over the other two options. (And when they get back, I offer make-up lessons to them even if they didn’t know they could get any. Sometimes they’re just not interested in making them up.)

      Also, I keep my schedule as a Google Calendar that I make publicly available (just first names of students and times each week), and when I make changes to the schedule, it’s updated instantly. (I use CalenGoo to sync with my iPhone 5 – excellent app.) I give students iCal links on a password-protected webpage that my students have access to so they can even add the schedule to their smartphones. But before all of these bells and whistles, I still had the same policy (just a simple online swap list) and it worked just fine. It’s even easier with Google Calendar, but honestly I’m not sure how many students have added the iCal link to their personal calendars anyway – maybe a couple? (It’s always cool to get an e-mail or text, “Can I take the open spot on Monday at 4:30?” I text back, “Sure, you got it. See you then.” I love texting – it is so wonderfully brief and efficient. SO MUCH better than phone calls and e-mails.) But at least it’s all set up – I assume that in just 3-5 years, probably everyone will be taking advantage of it.

      • Sarah (a different one!)

        In a sense, Chad’s policy is analogous to a swap system, in that it allows students to shift among already-paid-for teaching time. It’s more practical, however, since the make-up can happen during any cancellation, rather than having to be a 1-to-1 exchange.

  5. Thanks, Chad. Your reply was very helpful. I’ll be looking to see how I can impliment some of those ideas in my own studio this year.

  6. kissyana

    I’ve found that if I am willing to be reasonably accommodating to my students, they are willing to be reasonably accommodating to me on the rare occasion that I need to reschedule. A bit of mutual respect goes a long way. I’m not out to get them and as far as I’ve experienced, they are not out to get me. Thanks for this article. I’m glad I stumbled upon your website!

  7. Deborah Baynes

    Hi I liked your article, I have to be the most lenient teacher about missed lessons there is. But I have a full studio and a wait list and no conflicts and by word of mouth I have developed quite a rep. I am a student teacher, still studying…My recitals are free, I put out a donation box and often I make money…I have 3-5 recitals a year with prizes and lots of extras…I right off my expenses…my students thrive and I also do exams and festival and out side performances I go to all their events…I am supportive. As a student teacher I learn by putting students in festival or master classes. I must say my students do just as well or better on exams and competitions as some of my colleagues, probably because I am fresh and have so much support in the teaching community…I have had amazing teachers. In general my families appreciate my flexibility, I offer a make up or to skip a lesson, sometimes I will just extend the next few lessons by 15 minutes to make up a missed lesson. Financially I have a “concept” that each week at least 2 students will miss and therefore I don’t 2 lessons a week in my expectations-paywise…I have been doing this for 10 years now and I get requests from people to switch to me all the time, unfortunately other teachers dislike my policy but they too…wonder why I the student teacher have a wait list?

    • Hi Deborah, it sounds like you are generating great excitement in your studio by providing students with true devotion as a teacher. I must confess I completely lost you grammatically and conceptually when you said, “and therefore I don’t 2 lessons a week in my expectations-paywise” – and I have a funny feeling that the whole point of everything you write in this response rests upon understanding this phrase. 🙂 Please clarify…

  8. Ariana

    I disagree with your assessment about private teachers who work from home. Yes, when the student cancels their lesson, it does mean you can stop and have a cup of tea or go and practice, vacuum, etc. However, it very rarely works out that way. If I turn down a paying gig because I’ve prioritized a student’s lesson and they then cancel it (expecting a make-up lesson) I’m screwed. Also, considering the many other things that go on in day-to-day life (doctor’s appointments, grocery shopping, etc.), when I give up my personal time to give students a makeup, it often means that I’m giving up time that I needed to take care of myself and my family. Furthermore, as a working musician, those precious “Free hours” are meant to be spent rehearsing for upcoming performances – Let’s face it: If I don’t take the time to prepare for my symphony rehearsal next week, I won’t be invited back, which then translates to more financial losses.

    • My paragraph in the article that begins, “That said, if we find…” also applies to your argument here. It’s perfectly fine to have a rigid policy out of necessity and have the humility that would be demanded by this limitation, but it isn’t fine to speak as if this policy were some kind of entitlement or the way music teaching ought to work. It is a scheduling limitation some teachers decide to impose upon themselves by constructing their income model the way they choose to construct it. Nothing wrong with it, just saying everyone is 100% responsible for the income model they choose, and part of taking responsibility for this is not making others feel like they’re responsible for it. Not all great piano teachers play in gigs, churches, orchestras, publish books, write music, etc. for income. Many of them rely solely on teaching for income, and they’re very good at doing so. Everyone else out there who our clients do business with only charges for services performed, and there is nothing inherent about teaching itself which makes it so students or their parents should treat us differently than everyone else. This is all about the humility we show toward clients. You and I can have rigid policies if we want, but if we act like this policy is fair and that anyone who has a problem with it is some kind of cheapskate loser, rather than admitting it’s not ideal and that it’s only in place because of our own limited schedules, we are being unprofessional and not taking full responsibility for the schedules we have constructed for ourselves.

      • Ariana

        I agree here – “but it isn’t fine to speak as if this policy were some kind of entitlement or the way music teaching ought to work.” However, I am very clear in my studio policy in what to expect from studying with me, but families still frequently push back.

        My makeup policy is “makeups only given for illness & emergency”, and I am willing to bend over backwards to give them their lesson in such a case. Honestly, it’s pretty normal to have 1 student be sick per week, and finding a half hour isn’t impossible. I’ve even told students that if they have a conflict with their lesson and if they give me a few weeks’ notice, that I’ll be happy to make up the lesson. The problem comes in when 4-5 students per week are canceling their lesson a few hours before to go to birthday parties, art shows, school book fairs – Events that must have been on their schedules for at least a few weeks. It’s frustrating when students who signed the policy at the start of the year decide that they want to be the exception to the rule. When I uphold my policy, they’ll often try to steamroll me into giving them a credit for the following month’s tuition or a makeup lesson at a time that I genuinely don’t have available.

