Flat Tuition Payments For Private Music Lessons

Years ago, a piano teaching colleague and friend of mine gave up teaching piano and switched careers. I could hardly believe this, because whenever we talked on the phone, he always brought as much excitement, curiosity, and fascination into our conversations about teaching as I did. What could make such an enthusiastic teacher suddenly decide to go nuclear and quit teaching altogether?

Payment policy, that’s what.

As a traveling teacher, he drove to his students’ homes, and if his students forgot about their lesson with him, he wouldn’t get paid. With a policy like that, one wonders why he didn’t switch careers sooner.

pcyI persuaded him to take a look at my policy of flat tuition payments, and after a lot of discussion, he decided to copy my policy verbatim and go back to teaching. He has been teaching happily to many happy students ever since.

Here is how it works, and I’d recommend that every teacher in every country, everywhere, always forever, do this themselves:

  1. Figure out how many weeks per year you wish to teach. I teach 46 weeks per year, which gives me six no-lesson weeks.
  2. Multiply the number of weeks from step 1 by your hourly rate.  This is how much money you’ll make each year from a one-hour time slot.
  3. Divide this total amount per year by 12. This is how much a student will pay you each month for a one-hour time slot.
  4. Important: be flexible with make-up lessons, or you will come across to some of your students as trying to score paid personal time at their expense. See Thinking Twice About Strict Make-Up Lesson Policies for my very detailed analysis of this.

Everyone wins with this payment structure:

  • There is less talk about money and more focus on music since everyone always knows what they owe for that month’s payment.
  • Paying the same predictable amount each month opens up the possibility for students to set up online automatic bill payments with their banks, which several of my students do. I receive hard copy checks in the mail, and those who send payments this way don’t even have to pay postage. You don’t have to be a major corporation or utility to receive bill payments through bank bill pay services, and no special setup is required on your end. It’s a simple matter of students entering your name, address, etc. into their account’s bill pay section.
  • When teachers allow students to take “vacation weeks” of their own (choose when not to pay for lessons), the teacher will inevitably experience dramatic decreases in pay in summer months, especially June and August. Additionally, if students choose when to pay and not to pay, the teacher is effectively forced to take probably 3-6 weeks vacation each year, except that the vacation time is sprinkled throughout the year instead of taken in lumps as it should be (so it really isn’t vacation time). Imagine if high school teachers were told that their “free period” and lunch hour each day was now going to deduct from their salary since it now counts as “vacation time!” A teacher in this scenario will make less money from all of this sporadic vacation time, making it more difficult to take vacation time of their own.

When a teacher charges for each lesson rather than having up-front payments, inevitably students will cancel lessons and will experience reward for their cancellation (no lessons to pay for that week). 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, sometimes students do not request make-up lessons and instead just say, “See you next week,” even despite being offered alternate times.

This also gives the teacher the option to raise rates by increasing the number of weeks off per year rather than by increasing the monthly payment. For example, suppose you charge $50/hour, and you teach 48 weeks per year (so exactly 4 lessons per month), which means a student pays $200/month for a 1-hour time slot. You decide to keep monthly payments the same next year, but increase the number of weeks you take off from 4 to 6, meaning you teach 46 weeks per year instead of 48. You are still bringing in $2,400/year for a 1-hour time slot, but your rate effectively increases to $52.17/hour since the annual $2,400 income is now divided by 46 lessons per year instead of 48. Of course, this does not bring in more money per year, so it’s an indirect rate increase, but it can give teachers the very important intangible benefit of time off that they need to recharge themselves throughout the year.

How do single lessons and refunds work? When it comes to refunding, always refund the true amount based on your hourly rate, so in the above scenario, a single lesson refund would be $52.17.  But when people pay you for a single lesson, if they make the error of assuming your hourly rate is $50 (because your payment table still has round numbers and people tend to think of lessons as being “four per month”), just let it go. It really doesn’t happen often enough to matter. I don’t explain these mathematics to my students, but many of them have clearly taken time to figure it out, because they always seem to pay the correct amount when paying for single lessons.

