How and When to Let Go of a Piano Student

Ashley is an eighth-grader and she’s one of my favorite students. She’s been coming to lessons every week for the last five years and had been doing pretty well. Until lately. She missed a few weeks of practicing…and then a few more. It’s been taking her forever to learn a new piece. I’m finding myself looking for easier and easier music for her to play, and trying to find ways to motivate her. Nothing is working. Time is going by. There’s no denying it. We’re going backward, and we’ve been going backward for the past year. I’m losing her. It’s time to say goodbye.

I feel really sad. And I’m not the only one. I know Ashley feels sad too, and so does her mom. That’s probably why they keep coming. After all of this time, we’ve become friends. I care about them and they care about me. It’s just that the piano thing isn’t working right now.

I have another student named Adam. He’s a super sweet little third grader who is in the Big Brother program. His generous Big Brother pays for his piano lessons but he never ever practices. He says his keyboard is in the closet and he can’t get it out?? (I’m not making this up). I’ve resorted to penciling in notes and erasing them one by one. He’s been in Book 1 for way too long. Clearly, he isn’t getting anything out of piano lessons at all. His Big Brother’s time and money would be better spent somewhere else. It’s time to say goodbye.

So what’s a teacher to do? I’ve tried everything I can to get these students back on track, but to no avail. Lessons with kids who’ve lost interest in the piano are no fun for anyone. Not for me, not for my student and not for parents (or Big Brothers). Piano lessons are expensive and I don’t feel right about taking money from people whose kids are not learning to play the piano. It’s not good for my teaching business either. Some changes need to be made. It’s time to let go.

The Best Way to Let Go

How do I handle this? With honesty. I tell my students how much I like them as people. I tell parents how great they are to have brought their child to piano lessons in the first place. I remind them that they have not wasted time or money because music is so good for people. I let them know that my adult students who have had even the littlest bit of music training have a much easier time going back to playing than those who haven’t had anything. Most of all I let them know that we are still friends and they can come to visit me anytime or return to lessons if they are ready to start practicing.

Letting go is a two-week process in my studio. The first week I give them one more opportunity to start practicing and come in prepared before they are put on what I call the “Last Chance Program”. If they come in prepared the following week great! I tell them they have to continue coming in prepared from now on. If they don’t come in prepared that week (they almost never do) “The Last Chance Program” it is!

Read the post, “Best Piano Teacher in Town”

So what is the “Last Chance Program”?

I assign a piece that I know they can easily learn. I go over it with them at the lesson to the point where they can practically play the piece before leaving my studio. At this point, I let my student and parent know that I will be opening up the time slot for another student.

Then I tell them when the student has learned the notes and rhythm and can play the piece through to call me and we will set up a lesson as soon as I have time in my schedule.

That’s it. This usually ends the lessons but not the contact or the friendship. I still get referrals from these students. They call or send notes once in a while to let me know how they are doing and I love to hear from them. If we run into each other around town it’s smiles and hugs, no awkward weirdness. Once in a while, a student comes back but not usually.

It’s never easy to have a student stop piano lessons. Students lose interest for all kinds of reasons. Schoolwork, sports, friends, or other activities. Some never had much interest in the piano, to begin with. Any way you slice it, it’s hard on everyone. Giving kids a last chance to continue lessons makes it easier for all of us. Parents and students don’t go away feeling defeated and I feel like I am doing the right thing as well.

For myself, I need to remember that everyone is not as crazy about the piano as I am, and that’s OK. I’m still a good teacher, and they are good people. Sometimes you just have to let go. It’s not really saying goodbye. It’s more like giving students permission to move on and try something else in a way that we can all feel pretty good about.

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