Music Lessons from an Economist’s Point of View

July 20, 2008 at 11:20 pm | Posted in Children's Music, Kindermusik, Music, Music Making, Musical Instruments, Parenting, Singing | 15 Comments
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Make-up Music Lessons from an Economist’s Point of View
By Vicky Barham, Ph. D.
I’m a parent of children enrolled in Suzuki music lessons. I’d like
to explain to other parents why I feel – quite strongly, actually –
that it is unreasonable of we parents to expect our teachers to make
up lessons we miss, even if I know as well as they do just how
expensive lessons are, and, equally importantly, how important that
weekly contact is with the teacher to keeping practising ticking
along smoothly. I think that it is natural for we parents to share
the point of view that students should have their missed lessons
rescheduled, but if we were to ‘walk a mile’ in our teachers’ shoes,
we might change our minds about what it is reasonable for us to
expect of our teachers.

Like many parents, I pay in advance for lessons each term. In my
mind, what this means is that I have reserved a regular spot in the
busy schedules of my sons’ teachers. I understand – fully – that if I
can’t make it to the lesson one week (perhaps my son is sick, or we
are away on holiday, or there is some other major event at school)
then we will pay for the lesson, but that my teacher is under no
obligation to find another spot for me that week, or to refund me for
the untaught lesson. And this is the way it should be.

In my ‘other life’ I am an economist and teach at our local
university. Students pay good money to attend classes at the
university; but if they don’t come to my lecture on a Monday morning,
then I am not going to turn around and deliver them a private
tutorial on Tuesday afternoon. When I go to the store and buy
groceries, I may purchase something that doesn’t get used. Days or
months later, I end up throwing it out. I don’t get a refund from the
grocery store for the unused merchandise. If I sign my child up for
swimming lessons at the local pool, and s/he refuses to return after
the first lesson, I can’t get my money back. So there are lots of
situations in our everyday lives where we regularly pay in advance
for goods or some service, and if we end up not using what we have
purchased, we have to just ‘swallow our losses’. On the other hand,
if I purchase an item of clothing, and get home and change my mind, I
can take it back and expect either a refund or a store credit.

So why do I believe that music lessons fall into the first category of
‘non-returnable merchandise’, rather than into the second case
of ‘exchange privileges unlimited’ (which I think is one of the
advertising slogans of an established women’s clothing store!)?
Speaking now as an economist, I would claim that the reason is that
items like clothing are “durable goods’ – meaning, they can be
returned and then resold at the original price – whereas music
lessons are non-durable goods – meaning, once my Monday slot at 3:30
is gone, my son’s teacher can’t turn around and sell it again. The
only way she would be able to give him a lesson later in the week
would be if she were to give up time that she had scheduled for her
own private life; and that seems pretty unreasonable – I can’t think
of many employees who would be thrilled if their bosses were to
announce that they couldn’t work from 3:30 to 4:30 this afternoon,
but would they please stay until 6:30 on Thursday, because there will
be work for them then!

Many teachers hesitate to refuse our request to shift lesson times
(because our busy schedules *do* change), because unless they keep us
parents happy, we will decide to take our child somewhere else for
lessons (or to drop musical study), and they will lose part of their
income. This is particularly true in areas with lower average income,
where it can be particularly difficult to find students. So rather
than telling us that ‘well, actually, the only time when I’m not
teaching and that you can bring your son for lesson is during the
time I set aside each week to go for a long soul-cleansing walk, and
I *can’t* do that on Monday at 3:30 when you should have turned up’,
they agree to teach us at a time that really doesn’t suit their
schedule. Teachers who are ‘nice’ in this way often, in the long run,
end up exhausted, and feeling exploited; they try to draw a line in
the sand. However, too few parents ask to switch only when absolutely
necessary, and too many parents want lesson times when it suits them
this week, which is not the same time that suited last week. The only
time that I would feel entitled to discuss shifting a lesson time is
if the reason I can’t make the lesson is because (i) I have to do
something for the Suzuki school and the only time at which that other
event can happen is during my lesson time; (ii) my teacher were to
ask us to participate in some other activity (e.g., orchestra, etc.)
and that other activity were to create the conflict. If the conflict
arises because my child is in the School play, and they have their
dress-rehearsal during his lesson time, then I feel that I must
choose between the two activities, and if he attends the dress
rehearsal my private lesson teacher doesn’t owe me anything.