One reader asked, “How would you advise switching from a billing-by-the-lesson method (I send out invoices the end of the month for the lessons had) to a flat rate method? I wouldn’t feel comfortable making students pay two large sums at one time.”

To switch from pay for lessons already given to lessons already received without inflicting too much pain on students, I recommend moving up the payment due date by an average 2.5 days each month, for 12 months. If one starts doing this in February, just having payment due on the last day (the 28th) would be enough since that moves payment up by 3 days (January 31 to February 28).  In March, payment is due on the 26th, in April, the 23rd, in May, the 21st, and so on. By the time you make it to next January, you will have collected 13 payments, and payments will again be due on the 1st of the month.

I also have the following points in my policy:

  • If the teacher cancels a lesson for any reason, a) it will count as one of the teacher’s 6 no-lesson weeks, b) the teacher will reschedule the lesson, or c) the student will be credited the next month for the missed lesson. If the client cancels a lesson, the teacher will reschedule it upon request if it can be scheduled during normal teaching hours (i.e. taking the time slot of another student who cancelled).
  • If a student wishes to have a rescheduled lesson that creates two lessons in one week, the student must also commit to extra practicing to make the extra lesson worthwhile.

Additional policy recommendations:

  • Increase your payment every year by a very small amount – anywhere between $0.50 and $3.00 per hour, depending on what happened that year with your education, what your students did, the SSA’s annual COLA, etc. This is far better than waiting 5-10 years and increasing by a lot, which can result in several students dropping. Once in a while I’ve been known to skip the annual rate increase, such as 2013, when I was still a “new” teacher in my area after relocating.
  • One of the best things you can do for your studio: Go to somewhere like Lowe’s or Home Depot and buy a wall-mounting (and locking) mailbox with a drop slot, and use it as a payment drop box. Mount it to the wall of your studio, wherever people sit down to wait for their child’s lesson. Post your late fee policy on the box. This virtually eliminates all discussion of payments during lessons, people forget to pay less often when it’s there, and most importantly, it virtually eliminates recordkeeping errors on your part since you’re not having to handle or process checks between or during lessons – you can calmly and systematically process all of them at once during your non-teaching hours.
  • Payments are due on the 1st of the month, paying for the month in advance, and if someone pays on the 4th, then they owe a $4 late fee (the late fee corresponds to the date). Since I do not mail invoices and it’s so easy to forget to pay bills when you don’t get a monthly reminder, I typically don’t enforce my late fee policy except in cases when someone is late all the time (although some students insist on paying it as a form of penance).
  • Print out and laminate a payment table and tape it to the payment drop box. Below is an example using a $50/hour rate. This may seem trivial with this rate, but when your rate is something like $48.50 or $53.50/hour, you and your students will very much appreciate having this handy.

ptbl

  • When a student wishes to take more than 2-3 weeks off (e.g., to visit China during the summer), offer them three options: 1) pay 100% for their time slot and make up all lessons when they get back with no time limit on when they are made up (a great option for the musical development of students: requires extra practicing for all those 2-lesson weeks), 2) pay 50% to reserve the time slot (no make-up lessons), or 3) pay nothing but risk someone else taking the time slot. There should be no hard feelings on either side regardless of which option is selected. If I were a student, I may very well be one of those who opts to “risk losing the time slot”, and I tell people this so they know I empathize with them no matter what they choose. These choices respect the fact that it hurts a teacher just as much to reserve a time slot without pay as it does for a student or parent to pay for lessons not received. Variations are possible of course too, such as pay 75% and make up half of the missed lessons, or pay 25% to hold a smaller time slot.

May the ideas in this article restore sanity and bring happiness to many teachers!