        Talking about professionalism and humility in scheduling: When students first inquire about lessons with me, I make a point to discuss how the nature of studying music requires commitment and how weekly lessons and daily practice are key to success. The student simply won’t progress if they don’t make the effort to attend their lesson each week. My makeup policy is meant to encourage students to keep their commitment so the student can succeed. I think it’s a matter of respecting yourself and your clients enough to make that point very clear. I would be misleading a student if I let them believe otherwise.

        • If people frequently push back about any policy point, then I would suggest something is wrong with that policy point.

          I only give make-up lessons during my regularly-scheduled lesson time. Are you under the impression that my article advocates that you should schedule make-up lessons during your non-teaching hours? Your first response seems that way. My point about busyness was only a “besides” argument in the article, not to be taken as a primary argument. In my studio, people never push back for any reason because I make it clear to them through my actions that I give people every last make-up lesson they wish to have. I never infringe on my personal time to do this.

          Also see my paragraph that begins, “I’ve also heard…” (use ctrl-F in your browser to find stuff quickly). Statistically, random events happen in clumps. If your students have 1-2 schedule conflicts per week on the average, you are not going to experience 1-2 conflicts each week. You’re going to experience zero conflicts for three weeks in a row, then 5 or 10 conflicts the next week. So yes, once in a while we’ll experience some crazy weeks, but if you read that paragraph on respect, it’s not because people disrespect your policy or think lowly of piano teachers. It’s because people are generally intelligent and generally respectful and wish to do the right thing. But they also don’t want to be ripped off by a teacher who presents false alternatives as their justification for getting paid to do nothing. And as I said in the article, I allow students to bank lessons. If things are too busy now to make up a lesson, we can do it 1 or 3 months from now. And again, it’s never during my personal time. It’s really no big deal.

  9. Mike

    Hi Chad. I found your article interesting and it made me think, which is always great, especially since I’m looking at changing my policy for this upcoming Sep. My main ‘issue’ I run into with students (by ‘issue’, I mean conflict), is that they’re too busy to make up all the lessons they miss, so they just don’t want to pay for those. I offer a limited amount of MU’s (12 per 12 mo’s), which is almost always more than enough, but there are a few who just don’t want to fit an extra time in their week (I give them no deadline to MU), so they want to just cancel the lesson and not pay for it. I have a number of adult students, so as a result my evening times are all full. Some of them can only come at the exact day and time of the lesson (or so they claim), so even if I did have an opening through another cancellation, they pull the ‘too busy’ card. What would your policy be for someone like that? ie. 9 missed lessons, with only 2 made up. The rest were missed without pay or ‘made up’ during one of the next months’ regular lesson spot (which I don’t see as a ‘make up’).

    • Hi Mike, I no longer put any limitations on time or number of make-up lessons. I take all excuses away from students by being super flexible. If they miss a lesson tomorrow, we can make it up next year. Sometimes we extend their lessons by 15 minutes per week for a while, other times we have 2 lessons per week, and I’ve even had spouses and siblings take lessons in their place. However, one thing I am now noting (as I am re-establishing myself in a new area after being here only 2 years and therefore have a lot of students who are less committed than in my previous area) is that less committed students are more likely to try to take summers off. Roughly one-third of my students are doing this, in stark contrast to when I was well-established in another area, and only 1 or 2 out of 45 students would do this. However, I’m already getting a lot of new students at the moment who are more committed to improving themselves each week and who are more likely to stick with it through future summers, so I’m holding true to my policy. I have a good feeling that I will be full again by the end of the summer. Many of the students who are taking the summer off will not have time slots waiting for them when they get back, so in the long run, this policy actually helps my business by filtering down to the students who will give me a more reliable income year round.

      • Sarah

        Hi Chad, thanks for your great blog! I am planning to institute your policy this year with my students. I have a particular dilemma about students who take the summer (or part of it) off, as a number of my students do. If such a student wanted to schedule make-ups during the summer, when not enrolled in weekly lessons, I think I’d feel resentful – as though they’re giving me an involuntary vacation and then asking me to work during it anyway. I can’t say that I’m on vacation and unavailable, because I do teach virtually all summer, and in fact would teach them if they wanted lessons. I’m thinking of saying that make-ups have no expiration date but must be scheduled during periods of active lessons (in other words not during my vacations – or theirs), and that they are in addition to scheduled lessons, not in place of them. What do you think? Thanks!

        • I teach year round. My vacation time consists of 6 weeks here and there (i.e. 2 weeks for Christmas, 1 week for Thanksgiving, etc.), and I absolutely do not teach anyone, ever, during my vacation time. Well, I suppose if I were the one to cancel a lesson, I’d do whatever it takes to make up their lesson, including teaching on my vacation week. But other than that, my vacation time is sacred. But from my point of view, my summer teaching is no different from any other time of the year. I do take a couple weeks off during the summer, and one happy unintended consequence of this is that it helps people a little bit in not feeling like they’re missing as much if they leave during those weeks.

          • Sarah

            Thanks for your response! I was thinking of the roughly one-third you mentioned above, who are taking the summer off. So you would give “summer hiatus” students their make-ups during their hiatus, as long as it wasn’t during your vacation, correct? I might be inclined to say “I thought you were taking the summer off from lessons … Let’s schedule the make-up in the fall when you start up again …” thanks for being willing to hash this out – I think you’re really on the right track.

        • Yes, I would give lessons during their hiatus as long as it’s not during my vacation. However, that never happens – if people can take lessons, they do, because they must pay 100% and schedule make-ups (a pain for them), pay 50% with no make-ups (they pay 50% and get nothing), or they pay nothing and lose their time slot. People would much prefer to actually take lessons than any of those above options, so whenever people are around, they’re taking lessons.

  10. Mike

    What if they’re unwilling to pay because they don’t think they’ll ever get the amount of make-ups needed (because they miss quite a lot and they keep adding up faster than we can MU – again because of their inflexible times)? Tough luck, pay anyway? What if they quit (say they move) – do you reimburse them for the make-ups they didn’t receive?