During May, my eldest son will be missing three lessons because he is
going to accompany me on a trip to New Zealand to visit his great-
grandparents. I do not expect my son’s teacher to refund me for those
missed lessons, or to reschedule them by ‘doubling up’ lessons in the
weeks before or after our departure. Since there will be lots of
advanced notice, I might ask her to consider preparing a
special ‘practice tape’ for that period, or to answer my questions
via e-mail, but if she doesn’t have the time (the second half of
April is going to be really busy for her, and she wouldn’t be able to
do the tape until more or less the week we left) and so has to
refuse, then that’s fine. I certainly don’t expect her to credit me
with three make-up lessons; there is no way for her to find a student
to fill a three-week hole in her schedule during our absence.
Instead, I hope that she will enjoy the extra hour of rest during
those three weeks, and that we will all feel renewed enthusiasm when
we return to lessons at the end of the trip.

Article Copyright © 2001Vicky Barham

Vicky Barham, Ph. D., is the mother of two children who are enrolled
in Suzuki music lessons in Canada. She also teaches Economics at the
University of Ottawa. The TMTA webmasters became acquainted with Dr.
Barham through the Internet and were so impressed with her sound and
logical expressions about music teaching that we asked permission to
publish her ideas for all to share. Her ideas are expressed in two
articles on this website. The article on make-up lessons may be
printed and distributed to others as long as you do not charge any
fee for the article and as long as you give Dr. Barham credit for the
article. Thank you to Dr. Barham for so generously sharing her
expertise with us.


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  1. I have read your article and found it quite informative. It said so many important and relative things. Thank you so much for taking the time to express your thoughts and ideas so clearly.

    I am the editor of our music teacher’s newsletter (Orange County North of the Music teachers’ Association of California) and I was wondering if you would give me permission to reprint your article. I believe it would help so many of our teachers in this particular area.

    Thank you so much for considering this request.

    Joane Grubaugh
    15679 Palomino Dr.
    Chino Hills, CA 91709

  2. Thank you! I am a piano teacher with a no make up policy. (although I often make up a lesson if the child is sick) It truly is hard to reschedule a lesson.
    Check out my mostly piano blogs. I also have parenting ones and one on taking virtual piano lessons.
    I would appreciate you sharing these with friends and those who take lessons.
    Thanks for sharing your wisdom

  3. Hey nice blog. I just picked up you RSS FEEDS.
    Check out my new website, you’ll like it!

  4. Yes, all very true. Question though, for anyone:
    How then do you fairly handle any cancellations by the teacher, perhaps for illness, or for one’s own family vacation, or for professional reasons, such as away adjudicating. If we expect to reschedule those lessons and intrude on students private lives/time, shouldn’t we be flexible back? Any not making the lessons up then could be viewed as unprofessional as we are inconsistent.

    • Cancellations by the teacher will either have a makeup scheduled or not be charged by the teacher. I account for those misses when known ahead of time in what I charge by the month. I also give myself one illness that doesn’t have to be made up per semester. It doesn’t happen often so it has never come into question. I believe this is a very professional approach.

      • How do you solve the problem that you do not offer the same courtesy to the client? Will cancellations by the parent have a makeup scheduled or not be charged by the teacher? Do we account for those misses when known ahead of time in what is charged by the month. Do we give them one illness that doesn’t have to be made up per semester?
        Sounds all rather one-sided to me.

      • Margaret,
        You have missed the point of the article. The music educator is the professional being hired by the parent. It should be treated as any school opportunity. You do not expect a preschool to schedule a makeup class for your child, or in public school the teacher is not obligated to stay after school to teach your child. That being said, I do take things into consideration if possible.

        For my own studio: If an extended absence is planned a makeup plan would be put into effect. But the teacher has the control as you are asking a great deal to save a space and not use it. Also if an educator is aware of that time being available for another student then it may be booked. If a student is sick for an extended period (like mono) a makeup schedule will be offered upon their return. It is up to the parent to take advantage of what is offered. A private student also has the ability to change times with another student to accomodate changes to their schedule. In the case of group classes, I always offer parents the option of visiting a different class for a makeup. When the semester ends their makeup opportunity is over. This is not one-sided as the parent is contracting the teacher to be available to teach their child at a specific time on a specific day.