(c) 2015 Cerebroom

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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26 responses to Flat Tuition Payments For Private Music Lessons


  1. Linda

    I use some of the same policies with my students as you have written in your article, but have yet to implement the flat rate policy overall. I am strongly considering this, however, mostly because of the sparse lessons during summer months and increasing conflicts with other student activities–mostly sports— that come up during the schoolyear. I do require payment if they miss and choose not to make up the lesson, but it’s always an iffy thing.
    –On another note, I would love to hear your thoughts on student recitals as to choosing a date, requirements of participation, any fees, etc. I have a small studio so when I choose a date it’s critical that everyone or most will be in it!
    Thanks for another good article

    • Hi Linda, regarding recitals, I have three per year, six group piano classes per year, and my students also participate in other music teachers association events, so I’ve never pressured students or parents to play other than generally encouraging them to get performance experience. I don’t ask anyone if they want to play – I just assume and ask, “What are you going to play in the upcoming recital? You can’t play more than three pieces.” Inevitably there are always schedule conflicts, but I understand that it’s not my place to tell people that their priorities are wrong if they choose one thing over another. As for dates, I do Saturdays at 12:30 to avoid janitorial overtime fees, but that’s just this particular church – dates and times would surely depend on what venue you choose. If you’re asking about choosing dates to maximize student participation, I don’t really do that – I just try to make each recital 4 months apart (October, February, June). I choose to pay $100 to hold each recital at one of the most impressive places I’ve seen for performing – huge sanctuary with incredible reverb and a 7-foot Yamaha concert grand. I ask for donations and pass a collection plate, usually getting around $80, so it works out fine.

  2. Amy

    I follow almost all of your payment policies exactly as you do and have had great success. In 11 years of teaching, I’ve only had one person balk at my payment policy and that was as I was transitioning from pay as you go lessons to a flat rate. Everyone seems to understand and accept the need for me to have dependable income from month to month.

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  5. Yes! No one hands us self-employed folks job security, so it’s up to each teacher to figure out what will allow them to flourish and devote most of their prep time to lesson planning rather than business running.

    I love having a flat monthly rate (switched a few years ago). I’ve also recently begun requiring a four-month commitment where students predate checks for each of the four months unless they are auto-paying through their bank as you suggested above. This allowed me to become more flexible with my makeup policy, which used to be one makeup permitted per month and is now four makeups permitted per four-month session. I made the sessions Oct-Jan, Feb-June, and July-Sept to bridge the tricky spots at the start of school and the winter holidays. Highly recommend it!

  6. So with the flat rate policy, are you saying they pay the same rate each month regardless of whether there are 5 or 4 days for their lesson day in the month and even if there may be less days that month for their weekday which may land on a holiday? Doesn’t this cause resistance and confusion among parents?

    • I don’t take any holidays off unless I take the whole week off, such as Thanksgiving or Christmas, so that way all students get the same number of lessons. It’s a slight drawback that I don’t get Labor Day, Memorial Day, July 4, etc. off, but a much lesser evil than the evil of being at the mercy of payments that rely solely on exact number of lessons students get each month.

      The flat rate doesn’t cause any resistance because students are getting exactly what they pay for over the course of 52 weeks. I just state up front that they are paying for 48 or 46 lessons per year at one flat monthly rate, then they completely understand that some months may have 5 lessons and others (such as December) may have as few as 2. It all evens out in the end. Even if they start in November and only get 3 lessons that month, then only 2 in December, I point out to them that by October 31 of the following year, they will have received all the lessons they’re paying for.

      There is less resistance this way because people really like (a) having the same payment every month, and (b) knowing that they’re not paying for any lessons they’re not receiving (at least, if they put forth effort to schedule make-up lessons – some people don’t want to).

  7. I’m thinking of the flat rate policy. But my students take so many weeks off. There’s ski week, President’s Day turns into a week, spring break, every Monday holiday becomes a week off. It almost seems like there’s a week off at least once each month. And different schools take different weeks off. And, of course, my voice students end up taking weeks off because of their school musical rehearsals. Other… I’m wondering how I can turn the tide.

    Your articles are so well thought out. Thanks for the food for thought.