    I really like the idea of leaving the ball in their court for requesting make-ups and using google calendar to allow them to be able to see what’s available week to week.

    On a different note (no pun intended) – how much time of vacation do you give yourself?

    • Hi Mike, in that case, they usually just “roll the dice” and not pay for their time slot – they hope I’ll have openings at the end of the summer, or sometimes they pay the 50% holding fee. They don’t usually pay 100% and then do a jillion make-up lessons. The difference usually lies in how many students are in the family. If it’s just a single student, paying a 50% holding fee for 6 weeks isn’t a big deal. But with a 3-sibling family, that’s harder to do. But it’s also harder for a piano teacher to hold a gigantic time slot in their schedule for no charge during a summer. As difficult and as unfortunate as this type of situation is, I cannot be expected to hold a time slot for free during summers any more than I can expect people to pay for lessons they do not receive.

      This assumes a teacher is in enough demand to be able to fill time slots relatively quickly when they open up. If not, then unfortunately the teacher is at the whim of their own demand – or lack thereof. I am fortunate enough to be in high demand.

      If I were to owe someone a bunch of make-up lessons and then they moved before I could complete them all, I probably would refund them. But this hasn’t happened yet. I doubt anyone would consciously plan for this to happen, because it still involves giving the teacher a 0% interest loan for at least several months before getting their money back. However, if you’re worried about not having the money to refund, with a little discipline, you could save the money from missed lessons people pay for and not spend it until you actually give the make-up lesson.

      The ball indeed is in their court with Google Calendar, however I still do encourage people to ask me first if there are any openings during the week. It’s always so much easier to just fill in an open time slot than it is for them to send out e-mails or make phone calls requesting swaps.

      I give myself 6 weeks per year of vacation time. 2 weeks for Christmas, 1 for Thanksgiving, 2 in the summer (usually June and August), and 1 week for sick days. The sick days are sometimes tricky – if I need to take 2 Mondays off in a year, for the 2nd Monday I have to cancel my Tuesday students and move my Monday students to Tuesday.

  11. Melissa

    You make some good points, and I’m not trying to play devil’s advocate, I’m just genuinely wondering…how DO you fit in all the make-up lessons? With no policy in place (and I’m not a “no make-up” teacher, I’m a “make-ups under certain circumstances” teacher), student attendance to their regular lesson averages out to…60% or so, I’d say. Out of a studio of 50, you’d have to make up 20 lessons per week. In theory, it’d work out because there’ll be the same number of open slots as needed make-ups, but with short notice, all bets are off. In a given week, 20 people cancel. 10 of them give you enough notice that you can realistically get someone else in their time slot. 10 of them roll over to the next week, when there are 20 more cancellations, and the whole thing compounds very quickly.
    I will admit that I kind of take umbrage to the idea that we don’t work full time hours. Teaching hours are not our only work hours. Although I’ve consciously cut back to a 40-50 hour per week work schedule, there’s SO much more that needs to be done. For a decently long while, I was working 60-70 hour weeks and still felt like I was constantly behind on everything.

    • Hi Melissa, for your first point, I’m not sure what to say, because in any given week during the year, with 30 students, on the average I might have 1 or 2 cancellations. Maybe 50% of those actually want a make-up lesson. When I had 45 students a few years ago in another part of the country, it was 2 or 3 cancellations per week, and same thing – probably 50% of the time they wanted to reschedule. I honestly don’t know why your students’ attendance is so poor.

      As for your second point, I will ask you a question that I too do not mean out of a devil’s advocate spirit but genuine curiosity: what technical/musical skills (or knowledge) do your students have that you would assume my students must not, given that I spend very little time preparing for lessons outside of lessons (which means probably 90% of the weeks I spend no extra time outside of lessons, and the other 10% I might do a little research on repertoire to assign for various festivals/competitions)? Literally 100% of my students get superiors in the local festivals each year (in both parts of the country I’ve taught), and I had 4 students learning concertos (one was a runner-up in a concerto competition) the year before moving (now I’m starting over with beginners and intermediate transfer students). Also before moving, my students were featured every year (with students of a few other teachers) in an annual arts festival concert series each year, attended by probably 500 people. I really don’t mean to toot my own horn, I’m just saying that I have had such serious doubts about the real necessity of “prep time” for the private music teacher that I even have a blog draft saved on this subject, because I fail to see the *results* of this extra time producing anything that makes me even remotely envious. Never at a single conference or in a single journal article have I seen anyone address this subject convincingly – they might talk about creating worksheets, but worksheets are not necessary – my students have never done a single worksheet and they are among the top incoming freshmen in music theory because I teach from a college theory textbook (which requires no prep work outside of lessons). Currently, I strongly believe (sorry, can’t help it – just being honest) that either 1) teachers aren’t being honest about just how much prep time they spend every week, and/or 2) they are (by their own fault) making their job way more time-consuming than it really needs to be. If the latter statement is true, then it wouldn’t justify a rigid make-up lesson policy, because the extra prep time doesn’t benefit students as much as the extra lesson time from a more flexible schedule would.” I apologize if the ideas here seem offensive, but these are my honest thoughts because again, I can’t even imagine what is so necessary to do for students outside of their lessons that it would double my teaching hours every week. I will eagerly await your reply!

      • SK

        Hey Chad, I know you are responding to Melissa here but I just wanted to pipe in. I agree with a lot of points in your Make up Blog. On the point of prep hours though, when I first started teaching I spent on average an extra two hours per day preparing lesson plans. This was because I had never taught before, had no teacher training and wanted to be good right from the get go. I teach contemporary voice lessons so I would spend extra time transposing songs for beginners to their own key and then learning how to accompany them. If I found a karaoke track for them I would transpose it using a software program. I did other various tasks that took time, that I was happy to spend. I spent a year doing that much prep until I built up enough chops and habits to spend quite a bit less time each week doing so. It ended up adding between 6-8 extra hours of work for me then. I think it really is different for each person.

