Never Get Hassled About Makeup Lessons Again, Part 1

by Daniel Patterson

Almost WEEKLY, I see a teacher post on Piano Teacher Central, Art of Piano Pedagogy, or Piano Teachers as Business Owners asking about makeup lessons.

These posts usually boil down to one of three types:

  1. A sad or infuriating story about parents taking advantage of / hassling about the policy
  2. Should I do makeup lessons or not?
  3. How do I enforce my policy?
  4. How should I word my policy so that it is airtight?

Today, I am going to show you how I went from monthly battles with parents about a makeup policy to only 2 “mild” run-ins about my policy IN ALL OF 2014 AND 2015! (not a typo)

Usually I would start a post with a prolonged section that explains the reasons why the topic is important.

I’m going to forego that this time.

The makeup lessons policy is a huge point of debate, frustration, and even anger in the private teaching and music school community.

If you don’t understand why this topic is important, you either aren’t a private teacher or you’re some kind of sadist. In either case, you will probably want to stop reading now.

For the 10,000 other teachers that are reading this right now, set aside about 10 minutes of your time, because…

This is going to be a post for the ages. Today is the day that piano teachers WORLD WIDE will never again worry about or have to be angry about makeup lessons.

Furthermore, I suggest that teachers and music school owners alike read this article –  even if they don’t allow makeup lessons in their studios! Regardless of your policy’s position on makeups, there is a concept contained in today’s post that you should know about. The perceived value of your lesson program is at stake here, and I want you to be well educated!

UPDATE: Several teachers made a helpful distinction. There is (technically) a difference between a make-up lesson and a reschedule. For the purposes of this article, think of a make-up as any lesson that a parent wants – whether they have rescheduled it properly or not.

How a Book on Leadership Psychology Changed My Perspective on Makeup Lessons

A Failure of NerveSince graduating twelve years ago, I have read tons of books. I took copious notes on many of them. Many of them were of outstanding quality. Books on business, psychology, parenting, religion, politics, history.

However, if you asked me right now my #1 book recommendation, I would not hesitate.

It is A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix by Edwin Friedman. Though it is not an easy read, it is well worth taking time to read this book.

This book has profoundly impacted my piano business, my marriage, my social and familial relationships, and my piano teaching.

Friedman was a counselor to Presidents. He was a student of Dr. Murray Bowen, one of the most influential psychiatrists and therapists of the 20th century.  Shortly before he died, Friedman wrote A Failure of Nerve. He deemed it the summation of all of his ideas and life work.

This book is not quickly summarized. Nevertheless, I will make an attempt.

His working thesis was that America has a pervasive crisis of leadership at every level. From CEOs of industries and presidents all the way down to parents and even piano studio owners.

In short, he said that

  • parents, clergy, politicians, and leaders in our society experience sabotage when we take sides on an issue
  • there is a pressure to let the weakest, loudest, or most emotionally immature members of any group set the agenda
  • leaders are taught to manipulate or motivate others instead of focusing on their own strengths
  • there is a widespread misunderstanding that stress arises not from hard work but rather emotionally regressive relationships

This might sound about as clear as a muddy river right now, but if you will permit me, I am going to bring this all home by the end of this article.

Triangles – No, Not the Ones You Play in Band

Let’s take a common situation from many studios and music schools around the world.

Sally Student wants to try out for the swim team. She completely forgets that the mandatory orientation meeting is on Tuesday after school – the same day as her piano lesson.

Sound familiar?

On Tuesday at 2:15pm, Teresa the Teacher gets a text from Sally’s mom. Sally’s mom cancels the lesson just hours before Sally was supposed to come in for her appointment.

“We’re so busy! We totally spaced this!”

Several days later, mom sends an email and asks when they can make that lesson up – despite the fact that she signed a registration form that stated that there are no makeup lessons for last minute cancellations.

Drama ensues. Increasingly tense emails and phone calls are exchanged. Sally’s mom attempts to use manipulation! Guilt! Threats!

How do most teachers react in this situation?