    • Hi Patricia, I don’t take any weeks off except Christmas (2 weeks) and Thanksgiving because students know that it would be totally unreasonable to expect me to lose a week of income just because of holidays that people only pretend to “observe,” and it wouldn’t be in the best interest of Monday students to take those holidays off – they would get less lessons per year than other students. I do get some cancellations from holidays here and there, but I always accommodate requests to make up lessons (see the link at the beginning of the article on rethinking strict make-up lesson policy). You’d be amazed at how much more committed your students become when they are paying for a time slot whether they show up to the lesson or not. Suddenly almost every student will show up for lessons on President’s Day, MLK Day, Superbowl Sunday, and even Easter (for those like me who teach on Sundays…) to avoid rescheduling or forfeiting a lesson. I have students who go out of town for a weekend once in a while but come home early Sunday because their lesson is on Sunday afternoon. Years ago one of my students and both of her parents walked to my house (probably a 15 minute walk) literally in a blizzard because they were afraid to drive in the blizzard but didn’t want to reschedule or cancel. Some people would surely walk barefoot across 10 miles of scorching razor blades in acid rain while being stung repeatedly by yellow jackets and scorpions as long as it prevents rescheduling or forfeiting. 😉

      Look at it this way: assuming Student A wishes to cancel 1 out of every 5 or 6 lessons every year, how could Student A reasonably expect you to reserve a permanent time slot in your schedule for them when Student B on your waiting list is willing to pay for that slot faithfully every week? Unlike dentists and electricians, you cannot fill in cancellations with new students, so it’s not in your best interest to take students who only pay you 70-90% of a time slot’s value instead of the full 100% that everyone else is paying. If your policy has students pay a flat payment every month no matter what, then students can cancel whenever they want without the cancellation being unfair to you.

  8. Angela

    I switched to flat monthly billing a few years ago and love it. Makes budgeting for both myself and students much easier. When I get the inevitable blowback about only getting three lessons in December, I with a polite smile ask if they’ll want to pay me more when a 5-week month rolls around, and they understand.

    Aside from budgeting reasons, I made the switch because what we do is a course of study, not a doctor’s appointment. When you take a class at the park district or in college, you pay for the class as a whole, not for each individual session. You don’t get credit on your bill if you miss your Wednesday class. I think it helps convey the idea that music lessons are a long-term commitment and curriculum. That said, I do keep as open a makeup policy as I can, balancing that with family needs and other commitments.

    I teach all the “little” Monday holidays, and when setting up schedules, I confirm with potential Monday students that it won’t put a crimp in their style. Same is true with my Sunday students throughout the year.

    Students who can commit to a regular weekly time are always scheduled first. Students that can’t keep to a regular time, I explain that I need to put them at the very beginning or end of my teaching day, or in random slots that I may have after regulars are all scheduled. I will give them flexibility within that constraint; I don’t mind if they have to switch every week, or skip one here and do a couple long ones to make up for it. For the parents that need that flexibility, they appreciate it and have always been willing to work together.

    Over the summer, I’ve switched most students (those old enough and advanced enough to benefit) to hour-long lessons rather than the regular thirty minutes. It gives them a longer time to work on a variety of things – composing, technology (Band in a Box is my project to prepare for this summer), additional demands of marching band music (I teach woodwinds as well as piano), or some music that is of particular interest to them. This way, I can teach 6-7 weeks but charge the same hourly rate. That one’s been the hardest to convince parents of… “Why am I paying you for twelve weeks when you’re only teaching seven?” Because each lesson is twice as long. And that seventh lesson gives the family a free half-month if you can make all the lessons, or gives a buffer if they’re taking a long vacation. I’ve loved teaching summers this way, because it doesn’t impact my income, but does allow me some time “off” – generally attending workshops or helping at band camps. Younger students I keep to their 30-minute lessons and adjust rates and schedules accordingly. As it’s such a small portion of my schedule, the lower income from them isn’t too much of an impact.

  9. kelly

    I’ve been doing a similar flat rate for over 10 years and it’s worked really well – a lifesaver over the summer months to avoid scheduling nightmares during the holidays. I take every holiday break and July and August off now – 13 weeks total.
    I’ve been calling it ‘equal tempered’ payments.

