Music is a priceless gift—A gift which enriches our students, and through them, our world. When we teach music, we nurture students to think creatively; to improvise; to find ways to express harmony and dissonance; to express who they are in diverse, complex, and integrated ways. Imparting our music to the next generation is a crucial service.
Let me tell you my story:
Staring Down the Gorilla
Or how I set my lesson fees
When I first began teaching piano in January 2010, I had a problem.
The going rate in my area was $20-$25/lesson. A large, well-established music school in my area was charging $34/lesson. How much was I going to charge?
Remember that old joke: Where does an 800-pound gorilla sit? (Anywhere he wants to!) The big music school was the 800-pound gorilla in my local community, and as such, it could charge what it wanted.
Even so, $34 a lesson seemed low to me, considering how much overhead the big music school had (and how little the teacher probably got). Let’s face it, doing business costs money, costs beyond the time a teacher spends with his or her students. To have a sustainable business, you must figure those costs into the price of your product.
I wanted to quit my day job in HR and Compensation. But I quickly realized I had to bring in at least $64 per teaching hour to work less and meet my income needs (hello mortgage!).
I’m a good teacher with a great curriculum (and a lot of confidence), but I also knew I was just starting out. I fretted a lot: Could I possibly charge what I really felt my time was worth?
How is a Music Lesson Like a Fine Wine?
People only recognize its value if they are told.
In 2007, a team of researchers at Cal Tech* studied how price impacts people’s enjoyment of wine:
There were 5 bottles of wine, labeled only by price: $5, $10, $35, $45, and $90. The lucky participants tasted each wine, rated their experience, and had their brains scanned while they enjoyed their wine. (Can I volunteer for this study?)
Everyone’s experience improved as the price went up—and their brain scans proved it. The pleasure centers in their brains lit up more intensely with higher prices.
Here’s the catch: There were actually only three wines, and the researchers manipulated the marked prices! So when the subject tasted the $10 wine, it was actually a $90 wine—and they enjoyed like it was a $10 wine.
A lot of people heard about this study and resolved to only buy $5 wine. But there’s something much more important here for anyone teaching music lessons:
If you price your $90 music lesson like a $10 one, people will treat it like a $10 music lesson, and they will treat you like a $10 music teacher.
How do we make the world recognize the real value of music lessons?
It begins with YOU charging what you are worth.
Music is a priceless gift, but we must put a price on it. We need to price our product as a $90 wine, not a $5 one.
Pricing your lessons at “bargain rates” does not mean people will think they’re getting a good deal. More likely, it will mean that you get less respect for your time, your abilities, and your business. You are charging $5 for your $90 wine, and people will value your teaching accordingly. After all, if you were selling a Mercedes Benz for $1000, everyone would ask, “What’s wrong with it?” A high quality product should have a high quality price.
But there’s more: when you charge so little you can’t make ends meet, it hurts the perception of music education’s value. When you feel burned out and desperate, you teach like a desperate, burned out teacher—and your students know. It shows in their results.
When you charge what you are worth, you build a culture that empowers ALL music instructors to do the same. You will teach better when you are healthy, happy, and financially comfortable–and your students know that too.
So back to my story:
Here’s what I did.
I took a deep breath, consulted trusted friends and colleagues, and benchmarked my lesson fees to the big music school. I charged $35/lesson, or $140/month for 48 lessons/year. Since then I have both raised my rates and taken more time off.
Was I crazy? You decide: 5 years out I have a stable studio averaging 30 students. As of today, 65% of them have been with me over 2 years. Over 1/3 have been with me for over 3 years. As a brand new teacher, I charged a premium on the premium rate in my area, and I had 20 students within 10 months on an advertising budget of $0.
A wise soul once said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.” How do you want music teachers to be perceived? Be that teacher. Believe in your own worth.
Together, we can stop this insane culture of undercutting each other’s lesson rates to be more “competitive.” We can be empowered businesspeople. We can give ourselves a raise, take enough time off, speak confidently about our lesson rates. We can acknowledge what we’re worth and have confidence enough to charge it.
We empower our students when we believe in ourselves and create a teaching environment that enables us to be our best selves. By this path, we lead them not only to better musicianship, but to better humanity.
You are a uniquely qualified, highly skilled artist and educator. It’s your passion. It’s your profession. It’s your soul. Believe in your worth as an artist and teacher, and others will believe it, too.
*If you are interested in reading more about the study I cited above, here are links to the original research:
Marketing actions can modulate neural representations of experienced pleasantness; Plassman, et. al. 2008; Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Vol. 105 No. 3
Wine Study Shows Price Influences Perception (Media release about the study)