        I am open to trying out what you are suggesting in this blog but I would not have been confident enough to do that when I first started out. I worked for a school initially that diminished my trust in customers based on their policies. It takes confidence and trust to believe that people will not take advantage of a generous make up policy. Those are great attitudes, possibly even necessary attitudes, and will probably get you further in life but in my opinion the greed of corporations has left a culture that lacks trust in people. I used to have a fear that strongly that it really held me back. I think it is good to ask commenters why your idea might not work for them but also if they are just open to the idea. If they are rigid it is probably coming from a place of fear. People reading this blog will probably have strong reactions. Your opinion is a strong reaction as well.

        • Hi SK, thanks for such a thoughtful response! You make a point here that I’ve been waiting for someone to make for years and years, and it makes perfect sense: the idea that inexperienced teachers legitimately need more time to make lesson plans than experienced teachers. It seems obvious now that you bring it up, but until now, I’ve never understood why some teachers felt lesson plans were so critical. That said, from the very first lesson I gave, I did not use lesson plans, and I always (even to this day) felt like I have so much to give to students and so little time to do it. Lesson plans would just get in the way, because I “derive” what to do with each student each week based on the progress I see. But I think the instrument and the method can make a huge difference here. Piano students pretty much never need their teacher to transpose something, and yet that would be so essential for voice instruction. On top of that, certain methods might lend themselves to requiring more supplemental material than others. And thank heavens I don’t have to play some other instrument in order to teach piano – I can just be the tunnel-visioned pianist that I am, and if my students need accompaniment, well, piano is what I do.

          Yes, trust is important. Trusting other people has always come very naturally to me. On a personal level, I see the best in others and always want to believe they’re not out to get me. This carries into business, and I give people the freedom to get what they want from me. Some people are more picky than others, but on the average, I’m still the one to come out ahead.

          My first 5 years of teaching were away from home, in a couple of different music stores, and of course naturally and rightfully I had a strict make-up lesson policy. This policy sort of just “carried” into my at-home teaching (it simply didn’t occur to me to loosen up my policy when I made that transition), and it was the influence of other music teachers through journal articles and conference presentations that provided me with the justification for keeping my policy strict. Finally, I ended up losing students because of this.

          I know it’s a strong opinion, but so are pretty much all the articles on my blog. 🙂 It’s not the strong opinion I’m worried about, it’s the strong opinion that is not supported by solid arguments.

  12. Anonymous

    I do offer makeup lessons but only a few a year, if a student consistently cancels, I cannot makeup all the lessons, and that student knows it. I do offer the swap system and that works great! I have the students make the swap, And I do charge for no shows, but if the student begs me to make it up, I cut them some slack and do it once, I pay for the recital and all extra prizes and treats, and I even give free lessons on occasions. The kids and parents love my policies.

    • Hi Anonymous – this describes what I do exactly, except that I do pass a collection plate at recitals and ask for donations since it costs me $200 to rent the sanctuary at the church where my recitals are held. It’s a breathtaking church (incredible acoustics / reverberation) with a 7-foot concert grand, worth every penny, even when the donations only add up to $100.

  13. Chris

    Yes, Chad! Thank you! I have always allowed make-up lessons, and never required 24 hour notice. Most families give plenty of notice, anyway. I keep a studio calendar online, open to students and parents to view when ever they want, and update it daily. Students can conveniently see what is available for weeks ahead and plan accordingly. I always keep track of the time I owe them and plan for “super lessons” when a cancellation occurs before or after their lesson that we can use. Students love the extra time, and so do I. I never have to teach sick children, and I know I won’t lose income because we make up the time! I teach out of my home, so I usually practice, chat with my family, start dinner, or file music when I have a no-show. I’m sure I would feel differently if I had to pay studio rental, but my policy works very well for me and my families, and I’m proud to be different. Great article. Would you mind if I shared a few excerpts with my parents?

    • Chris, I like your label of “super lessons” – I might borrow that since I often do the same thing. Since one does not need permission to summarize ideas, I assume you’re asking for permission to reprint parts of my article. Yes, absolutely, as long as you give people the source (Cerebroom –, which I’m sure you would have done anyway. 🙂

  14. Linda

    I just started following your blog and am SO happy to have found you. This, and all of your blogs, is so very realistic, insightful, complete, and fair. You must be a very kind and delightful person. So far your blogs have not been like any others I’ve come across relating to piano lessons. I have taught private piano in my home for over 30 years. I started out travelling home to home. I have a smaller group–usually between 12 – 18 students. I find I feel very in-line with your beliefs. Thank you and please keep going!!!:)

    • Thanks so much Linda! I haven’t published a new article for a while, but I’m still very active right now in my intellectual pursuits. More will come eventually! (Trying life without a nanny for the first time in 8 years… not easy!)

  15. Chad, it is really interesting reading your progression through your policies! I have personally found that my make-up policy that I have currently works the best. Basically, if a student is sick, I actually WANT the family to cancel, with as much notice as possible. And, if they have a conflict, I just ask for 24 hours notice. Then, all of my students have access to my online scheduling system. Through that, they can see what is available (and I’ve blocked off time when I need personal time), and if there is something that works for their schedule they can make it up. My students pay a flat monthly fee, and I find that when I’m sick, out of town or on vacation, most of them don’t even schedule make-ups — they just skip it. But of course, there is no refund or anything, because they know in advance that they will receive 44 lessons each year at least, maybe more if they’re lucky. This mutual respect, as you discussed in your post here, works out really well for me. When I respect their time and they respect mine, and when they have the opportunity to make-up lessons and if they don’t it was their own decision, it all seems to work out well. I have had zero complaints about this system and I hardly have any make-ups.

    I do plan to add a swap list in the near future, but it will be in addition to the options I’ve mentioned here, not in lieu of. I would rather people swap if they want a make-up than to actually take up a time that I would otherwise have free, so I see it as a win-win for everyone.

    • This is essentially the same as what I do, except instead for me the “online scheduling system” consists of people e-mailing or texting me (and of course my students use the swap list).. It usually only takes a minute or two to confirm a time with me, so it works well. My students pay for 46 lessons per year at a flat monthly fee. Good to see someone using the same system I use and also experiencing the same zero complaints I experience.

