The Secrets of Successful Music Lesson Programs

NAMM Top 100 Dealers took the stage at 2018 Summer NAMM to share their lesson program success stories. Each retailer’s program is influenced by its location and unique business model. The panel included:

• Cindy and Rand Cook of The Candyman Strings & Things (Moderators)

• Mike and Miriam Risko of Mike Risko Music

• Robin Sassi and Kimberly Deverell of San Diego Music Studio

Cook posed the same questions to each panelist to paint a picture of how successful lesson programs can be tailored and different from one another. Here are highlights. (Watch the video for the full session.)

How did you start your music lessons program?
Robin: We only do group lessons. It started by accident. I was doing after-school programs and took that concept to a store. Then, we started selling books because we had a lot of students. Then, our accidental music store just happened, and Kimberly was one of our first teachers.

Mike: My wife Miriam and I started very small with a music school. That program grew and grew, and we’ve been in business for 23 years. There was a music store up the street that wanted to sell, and we purchased their building and moved in. We started doing retail, too, since we had the space for both. Our music school and retail store work together symbiotically.

Rand: Our company is approaching its 50th anniversary. We were a retail-only store up until 2009, when Cindy and I bought the business. In 2009, everyone had to rethink their business and what they had to do to stay in business. In 2010, we started our education program because we knew we had to broaden our horizons and get more involved with all business aspects and opportunities in order to succeed. Education became a very important piece of our revenue stream.

How is your lessons program structured and managed?
Kimberly: We have four teaching spaces that we teach our classes in. We allow up to six students in a class. We manage our attendance with We spent a weekend at Rand and Cindy’s, and she schooled us on this app. It was very helpful to bring it back to our studio.

Robin: We stick with what we do and what we know. We are often asked if we do private lessons, and we say “no.” We take care of the segment of the population for group lessons, and we do it well.

Kimberly: I want to say that every student works individually in a group setting, so it allows any age or level or ability to go into the same class. It also allows for a lot of flexibility in our schedule. The instructor moves around and works with each student individually. It works.

Miriam: Our program is primarily a private lesson program. We have lessons on all instruments and voice. We have eight lesson rooms running at a time, and we have about 30 teachers that work for us. We also do supplemental classes, such as rock bands and group singing classes, that are more performance oriented. We also offer a big musical theater program that we started a few years ago as a way of diversifying and being able to cater to more people in the area. It was helpful to add that because it turned into more voice lessons and fed the other programs we offer.

Mike: One of the ways we handle the makeup lessons is to use Zoom, a video conferencing program that allows us to still give the lesson via mobile phone, computer or tablet if a student cancels late and the instructor is waiting and ready to teach. We have Zoom Rooms set up if the student is stuck at home or can’t come in, and this technology gets used a lot. The rock band classes don’t allow makeups.

Cindy: We’re fortunate that our store is on two levels, so we’ve dedicated the entire top level as a music education center where we have several single studios for private lessons and two large ensemble studios for group lessons. We try to have enough offerings for our community for both. We have a ukulele club that meets every Saturday, a porch-time jam and other opportunities for kids and adults that encourage our students to get together and play with others. We invite our students to our store events. We have several student showcases throughout the year and try to create a community of music makers. We have a private lessons coordinator, and we’ve grown enough to be able to recently hire someone internally to handle our group lessons and outreach.

Mike: We’ve had a lot of people come in the store from our outreach, and one of the ways we do that is through our bands program. Miriam is a singer and I’m a guitar player, and we’ve been doing it for years. (That’s kind of how this whole thing started.) We perform a lot and get people to come in from the bands.

How do you utilize technology in your lessons program?
Robin: We don’t use it so much. We use iPads in our lessons and for attendance, but nothing advanced. We use to help manage our lessons program.

Mike: I still like books and prefer looking at a book rather than a tablet. A couple of years ago, one of our teachers moved to California, and it gave us the opportunity to continue working with him on staff via Zoom technology. That’s when we started our Zoom lessons rooms. I tested it with the company first and did a few trial lessons. We had a few different camera angles set up, and there were no problems with sound. So, our teacher in California still works the same schedule and has kept his students.

Cindy: I’m looking forward to investigating the technology because it widens the net. There may be rural areas we can reach. I can’t say enough good about It also has a student portal area, which makes us look good because we’re offering more bang for the buck. There’s a practice record, an easy way for student and teacher to communicate, retention reports, tax reports and all kinds of administrative reports that come with their package. It’s quick and easy to learn, fun to look at, a solid foundation and minimizes frustration with managing your program. It frees you and your staff up to create relationships with students, come up with more exciting group lessons, keep the studios cleaner, go out in the community and be able to do more.

Mike: One of our students travels for the summer to China, but they signed up for lessons using a roll-up keyboard we sold to them and our Zoom technology.

What is your “secret sauce”? What sets your lesson program apart from others?
Kimberly: We are flexible. That is our biggest key factor for our community. If you miss a lesson, you can make it up on any day or time on any instrument or voice. Our classes run every day, all day, regardless of the number of students in a class. As long as there’s space available in that class, they can come in. Parents thank us repeatedly for our flexibility. Some kids don’t want to do two lessons a week on the same instrument, so we encourage them to try another instrument or voice class, as well. We often turn that into a student paying for one lesson a week into two lessons a week. Our students are on the honor system. Our students keep coming back because they’re comfortable. We have a popcorn machine. The kids get candy, and we hand out free tickets. It’s a family environment.

Robin: The other added benefit of our makeup policy is that it’s not unusual for students who have been at our studio for years to play multiple instruments. We give away a lot of free trials, and the students come in to see if it’s a good fit.

Miriam: We invite everyone in for a free trial for whatever they’re interested in. Get a spinning wheel! It’s the most amazing tool. The kids spin every week and can’t wait to get a prize.

Mike: Sometimes if a parent is cancelling a lesson for their child, I suggest they try a lesson! They may be hesitant at first, but they also have fun taking lessons. The secret sauce for us is that we are passionate (we all are) about what we’re doing. I’ve been playing guitar since I was 13, and I still geek out over the latest gear. That enthusiasm is transferred to our lessons program all the time. Guitar books that I’ve written are used as the core material for our guitar lessons, and people know that we’re excited about music, gear and learning.

Cindy: Having a good vibe in your store, from your floor staff to your education staff, recognizing people, getting to know them, finding out what they’re doing in the community, asking for those follow-ups and creating those relationships are the best. Our secret sauce is definitely our teachers, who are genuinely passionate about turning others on to music and experiencing the joy of making music or getting someone to the next level. We’ve had teachers in the past who aren’t involved and excited, and we’ve had other teachers who have become part of the family and live that passion. You lose the chance of creating that passion and lighting that fire for students to continue on with teachers who are humdrum. We all know there’s immense benefits to playing an instrument. If you and your teachers are passionate, then everything else will follow.