Are free trial lessons the norm expected from Suzuki teachers

Barbara Stafford said: Nov 15, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Plano, TX
59 posts

Hello, are “trial” lessons the norm in the Suzuki method? And I recently learned that “trial” lesson means “free” lesson. I feel very hesitant to want to go along with that. I am willing to teach without a contract commitment for a month or two but giving a free lesson does not feel very good to me at all. I might have to find a way to adjust if everyone is doing it that way. So please let me know if this is the norm and how you handle these free trial lessons. I would appreciate the input! Thank you!

Jennifer Visick said: Nov 16, 2014
Jennifer VisickForum Moderator
Suzuki Association Member
Viola, Suzuki in the Schools, Violin
998 posts

Trial lessons are fairly common. Yes, it is a free lesson. I think of them more as mini-lessons or interviews—I tend to do part interview, part lesson, if I give one.

The other option which I use whenever possible is to ask prospective parents to observe me teaching another student who is a beginner or near the age of the parent’s child, so they can get an idea of my teaching style for that age or for the beginner level of lesson, and to also observe me teaching older, more experienced students, too.

If most of the other teachers in your area (Suzuki or not), are giving trial lessons, then you probably should, too, unless you can successfully get prospective students to join your studio in some other fashion. I think it’s reasonable that a person needs to know what kind of a teacher I am before making this significant financial commitment of paying me for lessons on a long-term basis.

You could offer a half hour combination interview/free trial mini-lesson and then, if the parent decides to sign up for lessons, you can have a one-time, once-only registration fee which is perhaps a little lower than you’d charge for a regular half hour lesson in order to reimburse yourself for some of the trial lesson time.

Think of it as advertising. That’s what it is. If you don’t have a full studio and you want a full studio, you need to get people in the door to see how you teach so that they want to study with you. If you don’t have students whose lessons are good for prospective parents to observe, or if you don’t have an upcoming studio recital that prospective parents can attend so they see the results of your teaching, you’re asking them to pay for an unknown.

If you feel you can advertise “1 month of introductory lessons for only $$” and that will successfully get people in the door, and if you feel that you can handle expending the energy for starting a student for a month before knowing if that family is going to commit, then go for it.

I used to work for a music store that did this, and found that I hated having a full studio where I would invest a month, or possibly two or three, in a student whose parents hadn’t decided whether or not to commit to long-term lessons yet, because at just about the time when the initial excitement is over and the novelty of taking music lessons wears off and the reality of “this is going to take time and work” sets in, but the student hasn’t yet had time to reap any of the intrinsic rewards of playing their instrument really well yet, they quit. They were, after all, just taking the “introductory” month, and then paid the store by the month, with no commitment. That would mean I had a free spot in my schedule, and the store would fill it with another “introductory” student whose family was just trying lessons out for a month or two, and the cycle would start again…

I much prefer giving a single free trial lesson/interview, and inviting parents to observe me teach other students (also free), and then after that asking parents to either decide to commit to an entire year’s worth of lessons, or not. I felt exhausted and burnt out teaching the same introductory 1-3 months of lessons over and over to lots of students only to have most of them quit. I’d rather not get paid for a single trial lesson (and never see that family again) than get paid for a month or two “starting” a family who then doesn’t decide to continue.

It’s like coaching someone on how to plant a fruit tree. The first lesson plants a seed, not a seedling. That seed is not going to turn into a fruit-producing tree overnight, and even when the seed sprouts, it’s not going to be a tree that produces fruit for at least a year (or five). If I tell parents or students that they can have a couple months of commitment free gardening advice, what is going to happen? The person who knows nothing about trees is going to get to the end of a month or three, barely see a seedling, definitely see no produce, and conclude that this is an investment of time, money and energy with no returns in sight.

But if I give a free introductory info session, and offer a free seed packet, and tell them all about it, and show them a couple of seedlings from other clients who’ve been with me for a few months, and show them yet other clients who’ve successfully seen fruit produced after a year or two or three, and then tell them they need to commit to at least a year, they’re going to realize up front that this is a long-term investment.

Christiane said: Nov 16, 2014
Christiane Pors-Sadoff
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
New York, NY
47 posts

Hi Barbara,
I don’t think it is considered the norm, but it certainly depends on the geographical area. I usually invite the prospective parent and child to observe for at least a few weeks, then we are in touch via email for any specific questions, or to make my expectations clear. Then, I have them sign up for a cycle of 10 lessons and they need to pay the entire tuition up front.

Never a good idea to give too much away for free, but not a good idea to appear too mercenary about the process either. I would keep in mind, however, that psychiatrists or psychologists always charge for a consultation, and if the meeting is more than about 20 minutes, you should probably charge a fee. People tend to value something they paid for more than a freebie.

