To Make-Up or not to Make-Up

mqu9MRaDo you offer make-up lessons? Do you require 24-hour advanced notice? Are there make-up lessons built into your semester or yearly calendar? Do your make-up lessons ever bleed over into summer lessons eating away at your precious summer income? Do make-up lessons make you feel stressed, overworked or manipulated?

In teacher training classes, at conferences, and among music teacher friends, this is one of the most heated topics I hear about. Most people have a strong opinion one way or another. If you are an active performer and expect lots of flexibility from your students to accommodate your performing schedule, you may be one of the teachers IN FAVOR of make-up lessons. If you, on the other hand, are someone with a tight child-care schedule or teaching space limitations, you may be COMPLETELY AGAINST make-up lessons. For community music schools, preparatory divisions, or multi-teacher co-operatives, the topic of make-up lessons probably fuels many of your faculty meetings.

Here are some of the pros and cons I have heard about make-up lessons. First, let’s assume that if you, the teacher, misses a lesson, you either owe the student a refund or a make-up lesson. The harder question is what to do when a student misses a lesson. Was little Johnny really sick or did he want to stay playing outside on a nice day? What about the family who didn’t call in advance but picked their child up sick from school? Do you really want them feeling pressured into coming to a lesson, exposing you to illness, just “because they had already paid for it”?

Advantages of Make-up Lessons

  • The student and family feel that you are flexible and sensitive to their needs
  • As a teacher you are willing to give make-up lessons and, in turn, may more frequently rearrange lessons to meet your other commitments
  • Make-up lessons provide consistency of weekly lessons or additional lessons during a
    “make-up period” that the student would have forfeited.
  • End of semester make-up lesson periods can be used to teach a new skill or provide an out-of-the-ordinary musical experience.

Disadvantages of Make-up Lessons

  • Families may take advantage of your flexibility and are likely to miss for a friends’ birthday party as easily as they will miss for an excused illness.
  • Commitment to prioritizing lessons (and possibly daily practice) may be diminished.
  • Unless you are very strict about your payment policy, missed lessons can lead to missed payments and conflict between family and teacher.
  • Make-up lessons are more teaching time for no additional money. You, the teacher, were available at the regularly scheduled lesson time. You were most likely paying for the space. Your student was not available and a make-up requires you to essentially give the lesson for free.

One of the most common comments I hear is that families are comfortable paying for a semester of ballet lessons, the soccer season, or a summer art class. They will miss a class when necessary but, in these examples, would not expect a make-up class or refund.

So what makes music lessons fall into a different category? Is it the fact that most lessons are one-on-one? Is it that lessons are sometimes taught in our home or apartment? Is it the old fashioned view of the little old lady down the street who taught piano but did it because she loved music and kids, not for the money?

I am endlessly fascinated by what seems to be an often illogical professional decision on the part of individual teachers and music schools. As musicians, we have spent years, often decades, studying our instrument and becoming dedicated, inspired music teachers. Most often we have to accept the limitations (and benefits) of being self-employed. More flexibility and control of our own business, but no paid vacation, no sick, no personal days, no paid holidays, no comp days after a week of overtime, no 401K. And yet, make-up lessons essentially make being paid for your time optional.

If I show up for work, I want to be paid. Even for those students who attend all the lessons in a semester, a week of make-up lessons at the end of the semester is either a missed week of lessons for that student (for which the teacher is not paid), or a comp lesson from the teacher. Neither of these options feels truly professional. I would not ask my dentist to examine and clean my teeth for no charge just because it was “make-up teeth cleaning week”.

Recently I read an interesting article that cuts right to the point. In 2001, Vicki Barnham wrote the article “Makeup Lessons From and Economists Point of View”.  It is located on the website of Ottawa Suzuki Strings, a long-standing, well-respected music school. I hope it gives you food for thought.

As we enter the summer training season and the last few months of another great school year, I hope you will take a few moments to think about your position on make-up lessons. Please post comments. I will continue the conversation and include your thoughts at Institutes around the country.

  • Posted at 9:06 am, April 16, 2012

    As a teacher and music studio owner, I took a beating financially this year allowing for limited client call-ins/make-ups. When I say limited, I allowed 4 per student, per year. Instructors at my studio expect to be paid whether their students call-in sick or not. In many cases I found myself paying the instructor for the missed lesson then also paying for the make-up.

    I’m toying with the idea of having a no make-up policy…perhaps having students submit assignments via audio/video submissions or using a program like SmartMusic.

    Any thoughts on this?

    – Tracy

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