How and When to Say No to Prospective Student

Ask Diane

“If I may ask: what do you do when it becomes apparent that the prospective student just doesn’t seem to be a good fit? Personality-wise? (But the parents love you and obviously don’t see anything wrong.) I’ve had a few interviews where there were some red flags but I didn’t know how to express my concern to the parents and I have usually regretted sometime down the line that I did accept the student anyway.”

Her questions has two parts”

  • First, how do I know that I shouldn’t teach a particular student?
  • Second, how do I handle this potentially awkward situation.

When I received this question, it took me back to a time when my son was little and I had a run-in with a mother whose child I knew I would never have been able to teach.

“I took my oboe with me when I went to the hospital to give birth to Darwin because real musicians practice every day. There are no exceptions. “

I struggled to keep my mouth shut.

“A good teacher can teach anyone.” 

I couldn’t keep my mouth shut.

It was Parent Education Night at my three-year-old son’s co-op preschool. We were new to the preschool and nobody knew I was a musician, much less a successful piano teacher. Another parent, Olivia the oboist, was giving us her insight about private music lessons. I was hating each and every word she said.

I raised my hand. She called on me, perhaps thinking I was going to ask for her wise counsel.

“I’m sorry, but I have to disagree with you. I like to think that I’m a good teacher, and I can’t teach everyone.”

Olivia glared at me. 

“It’s true. I’m a private piano teacher. To me, the most important thing is a good match between student and teacher. I would not be a great match for every child or every parent in this room.”

I was thinking in particular of Olivia. She’d complained vehemently about the way I filled out the monthly preschool snack chart. I couldn’t imagine trying to teach her kid. Besides, I hadn’t had a piano brought into the room when I was giving birth so by her standards I wasn’t a real musician.

Back to the teacher’s question.

First things first.  

The teacher says that there were some red flags. Learn to pay attention to these. If you’re meeting with a prospective student and family, your intuition is your best guide. If something doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t.

I always go with my intuition. If a parents emails me, I usually set up a phone chat so I can see if they have a sense of reality about their child. If they tell me their child is profoundly gifted, it’s always a bad sign. Even if the child is unusually bright or gifted, no healthy parent will say it. They might say something like, “He seems bright enough to me…”

I look for a sense of humor and an honest affection for their child.  

When I meet them in person, I use the time to assess the relationship between the parent and the child. Does the parent allow the child to speak – or do they try to answer every question themselves? Do they have set ideas about how lessons should go? Are they looking for their child to be with a teacher who enters their students in lots of competition and quantifying evaluations? 

I also do some simple diagnostics at the keyboard to see if the child is strong enough to sit up and has a hand that’s big and strong enough to play the instrument. We play a few clapping games. We make a puzzle together.

I interviewed a little girl the other day I really liked. She came with her father, whom I also liked, but I felt she was still too tiny and would benefit from waiting a bit to start lessons. We discussed our expectations for the future – if I would be willing to take her as a student and when I might have an opening. It was both business-like and warm, although we agreed not to start her lessons quite yet.

Sometimes I just plain make a mistake. I did this a few months ago. I had taken both children in a family. The boy was 9 years old and completely ready for lessons. The younger sister, age 5, kept it together during the interview. To be completely honest, she was so cute and earnest that I couldn’t turn her down.

At her second lesson, I realized I had made a mistake. She was nowhere near ready for lessons. (My first clue? She kept swatting my hand away from the keys when I tried to show her where to put her fingers.) 

I spoke briefly to the father, and then sent this follow-up email: 

I hope I didn’t seem too harsh today when I was chatting with you about Charlotte. I just really got the feeling that, while she likes the IDEA of playing the piano, she was completely uninterested in anything that I might have to say. She wasn’t rude or unpleasant, I just get the sense that she is a little too young for this particular kind of education.

My best advice is to wait a semester or two and see how she’s doing. It’s not entirely bad for her to see Ross practicing at home and working hard. It will give her a little better idea of what she’s getting herself in for 😉

If my inituition is right, the better thing to do would be to give Ross 45 minute lessons and wait a while for Charlotte.

Even if you’ve accepted a student, you can always say, “Hey, this isn’t working out the way I thought it would.” You aren’t doing anyone a favor by continuing to teach a student you shouldn’t be teaching no matter how they got into your studio. I’ve been teaching for more than 30 years and I still make mistakes.

Which brings me to the second question. How do you tell someone that you don’t want to teach their child? And why would you ever do this?

The thing that makes this easy for me is the honest truth that if I don’t think I’m the best teacher for a student then I am not the best teacher for that student. I might not like them. I might not like their parents. I might like them AND their parents and still think I’m not the best teacher for the student.

If that’s the case, I’m always honest. Note that I say I’m honest, not tactless. 

If the child has too many issues, (especially physical and emotional) I might suggest a music therapist instead of traditional piano lessons.  If they seem physically weak and underdeveloped, I might suggest they look into Occupational Therapy before they pursue music lessons.

If I think they have a Tiger Mother and I don’t want to deal with her, I send them to the San Francisco Conservatory where they will be MUCH happier.  If I think they’re a little too tame for my eccentric personality, I send them to a colleague who is more conventional.

The most important thing is to give them somewhere to go. Just because a child isn’t ready for lessons doesn’t mean they can’t have another kind of musical experience. I like to send people to the Eurhythmics classes at the conservatory. They’ve been a big hit with the kids I’ve sent there.

Just because you don’t think the child is a good match for you doesn’t mean someone else won’t scoop them up and love teaching them.

Recently, my daughter has started teaching one student. I had a little girl who’d bought the three lessons I donated to a school auction (Great way to get students if you need them – which I don’t any more, but I was trying to be generous) but I didn’t have time to teach her. Evie has been working with her under my supervision. If you have some advanced students who might be able to take one or two students, consider helping them start teaching a little. As long as you supervise the teaching, it can be a great learning experience for everyone. 


If you aren’t doing a good job, it’s bad for business. For one thing, that student will put you in a bad mood for the students whose lessons follow. If you have a student you dread seeing, the joy will go out of that entire afternoon. 

The bottom line for me is this: Every child deserves to spend time with someone who truly likes them and wants to be with them. It’s more important than talent, intelligence, ability, parenting and money. If you don’t want to be with that child, don’t spend time with them. Period.

Here’s a post I wrote about how to end a longer-term relationship with a student I could no longer teach. It may give you some ideas of language that you could use.

The best thing for your business is to do a good job.

You can’t do a good job if your heart isn’t in it.