by Philip Johnston

Canaries in your Coalmine by Philip Johnston

Which of your current students might be ex- students by this time next year? It’s not always who you might think…IMT takes a look at 14 warning signs that a student is thinking about moving on.

iStock_000015694519XSmallTHE “LET’S TAKE A BREAK” CONVERSATIONS that really hurt are the ones you don’t see coming. That gut-punch of a phone call from your 5pm Wednesday student whose lessons had been going so well and they always seemed so pleased to see you …and now she and her brother are both consolidating their afternoon activities.

The natural response is to ask yourself what went wrong; a more useful question though is to zero in on when things started going wrong. Is it possible that this student had actually been unhappy for some time without you knowing?

In which case—given that you missed those signs completely— just how many of your other “safe” students might actually be on the way out?

The same unhelpful “what went wrong?” question appears when a family pet unexpectedly dies, usually followed by something like “now that I think of it, Toodles had been somewhat listless of late”. Perhaps that’s true, but it’s taken a dead Toodles for you to start paying atten­tion to a listless one.

You can’t rescue lessons once a student has already left, so how can you tell when a student is thinking about quitting? Here are 14 warning signs every music teacher should know, as surely as they should know key signatures.

Warning Sign 1: Absence of Future Tense

roundkeyboardALPHA“…given that you missed those signs completely—just how many of your other “safe” students might actually be on the way out?”

This is one of the clearest signals, and one of the most difficult for discontinuing students to mask: because they don’t want to outright lie to you, they will become uncomfortable and quiet during conversations about “the concert next year”, because they know there is no next year. They also won’t be initiating any such conversations that depend on future tense; you won’t hear from them questions about the book after this one, or what they have to do before they can learn that piece.

So if their language seems constrained by a horizon that is short, and their focus seems to be on the month or two that follows present tense, then they’re either very young, very old, or all but decided on a break. The conversation about stopping lessons may not have officially happened between you yet, but if you were listening carefully, you just heard it.

Warning Sign 2: Parents talking up how busy their week is

One of the most common reasons cited when students quit is “overcommittment”. It’s the music-lesson equivalent of “it’s not you, it’s me, I think we should just be friends”, and it’s not always true, but it’s used because it’s face-saving and palatable. (It sounds so much better than “my kid would rather have Bird Flu than have another semester of music lessons”).

In order for the death blow to be credible though, parents will often foreshadow it in the weeks or months before, talking up just how busy their child is, and how tough it is to fit everything into their crazy week. Whenever I hear that, I think “uh oh…why are they telling me this?”

Why indeed. Sometimes parents are just stressed and venting. Sometimes. Ask yourself this though: when they were listing everything that made their week crazy and unmanageable, did music lessons get a mention? (Usually hidden in a sentence that runs something like “I mean, apart from music lessons, Timmy also has soccer and math coaching and gymnastics “ etc.) Were you left with the sense that the crazy week they’re telling you all about be that little bit easier if they didn’t have to accommodate music lessons as well?

Danger, Will Robinson…if this student doesn’t go on your watch list right now, then you were never serious about keeping them in the first place.

Warning Sign 3: The “so…how was your week” reply

A lot of music teachers start lessons with variations on this question; they’re not really interested in the answer (except when it sheds light on how much practice the student did…don’t start me on that…), but the ritual makes for for a familiar and gentle transition from waiting-room to ok-let’s-get-today-underway.

Most revealing here though is the spirit of the exchange, rather than a transcript of what was said: Does the student volunteer trivia about their week less freely than they have in the past? Break eye-contact faster? Bring more of a spirit of let’s-just-get-this-over-with to the lesson’s preamble? Seem more frequently distracted or bored when you’re talking to them during the lesson?

Of course, as any parent of teenagers will tell you, none of these symptoms are necessarily an indicator of anything meaningful, permanent or dire. But what such a shift is a reliable indicator of is that your relationship with the student has changed in some way. This in of itself is sufficient; given that whether students stay or not is primarily about the strength of that relationship, then these are changes as concerning as unexplained changes in blood pressure.

The greatest danger in the face of having observed such signs? Blithely maintaining the the status quo. Telling yourself that the student is just having a down time/just being a teenager/tired after a long year…no they’re not, something is now different, and that demands a response.

