In a world full of instant gratification and overscheduled with activities, teaching and retaining students can be problematic. Based on my 22 years of teaching experience at San Diego Music Studio, here are a few strategies for success I have picked up along the way.

First and foremost, a good rapport between the student and teacher is essential. Like any other relationship, it must be nurtured. At the beginning, it is important to win them over. Once they trust you and you’ve got them hooked, they will listen and work hard for you.

Keep it positive! Try not to use the P-word (practice) in a nagging way. We all recognize the saying “Practice makes perfect.” It is common sense that to improve at something you must practice. Continually using the P-word in a negative way can turn students and parents away from attending lessons. A missed lesson is a wasted opportunity to concentrate on other valuable musical skills. Instead of saying “practice,” try using the word “play.” Both words encourage the same behavior, but “play” has a positive connotation.

Communication is key. This seems obvious, but it is too often overlooked. Communicate with students and parents every lesson, not just verbally but in writing. Write in the books! Have an organized system in place to clearly assign a piece of music and a way to show when it is complete. Put the date on the assigned pieces every time you listen along with a concise notation of what to work on. Notating in students’ books provides a written record of the lesson. This approach not only helps the student know what to work on, but it also protects the teacher. If a parent questions why their student has not passed off an assignment, you can pull the books out and show proof that you have been doing your job.

Plan Your Lessons.

Make sure to include time for sight reading and theory. This requires structure and time management. A common mistake teachers make is to focus the entire lesson on previously assigned repertoire and leave no time for sight reading and theory. These aspects are equally as important to creating a well-rounded musician. Try to start the lesson by grading and assigning new theory while the student is warming up on technique. Doing this at the beginning of the lesson will prevent you from running out of time for it at the end. By regularly integrating sight-reading and theory into each lesson, it encourages more practice at home and maintains continued forward progress.


One short-term and effective way to encourage students is to implement a reward system. At San Diego Music Studio, we offer a ticket for each piece that is completed. Students can exchange tickets for prizes such as popcorn (two tickets), candy (five tickets) and movie passes (300 tickets). For more long-term inspiration, set goals. Whether it is a recital, competition, audition, master class or other performance opportunity, having a goal to work toward is motivating. Find what works for you and your students and do it!

Books and Supplies.

It is your responsibility as a teacher to ensure your students have the proper tools to be successful at their instrument. This includes recommending new music books and supplies as needed. Exposing students to new music is vital to their growth and development as musicians! Encourage students to purchase music. Do not photocopy sheet music for students. It is relatively inexpensive, and it is something that will last a lifetime. Sheet music and songbooks are an investment in the students’ future. Not to mention, new music is always a great way to stimulate a student that is otherwise feeling uninspired.

Student Appreciation.

Don’t forget to say “thank you.” Every month at San Diego Music Studio, we recognize a Student of the Month. The student’s picture and bio are posted on our Wall of Fame at the front of the store for a year, and they receive a $10 gift card. Additionally, our teachers regularly write thank-you cards and mail them to our students. For a special touch, we like to include a few extra tickets in the thank-you cards. Students love getting letters in the mail, and parents are appreciative of the gesture. When students feel valued, they are more likely to stick around!

It’s all about perspective. Every human being deserves the right to a music education. Teaching is not about creating a perfect musician; it’s about the process. It’s about inspiring people. It’s about developing a lifelong love and appreciation for music. It’s about the valuable life skills that are learned along the way. It’s about creating better humans. It’s about making a difference.

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