Do you give the first lesson for free?

Do you give the first lesson for free?


norman lebrecht

March 10, 2018

We’ve seen threads recently on instrumental sites differing over whether a new student should receive the first lesson as a free sampler.

What’s your practice?



  • Anthony Kershaw says:

    I always insist on a 30 minute consultation lesson free of charge. Usually a quick check to see if the student is serious and is a good fit.

  • MSC says:

    It’s more a get-acquainted session than a real lesson, but yes, it is free.

  • YoYo Mama says:

    NEVER! To do so is at the expense of other teachers who may be forced to do so as well. I made the mistake of giving a student a full scholarship for over a year, because I believed in his interest and talent, and because my teacher never charged me. They were crying utter poverty, not to mention White Disadvantage. Then I found out they were paying almost twice my regular rate to a piano teacher for his sister. So I started charging, but they were no more respectful, and he gave up lessons while continuing to play. His mother was a dragon idiot, and has ruined his life.
    The other problem is teachers who deliberately undercut other teachers, especially in areas where people are relatively well off. And they usually have a husband supporting them, unlike other teachers.

    • klang says:

      I am sorry for your bad experiences but the question was whether we give the FIRST LESSON for free and not a whole year, which is to undercut other teachers, from my point of view.

  • Eric says:

    Sure, why not, if it’s good business. I don’t think one owes anyone a free first lesson, but if it helps get more students to sign up long-term, it’s a no-brainer. I offer this, but as my cello studio reaches capacity, I may stop. That being said, it takes the pressure off giving a complete hour lesson to a student you’ve never heard, who may not even have repertoire prepared.

  • Tony Osborne says:

    I think it’s helpful for beginners, or anyone with special needs.It’s never been a problem for me. I’d far rather a student was comfortable with my teaching – many other businesses offer samples of work.

  • CrossEyedPianist says:

    No. I always meet prospective students, children or adults, as an opportunity to get to know each other and I don’t charge for this. But the first and all subsequent actual lessons must be paid for. And by the way I only offer refunds for lessons which I have cancelled.

  • Allan C says:

    When I go to the hairdresser I don’t get the first one for free so I become a regular costumer…. so, no.

  • K Cardy says:

    Yes I do offer a free first lesson with no obligation on either part. That way I can decide if I want to continue with the student as they can also decide if I am the right tutor for them.
    I consider this more more of an introductory session than a formal lesson.

  • Kim Neidlinger says:

    I usually will have a meet and greet with the student and parent first. I do not charge for that time. I do charge for the lessons by the month. I keep my fees in line with other music teachers in the regional area.

  • Will says:

    I always give a first ‘taster’ lesson of 40 minutes ‘free of charge’.
    If the prospective pupil wishes to continue after that, my fee is £1 per minute, so, the first lesson lasting 60 minutes/ 1 hour costs £20.

  • Robert Holmén says:

    When I was teaching school band in west Texas I gave all the lessons free as part of my teaching duties.

    Only about 20% of the students showed up for the lessons, however.

    • Ruben Greenberg says:

      Robert, when you don’t charge, the students tend not to take lessons seriously. That is one of the principles of psychoanalysis: albeit a convenient one for the psychoanalyst.

      • George Butler says:

        This is the usual practice in U.S. public schools. A band director employed full-time by a school district is usually not allowed to accept payment for after-school private lessons from a band student in his (her) program. It’s the same for orchestra conductors and choir directors. Receiving money from a student would be seen as a conflict of interest, since the ensemble director gives the student a grade for the student’s work in the ensemble class.

        Band directors in Texas work twelve-hour days, six days a week. They are special, special folks.

      • Robert Holmén says:

        Ruben, I recognized the student psychology at work, even then.

        However, my own psychology told me that whenever a student didn’t show up… it was more time for me to practice my own horn.

        I was allowed zero disciplinary levers to encourage them to attend so i made what I could of the time.

  • Stefan Sanchez says:

    I teach voice privately in Bangkok. I offer full scholarships if the student is extremely talented and cannot afford lessons. However, if they cancel a lesson at the last moment they have to pay for it….So far my free students have done remarkably well in terms of earning money via singing and getting scholarships to go onto further study abroad. I am very happy to be able to do this. I do not however offer the first lesson free to those who can pay. I would not go to a restaurant and demand a free meal on the basis I had never eaten there before..

  • Anon says:

    A lesson, given by a professional, should not be free. Exceptions apply, but in general no. Most people respect you more and hold you of higher value too, if you don’t give free sample lessons.
    Giving free lessons damages the profession, since customers get the wrong mental image that the value is somewhat arbitrary.

