I recently helped a colleague of mine who moved from out of state and is beginning to build her studio from scratch. I had forgotten how nerve-wracking this process can be! She was entering an area with many excellent violin teachers already, so conveying her skills effectively in the first lesson became especially important. In the article below I share the tips she found most valuable in crafting a compelling trial lesson for prospective families.
It helps to go into trial lessons remembering that looking for a teacher is like looking for a best friend. There are lots of personalities, and what’s important is for a student or family the right fit.
Of course if you were to look for a teacher for yourself, you would consider and rule out many well-qualified people who just don’t resonate with you. It will be the same for each student and family who are looking for a teacher.
So your goal in a trial lesson isn’t to convince them to join your studio, but rather, to contribute to their violin journey in some small way, and to support them in finding the best teacher for them. And maybe, just maybe, it will be you!
This perspective can help you feel more relaxed and not put too much pressure on yourself, which in turn will help you do your best teaching.
The goal in a trial lesson isn’t to convince them to join your studio, but rather, to contribute to their violin journey in some small way, and to support them in finding the best teacher for them.
Before the Lesson
In my initial emails to a prospective family, in addition to my main goals of connecting with them and working out the first class, I always include the following items:
- I ask if the student is complete with their current teacher, or is taking outside lessons with their teacher’s knowledge. This helps guide families in how to be most respectful toward the important relationship with their existing teacher.
- I suggest they prepare two pieces to play for their trial lesson — one more polished piece, and another which is a work in progress.
- I also ask them to bring the music they have worked on recently. Sometimes a student needs guidance in choosing what to play, and it is helpful to have some options.
I always ask parents to sit in on the trial lesson, even if they don’t usually attend the child’s regular lessons. While high school students may be independent in many ways, this is a moment when they often rely on the insight their parents can provide. Parents can often better articulate nuances about various teachers’ offerings and help the child reflect on how they felt about the lesson afterwards. During the conversation with the teacher, the parent often recognizes details about the child’s background which might be helpful for you to know which the student themselves might not think to share.
While you may be inclined not to burden families with some logistical details such as parking, arrival time, and tuning before the lesson, it is actually better to provide these. Families want to make a good impression on you just as you want to make a good impression on them, and teachers have widely different policies — for example, some teachers ask students to arrive early while others ask students not to! Having these details ahead of time will help the family feel more comfortable and settled.
Beginning the Lesson
Families want to make a good impression on you just as you want to make a good impression on them.
As the lesson begins I spend a few minutes connecting with everyone in the room, including siblings. During this initial conversation I ask if they mind telling me who the student has studied with previously. I may ask, “Was this a great experience for you?” (always assume the positive) and follow up with, “Are there any things you’re specifically looking for in a new teacher?” These questions are an indirect opportunity for the family to share any areas of dissatisfaction, which are helpful to know about.
I then ask the student what piece they would like to play for me, and help them choose if necessary. I will generally ask them if it is okay for me to stop them midway once I have a sense of their playing. I reassure them that it doesn’t really matter if they make mistakes (they’re often nervous) — it’s more just about me getting a sense of their playing.
As they play, I am assessing every aspect of their technique — left hand, bowhold, expression, tone production, intonation, musicality. I am also getting a sense of what may be the “low-hanging fruit” for the trial lesson — i.e. an area in which I will be able to provide them with a tangible and meaningful result.
Getting Down to Work
After they finish playing, I immediately share some of the things I appreciate about their playing. This may occasionally require some digging — “I can tell you really love music!” — but there are always good things to comment on.
Next, if the child is old enough, I like to get a sense of their own goals for the lesson. As teachers we may instinctively jump in and work on whatever we see is the biggest priority, but in doing so sometimes they end up getting a lesson that isn’t meaningful to them. I may ask, “Are you feeling pretty complete with this piece, or are you wanting to work on it together?” or, “What goals do you have for our time today?”
As teachers we may instinctively jump in and work on whatever we see is the biggest priority, but in doing so sometimes they end up getting a lesson that isn’t meaningful to them.
Students by nature are not always aware of areas which need the most work, so I balance their feedback with my own assessment in choosing what to work on. This might sound like, “You mentioned that your biggest concern is intonation, but honestly, I think you have a great ear and just need a little more time on those tricky parts. Something that I think might make a bigger difference in this piece is tone. I have some ideas for you. Is that something we might spend some time on?
Many families know that their child has posture or bowhold issues (these things can be obvious to a perceptive parent, even if they don’t play) and are specifically looking for a teacher who will be able to address these. So while you may shy away from working on this during a trial lesson, if you can do so successfully it may actually be a decisive factor for families in making their choice.
Here is the email I received after working in detail with a student who was playing with her head craned forward at an angle guaranteed to cause long-term neck problems:
Many families know that their child has posture or bowhold issues and are looking for a teacher who will be able to address these.
Thank you for helping Nicola with her posture in such a specific, methodical way—and how to tune her violin! We’ve been reviewing each step of proper posture before she starts her songs and she’s been playing with a grin on the corners of her mouth 😊
When offering to explore one of these more central topics, I try to always frame the conversation in a positive way, often by complimenting areas that are working well and presenting remedial work as upgrades rather than fixes. For example, “I think your left hand is working really well, but I’m noticing your bowhold may be limiting you. I think we can make a few adjustments to help you feel more secure and give you better control. Is that something you’re open to looking at together?”
If you have chosen your topic well, you are now at a place in the lesson where the child has achieved a significant, tangible, memorable result. This is a great place to end the working portion of your time with the family. You want the child to go home excited by what they accomplished, with some emotional bandwidth left to reflect on the new relationship (rather than feeling emotionally exhausted).
So, once we’ve done some meaningful work, I’ll say: “I think that’s a great place to stop for today. You’ve just done some really good work! Let’s talk for a bit.” I often invite the student to sit so they can move out of “lesson mode” into a more relaxed, conversational mode of relating.
You want the child to go home excited by what they accomplished, with some emotional bandwidth left to reflect on the new relationship.
Closing the Lesson
I now ask family and student if they have any questions. If they are contemplating joining the studio they may have questions about tuition, recitals, etc. I try to answer in a helpful but not-too-length way, saving the details for email where possible.
The final few minutes of the lesson are a good time to share my vision for the kind of work I would like to do with them. This helps families to imagine what it would be like for the child to work with me, gives them confidence that I can navigate them expertly into the next chapter, and can provide perspectives that may be valuable even if they ultimately choose another teacher. Here is an example of what this conversation might sound like:
“Graham has a lot of wonderful qualities in his playing. I think this is a great time for him to move into a more advanced program of work. If he were to join my studio I would want to begin incorporating some etudes into his curriculum, which will build his reading ability and left-hand agility. I think he is also ready to do three-octave scales very soon. That’s a pretty exciting step.
“One important detail that Graham can think about after the lesson [makes eye contact with the child, then returns to addressing parent] .if he were to join the studio is that I would request that he commit to practicing an hour every day. I understand this may be more than he is used to. Graham can think about this and decide if this is something he is ready for.”
As you approach trial lessons you will feel more relaxed if your goal is not to convince the family to join your studio, but rather to support them in finding the teacher who will best meet their needs. Releasing your own concerns and any insecurities (we all have them!) will allow you to be your most authentic self and genuinely enjoy the experience of meeting these unique individuals.
Sometimes things work out in unexpected ways. I’ve had families choose another teacher for their own child (for reasons of geography or time commitment), but recommend me to all of their friends.
The moment a family chooses to begin with you is an exciting chapter for that child in their study! In a future post I’ll talk about addressing some challenges of transfer students, especially if they have significant gaps in their training.
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