While the vast majority of my students (and their parents) over the last quarter century have been appreciative and respectful, as well as being generous toward other students in my practice, there’s been a very small minority who seemed to have different priorities.
In this article I will examine what happens when a student or parent treats piano lessons purely as a commodity. I hope that teachers will come away feeling more able to spot the signs, and better empowered to develop a piano teaching practice that works well for the benefit of all.
For the purposes of this article I will call these parents and students ‘super-consumers’. If my portrayal is somewhat a caricature, it is for the purpose of emphasis, so that you can spot the problem signs more quickly and easily.
A Growing Problem?
As a topic for discussion, the issue of the super-consumer has never been more important for piano teachers, with the trend moving toward a change in attitude to education. In her thought-provoking article Musical Achievement: Just a Middle Class Trophy? (Music Teacher, March 2017) Alison Moncrieff-Kelly explains:
“In these days of frequently compromised state education, the middle-class psyche is mostly centred on acquiring the best education at the lowest cost…
… the current consumerist view of education treats [playing an instrument] as just one more skill alongside others – a kind of smorgasbord of accomplishments for the middle-class CV. There are multiple problems with this attitude…”
Addressing the worst attitudes of the super-consumer’s outlook, Alison says:
“The problem with the aspirant parent is that they not only criticise and question the teacher every step of the way, but also deride the very skills that they say they want you to instil. They treat you as though the dozens of years of study and effort you have invested count for nothing.”
Is Alison right, and have you experienced these attitudes? Having been on the receiving end of this sort of behaviour, I would say we teachers need to consider what is behind this growing attitude.
Meet the ‘super-consumer’
Let’s start by considering the super-consumer’s core goal:
The primary motivation of the super-consumer is to get – and to be seen to have obtained – the “best deal”.
The consumer doesn’t simply want a better deal for him or herself – but a better deal in relation to the next person. In the context of a piano teaching practice, he or she will want priority treatment at all times.
Building from this objective, the super-consumer believes:
1: I am the customer. I am entitled. The customer is always right. Ergo, I am always right.
2: The piano teacher is a service provider. Their job is to make sure that I am a happy customer by acquiescing to my every whim. They might try to rip me off, so it is sensible to doubt their integrity.
These attitudes have become seriously out of balance, overpowering super-consumer’s instinct for empathy, and any real sense they might have had for showing appreciation or generosity to others. There is very little regard for any of the other aspects of the teacher/pupil relationship.
By treating the lessons purely as a commodity, the super-consumer fails to understand or appreciate what piano lessons are really about. And their competitive, selfish worldview can have a terribly corrosive effect on the teacher and on the rest of their practice if left unchecked.
Obviously, the pupil (or parent) really is a customer, and as teachers we really must be providing the very best service that we can. Indeed, it is because we want to do so that we can so easily get drawn into the super-consumer’s narrative of how the lessons should work.
But – crucially – the pupil is not just a customer, and the teacher is not just a service provider. And this is where the super-consumer’s logic breaks down.
Early Warning Signs
Right from the start, the super-consumer‘s priorities when looking for a teacher might include:
- Which teacher is the least expensive; can I beat them down on price?
- Which teacher has the nearest location? (saving time, effort and money)
- Which teacher will be amenable to work around ME? (regardless of their other students and commitments, professional or otherwise)
- What are the teacher’s policies (and can they be circumvented)?
These are, to varying degrees, legitimate considerations. But notice the priorities missing from the above list:
- Which teacher has the best qualifications?
- Which teacher has proven experience and a good track record?
- Which teacher has the most commitment to the profession?
- Which teacher seems a decent person who I will get on with?
- Which teacher is the most inspiring musician?
Prospective students should certainly consider all these questions when choosing a teacher. But which are given highest priority and why? For example, location could be hugely important for non-consumerist reasons, such as mobility issues.
As teachers I believe we must try to understand the student’s priorities before lessons begin, perhaps even inviting them to explain what they are looking for by rating the questions above in order to priority. This could help them think about their priorities more effectively, fostering a better shared understanding from the start.
It is also important to go beyond answering a prospective student’s questions to looking at what lies behind them. For example, when outlining your teaching studio policies, does the student or parent seem happy?
My policies include asking for 24 hours notice of a lesson cancellation, and asking for one month’s notice of termination. I have found that in the initial free consultation meeting I offer, super-consumers quickly ask whether I might make exceptions for them, and under what circumstances. This is rarely a good sign!
To paraphrase an ancient Chinese saying, the best teacher will avoid conflict by spotting and preventing arguments before they arise. In most situations it is sufficient to ensure our studio policies and professional values are understood and accepted. Where possible in the case of children I like to meet both parents before embarking on lessons.
If a pupil or parent is unlikely to respect our values, lessons are unlikely to succeed in the medium term.