  10. Lita

    I’m not sure if anyone has asked you this yet but how do you deal with clients who cancel the day of their lesson? Would you still do a make up lesson in this situation? For instance, lets say the client has paid on time at the beginning of the month. The second week of the month, they inform you that they will not be able to attend the lesson the next week(3rd week of the month). You give the client alternative make up times but none of those times work. Is the best policy to say they just forfeit the lesson for that week? And what if this situation happens at the end of the month?
    I’m getting very confused and frustrated as a teacher. What is the best policy? Does that even exist?

    • Hi Lita, regardless of when it happens in the month, I really just try to give people what they want as long as it doesn’t make me have to start my day early or end my day late (or teach on a day off). If a student cancels at the last minute and they ask for a make-up lesson, I usually just tell them to monitor my schedule (a public Google Calendar) and request to fill in another student’s cancellation at some point. I also tell them they can ask me to check my schedule at the beginning of their lesson each week. If it takes 1-2 months for them to finally make up a lesson, I’m OK with that.

  11. rab

    Thanks for this article! I stumbled upon it when researching piano studio policies online out of curiosity.

    I’ve been charging flat monthly payments for 11 years now and I have not had any problems with my clients with my tuition policy.

    I charge 11 months of the year (August through June). I take a 6 week summer break each year, plus, one week off on Thanksgiving, two weeks off for Christmas, one week off during spring break and I don’t teach on Memorial Day and Labor Day. Students who take lessons on Mondays are aware of these holidays but they don’t have any problems paying for the missed two lessons. They actually are glad for one week they can take off.

    Students are required to take for a full semester August to December or January to June. If they decided to quit taking lessons in the middle of a semester, they are required to pay to the end of that semester (no one has ever stopped taking in the middle of a semester so far).

    I also do not refund or make up missed lessons and, as I read above in the article, what usually happens is that the student will just text me to let me know they will miss that lessons which often ends with “see you next week”. In my tuition policy I have explained that making up lesson requires two missed hours on my part, one of which I don’t get paid, so I abolished the make up lesson policy years ago. Just as another person mentioned above about a course study, when they pay for a course in college and they miss a class once a week the financial office will not refund them for the lessons they chose not to attend. I will only reschedule with a student if I need to cancel a lesson for any reason.

    One more thing that might be of interest to other teachers is to add a weather policy to clear out misunderstandings about evacuation warnings due to hurricane or severe weather and also when school district cancels school days for safety reasons. If I had to make up lessons or refund money for missed days due to weather related cancellations I would be teaching every Saturday and Sunday of the year and would probably be like your friend who decided to quit teaching piano lessons. My clients are aware that I’m not responsible for weather related cancellations and they are ok with this as well.

    Last thing that I think would be helpful in a policy is the request for parents to not bring sick children to lessons as it puts the teacher at risk of getting sick, therefore not being able to teach and make a living for one to two weeks at a time. Usually a school will also have a policy about this in the following terms “kids with a fever are to stay home until fever free without the use of medication for 24 hours, and those students are not to go to school if they are showing cold or flu-like symptoms, including excessive sneezing, coughing, or mucus discharge”. There is also no make up lesson or a refund for lessons missed due to sickness. I do offer lessons over Skype if a student doesn’t feel well to come to lesson.

    • tm820

      All of my students, except 2 or 3, every summer, quit. I’m lucky if I can keep them through June as they are chomping at the bit to leave. Not only does this hurts financially, but they take several weeks to “get back on track” in September! I don’t understand how you implement the “semesters”. Does this help you retain students during the summer? I’ve read your article a couple times, but if you could explain in greater detail, that would be most appreciative! Thanks.

      • Even before I had a waiting list, I conducted business as if I had one. I made it clear to people that I teach year round, and if people don’t pay for their time slot during summers, their slot is up for grabs. Some people will pay for lessons all summer because you present the option and they realize it benefits their kid (especially at a time when they’re often bored anyway), or because they realize you want them to, or because they don’t want someone else to grab their “prime time” slot and be stuck with a less desirable one. When I had no waiting list, maybe 10% of my students would take summers off. The rest would stay because of any of the above reasons.