Some teachers give in. Others lose sleep due to anger, frustration, or self-loathing. Tears might be shed.

Whatever the case, there is a sense that you are not valued and that your job is difficult.

Well, I will tell you something. You have become the victim of what Friedman calls an “emotional triangle”.

I will explain with this graphic:

Relational Triangle

Friedman suggests that stress arises when you are put in a responsible position for someone else’s emotions, feelings, or life decisions.

In the triangle above, Teresa the Teacher is responsible for her relationship to the policy and her relationship with Sally’s mom.

She is not – however – responsible for mom’s relationship to the policy!

By putting pressure on Teresa, Sally’s mom is trying to avoid her own anxiety and conflict with the policy.

This is called sabotage. Teresa has become the victim of emotional sabotage, and is being pressured to let the least mature member of the triangle set the agenda.

This problem becomes even more difficult for Teresa if she really likes the student, is dependent on the income, or had a bad enrollment this fall. In such a case, Teresa might even give in to maintain the relationship or to pay her mortgage.

This emotional triangle happens to thousands of teachers every month around the world. It is not pleasant.

Keep reading, because I’m going to show you to solve this problem – both emotionally and in your policies.

How Should We Solve The Makeup Lessons Problem?

When any teacher experiences a similar situation, there are a common set of responses:

Solution? Some teachers feel that if they just had the “right words” or “right policy” that this would become less of a problem

Reailty: It won’t. The emotionally immature are notoriously invulnerable to insight, reason, and logic.

Solution? Some teachers will counter the parent with emotional pleas, explaining how they need this tuition money for bills, mortgage, or rent

Reailty: This is actually counter-productive. In that situation, you are trying to force Sally’s mom into a responsible position for YOUR BILLS! You are doing the exact same thing to her that she is doing to you. You are triangling her! Not only is this immature, it is perpetuating the dysfunction in the relationship.

Solution? Other teachers bend over backwards and work long hours or weekends to fit in these makeup lessons

Reailty: You are doing no favors for yourself, your family, your clients, or your happiness by taking this route. There is a better way.

Solution? Other teachers will end makeup lessons entirely

Reailty: While I respect this move, I think it misses a huge opportunity to serve your families. You can propel your studio and reputation into “legendary” status by using a little ingenuity to overcome the problem.

How do we overcome this problem?

There is an inner game and outer game of solving the makeup problem.

Inner Game: How to Grow a Spine of Steel

The advice I have to give comes straight from A Failure of Nerve.

If you feel uncomfortable enforcing your policy, it is because you have become emotionally fused with something. You are over-valuing something. There is something that you cannot or will not let go.

It could be your relationship with the student. It could be that you have a difficult time saying no. It could be that money is tight. Or, it could just be that you want people to like you.

Whatever the case, the answer cannot be “just try harder.”

Learning where you are vulnerable is important. However, information and logic has never been enough to get people to change behavior.

We both know human emotions don’t work that way. Emotions are like habits – and habits can be hard to change.

Nevertheless, teachers must detach themselves from their studio, their income, and their students.

Fear and pain are powerful motivators. It will take effort and practice to overcome your desire to give in to this kind of pressure.

Be aware though… it is the best for everyone involved: teacher, parent, and student.

Outer Game: How I Reduced Admin Time, Conflicts, and Awkward Situations With a Simple Fix

Full CalendarCall me lazy, but I would prefer to avoid the situation completely. I would prefer to rearrange something external so that I can avoid the conflict completely or at least lessen its effect.

In early 2010, I had about 50 students in my studio. Because of some instruction format changes, I was able to increase my student load to 70 students that fall.

It soon became apparent that my old system for scheduling makeup lessons was not scalable.

I was spending hours each week trying to fit in makeup lessons. I was calling parents, emailing parents, and playing phone tag. It was a mess.

On a particularly bad week, I was ready to throw in the towel. I set aside some time to brainstorm the problem. Here’s what I discovered:

I was the single point of failure in the whole system.

I was the gatekeeper to getting what parents wanted – that is, a makeup lesson. Therefore, I was the easiest person to blame.

