I ASKED 12 TOP GUITAR TEACHERS THEIR SECRET TO RETAINING STUDENTS
–AND WHAT I FOUND OUT SURPRISED ME
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You know that if you want to build a studio, you have to be able to not only attract, but keep students!
So as the founder of one of America’s largest independently operated guitar schools (we had over 3,000 students last year) I’m constantly on the hunt for insights into why some teachers are more successful than others in terms of retaining long term, progressing students.
Sometimes I end up with ridiculous hypotheses. For example, one day I walked past a couple of classrooms of high performing class teachers and I noticed they were standing up as they taught. Since I also typically stand when I teach a class, I had a eureka moment: “Great guitar teachers stand!” I was so excited about this insight…until I peeked into a few more classrooms to notice that several other top teachers were sitting down in their classrooms.
So much for that brilliant theory!
But the question remains.
Why do some teachers lose students, while others retain them?
Why do some teachers struggle to keep students, while other teachers, even if they have less fancy degrees or a perhaps can’t even play as well, enjoy thriving studios with students who continue taking lessons for years, advancing in skill, deeping in understanding and enjoyment? (And of course, these long term students willingly pay tuition over months and years which allows the teacher to make a living doing what they love.)
If you want to be a successful music teacher, this had better be an important question for you, too! The math is simple:
If a teacher’s students tend to stick around, over time the teacher’s studio will fill. Results: happy students, happy teacher, a world more full of music–and in my case, happy school operator.
But if students only stick around for a few lessons, that teacher will never be able to build a strong studio, no matter how many new students come thru the door.
Results: lost students, sad teacher–and a frustrated school operator who has wasted thousands of dollars on marketing and is worried about a loss of reputation in the marketplace.
I decided to answer this question by looking more closely at what successful teachers did! So I looked at our school records over multiple years and carefully compared the retention records of 50 of our teachers. (In fact, I had a computer program written to do this automatically so I can pull this information up at any time–but that’s another story.) Then, I invited a dozen of the very most successful teachers to teach me what they were doing. These teachers had proven over at least two years (and in some cases up to ten years) that most students who took a single lesson with them ended up taking dozens, scores, or even hundreds of lessons with the school. And what the computer records didn’t show, but what I knew, is that many of these students had gone on to perform in student showcases, enter music school, join bands, or otherwise really make their dreams of becoming a musician true.
So I couldn’t wait to fill my notebook up with all the brilliant teaching insights I would learn.
This day was just the beginning of an amazing process of discovery. WOW! I learned SO MUCH from our master teachers! I learned about best practices for curriculum, about how to communicate with the student, about how to handle late cancellations, how to be student centered and really connect with the student, how to set goals and objectives and SO MUCH MORE.
(In fact, we ended up a curriculum for these best practices and creating a 90 day mentorship program where incoming teachers are matched with a mentor who shares best practices with the new teacher.)
But in this post I’m only going to share ONE insight–because this insight really changed my whole perspective of what the core identity and core perspectives of a successful music teacher are, and I think without this insight, teachers can never improve their retention.
The Core Identity That Unlocks Teaching Mastery
I still remember vividly how excited I was to be in a room with such amazing and successful teachers. If I could just figure out what these teachers were doing and tell all the other teachers to do the same, I just knew we could dramatically increase the success of our students. So I essentially said “Hey team–you’re the best of the best…you’re the bee’s knees…you have the secrets of success. Lay them on me.”
Then, I stood with my dry erase marker poised in my hand, ready to write down the bullet points of success.
What happened next blew my mind. Because instead of telling me how to teach, the very first thing someone said was “Wow, I’m so glad I’m here, because sometimes my younger students get distracted and lose focus…I’m really struggling to figure out how to be more effective. Has anybody else had this issue?”
And for the next hour I watched and listened in amazement as these high-performing teachers shared their challenges with each other and asked each other for advice.
What is the take away?
Good Teachers Learn And Practice Teaching!
Can you imagine a gifted guitar player who thinks “Oh, I know how to play guitar–I no longer need to learn or practice.”
Of course not!
Learning is endless–there are always inefficiencies to be improved, there are always new skills to be gained, new understandings to be revealed.
Yet, all too often, music teachers think that because they play so much better than their students they are qualified to teach…and all too often they are content to do the same thing as a teacher. Then they wonder why their studio isn’t growing!
I realized that every one of these top teachers viewed their profession as something they practiced. Each of them was as concerned with improving their teaching as they were with improving their playing.
Don’t get me wrong–these all-stars knew they were effective teachers. They knew they had full schedules and that their students were playing in shows and improving over time.
But they were NOT assuming an attitude of stagnation and they were NOT taking their success for granted.
They were taking personal responsibility for learning and improving as teachers so that they could build their studio and help their students succeed.
Do you REALLY think that just because you can play guitar well you’re qualified to walk into a busy studio and have lots of adoring, long-term, successful students.
Sorry. It takes work to master your instrument–and it takes work to build a studio, too.
If you want to retain students better, no matter how successful you seem to be, you won’t be able to do it unless you recognize this super important fact:
You Have Lots Of Room To Improve As A Teacher!
If Olympic athletes can work to improve their form to shave off .001, then you and I have plenty of room to improve our skills, no matter how good they seem to be. Because we’re not nearly as good as we can be–the only question is whether our teaching sucks at a super novice level or whether our teaching sucks at an Olympic level!
If you aren’t happy with your studio, and you don’t understand that your teaching can and needs to get better, then sorry–there is no hope for you.
But on the other hand, if you are ready to approach teaching students and building your studio in the same way that you mastered your instrument, then you have the essential perspective to be a successful teacher. Good teaching and a full studio isn’t a destination–it is something that happens to teachers who are on a journey to learn and improve how they impact their students.
Remind yourself of this:
Good Teachers Learn And Practice Teaching!
On to Greatness,
Founder/CEO, NYC Guitar School
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