        But when you have a waiting list, then it’s a guarantee they will lose not only their particular slot but also lessons in general with you, and they will either pay a holding fee or will pay full tuition and make everything up. Now that people are conditioned to taking summers off, it may be difficult for you to recondition them, but I would start next year by making it clear in a newsletter or e-mail that you will teach through the summer just the same as any other time of the year and that you want to battle “summer slide” by encouraging all students to take lessons through the summer.

        • tm820

          Thanks for your quick response. Unfortunately, all of my parents know I teach in the summer and that I rely on that income, and that the kids that stay through perform the best! However, they want their kids to have a break. It stinks though because the kids never practice during the summer and are not used to keeping up with piano and lose interest during the school year…if they come back at all.

      • Ang

        I teach six hour-long lessons over the summer rather than twelve half-hour lessons for all but my younger pianists. I have to completely redo my schedule in May and again in August, but it reduces the number of week commitment while retaining the same amount of teaching time. Also gives me some down time. I usualy have to explain how this works in detail to a couple parents each year, but they generally get it. With the longer lessons, I let kids work on special topics of interest – composing, pop or jazz, certain composer or period, and also I get sme extra time to dig deeper into technic and theory. I keep good enough numbers over the summer.

        I tell my parents up front that when I prep my school year schedule, students who took over the summer are placed in lesson times first.

        I suppose another option might be to raise your studio rates and/or school year schedule (whether by teaching more students or longer weekly lessons) to build up enough cushion to make it through summer, but not knowing where you live, what going rates are by you, or your studio size, I’ve no idea if that’s feasible.

  12. Music School Director

    This may be our answer. Thanks, Chad.

  13. I have taught for 20 years for supplemental income. I am a mother of 3 active teens so balancing my students (which I limit to 25) along with my family’s schedule is tricky. I take almost all holidays off plus the weeks I know that I will be super busy with kids (like the week before school). I recently (this is my second year) switched to a flat rate from August to May and love the simplicity and consistency of it!! During the school year I don’t reschedule or makeup a lesson unless I am the one who has the conflict. I guarantee my students will get at least 30 lessons (my teaching calendar allows for 33 or 34). So I guess in a way I’ve built in makeups allowing for families to have sick or vacation days without losing the value of what they have paid for. During the school year, I keep track of how many lessons each student takes and come the end of May if they haven’t had their 30 lessons, they are offered lessons in June at no extra cost to get them up to 30 ( if they cancelled that lesson due to illness, emergency, or any reason with 24 hours notice). Those who don’t miss any lessons actually end up getting a small discount because my rate is based on 30 lessons. I do offer summer lessons – only about half take. They pay up front (beginning of June) for number of lessons taken – I will reschedule or makeup during the summer as needed. This has worked well so far for my small studio.

  14. Linda H.

    Is anyone willing to say what their rate is per/half-hour and per/hour? I’m looking to raise my rate this Fall and would like to get an average for reference. I have taught in my home for over 30 years 🙂 Thank you!

  15. MI Music Teacher

    Thank you so much for this information, I have been vacillating over this issue for about a year. Do you implement an annual contract to ensure people commit to the year and what do you do if a student decides to stop lessons?

    • There is no commitment to take lessons for any set amount of time. If someone stops and I don’t have a waiting list, then I guess I just have an empty slot. In my opinion, it’s sufficient commitment for a student to pay for a time slot whether they show up or not. In fact, I’m kind of against retention policies, because if a student or their parent reach a point where they feel lessons don’t benefit them enough to keep paying for them, I don’t want someone like that in my studio. I kind of have the opposite problem right now – there are some people on my waiting list that look quite promising and eager to study with me, and despite my rates going up by 5% next month, nobody is dropping and I’m still over-booked with six days of teaching.

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