Warning Sign 4: Lessons cancelled spuriously

Students vote with their feet, and if lessons are painful for them to attend, then they’ll actively be looking for opportunities—however threadbare—to avoid them. So if your student starts cancelling a series of lessons with mystery illnesses/car breakdowns/I-have-too-much-homework-to-attend-today’s-lesson/I-couldn’t-find-the-shirt-I-wanted-to-wear, then you’re kidding yourself if you’re preparing to lecture them about the importance of regular attendance. This is a student on the way out, pure and simple; unless you take remedial action, the only question is when.

Warning Sign 5: Lack of progress

If a student perceives that they’re not progressing, it’s a short leap for them to conclude that lessons must therefore be a waste of time and money; after all, they can not progress at home, for free, without needing a teacher.

roundkeyboardALPHAAsk yourself this though: when they were listing everything that made their week crazy and unmanageable, did music lessons get a mention?

The key word here though is perceives—unfortunately their actual rate of progress is entirely beside the point. I cannot stress this enough: you might be entirely happy with a student’s development, but if they feel like they’re plateauing, then the situation is just as dangerous as if they actually are.

Warning Sign 6: Lack of Fun

All work and no play makes Jack quit music lessons; we all know that, but in a profession that prides itself on rigorous troubleshooting, attention to detail and high standards, engineering fun is actually not at all straightforward, and is as much about having an arsenal of techniques as it is about a spontaneous sense of frivolity. It’s not enough for your studio to be well-equipped, professional and conscientious—ultimately, it has to be a place that students want to spend time.

Warning Sign 7: Invisibility factor

It’s not always the most obviously unhappy, frustrated or annoying students who end up leaving; all too often it’s the students you never noticed in the first place, and it’s because you never noticed them. It’s only natural that our attention be captured by the most capable, the most demanding, the most troublesome, but that doesn’t change the fact that even the meekest and most average of students like to feel special too.

Read through your teaching schedule, and ask yourself honestly: which students do you find yourself talking about/thinking about/planning for/giving accolades to/scheduling extra lessons for? Now…who’s not on that list of attention-getters? Write down the names: your next round of dropoffs are almost certainly in there somewhere.

Warning Sign 8: Finances

This is often cited as a reason for lessons stopping, but is almost always a pretext rather than a dealbreaker in its own right. This is not a $50,000 medical procedure that they’re saying they can’t afford; it’s whatever your fees are, which will be modest-to-negligible when compared with most other financial obligations.

Here’s the thing: if your lessons are making a significant difference to a student, most parents will be keen to do whatever is necessary to keep the connection live in even the most unforgiving of economic circumstances; the “can’t afford it” is usually cited when the value your studio provides does not justify the pain of the parent having to forgo whatever your fees—and the demands on their time—are. In other words, it’s less likely that there’s genuine hardship, more likely that you’ve failed a cost-benefit analysis.

Warning Sign 9: Students mismatched to your strengths

a teacher, you can’t be all things to all people…which is a problem if “all people” is what your schedule is filled with. A mismatch—even slight—between what you offer and what a student is seeking is a sure way to slap a use-by date on lessons, and is one of the most common triggers for a student to leave.

One effective way to handle this is well upstream of that very first lesson, by ensuring that your advertising is actually targeting the types of students you have the most to offer to, as these are the students you’re most likely to keep. So instead of a generic advertising that talks about “flute lessons”, you’d turn whatever it is you do best—and enjoy most­—into a speciality: “Flute lessons for seniors”,“Jazz flute”, “Group flute lessons” etc. Because your nominated speciality is a genuine strength of the studio, students who come aboard specifically for that are likely to stay for longer than less well-matched students would have; you’re also going to spend less time struggling with lessons that are almost working.

The downside, of course, is that your studio is likely to fill up more slowly in the first place; the tighter the niche, the greater the loyalty, but the slower the inflow. You may well be the finest teacher of Country and Western Tuba for Preschoolers in town, but your phone is probably not going to ring a lot.

