I’ve never been one to give much thought to ringtones, but when I sat down to write this post on the business of teaching piano, I said to myself, “I’m going to change my ringtone to cha-ching.”
Even in our online world, nothing brings students in like a real-time phone conversation. And nothing keeps them in like a mind-blowing first lesson.
As a creative piano teacher, when prospective students (or moms, or dads, or grandparents of those students) call me for lessons, there’s a more than 90% chance that they will be walking into my studio within a week. Once they walk in, my goal is to facilitate a first lesson experience that they won’t want to leave.
Why does the phone work so well?
Once prospective students or parents pick up the phone, much of your work has been done for you.
A live piano lesson is a one-on-one human contact experience. Callers have already reached a certain point of commitment in their minds, and are ready to engage with a living human being. The contact, the relationship, the teaching all begin with this call.
In fact, you can think of the first call as the first lesson.
This is not true of email contacts. These folks are still feeling the idea out in their own minds, oftentimes still deciding whether or not they want piano lessons at all. In my experience, the odds are considerably less for email contact, but still around 50%. That’s why I encourage those who contact me by email to call for details on scheduling, pricing, or to discuss their musical goals.
Most callers, however, have already decided that they want piano lessons.
How do I attract those calls?
A piano lesson is an intimate thing: your students, young and old, are opening up themselves and all their vulnerabilities when they decide to learn music. Adults often have emotional baggage and are bravely choosing to give themselves the gift of piano lessons despite past hurts and rejections.
Those who are looking for what you have to offer are looking for someone they can trust.
When developing your online presence, don’t be afraid to let your prospective students know who you are beyond your identity as a piano teacher – and make sure there’s a path to reaching you by phone!
By far the most effective way to bring in the calls are referrals from trusted sources.
Present students and their parents are a good source. I’ve played around with incentives (a month of free lessons after the referred student has completed three months of paid lessons is a good one), but non-incentivized referrals can appear even more “trustworthy”.
Other music teachers and institutions can be helpful. Building relationships there creates a sense of cooperation rather than competition. Remember to return the favor!
Music stores are by far my biggest source of referrals. Building longstanding reciprocal relationships with these community music centers can work wonders for your student numbers. Those who call music stores looking for lessons are already committed to the idea of spending money for a trusted professional service.
You must remember this: your first call is your first lesson. This is even more true for creative piano teaching.
Everyone has a picture in their minds (for good or ill) of what they expect of a piano teacher. But “Creative Piano Teacher” doesn’t exactly top the list of widely recognized professions, and may even cause some suspicion.
So this is your big opportunity to begin educating prospective students about what you do.
I learned the hard way not to spill all the beans before drawing the caller out a little and finding out what their ideas are. Your job is to match your product to their desires.
The trouble is, most callers haven’t thought much about what they really want.
The common picture of piano lessons still consists of a set routine of years of Preliminary-Level 1-Level 2-Level 3-Level 4-Level 5, fighting with your parents about 30 minute practice sessions, and recitals twice a year followed by some stale cookies (probably left over from last year’s recital…).
But why do they want to go through all that?
Most piano students do have a piano dream in their mind. It might be to play “Für Elise” or “Clair de Lune”. It might be to figure out that John Legend’s “All of Me” YouTube tutorial, or play on their church worship team, or create dope beats for rappers. Some may want to jam with friends or accompany themselves singing.
And they think that somehow piano lessons are going to get them there.
This is where you, being a creative piano teacher, has the real edge.
… and Ask Questions
Even if the caller is a shoe-in, and ready to schedule right away, it’s good to give them an inkling of what’s really in store for them when they take you on as a creative piano teacher. Even more so if they’re still on the fence about choosing you.
I always try to stimulate callers to talk a bit about themselves (or their children). Questions like:
- “What do you want out of lessons?”
- “What kind of music do you want to play?”
- “What’s your son’s favorite song?”
- “What does your daughter do when she sits down at the piano?”
- “Piano lessons? What gave you that crazy idea?”
I always ask, “Do you like to sing?” If they do, then I know I have a potential chording student.
Really what I’m wanting to know here is, “What’s your musical goal?” However, most people are way too serious about the idea of “goals”. Fantasies, dreams – that’s more what I’m looking for.
If they’ve done music before, I’ll ask about their previous musical experience, what their favorite song to play was, that kind of thing.
You may even ask,
“Do you have a piano to practice on?”
Some of them don’t! That gives you the opportunity to say, “I saw this funky old upright for free on Craigslist the other day. Or, “XYZ music has this fantastic deal on Casio Privias.” You’ll be showing your willingness to go the extra mile, and build relationships all around.
And speaking of stale cookies…
Often callers are surprised by these questions. They don’t think there is really any option to the traditional lesson routine. Not that you want to overwhelm them with all the possible directions, but I make sure to let them know that, in my studio, every student is an individual with individual learning styles and goals. In other words, no cookie-cutter lessons.
Types of Callers
Whether this is your sixth call or your six-thousandth call, it’s always important to remain friendly and excited. It helps me to put myself in the student’s shoes, and think about what it’s like to take that first step to creating something beautiful in my life.