  • Charlie says:

    Moreso where instruments such as strings need to be checked for setting up correctly.
    Soundposts up etc. With reed it is checking reed strengths, setting up reeds, checking pads. Brass are more straightforward although there could be issues with mouthpiece being unsuitable.

  • Marj says:

    If I were to meet a prospective teacher just to get to know him/her and discuss their approach, how often I could have lessons, and generally to see if both of us feel a ‘chemistry’ with the other, I would not expect to pay. But the first lesson I had from current teacher whom I had not met before, I paid for and expected to. Its like asking me as a consultant to give my first hour of consulting for free. that is quite silly in my mind.

  • Beccy says:

    Would we expect a plumber or an electrician to give us a first visit free? I find it inexplicable why people would expect a musician to work for free, when they would expect to pay for anything else. It takes time to build up relationships with pupils, and that can’t be done in 1 lesson, so the notion of a taster lesson seems strange to me. By all means meet up and make an acquaintance, but not working for them for free. I offered free lessons to a boy who sings in a choir I sing in, and this was my choice, and my offer to a boy who has great talent but is in genuine need. His mother applied to a local charity for funding, and for this year I am being paid, but if that stops, I will continue to teach him. That was my choice, though, as I know that had I not offered, he would not have had the opportunity to learn, and he had shown considerable commitment to the choir.

  • Gerhard says:

    To me, a free try out session for people who don’t play the instrument yet is a matter of course. A real lesson for free to a student who already plays is something different, which I wouldn’t do privately. The public music school, where I do some part time teaching offers one free trial lesson on request, so there it is just part of my duty. Yet another thing is working with young colleagues who ask for my input. This I regard as coaching among colleagues. When I was younger I have benefitted myself more than once from this kind of help free of charge, so I’m doing it the same way.

  • eloise hellyer says:

    Here is a post on the subject which discusses the pros and cons (mostly)…..

  • Scotty says:

    Amateurs who come to me don’t pay for our first meeting. Not only do I want them to decide if I’m the right teacher for them, I want to decide if I’m the right teacher for them. Professionals who come for a helping of special sauce pay from the start.

  • Anon says:

    Hairdressers, do you give the first haircut for free?
    Car mechanics, do you give the first service for free?
    Restaurants, do you give the first dinner for free?
    Airlines, do you give the first flight for free?
    Photographers, do you take pictures at my first wedding for free?

    • norman lebrecht says:

      With the exception of your anonymous comment, this is developing into a useful discussion.

    • Bruce says:

      Snarky answer that came to mind right away: they might, if you promised never to come back 🙂

      Actual answer: “introductory discounts” for new customers are not terribly unusual.

    • msc says:

      A lot of lawyers, psychologists, and other such professionals don’t charge for a first consultation.

      • klang says:

        Bruce and MSC: absolutely correct. And where I live it would certainly not help me to get new students if I charged them for a “getting to know you” when nobody else does.

      • James says:

        You must know that it’s not actually free … you’re billed for it under a different guise somewhere down the line.

  • klang says:

    I do offer the first “lesson” for free. As others have said before, it is only a taster. With little children, this usually isn’t more then 15 minutes and a general talk to the accompanying parent. Mainly, I check the size and strength of the child to be able to provide the correct cello if the child starts regular sessions. Then, I check whether the child feels comfortable “playing” the cello and likes the sound of it. I also check coordination.
    This is NEVER to undercut any other colleagues.
    It helps both sides to know about expectations and personality. I do not want to be forced to teach somebody when our chemistry just doesn’t work out.
    In the music school, I can’t usually pick and choose my pupils. But we have open days where pupils can find out which instrument they like. So, most of the time, I’ve seen them at least for 5 or 10 minutes.
    If a colleague or adult student asks me for lessons or advice, they usually know me already, so I charge them from the beginning.

  • Jonathan Brett says:

    Inherent in both the original post and the comments is the tacit assumption that music lessons are a simple consumable. If they are, then other than within a controlled market, the precise business model is entirely up to the seller, who might try to create long-term addiction before charging anything much or simply seek payment in advance of doing anything at all. Free market, free choice, plenty of room for variety of opinion and approach and no need for or value in consensus.

    If on the other hand, we take the view that possibly music might not be a simple consumable but actually something rather more important within our society, perhaps treating it as a consumable is one of the contributors to the ongoing woes of the music profession. In this case we might consider that rather than arguing something which is finally a matter only of personal opinion and circumstance, a more significant problem might require a concerted effort at changing societal mores.

    Surely we need to address the collapse of the equality of opportunity which underlay so much of 20th century thinking about society rather than simply going along with the increasingly feudal values we can see? Forget your own business model, rather start to do anything you can to address issue that increasingly access to musical education of any kind is a matter only of means rather than talent or desire, a situation inherently dangerous for anyone who cares about art or humanity.