Best,
Christiane

Christiane Pors
Violinist
Mikomi Violin Studio
Kaufman Music Center
NYU Steinhardt

Anna said: Nov 16, 2014
Anna Draper
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
Valley City, ND
4 posts

Hi Barbara,

I do like to meet families before I work with them, but I personally do not like the idea of a free trial lesson—or any sort of trial lesson for that matter. Starting a 3 or 4 year old is so much of a commitment for they teacher, and I feel that the parents really need to be willing to commit before they begin. I request lesson observations and I have a parent packet I require parents to read before enrolling that discusses the method and the commitment. I also have families pay by semester (even if they do it by monthly payments) so that I do have at least a 4 month commitment to work with. I rarely have students quit at that point. During the first 4-5 weeks of lessons I either hold a group parent class or just teach the parent during the private lesson time. During the parent lessons, we continue to discuss the philosophy, what to expect, as well as the struggles they might encounter and how to handle them.

Laura Burgess said: Nov 16, 2014
Laura Burgess
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
32 posts

My school offers Trial lessons but they are not free. They are $7 off the normal half hour price. We used to offer free trials but we found that as a small non-profit teachers then had to work for free. Also folks felt free to not show up since it was free. I would not ask another professional to work for free, so I have decided not to either.

Laura said: Nov 16, 2014
Laura Appert SpringhamViolin, Viola
33 posts

I’ve worked for several community arts schools. There have never been free trial lessons at any of them. I also know many teachers who work for themselves and do not offer this. I would be hesitant to offer this myself. Often times you are spending time on the phone or email with the parent when they have questions, and then giving them a trial seems like too much if they have not even decided that they want to commit.

I think the parents should be required to come and observe both group and private lessons, and read a parent packet. They can then decide if they would like to commit to the lessons.

Heather Figi said: Nov 16, 2014
Heather FigiViolin
Eugene, OR
97 posts

Free things are rarely valued in society and therefore I do not offer free trial lessons since I feel this undermines the value of my time and our shared profession.

We love free things but think about how much more you value what you invest in? You want your new student to be invested and you want yourself to feel like a professional.

Think of a free sample you get in the mail vs. paying for the product? The exchange of money demonstrates a commitment and helps both parties take each other at their highest level and most useful service.

Think of if you took a free dance class vs. paying $20 for the class—which one would you be more likely to ask the highest level of focus from yourself?

Since I take the work we do seriously and value the importance of what we do as educators, musicians and Suzuki violin teachers I would not offer a free lesson. However, I do have a solution for determining if a family is a good fit for my studio and my particular specialties.

If I have exchanged emails and had conversations with a perspective family and if they have observed I offer an interview.

An interview is a service I offer free of charge but is also framed as a way for both parties involved to learn more about each other and determine if it is appropriate to proceed to a teacher-student long term paying relationship. I want to work with families long term and taking time in the beginning helps both of us evaluate. I always share references for colleagues if I think they would be more ideal to suit a particular students’ needs.

Alternatively, you can offer a free educational workshop to share with perspective families your experience, special approach and background for what a Suzuki music education is. I think that would be fair to offer this free of charge to a large group of parents.

I really hope this does not touch any sensitive nerves with any of my colleagues. I recognize that money is one of the most charged subjects in our world and can feel extremely sensitive. I only shared this with the intent of helping all of us deepen our value for our work in society. I believe that we have to value our work first and can not expect it to come from the other way around.

Caitlin said: Nov 16, 2014
Caitlin HunsuckViolin
Merced, CA
41 posts

From all my unit classes that I have taken, it seems the “norm” to require at least 6 weeks of observation, a parent class, and then you ask for a contract and first payment by the first lesson. I would call that the idea Suzuki set up (if only! Right?).

The area I live in just simply doesn’t have enough interest for several students to start at the same time, so parent classes are hard to do… Though I try to do as much parent education as possible. I do require before the first lesson for parents to do some reading, pre-lesson work, a month of listening, and come observe a group lesson. I also do a “meeting” to go over what is expected in my studio. I then allow the parents to think about everything before starting. If they want to start I get my check up front. I don’t lock students in for the year, but honestly, all the pre-work weeds out anyone who is not committed for the most part.

The reason I wouldn’t suggest a “free lesson” is that we are going to work on clapping and a bow hold for a half hour…. really, they are going to think you are crazy. I like to think of a long term thing… Now if the student is a transfer student you can do a an “audition” at the first meeting, just so both can get a feel of what you are in for (this I do).

Just my thoughts on the subject.