  5. The point of the article is that make up lessons should not be offered for student illness or absences. Yet teachers may experience their own illness or absences and need to make the lesson up. Now the teacher is in the situation of expecting a courtesy from the student that was not extended to them, i.e. that the student compromise their personal time outside of the agreed commitment. If the teacher does not make up the missed lesson from the teacher illness or absence, then the student loses the continuity of instruction (a complaint I hear of often, even though the reduced payment was not an issue).
    So in summary: If the student is absent, too bad for the student. . . if the teacher is absent . . . too bad for the student.
    It doesn’t sit well with me.

    • Margaret – The point of this article is NOT that makeup lessons should not be offered for student illness or absences but that Parents should not expect a makeup when a cancellation happens at the last minute. I give makeups with 24 hours notice. When you cancel the day of, you are essentially asking a teacher to then teach your child for FREE (they lose the income that day AND have to find an additional hour of time). Doctor’s offices and other places of business have a 24 hour cancellation policy – so do I. Because if a child can let me know with a day’s notice, I have a chance of filling that slot with another student. Same day cancellations are about impossible to fill. If you have a teacher who is constantly asking you to change your schedule the day of the lesson – however, you should consider whether you have the right teacher. I do occasionally ask my students to adjust their schedule – but do so with plenty of time in advance unless it’s an emergency. And I give them a credit for the following month if I have to cancel due to an emergency. Parents never complain about this – probably because it isn’t a habit. Teachers don’t get sick days, they don’t get vacation days – they don’t get PAID unless they teach. Having a simple no makeup policy for same day cancellations is extremely reasonable and not at all one sided considering that if you cancel the day of, you are stripping that teacher of their income and unless they protect themselves with thsi simple policy, they can’t do a thing about it. How would you like your job to tell you after you walk in that they aren’t going to pay you for the work you were scheduled for that day and to just go home? I will drop a parent with your attitude in a second to protect my livelihood and the time I have with my family. And the student/parent always has the option of finding another teacher if you feel you aren’t being fairly treated or if the teacher is asking for too many concessions or isn’t giving your child a consistent lesson schedule. I know from experience that it is FAR more likely that a student will take advantage of a teacher’s time than the other way around. Not respecting a teacher’s time and their ability to pay their bills doesn’t sit well with me.

  6. Absolutely right Stephanie.

    The point of this article to me is the mindset of the individual who choses to take private lessons should consider the teacher’s time “non-returnable merchandise”. Make-up lessons should be at the discretion of the teacher and a student or parent of a student should never expect it.

    I do extend make-ups most of the time, even in same day cancellations. But if a student is constantly cancelling on me I have the choice to send them a bill and they should not expect recompense. How else would I pay my bills?

    • Of course a no-show or last minute cancellation should be charged. I never raised that issue.
      No one has commented on my actual point, so I’ll try again:
      Let’s look at a quote from Dr. Barham’s posting: (Start of quote)
      I understand – fully – that if I
      can’t make it to the lesson one week (perhaps my son is sick, or we
      are away on holiday, or there is some other major event at school)
      then we will pay for the lesson, but that my teacher is under no
      obligation to find another spot for me that week, or to refund me for
      the untaught lesson. . .
      . . . The only way she would be able to give him a lesson later in the week
would be if she were to give up time that she had scheduled for her
own private life; and that seems pretty unreasonable. (End of quote)

      Question: If this is the approach expected from the student/parents, and the teacher is under no obligation to bend, why shouldn’t we apply the same courtesy the other way around? What do you do if the teacher is sick or away? Just now reschedule lessons into a client’s private time?

      (Further quote) I can’t think
      of many employees who would be thrilled if their bosses were to
      announce that they couldn’t work from 3:30 to 4:30 this afternoon,
      but would they please stay until 6:30 on Thursday (End quote)

  7. I definitely agree with Dr. Barham that there should be no option of offering makeup lessons, even with a prior notice from student’s parents. When the piano teacher is fully booked, there is no time available to accommodate a makeup lesson as then we’d be selling a time slot for a half-price.

    Alexandra Weiss Ph.D. in progress (York University)

  8. Very good info. Lucky me I recently found your sife by accident (stumbleupon).
    I have saved it for later!

  9. Thank you for posting this wonderful and absolutely spot-on perspective.

  10. learning to sing tips

    Music Lessons from an Economist’s Point of View | Kindermusik of Clayton

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