Ask Althea: Private music teaching advice column (no.4)

Althea Talbot-Howard
Sunday, May 1, 2022

This month, Althea Talbot-Howard shares her wisdom on how private instrumental and vocal teachers can generate word-of-mouth referrals.

Greetings! One of the most important questions for any private teacher is, ‘How do I generate word-of-mouth referrals?’ The first thing to point out is that there are two types of word-of-mouth comment: positive and negative. You want to make sure that the talk that goes around about you is the former and not the latter!

Throughout my teaching career, new parents have often told me the same story about their child's previous teacher. This is how it goes: ‘He was always changing the lesson time.’ ‘She was always sending in deps.’ ‘He wasn't even there, last time we turned up!’ ‘He refused to enter X for any exams.’ ‘She had a dog in the room.’

Unreliability is the biggest causal factor of negative word-of-mouth and can be guaranteed to lose you the maximum number of clients at the fastest possible speed. If your performing career is taking off and concerts start to come in at short notice, you have a limited amount of time in which to decide what to do about this conflict. Teachers have an obligation of regularity to their pupils, which needs to be honoured. If we are not prepared to make some choices in favour of stability, parents may do that instead, and take their children away.

Every time we reschedule a lesson, it signals to the pupil and parents that they are less important than our own playing career. Don't be surprised if people take offence at that. After all, why shouldn't they? Endless conversations and emails rescheduling lessons are a drag on parental time and energy.

Such teachers make nuisances of themselves, and word is about to spread about them to…teachers who don't do the same thing! I must confess that there have been occasions when I have smiled politely at parents offloading their tale of woe to me at their child's consultation lesson, while smirking inwardly as I digested the familiar story. More pupil plums were about to fall into my lap, created by teachers who weren't ready for the sacrificial commitment that private teaching often entails.

In order to have parents beat a path to your door, venting and spilling about the errant former teacher, there are two things you need to do. The first is to be as pristine as you possibly can in these important areas – and in other areas too (see my March column on establishing your expertise).

The second is to make sure that as many people as possible know where your door is located. You need to be oh-so-diligent in your marketing!

  • Get yourself a website with testimonials, exam results, performance/teaching videos and search engine optimisation.
  • Link said website to as many teacher/tutor referral websites as possible.
  • Go and visit your local music shop, if one still exists near you. Buy some music and build a relationship with the proprietors. Ask them to enter your details into their referral book. Many shops have these because so many parents enquire about suitable teachers for their child. Refer new clients back to the shop for music and instrument purchases, creating a win-win-win situation for all parties. Finally, don't forget to send the proprietors a thank-you Christmas card, at the very least.
  • Research neighbouring teachers. Politely write to them with your CV, telling them that you have space available if parents ask for any referrals; and also ask them – if they offer a different skill set to yours – whether they themselves need any more clients. Offer to help them, and it won't be long before they start helping you.
  • Take any opportunities that arise to engage with local primary schools. After introducing myself to some parents waiting to collect their children from school and handing them a professional card, I was invited to participate in their summer fair. I played Baroque music to a backing track, allowed children to try different instruments and gained good clients.

If you do these things, under normal economic circumstances (i.e. not in a recession), good things should come your way. One lovely parent was a referral from my local music shop. She eventually brought me 10 other families (five of them had two children), and she became a life-long friend. The network she created was the biggest and most successful that I have ever had.

So, do the hard marketing work, keep your nose clean and your exam results good – and you should see steady growth in your client base. All the best!