As I stared at the ceiling, I realized that whatever the solution, it needed to remove me from the equation. I needed to put pressure back on parents to solve their own problem.

The solution that came to me almost instantly transformed my studio.

In my next post, I will

  • Explain the solution and the psychological reason that it works
  • Show you how to implement it in your studio
  • Give you my word-for-word scripts that will work on even the most difficult parents


People want the “easy fix.” It’s human nature.

“What’s the correct policy? How do I force parents to agree with me? What should I say to persuade people to my viewpoint?”

I didn’t want to go that route. It would be easy to write something dishonest that makes you feel good temporarily.

I’d rather address the real problem and help teachers begin making progress on showing real leadership in their studios. That is why I showed you the triangle.

In The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, Steven Covey says:

“Every public victory is preceded by a private victory.”

We must understand WHY we are doing what we are doing. If we don’t, we are like a child at the piano who tries to mimic good hand position, but doesn’t understand the complexities of good hand position.

It is “style without substance.”

By understanding and identifying these emotional triangles that occur in our studio, our families, and our society – we are well on our way to becoming happier, more stable leaders.

UPDATE: Part 2 of this post has been published. Find out how I solved my piano makeup lesson problem.

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Daniel Patterson is a private teacher, writer, and marketing consultant for music schools. He began teaching in 2004. He co-founded and led marketing operations for a summer music camp that sees over 200 children each summer.

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  1. Jennifer Foxx

    I am a big fan of Stephen Covey’s Win-Win. So when putting my policy together I try to come up with win-win solutions. My win-win solutions for the “make-up” problem has been to give my parents 3 choices when they need to miss. 1) Exchange with another student
    2) Skype/Facetime lesson during their lesson time (usually when they can’t be here physically but available at home during that time) 3) Video lesson (I record a short lesson and send a link they can watch later. This is all done during their lesson time- set up iPad, record, download video, send link)

    This is a win-win because they are getting something from their lesson time and I’m not teaching outside of their lesson time.

    • Daniel


      Good ideas. I’m going to reveal my game-changer next week.

      I just didn’t want this post to get too long!


  2. Mary Beth Akers

    I enjoyed this post and am looking forward to the next one!

    I try to distinguish between “make-up” and “rescheduled” lessons. I am willing to reschedule a lesson with at least 48 hours advance notice, and am willing to inconvenience myself to accommodate the student if possible. I become less willing when it’s the same student over and over again.

    A make-up lesson is scheduled later, after the lesson was missed at the appointed time. I’m less flexible regarding make-up lessons, depending on the reason, and how often the same student misses lessons. I do not make up no call/no shows. I do not make up lessons missed for a sports event or practice. I will reconsider this policy when the sports teams become willing to change their schedules a fair share of the time. I try to make up absences due to family emergencies, illness and other unforeseen circumstances.

    My policy is very clear, and I have very few problems.

    • Daniel

      Same here. I don’t make exception for last minute (day of) cancellations / no shows.

  3. Janna Carlson

    Daniel, this is the first time I’ve ever read an article on make-up lessons that talks about the psychology behind the struggle. It’s easy to get emotionally bogged down in a who’s-right battle, and your triangle is so helpful in stepping away from that.

    I see a constant struggle with emotional boundaries in our profession. Somehow, because we’re music teachers, it feels like we should “care” more about our students than, say, a pediatrician would about her patients – by making huge exceptions to our normal mode of doing business. I love teaching music, and I deeply care about the students I work with, AND am grateful that, at the end of the day, this is my business and not my whole life.

    Thanks for helping us find ways to clarify this.

    • Daniel

      I’m glad you took this in the best possible light! It can sound like I’m being clinical here, but it really is written from a place of thoughtfulness.

      The idea of the triangle has been very helpful to my wife and I… in professional relationships, social, and familial. It’s a way to maintain boundaries.

