Learning from your Ghosts
They’re not just ex-students. They’re the world’s leading experts on what perhaps your studio should change …what could you learn from your ghosts?
IT’S ALL TOO EASY for music teachers to fret about how many students leave in a particular year, but the answer to that question doesn’t convey any actionable information: knowing that “18 students left the studio in the past 12 months” tells you nothing about what might have caused the exodus, and how perhaps to prevent it next time. It’s just a Big Number that leaves you feeling bad. (How useless am I as a teacher? I’ll tell you how useless! I’m 18 useless! Last year I was only 15 useless! I’m getting worse!)
A much more useful question than how many students left is which students left, and—more critically— what those students might have in common.
Reframing the question like that is immediately empowering, as it changes your focus from
“18 students left the studio last year”
to a realisation like
“12 of the 18 students who left last year were boys in their first three years of high school”
Whoa! Say that again? 12 of 18 students who left were what? …
We’ll look in a moment at how to discover such stats…
…but the point here is that it’s just not possible to say such a statistic out loud without your mind switching from fretting to ticking over with possible solutions:
Two-thirds of the students I lost last year were boys starting high school, you say? Ok. So…let me think…how can I make lessons more engaging for that age group? Is there perhaps a problem with the repertoire I’m choosing for them? Do my lesson times force them to choose between music lessons and activities that their peers are involved in (sports practice, for example)? Is there a teacher in town who seems to do just fine with that age group; should we grab coffee and swap notes? Or should I change my advertising so that I’m avoiding boys in that age group entirely? (Focus on very young students perhaps? Retirees? Place advertisements at local all-girls schools?) Should I consider additional occasional group lessons , where there are also girls present? (This is a potent technique for keeping high school age students)
It’s oddly compelling, discovering the studio you’ve been teaching in all this time. The real studio—not the one you thought you had.
Should I create a competition or scholarship especially for that age group? Make more use of music technology? Spend more time understanding what boys in that age group are actually listening to? Be open with them when they’re in their last year of elementary school that there’s a Danger Period coming up, and plan together ways to get through it? Have them mentoring other students, so that they have a role within the studio? Set up a games console in the waiting room for before-and-after lessons? Establish landmark events and awards specifically for students in 11th Grade, as an incentive for students to get that far in the first place? Introduce a more competitive element to the studio’s various motivation systems?
Or a set of computer-game-like tiered earnable rewards? Be firmer and more clear in my instructions? Or more accommodating and open-ended?
…you’ll have no problem coming up with possible answers; the point here is knowing that you had to ask this particular question in the first place.
You can’t fix what you don’t know about
None of this specifically boys-starting-high-school rethinking would have taken place if you hadn’t seen that stats breakdown…which means you may well have been leaking students in that demographic for years, and never have realised it. Trends that are blindingly obvious with hindsight analysis can be very hard to detect when you’re in the thick of the fight.
The immediate challenge for any teacher wanting better student retention therefore is not figuring out what changes to make . That’s horses and carts completely in the wrong order. It’s being able to identify the trends that are worthy of your attention.
To do that, you’ll need a tool that you’ve probably never worked with before, but that will completely change how you think about departing students:
It’s time to establish a Book of Ghosts.
Setting up a Book of Ghosts
A Book of Ghosts is just a register of the students you used to teach, but who have now moved on. It’s no mere Hall Of The Fallen though; if maintained rigourously and analysed intelligently, it will end up being one of the most student retention tools in your kit.
So how does it work?
The idea is that whenever the “…we’ve decided to take a break from lessons” call comes in, then your Book of Ghosts comes out. Instead of simply deleting the student from your schedule and staring mournfully at the gap, add their name to the book, together with—and this is what might seem like overkill, but it’s vital to ensuring you’re not just guessing your way through the changes ahead—as many demographic details as you can:
There are very few subscription-based businesses that can stay in business without studying their ghosts carefully.