Heather Reichgott said: Nov 16, 2014
Heather ReichgottPiano
South Hadley, MA
94 posts

Observation is much better than free trial lessons. I’ve done both and I’m sticking with observation. Benefits:
- prospective student is not in the spotlight—can watch without the pressure
- inspirational factor of watching another kid in the same age group who can really play
- I am a more effective teacher when working in an already-established teaching relationship—the observing student and parent get to see that instead of me awkwardly starting to connect with someone new
- no financial loss
- observing student and parent can ask questions of current student and parent afterward and get another perspective
- it is less problematic if the observing student and parent fail to show up

Mengwei said: Nov 17, 2014
Mengwei Shen
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Piano, Cello
Jersey City, NJ
119 posts

I invite prospective beginner parents/students to visit (observe) a group class and meet with them before or after. Especially at kindergarten age or younger, children vary widely in their willingness and ability to accept direct instruction from an adult stranger. It takes time to get to a level of trust and maturity, not to mention the actual physical skills! Once parents get an idea of what I’m about, and if they want to start, the expectation is to commit (financially, up front) to a 3-month Pre-Twinkle group. There is just no way to communicate in a single “trial lesson” the long-term nature of this endeavor.

On a side note, I do hand out a policy paper but don’t do signed contracts. If I need to remind them about absences, payment, etc., the point isn’t that they signed a piece of paper—it’s that in order for this working relationship to continue, we need to be on the same terms. It has happened that someone misses their first lesson of the month (when their monthly payment is due) and then calls or emails later saying they’re not coming back. Had they given notice (I think two weeks minimum is proper courtesy) I wouldn’t have held their spot. So they didn’t intend to pay; what are you going to do—dismiss them? But this is rare and the system otherwise works for the vast majority.

Danielle Gomez Kravitz said: Nov 17, 2014
Danielle Gomez Kravitz
Suzuki Association Member
Violin, Viola
59 posts

I do require any prospective students to come in for an interview lesson. And yes, it’s free. The whole thing takes about a half hour. I work with the student for about 10-15 minutes to get an idea as to what I’m up against. I spend the rest of the time talking to the parent. I answer any questions, explain the Suzuki Method a little more in-depth, etc…

I’m very business oriented. But I don’t charge for two reasons. The first is that in this type of situation I would compare myself to a sales person. I’m not charged if I go to the gym and inquire about personal training. I’m also not charged if I go to a car dealer to check out a car. There’s nothing wrong with checking out something before deciding it’s worth the investment. The item being sold is not devalued. I would rather the family make a thoughtful purchase.

The second reason is that I value the interview lesson as much as the family. It gives me a chance to meet everyone and get a feel for their dynamic. Sometimes the ones that were the least certain in the beginning (like probably would not have been up for a charged interview lesson) turn out to be the best families in the long term. I don’t want to lose that potential. To me, it’s worth the sacrifice of a half hour just to have that option. The $40 or whatever lost is made up in spades if they stick around for 5+ years.

Alexandra said: Nov 18, 2014
Alexandra Jacques
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Mesa, AZ
35 posts

I prefer having prospective parents bring their child to observe a few lessons, and I keep a 15 minute break between my lessons so we have a chance to talk before and after the lesson, which kind of serves as the “interview.” (I might need to re-think this if my schedule starts to fill up more!) After a few observations, we’ll set up a time for a first lesson, which they pay for. I think that after observing a few lessons with me, and getting to meet in person, the parents feel comfortable enough to commit to paying for lessons. This has worked far better for me than having trial lessons.

Of course, this wouldn’t work if I were starting a studio from scratch. When I was first starting out I charged parents per lesson for the first month, and they would pay by the month starting the second month, and no one ever complained about paying from the beginning. However, I wasn’t doing interviews with parents at the time, which I should have done, looking back on it. I was wanting to build up a studio quickly, and not taking enough time to outline my expectations for parents, and getting to know the parent and the child to see if it was going to be a good fit. If I ever have to build a new studio again, I will probably do it differently, either by offering free interviews, or an interview/lesson for a lower fee than a full lesson, if I feel that I can’t afford to give up my time for free. Another option would be to schedule a meeting with a group of parents near the beginning of the school year, since in my experience, there is more interest from prospective parents around this time. This way you might not feel as though you’re giving up as much of your time for free.

Barbara Stafford said: Nov 19, 2014
Barbara Stafford
Suzuki Association Member
Violin
Plano, TX
59 posts

Thank you everyone, so much. I appreciate seeing the thoughts and ideas here. Its good for me to understand how some of you are managing the free lesson/interview. But I am glad to see that many people don’t offer a free trial lesson because I don’t see myself feeling great about it. And I am definitely going to avoid it if I can!

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