Warning Sign 10: Plummeting Practice

This should be self evident, but I’m highlighting it because teachers can get so self-righteous about students turning up underprepared that the reasons for and likely consequences of the sudden absence of practice can get lost in the lectures about how it’s-just-not-acceptable, and don’t-waste-my-time-like-this and now-you-have-to-do-twice-as-much-next-week…

roundkeyboardALPHAThat, right there, is why so many parents hated music lessons as a kid, and a powerful reason for this kid to wind up lessons of their own.

…admonishments that are all entirely understandable from the teacher’s point of view, but it’s not the teacher’s point of view that’s critical here. (It never has been—I grump about this at length in The Practice Revolution). Not only do such admonishments miss the point, but they pour more water on what is possibly already the dying embers of lessons with this student; nothing makes lessons more tedious and expendable than lectures about The Student’s Obligations And How I’m Very Disappointed In The Lack Of Application And When I Was A Student My Teacher Wouldn’t Have Put Up With This And You’re Wasting Your Parent’s Money And My Time…puh-leeze. That, right there, is why so many parents hated music lessons as a kid, and a powerful reason for this kid to wind up lessons of their own.

(Every teacher should have a speech like that on standby, but you only use it when you actually want to get rid of a student. )

Warning Sign 11: Compliance without enthusiasm

Not all outgoing students will try to skip lessons when they can, turn up scowling when they can’t, and refuse to practice in the time between. For polite students with a strong work ethic—or who have parents who insist on such—everything can seem fine, even in the terminal stages of lessons: the practice will get done, the pieces will get learned, the notes will be played in the correct sequence and for the recommended duration.

But these are just the actions of an animated corpse. There are plenty of workplaces where professional people quietly get on with doing a good job while being indifferent to—or actively resenting—every second of their work.

The warning here? You can’t take any students for granted; the fact that a student is working hard, listening attentively and laughing at your jokes doesn’t mean that you can triage them off your watch list entirely.

Warning Sign 12 : Good friend/sibling has just quit

Just as friends can be instrumental in bringing new students to your studio, a departing and disgruntled student can spell trouble for the otherwise content friends that they leave behind. It’s only natural for parents to talk to each other, and the casual “I hear Emily has stopped doing piano” comment can lead to a litany of why she stopped, none of which is going to read like advertising copy for your studio. It doesn’t always prompt a mass exodus, but it can lead to collateral damage.

An even more serious instance of this is when an unhappy sibling quits, particularly if that sibling is still keen for lessons, but just Not With You. As a parent, it’s much easier to have all your kids in one place; what was a single out can quickly turn into a double play (or worse…just how many kids do they have?).

The price you pay for not being aware of the possibility of such domino exits? Gaps in your schedule. Sometimes lots of gaps, suddenly. It’s up to you to decide how expensive that is.

Warning Sign 13: When they outgrow you

As proud as we are of advanced students who have been with us since they were beginners, if a student can now play everything that their teacher can, that can pose an existential threat to lessons in its own right: why would they stay if we’ve got nothing left to offer them?

Obviously students who are ready for further development should move on to someone who can extend them. But most music teachers understimate the full extent of ways in which they could still be challenging their students, or what entirely new goals might be possible, beyond those that have always defined lessons in the past. It’s a very rare thing that a student will outgrow all of what you offer.

Warning Sign 14: Stagnation

This is an entirely separate problem from students feeling like they’re not progressing, and is centred more around a feeling of same-old about lessons as a whole.

Ironically, it’s your longest-serving and otherwise most loyal students who are most at risk of this, and it happens when lessons are going so well that they’ve taken on a certain…rhythm.

The problem then is that with this week feeling a lot like last week, it’s harder to get excited about next week, and eventually years of service alone is not enough to head off possible conversations about how it’s maybe Time For A Break.

We’ll actually be taking a look specifically at this issue in the next chapter; in many studios, this illness is well-established, terminal, and almost always undetected, but it’s simple enough to treat.

What if a student shows one of these signs, but is not leaving?

Let me get this straight: you’re asking “what if I mistakenly list a student as being at risk of leaving, and then unnecessarily dial up how awesome and engaging their lessons are in response to a crisis that didn’t really exist?”

See it there?

Unnecessarily awesome and engaging lessons.

That doesn’t sound like a problem. That sounds like a mission statement.If your aim is not just to enrol, but actually keep students, unnecessarily awesome and engaging lessons is exactly what you’re going to need.

More IMT resources to check out

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