After the lesson, does a parent or student focus on questions such as:
- What was learnt in the lesson?
- What progress has been made towards my goals?
- What were the musical highlights, and how can I build on those?
- Which teaching points were especially important?
- Did I have a good experience?
Or does the parent or student spend more time focussing on:
- Did the lesson start on time?
- Was the teacher distracted at all during the lesson?
- Did I make certain I got the best value for money?
Teaching in an archetype middle-class school about 20 years ago I was shocked one week when, having finished a lesson with one student, the next complained that I was running one minute late. This nine-year old had calculated that the previous student had received 21 minutes, and she would perhaps now only get 19, which was ”so unfair”.
How wrong she was …
It is certainly very important that we set clear expectations in terms of lesson length and cost. My own website information lists fees clearly on the basis of lesson length. However, this is a rather blunt measurement.
As one of my adult students said to me recently, the impact of her lessons lasts through the whole week, not simply the duration of her sessions in my studio. Conversely she noted that within the 45 minute lesson, it might actually be a single moment – where the penny drops – that more than justifies the commitment and cost of learning.
To coin a phrase, what matters isn’t how many pennies are spent, but whether The Penny drops!
Reflecting on her own experience of learning piano with me, she concluded:
“Anyone who thinks that the 45 minute lesson is what they are paying for is clearly an idiot!”
The super-consumer who complains that a lesson was a couple of minutes short, or too expensive, has thus basically missed the whole point of having lessons, and ignores their true value.
- The relationship bond between teacher and student –
- The enthusiasm for music that is nurtured –
- The value of demonstration and aural transmission –
- The relief of clear answers to perplexing questions –
- The powerful “Aha!” moments of learning –
- The musical engagement that is a feature of good music teaching –
- The inspiration to go on making music through the coming week –
No price can be put on any of these, nor can they be neatly boxed into a 45 minute package.
Sadly, the limited mindset of the super-consumer, their need to always be “right”, and their unquenchable thirst for the “better deal” blind them to the rich seam of possibilities that great piano teaching offers.
The girl in my story above soon gave up lessons, undoubtedly because she was unable to engage with why we were really there. Had she put aside her super-consumer attitude she might well have learnt more in her 19 minutes than the other student did in 21.
Strategies for Handling Consumers.
Bearing in mind that the super-consumer will never be satisfied, we need strategies for dealing with the issues they bring. Here are a few:
1: Focus the pupil / parent on your values
Alison Moncrieff-Kelly makes an excellent point in her article:
“It might be said that it is the parents more than the children who need to be educated about how instrumental teaching really works”
It certainly makes sense to help parents and pupils focus on the positive progress, enjoyment and musical engagement that has taken place in each lesson, as well as explaining how the pupil can build on this throughout the week.
2: Have clear policies, and stick to them
As the age-old adage goes, “give them an inch and they’ll take a mile!”
Like most friendly and reasonable people, I like to be as flexible as possible, and with most students this is fine because it is a two-way transaction. With the super-consumer this is never the case, sadly, meaning that for those students we need to stick more rigidly to our policies.
By way of example, I recently agreed to give a student extra time at the end of a lesson they had arrived late for. From then on, the father of the pupil expected extra time every week, whether the pupil was late or not, and wrote me a lengthy email containing a litany of insults and name-calling when I refused. Needless to say, that teaching relationship was no longer sustainable!
3: Join a professional organisation
In my view it’s crucial for all piano teachers to be members of a professional association who provide legal support, public indemnity insurance, and professional advice. Here in the UK, the Incorporated Society of Musicians (ISM) is the obvious choice.
Such organisations provide useful teacher/student contracts that members can adopt. If a super-consumer takes issue with a policy the teacher has, we can simply point out that these are the policies worked out at national level by the appropriate recognised professional bodies.
4: Terminate Lessons
Finally, sometimes we must simply stop teaching the super-consumer. If clear policies, good teaching, professional conduct and friendly explanations are met with ongoing dissatisfaction and criticism then the only option is to terminate the lesson arrangement.
This is of course a last resort. However, no professional should have to put up with abuse, however minor. The bottom line is this: if the super-consumer isn’t a happy customer, he or she can and should be advised to find an alternative.
I must finish by again stressing that in more than two decades of full-time piano teaching, I have met mercifully few individuals who are fully like the super-consumer presented here. But there have been just a few, and on each occasion it proved to be distressing. Most piano teachers that I know have occasionally had similar experiences too.
But what remains is the vast majority of students and parents – those many lovely people who have a more balanced approach, a better attitude and nature, who show appreciation and respect, and thus gain so much more from their lessons.
Piano teaching is a wonderful profession. At its heart resides those personal connections that form where music is cherished, where learning is respected, and where people have a positive attitude to one another.
I very much hope that having read this article, you will feel inspired to cultivate and nurture these values.
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