  16. Molly

    I like your perspective. What are your thoughts on those with a small studio with few cancellations? I have a swap list started that doesnt always workout because I only have 15 students. How should I offer alternative makeups myself?

    • The order of operations for students in my studio has always been: 1) call or text me to see if I have any cancellations or empty slots, 2) refer to swap list. When I was teaching 45 students a week (6 hours a day, 6 days a week), students had to rely more on the swap list. Now that I have less students (by choice), students rely less on the swap list because it’s easier to just plug them into a different day or move their time. Look at it this way: if you only had 2 students on 2 different days, would you really care if you moved one of them to another day one week? The more non-teaching time you have each week, I would think the less bothersome it becomes to be extremely flexible for students.

      • Molly

        Thanks again for your thoughts. My “strict” policy puts so much burden on me to have to decide if an excuse is valid or if less than 24 hour notice is ok for a situation….I am looking to relieve that. I admit it will be tough to implement giving makeups for last minute cancellations or no shows….even if it is in my normal teaching hours. It is rude behavior and so many of us teachers take it personally if we allow a makeup lesson for it. But there really are some legit reasons why last minute calls happen or parents forget to call to cancel a lesson when something comes up to distract them. I am contemplating having a set makeup slot certain days in my teaching block since I do not have a lot of cancellations with a small studio. First come first serve.

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  18. Anonymous

    Thanks, Chad. Your take is perfect. I switched to this after I read your article in full. Made total sense. I just sent out an email last winter (spring?) saying “Here’s the new policy…” in a sentence or two. Threw it up on my website. (Put it formally into policy update in August.) It was very freeing, actually; I no longer felt like the “piano nazi” (“No makeup for you!”) No stress over makeups anymore. No one feels like they’re not getting what they have paid for. Even though not one person has actually asked for a makeup! It’s amazing. Thanks so much.

    • So glad to hear that Anonymous! And I definitely relate to the freeing, liberating, stress-free feeling. I’d rather have that than a few more minutes of paid free time each week.

  19. I read your whole blog and thought that it was an interesting suggestion to offer make up lessons in cancelled time slots. I tried it out and within two weeks I had more cancellations than I’ve had in two years. I had students parents lose track of how many make ups they had and one student emailed to miss a lesson because they were slightly tired that week. I think it might work for some but for me it’s been a little bit nightmarish logistically. I’m going back to my original policy starting in January in which I offer one make up lesson per semester to be used within the month in which the lesson was cancelled. To each their own!

    • Wow, more cancellations in 2 weeks than in 2 years? Even if only 1 student were to cancel each month (which would be unheard of in a studio of 20 or more students – not even college professors can boast that kind of nearly-perfect attendance by their students), over a 2 year period that would be 24 cancellations, which would require you to have had 25 cancellations in 2 weeks under the new policy.

  20. Anne

    Oh my gosh I can’t believe what I’m reading. FINALLY…someone who has justified my thoughts! I’ve been teaching for 20 years. I’ve tried every make up policy you can imagine. Finally, I offer make ups when a student cancels. I have a couple of slots that I keep open for make ups as well. Yes those are my “free time” slots if I don’t have a lesson. I just enjoy that free time when I have it!

    I teach approx 5 hours/day and spend approx 2 hours every morning with bookkeeping, choosing rep., billing etc…
    I’ve had 2 burnout periods where I considered myself a work-a-holic. It’s easy to feel that way during a burn out phase. I also feel like a work-a-holic when I fail to schedule personal time over a long period, or when I can’t leave work at work. That’s a personal problem…in my opinion:) I feel like our job is truly never ending sometimes …there’s ALWAYS something we FEEL like we need to be doing. So in my mind I’m working 24-7. Anyone reading this….does that happen to you? Thoughts?

    The “Make up Lessons from an Economist Point of View” article has never settled with me 100%. I sincerely appreciate the author for trying to help us out. Haha. However, your exact arguments are what have been floating through my mind all these years. I have spoken my mind to teachers and I get blank stares or I’m looked at like a traitor. Lol. .

    yes I’ve been through just about every mind set with make ups. I have felt taken advantage of at times. I have felt disrespected at times. I’ve wanted to scream “who do you think I am?! Just your run of the mill teacher?! ” “I spend every waking moment dedicating my life to these kids and you have the nerve?!….”

    I have found the balance for myself and my students. Examine your parents. Talk to them. Be real with them. I sat down with a group of 10 parents who have been with me for 7+ years and explained OUR side of the story as teachers…WITHOUT a smug defensive attitude.(that was hard) I said “Teaching piano is unlike any other business. I am going to share with you in detail what surrounds the make up lesson issue. I would like to come up with a reasonable policy that works best for ALL of us. Share your thoughts. I will listen.”
    They had no idea what we go through. Why would they unless they were in our shoes? I was amazed and grateful that we were able to chat like adults and the mutual respect was there and grew.
    New students might question my policy, but at least now I can comfortably defend them bc I know I’m being reasonable.

    I wrote this to share my thoughts and experiences in hopes it would help others. Please understand…I’m aware that what I do won’t work for everyone. I’m not trying to change anyone’s mind. Do what is best for you and your students!

    • Linda H.

      I read this blog awhile back….it’s great! I’ve been teaching piano for years in my home. My studio is small, but my policy for makeup lessons is:
      I will make up your lesson when you miss it, but if you can’t or don’t, I am still to be paid for that lesson. If I miss the lesson (SO rare), I will make it up or refund. Mostly this has been great and my parents agree, or at least don’t complain 🙂
      HOWEVER, just a few weeks ago a parent called and cancelled a lesson for her daughter…she was locked out of her house, etc., etc. I offered to make it up, but she “couldn’t.” The following week, daughter came to her lesson with her monthly check dated and signed, but blank otherwise. Seems like a passive-aggressive way to have me NOT charge her for that missed lesson…have ME fill in the amount. Well, I hadn’t done it yet. So…. NOW just this afternoon the mom texted me and again for another reason (a sudden “fit-in appointment” for an ultrasound) she won’t be able to bring her daughter to her lesson yet again. I again said that I had a makeup time for daughter, but so far I haven’t yet heard back. I will now fill in the full amount of the month for sure, but geez, it’s so ANNOYING!

