When Private Lessons End: The Art of Saying Goodbye

May 23, 2022, 12:24 PM · There are many good reasons why private music lessons come to an end. Oftentimes a student is heading off to college. Perhaps another teacher might be more appropriate to address a specific need. Maybe other priorities make it impossible to sustain regular practice. In some cases, the student just wants to give up the violin.

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There are also times when private lessons end because expectations aren’t met on one side or the other. The student or their parents may feel that enough progress isn’t being made. The teacher may believe they aren’t effectively communicating with the student. Or the chemistry just isn’t quite right.

Whether lessons stop for "good" or "less than good" reasons, it’s important to end the relationship in a manner that’s supportive of the student and respectful of the teacher.

Across a decade of teaching, I’ve learned there’s an art to a meaningful goodbye. In some cases, I’ve had months to plan the ending. In others, I’ve received an email out of the blue stopping lessons immediately. Regardless of the timing, saying goodbye is difficult. You’re not just saying farewell to a student, you’re saying goodbye to that period of your teaching, to the entire family, and, in some cases, to the hopes and dreams you had for the student’s musical future. There’s also the financial element. Teaching privately is a business. Finding a student to fill an open spot takes time and energy.

Through my past experiences (and my imperfections), I’ve come up with a few guidelines I remind myself of when it’s time to say goodbye:

1. Work through your own emotions separately. Losing a student can be painful, especially when it’s a long-term relationship, and particularly if it comes as a surprise. It’s normal to feel pain, disappointment, and even anger or betrayal. Acknowledge to yourself how you’re feeling and give yourself time to grieve the loss. Most importantly, process these emotions away from your student and their family.

2. Be gracious and professional when a student decides to leave. It’s hard to be gracious when you’re feeling rejected. When a student decides to leave, the teacher’s job is to manage the end of the relationship and business contract with grace and professionalism. Having a clear studio policy that specifies if refunds or payments are due is something unemotional you can refer to that makes the financial aspect much easier. Rehashing past disagreements or making sure your point of view is understood is not appropriate. The priority is to facilitate a dignified exit for all involved. Express gratitude for the time you’ve spent with the student, perhaps bring up a few special memories, affirm their positive qualities, and wish them well.

3. Don’t take it personally (even if it is personal). This is one of the hardest ones. A teacher/student relationship can be very close, and it’s natural to feel a range of emotions. I’ve had parents lash out at me personally for any number of reasons, whether it’s my inability to magic up the perfect lesson time, perceived favoritism within the studio, or my inability to respond to their child’s needs. Self-reflection is essential for every teacher and it’s always good to think about ways we can improve. But at the end of the day, we occupy a small slice of our students’ lives, and they often have many factors influencing these decisions that are well beyond our control.

4. Have a plan for finishing the session or semester of lessons. In many cases, I’ve had a graduating senior who won’t pursue music after high school. Or a student told me in advance they won’t continue lessons at the end of the session. In these cases, I help the student identify a few goals they want to achieve in their playing and focus on those areas each lesson. I make sure there’s a final performance and that the music is something they will truly enjoy playing.

5. Plan a meaningful last lesson. Last lessons are hard, but they’re an opportunity for closure on both sides. With someone who is quitting violin or changing teachers, it’s important for us to be able to look each other in the eyes, affirm the good work we did together, and acknowledge the student’s worth. I hear something they’ve prepared, share fond memories, express my favorite qualities about the student, and then play duets. (The Bach Double, if the student has learned it, is always a classic touch.)

6. Write a farewell note. Years ago I had a student who studied with me through high school. The student was always polite and pleasant, but not particularly enthusiastic, and practicing was, shall we say…sporadic. But, we came to a (largely unspoken) understanding by senior year. At the final lesson, the student gave me one of the most eloquently-written thank you cards I’ve ever received – one that expressed how much our lessons had meant and how respected I was. Since then, I always try to write a card or, at the very least, a dedicated email to students who are leaving. I want them to know how I valued our time together and what I feel are some of their most wonderful qualities. This sentimental keepsake is a nice way to end things and shine a positive light on the time we spent together. Even when a student leaves unexpectedly, a kind email can still go a long way. Remember, the decision to leave and the timing of the departure are not necessarily in the hands of the student.

As we approach the end of the school year and our students continue to grow and change, many of us have farewells in our future. I hope these practical tips can help us all approach them with grace and kindness.

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