  4. Amy Chaplin

    “Make-ups” vs. “Reschedules” great point! I’m a the point where most of my families do not expect makeups which makes them gracious when I offer them a option (at my discretion). I enforce the no makeup for day-of cancellations although if it’s a last minute because they’ve fallen ill sometimes I will offer but not until later in the week if I have another cancellation. I always leave it ambiguous as. “I’ll let you know if I have any openings later this week you can take but otherwise we’ll see you next week and I’ll send you a short video lesson. The video lesson has been a new experience for me this year but I think some of my parents thought it was great for when they missed.

  5. nancy

    I love your post Daniel.

    For more than 20 years I have set up my teaching schedule so that holiday weeks such as: Columbus Day, Martin Luther King Junior Day, Good Friday and Memorial Day (normally 4 day work weeks) become Super Group weeks when all of my students come to an informal recital/class, and adults and HS students can come to a music seminar on topics of their choice. No one has a regular lesson on these weeks. During these 4, 4 day teaching weeks I offer rescheduled lessons in the remaining time. The seminars and super groups take up 6 to 8 hours of my teaching week so that all those other hours are available for rescheduled lessons. Students can only reschedule 3 lessons per school year.

    On regular teaching weeks students can swap lesson times with another student if that works for them. I also offer to reschedule lessons during lesson vacancies. On snow days I sometimes do facetime lessons.

    I charge tuition in advance for 12 week terms during the school year.

    I almost never have to deal with parental issues with collecting tuition or with rescheduling lessons.

    • Daniel

      Sounds like you have things running smoothly.

      I’d be curious to see what you think of the solution I’ve come up with. I’ll be posting that here on Thursday.

  6. Mary Cumming

    excellent! looking forward to what you have to say and how it lines up with what I am doing. Right now, what I am doing is working very well… but I am always open to new ideas!

    • Daniel

      I finished writing the conclusion post Monday. Will post Thursday morning!

  7. Anita Grace

    Really interesting read re parental psychology.
    You are right about a spine of steel. I do catchup lessons only if I am ill or if they are seriously ill, injured, or bring a Doctor’s note, any other clashes are down to choice, therefore are not refunded. If you take on a lesson at a certain time, you stick to it, end of.
    But the flip side is you have to be entirely dependable yourself and popular, so that they want lessons more than hassle.

    • Daniel

      I think I’ve found a middle way.

      I have found a way to give unlimited reschedules to people at no cost to my personal time or my sanity. And I’m doing this for a studio of 90!

      Can’t wait to share it with you.

      • Valerie

        Really enjoyed reading your post and looking forward to Thursday’s conclusion. How on earth do you schedule 90 students?! I assume you have other teacher(s) working with you? I’m on my own and struggle to fit in more than 40. How long are your lessons?

      • Daniel

        I teach almost all of my method book students in hour-long groups. Once they finish the method, they leave the group and work with me one-on-one.

        I have five digital pianos in my music room, complete with headphones and musical games on the keyboards.

        Kids have a lot of fun!

  8. Tara

    This is my first time reading any post from you Daniel and I just LOVE it. I have a studio of 65 and my spine has certainly become stiffer over the years. I can’t wait to hear your conclusion but I must share with you all a website that I just started using for my studio.
    I highly recommend it.

    • Daniel

      Tara, such a large studio! Congrats!

  9. Teresa

    Great article! I’m working this into my policy even this week. Last year I’d gone to a ‘NO make-up or reschedule policy’ – some parents have been good about it but others not so good!
    Thank you for the good info.

    • Daniel Patterson

      Good for you, Teresa.

      It’s better customer service, it cuts down on headaches, and it’s just good business.

  10. Rose Morris

    Can you clarify the difference between a make-up lesson and a reschedule? Thanks!

    • Daniel Patterson

      They’re the same, just two ways to refer to the same thing. Thanks!

  11. Stephen Koscica

    I find that the best way to handle missed or makeup lessons, is to first decide what the procedures are for re-scheduling or missing lessons and put them onto a sheet to hand out. Nice to give them out on the first lesson, but you can do this anytime really. Then, parents and students have this form to go back to. You can also post the same sheet on your website (PDF) to refer them back to, but that takes the pressure off you in the long run.



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