I’m going to make a guess that if you’re reading this blog post, that you are, or have been, in a situation where you need to discuss something sensitive with a parent or student in your music studio. Maybe you’ve been meaning to have the conversation for a long time, and you’ve finally decided it’s now or never. Perhaps you’ve been avoiding it for a while, and the problem isn’t going away. It’s getting worse.
Most people avoid having these awkward conversations. I often avoided these conversations out of fear of hurting someone’s feelings or losing a student. Instead of addressing the issue head on and telling the truth, I would harbor resentment, irritation, and fear.
I’d complain about these issues with my family and friends, but never approach these conversations with the actual people involved. Eventually I realized, that if I wanted to change my studio, I would need to change myself first. I would have to talk about the things that weren’t working and make some effort to improve the situation. It hasn’t been easy, and it has been uncomfortable at times, but taking responsibility for my part of any and all difficulties in my studio has been highly rewarding.
When I’m facing an uncomfortable or awkward situation, it helps me to make a plan for what I’m going to do. And if it’s something I think I’ll face repeatedly, I try to turn that plan into a process. I usually have to do some adjusting as I go on, but having a plan and a process helps me to feel more confident.
Last week, I talked about holding boundaries with families in my studio. Sometimes these boundaries don’t ever need to be articulated to the student, for example, if students call on late in the evening or on the weekend I let their calls go to voicemail. I don’t need to tell anyone about this. I simply don’t pick up their calls. In the past, I’d answer but I’d be annoyed that they didn’t respect my boundaries. How ridiculous? What boundaries? If I answer the phone at times when I don’t want to, I have no boundaries.
But sometimes, it’s necessary to communicate the boundary with the student or parent. I generally try to start with a straightforward verbal or text statement in the moment.
“Today’s the fifteenth, please send your tuition for this month so we can meet for lesson together next week.”
“It’s no fun to struggle through new pieces when we haven’t practiced, let’s work on review this week so you have a chance to prepare for next time.”
“I’m going to open the door, and stand in the hall while you play scales until your mom comes in.” I’ll then text the parent and say virtually the same to them. “Looking forward to seeing you in X’s lesson, I’ll be standing in the hall while they play their scales until you get here.”
“I missed you at lesson today, in the future, please let me know beforehand if you won’t be able to attend.”
I’m not going to lie, it sometimes requires a lot of courage to say these things. Some days are easier than others, and it’s easier to be straightforward with some students than others. I also would be lying if I told you that I had no unresolved issues in my own studio at the moment, but this is the attitude I’ve been practicing.
If I’ve had to make comments like those above repeatedly, I then approach the issue over email. In this email, I share something I’ve noticed, and then invite the parent to share their experience with me.
“Hi X, I’ve noticed that Y has been unprepared for their lesson for the past Z number of weeks. Is there something I can do to make home practice easier for you guys? I want to support you the best I can.”
“Hi X, I’m still waiting on your tuition payment for this month. As indicated in my studio policies, the remainder of your lessons are canceled as of next week.”
After a few verbal or text reminders, I’ll send an email directly to the parent asking for their thoughts about the problem. I’ll base my response on the information they provide.
The solution may be as simple as making sure the child gets a snack before their lesson, or suggesting they set a calendar reminder to pay their tuition on time.
The most important thing is for me to decide what I’m willing to allow in my studio.
Am I ok with a student that is consistently unprepared? Your answer may be different than mine, and that’s ok. Personally, as long as we’re making even miniscule steps forward, I’m willing to work with unprepared students. Am I ok with a student that’s consistently late or absent? I’m not. If they’re not attending 75% of their lessons in a two month period, I may decide to let them go. You may feel differently.
Fortunately, as business owners we get to make these decisions for ourselves. It is within our power to design a studio that supports us and adds meaning to our lives. Expecting our students to fit an ideal is unrealistic, but if we are willing to have some difficult conversations we can build a studio culture we love.
What are your tips for addressing difficult situations or topics with your Suzuki students or parents? Please let us know in the comments!
Brecklyn Ferrin teaches Suzuki violin lessons and Suzuki Early Childhood Education classes in Kaysville, Farmington, and Salt Lake City, Utah. She is the Suzuki parent of a 7 year old violinist, 5 year old cellist, and 18 month old Suzuki baby.
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