Was this departing student male or female? How old were they? How long had they been learning? How advanced were they? To what extent were their parents involved in their practice? What repertoire were they working on? What awards , if any, had they won? How recently ? What genre were they most interested in? What genre were you mostly assigning? How many pieces were they typically assigned at once? What were your practice expectations? To what extent were they meeting those expectations? If they were falling short, how were you handling encouraging/admonishing them? How rapidly did you feel they were progressing? What evidence were you providing to them of that progress? How long since their last public performance? Do they have friends or siblings in the studio? Did any of those contacts leave recently? What time were their lessons? Which day of the week? How long were their lessons? Do their parents stay for lessons , or drop and run? What else was music lessons competing with in their weekly schedule? Did they stop lessons altogether , or did they move to another teacher? If so, who? With hindsight to light the way, were they any possible warning signs? And what reasons did they cite—if any—when the call actually came?
That might seem like a lot of questions. It is. The more detailed your notes, the more likely you’ll be to spot patterns; as we’ll see in a moment, they’ll often appear where you’d least expect.
Compiling and processing the data
The Book of Ghosts is a great way to collect information, but until it’s processed it will just be trivia. Compiling the data is not as frightening as the phrase “compiling the data” makes it sound—it simply means gathering all the information in one place, and then sorting it in different ways until patterns start revealing themselves.
Compiling your Book of Ghosts data
To be able to spot patterns hidden in the data, you’ll need to enter all these details into a spreadsheet, like Apple’s Numbers , Microsoft’s Excel , or OpenOffice’s Calc , after which the program can almost instantly give you the breakdowns you need. Whichever program you use, the setup will be the same: the left column will be where you type the name of the student ; the columns to the right of that will be where you insert the answers to your various questions . So the second column might tell you their gender, the third might be number of years since they started, and so on, until every question your Book of Ghosts addresses has a corresponding column.
You’ll lather, rinse and repeat for all the names in your book; it’s once it’s all in and you start using the “sort” command that the magic starts.
Processing the data into actionable trends
The idea now is to arrange your information, not by student name, but by question type, so that students with similar characteristics end up grouped together. So you might click the column that lists age groups , and sort the entire list by age group. Instead of students whose surname starts with “A” appearing at the top of the list, your youngest departing students will now appear first, with the oldest at the bottom—what you’re looking for is age groups which seem over-represented. Make a note of anything you discover.
Now click the column for gender , and re-sort the document again, and you’ll get a quick breakdown of male vs female departures. Click another column now that lists zipcode , and you’ll be able to see whether you have a problem keeping students who live more than (say) 5 km away. (Should you stop paying for those radio advertisements that bring in such students in the first place, and focus on local letterbox drops only? High out-of-area attrition would suggest yes.) Or click the column for lesson time to see whether perhaps there is a graveyard timeslot (what! Saturday morning lessons represent 45% of all departures? What the…what is going on? Maybe time to rethink the whole idea of teaching on a weekend?)
It’s strangely compelling, discovering the studio you’ve been teaching in all this time. The real studio—not the one you thought you had, complete with its very real Achilles heels.
As any statistician will tell you though, you need to keep your wits about you when you look at the bottom line. The results of these sortings are sometimes unexpected, frequently illuminating, but also—unless you apply a little statistical common sense—potentially misleading. For example, knowing that 92% of your departing students are teenage girls is not a call to action if all but two of of your students come from a nearby all-girls high school. (Of course most of your departures will come from the very people your studio is mostly made up of… )
The most telling stats are when a demographic seems over-represented in your Book of Ghosts when compared with the space they occupied in your schedule: if, for example, most students who are currently part of your studio have parents who sit in on lessons, but most departing students are those with parents who drop and run, then knowing that might actually inform a change of studio policy. The switch to sitting-in-on-lessons being encouraged wouldn’t be made because you thought that was a “good idea”; it would be made because you have three years of data from departing students to support the change.
Creating your Watch List
Once trends start to emerge (and let’s be fair…sometimes they don’t), it’s worth turning the top three into a watch list. So your Book of Ghosts might reveal that you need to be careful with students in their 3rd year of lessons , adult students and students who struggle with sightreading . Or it might be students who are uncomfortable with performing , anybody less than 7 years old , or students who attend this particular school .
Whatever your leading Ghost trends happen to be, make a note, and stick it somewhere where you’ll be walking past it frequently. You’ve just made a huge step towards identifying the cause of students leaving, rather than simply lamenting the drop in studio numbers.
And when students do leave, it helps with the sting. They’re not abandoning you. They’re giving you clues to build a better studio.
More IMT resources to check out
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