    Or of course we can collectively elect to slide gracefully into oblivion arguing about the status quo.

    • Bruce says:

      Good points; however it has to be noted that, although they usually love what they do, most music teachers need the money.

      The argument that music is important for a civilized society, while true (in my opinion), is often flipped around and used as a reason why artists should not be paid for their work — because paying for something sacred lowers it to the status of a crass commercial transaction. (Not to mention the argument that if you love what you do, then you really should be doing it for free — something people say regularly about musicians, but I never seem to hear anyone say it about doctors or plumbers.)

      • Buxtehude says:

        @Bruce: Very well put.

        But I think Jonathan B is arguing more for State intervention to preserve or re-start music education. If this is correct than I agree with both of you.

  • Sandy Holland says:

    I used to until I realised that people were coming for a consultation lesson and then taking regular lessons with someone who lived nearer/charged less! Now I charge my usual rate.

  • Bruce says:

    I don’t teach any more, but when I did I would give the first lesson for free. As others have said, more of a “testing the chemistry/ getting to know each other” session than an actual lesson. I’m talking about children & adolescents, usually; often they were beginners, or they’d played in school but never had a teacher. The understanding was that they could say no to me (which happened once or twice), or I could say no to them (I don’t think I ever did).

    A few of the more professionally-minded parents would offer to pay me anyway. In that case, rather than refuse, I always smiled and accepted, saying “I never argue with anyone who’s trying to give me money.” (It avoided any awkwardness, plus I got the money 🙂 )

  • Donald D Krause says:

    I have been offering a first lesson free for many years — now at age 77 I still do and have a studio with over 20 French horn students and it certainly supplements my idea of letting a student decide me before I decide on them … seems to work for me.

  • YoYo Mama says:

    Once again, absolutely not. You are presenting yourself as someone who can be taken advantage of, whose time can be wasted. It also creates a condition in which a student/parent can go from teacher to teacher using up free lessons in order to never pay for any.
    Giving a supposedly hard-up student with talent a scholarship is NOT undercutting other teachers, particularly as this student had been ejected from other studios (should have been a warning to me). Don’t throw my words back at me.

    • Scotty says:

      After 40-plus years of teaching on and off, I still haven’t encountered a lesson hopper. It appears as though I’ve been blessed.

  • Wiebke Göetjes says:

    It really depends on my mood…..
    I never say so before we begin, I think it is healthy for them to think that they should pay for my time and experience, but sometimes decide to give it to someone anyway….

    The “free-shoppers” who ask for a free first lesson and hop from free lesson to free lesson definitely don’t get a free lesson from me.

    • buxtehude says:

      Is it really possible to learn anything at all “hopping” from one teacher to another, one lesson at a time? Seems more like a recipe for confusion, at any level.

      • klang says:

        I don’t think you could learn anything else then confusion…
        Anyway, luckily I have never heard of such a behaviour.

  • Nicholas Folwell says:

    I always give a free singing lesson to see if my student and I are a good fit. Teaching, and particularly singing teaching, is a very personal activity.

  • Sasha Valeri Millwood says:

    When I started teaching, in early-2014, I used to give the first lesson free, *if* the enquiry appeared to be serious, and the enquirer had *not* asked for a free lesson. A few months later, this became a reduced-price first lesson.

    Since mid-2015, my policy is that a first lesson is chargeable on the same basis as any other lesson. I operate on a ‘pay-as-you-go’ basis, which means that a prospective pupil (or his/her parent/guardian) who decides not to go further than the first lesson is liable only for the cost of that one lesson (from which the pupil would still derive some benefit/value, irrespective of the outcome). From my perspective, giving a first lesson takes at least as much effort as a typical lesson, so I see no reason why I should be expected to give up my time for free (I will have already given up some of my time answering enquiries by electronic mail and/or telephone; moreover, I provide information about my teaching methodology on my website).

    If anything, given the extra administration and preparation, as well as the fact that one is dealing with an unknown customer, there is a strong case to be made for charging *more* for the first lesson.

    I also feel strongly that it is bad practice to give preferential treatment to new customers at the expense of existing customers.

  • Tony Osborne says:

    By the way, nobody has ever asked for a free lesson – it has always been my decision, appropriate to the individual.

  • Laurine Celeste Fox says:

    I formerly would give a free first lesson, if requested to do so. But my first lessons are very intense and long (usually lasting well over an hour, at no extra charge to the student). Given this scenario, I developed the policy that I would give a free 15″ consultation/”lesson” if requested to do so (usually lasting well over the 15″, but that’s my decision). If, however, the student wants a full lesson for his/her first lesson, I charge for it as a regular lesson.