If you’ve never taken music lessons before, you may have no idea how long lessons should be. When signing up for lessons this is one of the most common questions I hear. In the end, the most important part of lessons is what happens when the teacher is not there. That’s right, practice. Does it really matter then how long each lesson is and how often they should happen? Yes, it definitely does.
How Long Should Each Lesson Be?
The most common rule of thumb is to determine length of lesson by the age of the student. Most kids under the age of about 12 will likely do best with a half hour lesson. This is by no means, though, a hard and fast rule.
Why Lessons Shouldn’t Be Too Long
The worst thing that could happen with lessons that are too long is the student gets burned out. If the student is scheduled for an hour lesson, but they are completely tuned out at 30 minutes, then they aren’t learning much. It’s not just about wasting money on the lessons though. After the student’s attention span runs out, the student is seriously hating the lesson. That doesn’t give the student very much incentive to practice throughout the week.
Many students start to think to themselves “I hate music”, when in reality they hate the last 30 minutes of their lesson.
There’s also good reason to deviate from the convention of 30 minutes as the shortest lesson time. If the student is regularly not paying attention past 15 minutes, then they shouldn’t have lessons that are longer than 15 minutes. The teacher should try to change their teaching styles to make up for the shorter attention span, but in the end if the student can’t pay attention for a longer lesson, they shouldn’t have one.
Lessons Shouldn’t Be Too Short
Just because the student is young, though, doesn’t mean they can’t handle longer lessons. Ideally lessons should be for as long as a student can pay attention and enjoy them, and of course for as long as your budget can handle. I’ve taught piano to 7 year olds that have no problem sitting through an hour, but I’ve also taught lessons to 12 year olds that shouldn’t have gone an entire 30 minutes.
Flexible Lesson Lengths
In a perfect world music teachers would bill for their time, and each lesson would be flexible. If more time was needed, the teacher would just give more time to the student and bill for the extra time they taught. If the student was having a hard time paying attention, they would give a shorter lesson and bill accordingly.
Lawyers typically bill in 6 minute increments. In other words, they break an hour into 10 parts. If they give you a 2 minute call or send you a one line email, you can bet that most lawyers will round up and bill you for 6 minutes. If their hourly rate is $300/hour, that 2 minute call will cost you $30. From the clients point of view this may seem unfair, but the client has to realize that little calls like that add up and distract a lawyer from whatever else they’re doing. If they don’t bill for that time, they’ll be losing out on pay for a lot of their day.
Music teachers typically have a set duration for lessons and they bill for whatever that duration was regardless of how long the lesson actually ended up being. It’s fairly common practice to give lessons that are a few minutes longer if the student needs it. Most teachers don’t bill for that extra time unless it was agreed to up front.
Although the best solution for both the teacher and the student would be to have flexible lessons, it’s not really a realistic idea for music teachers. Teachers typically have lessons set up back to back with other students. If the teacher was flexible and gave one student an extra half hour because the student was doing well, then the teacher’s next student would have missed their entire lesson.
On the flip side, if the teacher gave only 15 minutes to a student that had a 30 minute lesson scheduled, they would lose out on some income and waste some time in between. Music teachers aren’t like lawyers, they can’t just pick up some work in the extra 15 minutes to find more income. That time is completely wasted from an income point of view.
Flexible Lengths When It’s Possible
With all of that said, it’s not impossible to have a flexible lesson or two. The last lesson of the day could definitely be flexible. If a teacher is going to take this approach, they need to make sure the parents are completely on board with it, as it’s not the typical way to charge for lessons.
Another time that flexible lesson lengths can be used is if the teacher has a gap in lessons. If the teacher doesn’t have a slot filled, the lessons before the gap can be flexible.
One final way that teachers can give flexible lessons is for a family of students. If the teacher is teaching two or more children from the same family, the teacher can be flexible with each student’s lesson duration. This works best when there are more than two students in the same family, but it can be used when there are only two as well.
Who says each sibling needs exactly 30 minutes each? If the siblings are sharing the hour, perhaps the younger sibling can’t go more than 20 minutes whereas the other sibling could reach 40 minutes no problem. If that happens, instead of forcing the final 10 minutes with the younger sibling the teacher can give the remaining 40 minutes to the other student.
If parents take lessons as well, it opens up a lot more flexibility. If lessons must be shortened for a child, all of the remaining time can go to a parent.
How Often to Have Lessons
For the most part, students take lessons once a week. This is more of a cultural norm than any type of best practice. Typically the more lessons that students have the better they’ll get. Some teachers think the weekly lesson is the best way to go because the student needs to practice before they come back. This is more for the teacher’s sanity than it is for the good of the student.
Practice During Lessons
Teachers would love to only give direction to students and not practice with them. The ideal student practices hard for 7 days and then the teacher comes back and guides the student. Perhaps the teacher corrects some mistakes, or maybe they tell them how to play what they practiced a little better.
Students that practice like this really make a teacher’s job fun. As most teachers will tell you, however, rarely do lessons happen like that. Often teachers will be required to practice with the student during the lesson because either the student didn’t practice at all, or they didn’t practice correctly. Then lessons become practice time with a teacher.
Practice time with a teacher is not wasted though! It’s actually the best practice the student will ever get. One lesson might be to guide and teach, but if the student has more lessons than one throughout the week, the following lessons may be there to help the student practice. Students with multiple lessons a week will then get better much quicker as well.
The issue really comes down to budget though. Private lessons can already be expensive, but if you multiply that expense by two or three, lessons may turn out to be exorbitantly expensive. One option is to think about adding online lessons as they tend to be less expensive.
If you’re just starting out, go for a longer lesson duration. Watch the student closely and you’ll see when they reach the point where they aren’t paying attention. Was it at 20 minutes? 30 minutes? Maybe it was more than you thought. Could they go 90 minutes? Every lesson is not the same, and the mood of the student isn’t the same from lesson to lesson either. It’s possible that one day may not work out perfectly, but the next day the student can hold their attention for the full time. Eventually you’ll see a pattern, and you’ll find out what the best duration of lessons is for the student.