The Best Things in Life Are Free? Really??

In conversations with my teaching colleagues from various countries, both in person and on the internet, the subject of free trial lessons sometimes comes up. When my advice is solicited about whether free introductory lessons should be offered, I have a very succinct answer: NO.

Okay, there may be extenuating circumstances so I may vary my answer to: DON’T.

To anyone who is already offering free introductory lessons, my advice will change to: STOP, and if I’m feeling particularly verbose, I may attach one other word: NOW. In short, I cannot think of any circumstance in which offering free introductory lessons is a good idea.

Why not? Well for one thing, it’s not professional. Have you ever known a doctor to give a free examination to see if you like what he does? Have you ever known a plumber to offer you a free trial repair? “We NEED doctors and plumbers,” you respond, “but who needs to take violin lessons?”

To convince people of the importance of music education you have to believe in it yourself and must never appear to underestimate the importance of what you do. Your giving free introductory lessons can make people think that you are desperate to get students and have little faith in the value of your work, thus creating a buyer’s market. What happens then? Bargaining  When you give away the upper hand, certain unscrupulous parents will try to set conditions and financial arrangements that are unacceptable. If you give in because you are truly desperate or you REALLY want to teach that particular student, you are setting a dangerous precedent. Whoever gets a bargain tends to brag about it and your entire price structure could be compromised. (I am not referring to discounts you might want to give for a second and third child in the family or for cases of hardship.) There are people who can well afford your services but who bargain as a matter of principle if you make them think that you need them more than they need you. Certainly you will be in for trouble sooner or later – if nothing else, your teaching will be considered just another commodity instead of the really important profession it is and they won’t treat either you or your work with the respect it deserves. Also, parents will think that everything you do is for your own best interests, not those of their children – after all, you have demonstrated your need to get and keep students, haven’t you?

Let’s say you decide to offer trial lessons anyway. Before you do, ask yourself how much can a student and his parents find out in free introductory lessons? How much he likes the instrument? If nothing else he may get discouraged – you risk that he will discover how difficult the instrument (the violin in particular) is and decide not to continue – after all, his parents haven’t invested anything. Do you think that in one free lesson you are going to charm the socks off your perspective student and his family so they will decide you are just such a marvelous person that they can’t live without you? Even if this happens, it’s not a good foundation for a teacher/student relationship. Let’s be honest: your student is not really going to have fun playing music for quite some time and free lessons may just drive that point home all too well – to your (and really the student’s) detriment.

DO THIS INSTEAD:

If a child and his family want to see if they would like lessons with you, there is a much better and more professional way than free lessons: invite prospective students and parents to observe you teaching other students. This is an excellent and non-threatening way for them to see you in action. I say non-threatening because a new teacher can be a little frightening to a child unless he has a chance to observe her first. I have found this practice so useful to prospective clients that I require it. I don’t need to see them but they need to see me – as observers, not participants. They get to know me without being in the “hotspot” so that when lessons with them start, it feels like a natural progression of the relationship. They also begin to understand the commitment needed to study a musical instrument by seeing me interact with other students and their families. I also encourage them to speak to the other families and ask them questions. This is usually very encouraging to new students. Why? Because if my students and their parents like what I do, they want other people to like it too. Human nature. You won’t have to sell your work – others will do it for you. To prove my point – almost all the students I have now came from referrals. It may take years to get to this point, but you have to start somewhere with your head held high.

Some young teachers have so few students that they cannot easily invite observation. If this is the case, borrow students or get a colleague or friend to pose as one. Be inventive. The other thing you can do, if you’re just starting out, is go to the really well-known teachers in the area and ask them to refer some beginning students to you. Many teachers give up teaching beginners as soon as they can and are happy to have someone else do the difficult stuff and then pass the students on to them when they achieve the appropriate, agreed-upon level. (You would also do well to take didactic or method courses in how to teach beginners if you have not already done so.) “Yes,” you say, “but I want to teach advanced students, too!” Worry about that in a couple of years. Right now you are trying to get into the market and make a name for yourself. If you are any good at teaching, your reputation will speak for you. And it won’t take as long as you think. If the best teachers in the area are referring their beginners to you, it speaks volumes for your competence. Consider this, too: if you were an advanced student new to the area, would you go to a teacher who is giving away free lessons? Most certainly not, I’m sure. You would be looking for the teacher with the best reputation, which is what YOU need to be concentring on instead of giving free samples which may well diminish your stature as a professional.

I have given lots of free lessons in my career, but I would never give away free introductory lessons for another compelling reason: if the family is not committed to the idea and the importance of music lessons in the first place, you are not going to convince them in a free lesson or two. You want parents who come to their children’s first music lesson already convinced of the importance of music, of playing a musical instrument and aware of the commitment necessary. You can accomplish this by exposing them to your other music students and their families and to the numerous articles and studies on the benefits of music instruction. Don’t undermine yourself and our profession before you even get started.

Post Author: Eloise Hellyer

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2 November 2015

5 thoughts on “The Best Things in Life Are Free? Really??

  1. gipsika

    Brilliant article, and I could add a few things! It is equally dangerous if a new teacher under-charges – not just for themselves (remember you need to sustain yourself with that money!) but for those around them who then have to justify why their prices are higher. To this, I have one answer: Violin is a cultural activity. Like everything of high class and value, you get what you pay for. A young teacher can ruin his/her own reputation by charging too little, especially if they are indeed really talented with children.

    It is nonsense to give a single free introductory lesson. Some people ask whether they can come for a month’s (paid) “trial” lessons; to which I usually tell them that there is no way of telling if their child will like the instrument before at least taking a full 3 months of lessons. A music shop near us rents out instruments at a decent rate, so I refer people there, telling them that they won’t have to pay the whole investment of a violin in one go, so they can still return the instrument after 3 months. This strategy (which is nothing but true) results in one of two things: either they change their minds and don’t start, or they sign on for 3 months, and very often they end up staying.

    Reply
    1. Eloise Hellyer Post author

      Thank you and thanks for your comment. I have found that by having parents observe other students’ lessons, having them talk with other parents and having a very frank chat with them myself to make sure they know what they’re getting into, there is no need for a trial period at all. Also, where I live there are no rental instruments. The first violin doesn’t cost much, but it is an investment that encourages parents to take studying the violin seriously. You’re right about some teachers charging too little – sooner or later most people go for quality, not price. So if you ask too little and don’t do your job correctly, you will lose students anyway. If you are a really good teacher and ask too little, you cannot make a big jump in price when you decide that you want to raise it. So start at the going rate, or close to it if you want to survive (literally!).

      Reply

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