      • Anne

        Linda! I’m so glad you brought that up! In the past, I’ve offered make ups and the parents couldn’t make any of the days/times offerered. It kept happening and before I knew it I had a list of about 30 lessons that needed to be made up. They couldn’t make the times I offered or they “forgot” about the ones they had scheduled. Comments were made that told me “these people are expecting make ups or refunds even though my policy states make ups are not guaranteed and no refunds.” I finally just set aside an entire week at the end of the semester for make ups basically stating “last chance.”

        I love the passive aggressive blank check. Bahhha. Has happened many times.

        I really like your policy though. I think that’s a great alternative to “you have to make it up this week or next week.” It would also prevent the scenario I mentioned above. I think it gives us more control as well. I feel like I’m at their mercy and they are controlling my schedule when it’s the other way around. I hope that makes sense.

        • Linda H.

          That was really nice of you to actually set aside a “last chance” week for makeups that had been adding up. I don’t know if I’d do that. Did a lot of them take advantage of it?

          I am paid at the first lesson of the month for that entire month’s lessons. If they skip/miss a lesson, I don’t refund. If they are sick I sometimes apply that lesson $ toward the next month, although I really shouldn’t. The only part that doesn’t work out for the way I charge is when in advance the parent knows they will be out of town or something is scheduled on piano day and they only pay for the lessons they know they will be coming for. Then I’m sort of out-of-luck. That’s why the flat tuition payment schedule would be a better option, but I haven’t gotten around to implementing it.

          (FYI–the student I wrote about in the 1st comment never came for a makeup time. I am annoyed, but will just write her check out for the full month of lessons….and cash it!)

  21. Katie

    Hi Chad, Thank you for this article. I found this doing a semi-enraged google search about music teacher make up policies after being chastised by my daughter’s piano teacher. She has a contract that says no make ups but when we first started, and I asked her what happens if something comes up during the year –is there any flexibility and she indicated that she liked to keep a strict schedule and was very full but in special circumstances she would always try to work something out. So, this week, on Sunday, I find out my daughter has to show up 2 hours early to her school choir concert on Wednesday, which is smack dab in the middle of her piano lesson. Her teacher just finished her vacation and Piano Guild is coming up, plus she is 110$ an hour. So I’m thinking–lost money (lots of it), missing a crucial lesson before a big piano evaluation…what do I do? So I emailed the mother of the kid that goes before my daughter who I met a handful of times and asked her if she’d be willing to switch times with my daughter so she goes 1 hour earlier, finishes in time for choir and he takes her time slot. Hardly a blip of change for the teacher. Normally my daughter walks in while he’s walking out. I also email the teacher and tell her my dilemma. The teacher responds around midnight, and offers a slot an evening slot the day after, saying she normally doesn’t have lessons later than 6 but she’ll squeeze her in “just this one time”. I sense irritation and wish that the other woman had gotten back to me, but I email back thanking her profusely. The next morning, the other mom gets back to me saying that it’s no problem she doesn’t mind switching if the teacher doesn’t. So, I contact the teacher who just lays into me telling me never to do this again, she controls the schedule, she doesn’t ever allow students to switch spots, and at 52 years old, with a crammed full schedule, barely holding my family together at 110$ an hour, I don’t like to be scolded. I apologize, explaining I thought I was making it easier for her by saving her any disruption and she lectured me about how she: already filled my daughter’s regular slot and by switching with another student I created confusion (But I hadn’t switched. This is two days before the lesson and all I did was get willingness from another parent to switch times). She said she can’t switch students because she creates specific lesson plans that she has ready for each student and might not have the right plan ready if we switch (but they literally go back to back-no time for her to stop and make a lesson plan between them no matter which order they go in), that I signed a contract explaining this, and once again, I’m 52 years old and I’m paying her a lot of money per hour and I was being REALLY RESPONSIBLE, I think. And my daughter only has to make this arrangement because of a school choir event that would affect her grade if she missed and hell–it’s another musical pursuit. Am I crazy or am I not the parent for whom these rules are made? Because right now, I am becoming the parent that is being pushed to rage by a policy.

    • Katie, I’m so sorry to hear about that. It’s so unfortunate when others become so hyper-defensive that they won’t even listen to what you’re saying: that you didn’t actually switch times, you only got approval that a swap could take place if the teacher wishes. What you did was very thoughtful and respectful of the teacher’s time. Swapping times with other students shouldn’t be a big deal, lesson plans or not.

  22. Ceci

    My daughter’s former music teacher had a strict no make-ups policy, even for absences we knew about weeks in advance. But if he had to miss a lesson, he would propose make-up dates, so I knew he had some flexibility in his schedule. I was too mousy to make a fuss. It is helpful to know that some music teachers are more flexible, so thank you for your article.

  23. I have a 100% makeup policy and it works very well.

    What you said about using cancellations to do them does not work because either my students or the parents who drop them off are not free. It used to go out of personal time, but I ‘m now trying to change that, as I am starting to take on more students than I used to earlier.

    I’ m so glad to read this article, because parents and students often have genuine difficulties and need flex. Students who are relaxed, because the class schedule suits their needs, learn better.

    • Stephanie

      Eliza, What is your 100% makeup policy if you don’t use cancellation or personal time?

      • Hello Stephanie,

        I teach 3 weeks a month, and use the last week for make-ups. Students who need more time book longer classes or take extra class during week 4 subject to availability.
        I also use the extra week to arrange free group classes, when students are able to make it.

        When I need leave, I inform all parents that I won’t be available that week, and make ups will be done the following month. And when they go on holiday for 4 weeks, I allow them to make up the missed classes over 3 months.

        Most of my students reschedule class once a month – for various reasons. Students not well, the parent who brings them not well, school events, parents working late, birthday parties etc. I allow cancellations upto 5 mins before class time.

        Students who don’t cancel cannot make up the class. I call if the student does not reach class on time.

