The Hidden Cost(s) of Piano Lessons

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One of the very first questions a parent or potential student asks me when inquiring about piano lessons is

"How much does it cost?"

While I expect this question, until very recently, I struggled with how exactly to provide a useful answer. Don't get me wrong. My fee structure for piano lessons is competitive, reasonable, and very straightforward. The problem I have is that many potential students do not know how to actually compare different studios' fees. They don't understand that the "per lesson" price alone is a tricky standard for measurement. It is not an "apples to apples" comparison.

 Photo 15584109 © Olivier Le Queinec - Dreamstime.com

Photo 15584109 © Olivier Le Queinec - Dreamstime.com

How much I charge per lesson neither tells you the VALUE of that lesson, nor how it compares to a lesson from another teacher. This is not just semantics either. I know that "value" is a catch-phrase in marketing, but it's also a principle of pure economics.

 Photo 92486265 © Weerapat Wattanapichayakul - Dreamstime.com

Photo 92486265 © Weerapat Wattanapichayakul - Dreamstime.com

As a result, some teachers charge by the hour...sort of. This definitely makes comparison a bit easier. If Piano Teacher A charges $50/hr, then you know you're going to pay $25 for a half-hour lesson. You also know that when Piano Teacher B says they charge $35 for a 30 minute lesson, they are slightly more expensive than Piano Teacher A. It's easy to fall into the trap of thinking that this information is enough to make a decision. 

Getting What You Pay For

 Illustration 44963056 © Iqoncept - Dreamstime.com

Illustration 44963056 © Iqoncept - Dreamstime.com

What many do not realize is that there are hidden "costs." Where piano lessons are concerned, "getting what you pay for" is a very misleading and convoluted business. It might be helpful to ask some logical questions at this point:

  • What exactly AM I paying for? 
  • What is a "lesson" anyway?
  • What kind of RESULTS can I expect after one lesson (or 10)?
  • Is the teacher's experience, credentials, etc. worth the price they're asking?
  • What about group lessons? Lessons in my home? Online lessons? 

And all this says nothing about curriculum, sheet music, apps, and the bazillion other things that cost varying amounts, but are quite necessary. Are they included in the lesson cost, or do I pay separately? What if I miss a week? What if I miss the entire summer? These are all questions that new students and families are needing answers to, but they ultimately get collapsed into "How much does it cost?"

Price Shopping vs Teacher Shopping

Photo by Talaj/iStock / Getty Images
Photo by Talaj/iStock / Getty Images

Previously, I wrote about the process of finding a good teacher . In the article, I highlighted four main categories that families should discuss and consider with any teacher candidate they interview. Students need to understand that every teacher is different. Not only do they have different skill levels, but they have different personalities and philosophies about how they teach, not to mention different levels of experience. All of these factors come together to influence a teacher's overarching goal (or goals?) for their students, which can vary widely. When looking for piano lessons, I recommend talking with your prospective teacher about each of these different areas, rather than just "price shopping."

Ultimately, you ARE going to have some kind of conversation about the money. And what I propose is that potential students once again ask the right questions. In particular, focus on trying to get to the heart of how much VALUE your are going to get for the TIME spent in lessons. 

Lessons Over Time: The Bigger Picture

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Here's an example: Let's say that you pay $30 per lesson and you attend a 30-45 minute lesson every week. The average student will attend about 40 lessons per year, taking time off for holidays and vacation. That adds up to $1200 annually.

Now, in that amount of time, how far can an average student expect to progress? This is where things get dicey because "progress" can be measured in a number of different ways. Most teachers have a kind of leveled system they use. But students should really be asking the teacher exactly what the net result will look like? Can an average student actually PLAY the piano and be fairly skilled within 1 year's time? The answer is yes, but again WHAT DOES THAT MEAN? Can you play a particular song? Can you play many songs? Can you play in many different styles? Can you compose and improvise? Can you read music? Can you play in a band or with other musicians with ease? This is where that fancy word, "value," comes into play, because the measurement of progress is going to be somewhat personal and dependent on your own personal goals. And, as I stated previously, your goals may NOT be in exact alignment with the goals of your teacher! So you need to ask about this before starting lessons, and then decide what your measurement of progress will be. Then, down the road a bit, you and the teacher can more accurately assess if the progress that is being made is WORTH THE COST. 

Focus On The Results

 Photo 93238726 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd - Dreamstime.com

Photo 93238726 © Wavebreakmedia Ltd - Dreamstime.com

So, let's do some math based on results. If we use the numbers above, then over the course of one year, most students are paying around $1,200, and they are playing....what? 2-3 real songs? Maybe more if they have the music in front of them. Expand that time to 3 years...

Typically, after three years of lessons and $3,600, that student has often had a pretty grueling experience to get where they are. And they are almost always playing very early level, "easy" Classical music with some pop songs and musicals thrown in here and there. They are still struggling to read the notes, and if you asked them to just sit down and play something WITHOUT THE MUSIC, they'd probably have only 1-2 songs that they truly knew well and could perform musically.

Compare this scenario to an average student enrolled in the breakthrough Simply Music Piano program (which I teach at my studio). After six months of lessons, they are able to sit down and play 10-20 (or more) songs with both hands. The songs are familiar, mature-sounding, and musically expressive. The student can play blues, pop, contemporary, Classical, and even accompany a singer or soloist or choir. And they can do this without a particular reliance on the sheet music. In addition, they are able to improvise, and maybe even are composing their own songs for fun.

What would you be willing to pay for this experience?