And of course, you want to be clear about the nuts and bolts, like schedule, payment, what to bring to the first lesson, etc. I usually save that for the end of the conversation, but where that comes up in the conversation depends on the type of caller and your intuition.
After a while, you will begin to recognize different categories of callers, and tailor your responses accordingly:
“What openings do you have on Thursday after four?”
This one is all about business and ready to cross this off her to-do list. Schedule her first off. Then assess whether she’s going to open up a little or is too busy. If the latter, save the goodies for the first lesson.
“I just want the basics.”
This caller is grimly determined to jump through the all the hoops. Find out what he really wants to play, so you can help him choose which “basics” to begin with.
“Well, let’s see, my daughter has dance every other Tuesday, softball on Mondays and Thursdays, youth group on Wednesdays, and is building a robotic sheep milker with her dad on Fridays.”
“Well, I’m 67. Do you take students that old?
I’ve been blessed to be able to say, “Well, my oldest student has 20 years on you.” This caller will be very grateful for your welcoming attitudes, and abilities to teach them the music that they really want to play.
“My son just loves to sit down and bang on the piano.”
Perfect opportunity to teach about improvisation.
Now, before the first lesson has even started, your new students are curious about what’s going to happen next…
The First Lesson
Most students are a little excited, apprehensive, shy, or just plain terrified about their first lesson. Break the ice with your sense of humor:
“Ok, Janie, you’re here for your tuba lesson?”
“Piano lesson? Do you see any pianos around here?”
Humor opens your students – and yourself – to the flow of intuition. I want there to be a feeling of fun and…
My favorite way to begin a first lesson is to wave my “magic” pencil around in the air, maybe starting with the old “rubber pencil” trick:
“If I took my magic pencil and went doobly-doobly-doobly-doop and you could play anything you ever dreamed of on the piano, what would it be?”
“First thing that came to your mind.”
(Remember: I’m after their secret piano fantasy.)
- “I want to play (XYZ) song by (QRS).”
- “I want to play in church.”
- “I want to read music.”
- “I want to be able to play music by ear.”
- “I want to play that song by Beethoven – nee-nah-nee-nah-nee.”
I’m sure you guessed it. That’s when I reach into my…
Bag of Tricks
Thankfully, I have developed an easy way to teach the first two main sections of “Für Elise” by rote to rank beginners that works with any one seven and older, and even younger with modifications.
With any specific song, I try to teach them some snippet of that song right away, in the first lesson. We might look up the song on a YouTube video or tutorial. Rather than reading music, I’ll use finger numbers, keyboard diagrams, and videos to show them.
If they want to sing and play, I go right for chording.
The main idea is to have the student playing something that they want to play in the very first lesson. It’s not that we’re not going to go back and fill in the blanks. The idea is to demonstrate that the student can play something enjoyable and satisfying in throughout the process of their learning.
Sometimes, we aren’t going to get there in the first lesson. In that case I will demonstrate the steps in the process, or offer an alternative.
For example, if they want to play “Moonlight Sonata”, I might suggest we start with something else (easier) by Beethoven. If they want to accompany themselves singing, I may teach them about chords, and then show them that they are only three steps away (chords, inversions, progressions) from their goal.
For those who don’t know what they want…
Sometimes you’ll be able to help them figure it out with a little probing, and sometimes – especially the little ones – really don’t know yet. One of my favorite tricks there is to try a little improvisation.
I’ll keep the pedal down and drone on F – C – F, and invite the student to play anything at all on the white keys. I’ll improvise as well underneath them to support their attempts. The result is a lovely floaty Lydian mode improvisation. The Lydian mode evokes a magical expansive atmosphere and seems to lift the student out of whatever state of anxiety they may have been in.
You can try other modes as well. Afterwards, I inform the student that we just created music never heard before in the History of the Universe.
For more energetic students, you might play a boogie bassline in E♭. Then invite them to party on the black keys: instant blues! (The black keys form a minor pentatonic blues scale.)
Filling Your Own Bag
I’ve filled my bag of tricks over the years by staying open to my own intuition and spontaneity. Always be open to inspiration! Your enthusiasm and sense of adventure are infectious. And students feel special when you say, “In all my years of teaching, I’ve never tried this before – but let’s give it a go.”
That’s going to make it more fun for you as well.
Your first lesson will be most effective when you jump right into the fun part: music! If a student forgot this or that, don’t worry about it. Save your business loose ends for the end of the lesson.
Most students (or parents) are expecting to be told what to do. They will be surprised (and maybe a little shaken) when you give the authority back to them:
Student: “What do you want me to do?”
Me: “What do you want to learn?”
Student: “You tell me.”
Me: “This is your piano lesson, not mine!”
As a creative piano teacher, it’s much more fun for me, and better for the students, to help them with the steps to play what and how they dream of playing. Of course, with further exposure to piano and music, their dreams may change. But by being part of the process, they become more invested in their musical goals.
I find so much pleasure in that first call and that first lesson. Together, they have set the stage for more than 25 years of my creative piano teaching. I hope that you enjoy your years of teaching as much as I do.
How do you sell your creative piano teaching? Let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.