        It’s working quite well. I don’t teach from the 29th to the 31st. I used to use these days for makeups, but have stopped that now, and it’s really quite nice!

  24. Nina

    Hi Chad,

    What would you recommend for a larger music studio that employs 15 teachers and offers multiple classes for different instruments per day? Our problem is that the students not only book a time slot, but a room. It becomes very hard to schedule make ups when they are double-booking a room (their original time slot and the make up time slot) and the teacher’s availability. Because we are always growing our clientele and increasing our studio capacity, it seems unfeasible to acquiesce to every customer request to reschedule – not to mention an administrative nightmare since we have over 200 students.

    Previously, we offered conditional make-ups (e.g. sick, car trouble, school events, unavoidable conflicts, etc.), but at one point, we lost our “true” calendar, meaning makeup lessons were everywhere and it became really hard to tell which days were available when booking new students. It was also inconvenient for those new customers who wanted to book lessons (thus a consistent time and day) only to be told that a 1 or 2 weeks down there was another customer with a makeup lesson, so they would need to reschedule that week.

    Further inconveniences were make ups for make up lessons, of which we saw quite a bit. In the scenario described in the last paragraph, this was frustrating as we held that time and day for the make-up student and postponed scheduling a new customer only to find out (mostly on the day of the lesson) that the already rescheduled customer wants to reschedule again.

    We have also had the unfortunate experience of having customers abuse our previous makeup policies, such as requesting a reschedule because they want to go shopping; we’ve also (quite humorously) caught a few customer’s lies (receiving a makeup for the reason they were sick and could not come only to find out they had gone to the beach instead, haha)

    Although we regret not being able to accommodate all rescheduling requests, offering only 1 make up lesson per month seems the only plausible way to operate our studio currently. However, I would welcome any advice and suggestions you may have! We do want happy customers, but we also want things to run as smoothly and cost-efficiently as possible.

    Thank you for your time! I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your article.

  25. Music School Director

    This was such an informative blog and, I agree, such a humble approach. I run a music school and we’re having a challenge with our make-up lesson policy. Before I came, our teachers (independent contractors) used to not be paid for “Excused Absences.” So if half their students called out – whether in advance or same day – the teacher would not be paid for hours they spent here at the school, waiting for the students that followed. I changed the policy to require students to pay for their timeslot whether or not they showed or were excused. But if they were excused, with 24 hours notice, they would qualify for a make-up lesson. A Same Day cancellation would be offered a make-up lesson only at the discretion of the teacher.

    It’s still a challenge. There are only so many hours (half-hours) that we can offer make-up lessons for a particular teacher. My staff tries to fill every “E” with a make-up lesson, but sometimes the student’s schedule just doesn’t permit. If a student doesn’t receive their make-up lesson within 60 days, we offer a credit. We have decided to limit the number of Excused absences a student can have in a 6-month period but I’m hesitant to announce and enforce it. I am really struggling trying to determine the best way to make everyone happy, and not lose money for the school.

  26. Anonymous

    I have taught in a studio for over 40 years. Now I will be teaching at home. A child was permitted to miss one lesson per month. If any more than one lesson was missed in that month, he/she would have to pay for it.

  27. Julie

    As I teach at 4 different locations, if a student misses their lesson on one day, there’s no way for me to make it up on another day. As a teacher who’s had far too many students ask for me to stay late or accommodate a different time so they can go to a party every week, often last minute, it absolutely would take my personal time to do that. Most places I work have a no make up policy. And inside of that, I’m often flexible. I offer families other times if I have them, or am willing to extend two lessons to make up the time when I can have advance notice to arrange my schedule as such. But as most days I’m driving at minimum 30 minutes to where I teach, I’d have to drive an extra hour to teach that student on a different day, for a 30 minute lesson. Also I get sick sometimes too. I don’t charge for those lessons, but I’ve had parents be extremely upset that I have to cancel. And for families who are not great with me if I am ill, why would I be great with them when they are. I do know many teachers have a no makeups policy, but offer that if you need to switch, you can ask another family in the studio to come at your time, and trade spots. This works very well for some teachers, and if you teach in one location could work extremely well. As I don’t teach from home, that slot is lost for me. I’m not able to really do something else productive in that time. While I do often make exceptions, when I start having to make them too often, I feel used and abused. And my personal time is negatively effected. We often pay for things we don’t use, like produce that goes bad, or a missed plane. And parents wouldn’t ask their child’s classroom teacher to teach them extra because of a day missed because they were sick. To me that’s not any different than me. People make time for what’s important to them.

    • Julie, I know this is much after the fact of your post, but I was reading through all these comments to see if anyone was in my similar situation to figure out how to best update (or not update) my make-up/absence policy. I believe we may be in similar situations. I teach in a rural area in several locations in different towns. Even with teaching in multiple locations, because of the small populations of the small towns and the distance between towns, I have some students that drive forty minutes to an hour to one of my teaching locations to take lessons from me (this took several years of building my reputation, but it’s been great). Of course, that means if a Thursday student misses their lesson scheduled in a particular town, and Thursday is the only day I teach in that town, they can only makeup that lesson if someone else on a subsequent Thursday cancels, thus making them have a “double” lesson that is longer. Or a broken lesson-the makeup time, a break where other students have lessons, then their regularly scheduled lesson time. It also means I can only fill that missed lesson time if someone on that same Thursday needs to make-up a lesson. Despite offering, I’ve, not surprisingly, never had students want to travel to one of the other towns for a makeup lesson. Many of my families are in agriculture and therefore have their schedules and travel down to the minute-even employing grandparents and neighbors to take the students to lessons during harvest, planting or other seasonal work that extends their workday. Understandably, these families rarely want to swap times or even have the ability to be flexible to aid other students having makeup lessons.

      So it’s made me have a rather strict make-up policy. Students pay a flat rate for tuition based on a certain number of lessons during the year (I break it down into semesters that correspond with recitals) and I’ve adjusted the tuition rate to equal three free lessons a year-meaning students can cancel three times knowing they did not pay for those lessons in the predetermined tuition…or they can attend every week on the yearly schedule and get three “free lessons.” I’m unsure if this is the best way to solve my multiple location dilemma or not? And I’m open to suggestions.

