A few weeks ago, I had a prospective private student contact me and ask me if I gave free trial lessons. This question was embedded in, I kid you not, a treatise of other questions about studying voice. I felt like any response other than an outlined, foot-noted essay would have been offensive. I’m less willing now than I was six years ago to take an hour to answer these kinds of things with careful, well-documented considerations, partially because I can pretty much see right through this type of e-mail, and also because on a good day, I’m lucky to scramble up the prints I need and scrub up cat vomit before my afternoon students walk through my door.
They mean well. They so want to satisfy their inner diva and get on board with practicing and singing a multitude of styles, even “opera,” which apparently means anything written after 1950. But when it comes time to commit (financially and psychologically), they just can’t bring themselves to do it. I mentioned in one of my recent posts that I can smell these types of students coming a mile away. I even started to pen a really sarcastic and witty item, “Reading Between the Lines (or “Judgy-Wudgy Was a Bear”): How To See Through Initial E-mails.” BUT I stopped myself and decided to shelve some of the cynicism, because they really do mean well, and I would be doing a disservice to music advocacy if I ignored these people altogether. Maybe this post will be a prelude to a future, titillating exposé on the matter, but I guess I’ll be nice this time around…if your definition of nice is telling it like it is WHAT WHAT.
I like to call these prospective students Freddy Freebers. It’s not necessarily that they are looking for a free handout, but they seek information, and some days (or months or years), I feel like imparting my hard-earned knowledge, and other times I have every intention of answering their questions, but their e-mail wastes away in my inbox, a.k.a, List of Crappy Tasks With Which You Will Have Multiple Staring Contests Until You Complete Them. Sometimes these e-mails sit around until it would be socially unacceptable to actually respond. Yes, I would be happy to help you with that audition you had 12 weeks ago. Whoops.
But this post is not about my e-mail response method (that’d be a short one: I prioritize). It’s not even really about why I’ve become more selective with the students I bring into my studio (another conversation for a rainy day). It’s about why I don’t give free lessons. Here’s the short and skinny:
1. I don’t have time, and I prefer not to make the time.
Everyone’s busy; my schedule is no better or worse than anyone else’s. But I am a firm believer that there aren’t actually more than 24 hours in a day, and that there’s no such thing as “I Don’t Have Time.” What that really means is “I Prefer To Give My Time To Something Else.” It’s that simple. If I wanted to tack on an extra 30-60 minutes at the end of my teaching day as an open tutoring session / office hour (it kind of already is) / community voice hour, I would invest in a flashing neon “open” sign (that probably would violate county code). But I don’t, because I want to be done and eat dinner with my husband. This is NOT to say that I will never do anything outside the 30 minutes we have together. I am generous with my time according to the level of mutual respect I sense (and I am a blood hound in this regard). I will give makeups outside my flex week if they are needed. I’ll go an extra 10 or 15 minutes with the student who has an audition next week. Yes, I’ll even spend an hour drafting a detailed method of how to shop for and purchase a piano. To me, though, it’s kind of disrespectful to ask for someone to make time for one free lesson, if the intent to continue isn’t really true….which leads me to my next point:
2. You’ll know BEFORE starting, more or less, if private lessons are the right path for you.
If you are really motivated to study voice or an instrument, you’ll know, and we’ll give it a shot for fifteen weeks, not 30 minutes. That’s the kind of student I seek, at least. If it’s not for you, you’ll stop lessons, and I’ll ignore my “2-week dropout notice” policy, and the next student will fill your slot. It’s annoying, but that’s the way things work. If you are asking for a free lesson, chances are, there are better ways to test the proverbial waters and see if music is something you enjoy enough to pursue. Non-audition ensembles, church choirs, jam sessions, karaoke, community theater, short-term classes at the rec center, the list goes on. I take on a leadership role in some of these types of things, and here’s a secret: I recycle a lot of instruction and modify it according to my teaching environment. Experience those things first; some of them are free, others cost money. Once you move past the Isle of Lukewarm, come talk to me and we’ll move forward.
3. Would you ask any other person to test their services for free?
The economist’s perspective. I dare you to you walk into a hair salon and say, “I’d like to hire you long-term, but do you give your first haircut free to see if we’re a good match?” Don’t do this. They have scissors. I have a blunt-tip conducting wand, and I’m not afraid to jab you with it with it if you ask me to give you a free lesson. Would you go to a tax accountant and say “can you do this year for free, and then I’ll let you know if I want you to do next year’s?” The examples continue. What I will offer is a short-term coach session that you can pay for, no other strings attached. And don’t do the thing where you show up to a trial lesson having “forgotten” your payment. I actually had this happen twice when I was building my studio. Both times, I had to send them away on the spot and say, “I’m sorry, but it’s not in my best interest to teach without up-front payment.” They never returned. That’s okay, though, because I wasn’t really sorry, so nyeah.
4. Someone else can do that for you.
There are other musicians in different situations, who perhaps don’t rely as heavily on studio income, or even those that are looking to build their studio and will accept any type of income. They can probably give you your first lesson free if you ask for it, and since you’re asking for one, they will probably be a better match for you. My competitors are free to do that and you are free to go to them. That’s capitalism. However, my studio is the bread and butter of my income. I don’t consider it something I do “on the side.” Interestingly, all my other jobs pay less per hour, even my college teaching gig. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t ignore financial loyalty. I offer a discount if my students pay for the semester up front, and that works out to be the equivalent of about…one free lesson! You don’t say. I’ve had people cut me checks for hundreds of dollars (the whole semester or even the year up front) for the 5% discount (bless. you). I have also spent days, nay, weeks crunching numbers and figuring out how many students I need to keep off the streets and plan for my future family, and I spend at least a week a year re-visiting these numbers. I call it The Week of the Calculator. Do not insult the calculator. Because the calculator can spell out bad words (7734 upside down – HOLD ME BACK).
So, that was me being less sassy and pessimistic. Nor sure if that’s how it came across, but there you have it. Questions?