      I use to offer make up lessons. I use to hold a makeup lesson Saturday one day a month in different towns. I have done makeups where you try to fill in any gaps in your schedule with other students needing makeups. And I’ve also tried no makeups or credits at all.

      It all came to a head last year. I had three families who have students involved in many activities request to not makeup lessons that the student missed. They just wanted to pay for the lessons the student attended and have that designated time/day available for when the student could attend. In the beginning I actually tried to be supportive of this, because of the difficulty of makeup lessons with studios in different towns and my desire to be able to offer lessons in these small towns that rarely have private instructors. At one point I had one student who attended every third lesson scheduled, another who missed one lesson a month, and the third family (which had three siblings taking lessons) have at least one of the siblings miss a lesson every week. And every month the check would come in for however many lessons the student took the preceding month. It was very disappointing. This was compounded by the fact that since I have limited availability in a given town, I tend to run a waitlist. It felt like these students were taking opportunities away from other students who would make the commitment to learning an instrument while also messing with my income and financial planning.

      Since I’ve implemented the new flat rate and built in makeup lessons into the tuition I’ve lost two of those families. But every other family/student has never missed more than the three “free lessons” and most never miss any lessons anymore at all.(Everybody likes to feel they are getting a deal or perk).

      But I am terribly interested in other comments and ideas from other teachers. I try to keep an open mind and adjust my policies as needed to be best for my livelihood and respect student finances and time. Anyone have other suggestions or similar experiences with multiple studio locations?

  28. Beth C.

    I think there’s a flip side to this…forgive me if someone asked this already and I missed it. My students’ parents pay monthly tuition, and I am extremely flexible with makeups. But recently I had two different parents tell me that they were going to miss a lesson, so they would “adjust” the tuition and send a lesser payment. Of course, I responded with the fact that tuition remains the same, but I was willing to makeup the lesson another time. I received a response that “they were not going to pay for lessons they don’t get and they don’t have time to schedule makeups.”

    Do you drop the student or cave in?

    • Anonymous

      Wow. Just wow. How presumptuous! I have a similar policy. Sometimes it really comes down to the $$. Can you afford to lose them, do you have replacements? If it is clearly stated in your policy and they have signed it saying they agree to abide by it, then they have no choice but to pay! Maybe instead of a make-up, you can extend a couple lessons by a few minutes. If they aren’t willing to make it up, especially if YOU are, then they have no choice but to forfeit and pay. I put that in my policy. Good luck!

      • Speedy Fingers

        Hi I have a question for you. My policy is simple “24 hours”. That’s it. I always offer a makeup but if we can’t find a time to schedule I refund the student.

        However, recently I had a parent cancel a lesson less than 24 hours notice two lessons in a row (I offered a makeup in both cases). She didn’t want a makeup she wanted a refund even when one of my offers was for her child to stay longer after their initial time. Most parents would jump on that but she was upset at my policy and was asking me to change it (to basically have no policy).

        I do have an extremely busy schedule which is why I keep my policy simple with the option for refunds instead of makeups. (I work in three schools and teaching home students is a treat on top of everything).

        I’ve been pretty lenient with my policy in the past and have even forgiven less than 24 hours notice in some cases.

        As a result I did lose this student because they didn’t want to do the makeup.

        What are your thoughts of refunds? My request is 24 hours notice I say “no exceptions no makeups” but I always offer a makeup anyway despite “my policy”. But for a refund I felt this was unfair. Most parents who know my policy would never cancel with less than 24 hours unless it was for good reason and even then offer to pay it (despite me arguing to give them a makeup). I’ve never had a parent upset that I wouldn’t refund them.

        • Speedy, this person is one of the 5 percent of people or so who are just going to be poisonous to your happiness as a business owner no matter what you do. Your policy is already way too lenient in my opinion, and these people completely normalized this lenient policy (took it for granted) and still wanted more. It’s always difficult to lose wonderful students because their parents have zero ability to empathize with the teacher, but please know that you’re better off without these people even if you needed the money. Those people do not appreciate the fact that unlike plumbers, dentists and grocery store owners, your entire income is supplied by only 20, 30 or 40 people. The same people every week. Your business model simply won’t work (i.e. won’t allow you to have sanity and peace of mind) when your clients get to cherry pick which weeks to pay for and which weeks not to.

          Everyone needs a policy that they feel fits them, but personally I’d do away with the option to get refunds. If I cancel, I bend over backward to give a make-up lesson, and if I can’t, I issue a refund. But if someone else cancels the lesson, they have no right to expect me to make up the lesson. They can use the swap list or fill in gaps in my schedule, and they have to take charge in setting those things up themselves. They are not allowed to change my hours of operation – they can’t make me teach later or start earlier to do make-up lessons. (If they don’t set up make-up lessons themselves, I find myself working hardest for those parents who are least committed to their weekly time slot in my schedule. My extra work ends up being inversely proportional to how much they deserve the extra work.)

        • Beth C.

          What a wise answer. I agree fully…there are times your peace of mind has to come before finances. If you cave in, I think you would always feel a strain when teaching this student, feeling they are taking advantage of you and them thinking they are in charge, not you. You managed before the student was on your schedule and you’ll manage afterwards.

  29. I LOVE this. I have a policy very much like this. My reasoning is that if I have to cancel a lesson (and eventually make-up) because I have to stay home with a sick kid, if I expect my families to be understanding I need to have the same understanding with my students. The policy has been working very well for me and I only teach during the three days of the week I set aside as teaching time. Because of my policy I have had families who have patiently stood by me through two maternity leaves and helped me stay healthy by not coming sick to lessons. It is fantastic, I am very excited to read that someone else has similar thoughts to mine with similar studio success.

  30. Sarah

    I wanted to let you know that I instituted your policy 18 months ago and it has saved me an incredible amount of hassle, evened out my income (I was a pushover before), and resulted in my students having more instruction time and making more progress. Thank you for all the time you put into explaining it!

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