Like it or not, every private music teacher is also a businessperson. Unless you are a virtuoso, have written a book, or have another unique marketing advantage for finding students, it’s incredibly useful to invest time in mastering fundamental business principles that can help you build and nourish a wildly successful music studio.

One of the most importance principles of business is value creation. Obviously, creating (and selling) value is what every business is in business for! While some businesses provide a small amount of value for thousands or millions of people (think Microsoft or Toyota), others create a larger (or at least more personalized) amount of value for just a few people (think piano teachers).

The Five Drives

One of the most important principles of value creation is offering something that other people want. We can safely say that there is a subset of the population that wants piano lessons. But understanding at a deeper level what exactly drives people to desire piano lessons is a worthwhile reflection. In the book Driven, Harvard Business School professors Paul Lawrence and Nitin Nohria describe four drives that lead people to part with their hard-earned money. These are:

The Drive to Acquire

To own physical objects or qualities such as power, status or fame.

The Drive to Bond

To feel appreciated, liked by and connected to others.

The Drive to Learn

In terms of piano instruction, this needs no explanation!

The Drive to Defend

To protect what we have, including our life, our children and our property.

Business author Josh Kaufman suggest there is a fifth drive:

The Drive to Feel

For intense experiences, emotions, pleasure and/or entertainment.

Which Drives Can Piano Lessons Satisfy?

The more drives that a business meets, the more successful it will be. It’s pretty obvious that what drives most people to take piano lessons is the desire to learn, and most piano teachers worth their salt have this one well-covered. But do any of the other drives come into play?

The “drive to acquire” includes the desire to achieve or possess qualities such as status or fame. Obviously, there are some piano students that are at least partially driven by dreams of fame and glory. While we don’t want to promise fame and glory to our students, are there other ways we could connect with this natural human drive? One way would be to emphasize the ego satisfaction that comes with becoming a good player. Along with this, we could offer and encourage students to perform in recitals or in non-traditional contexts such as at the local coffeehouse, and help them do so successfully. Students may not want to admit that they seek status, but I think most students do, though it may be unconscious. So even if we’re helping a student achieve the “status” of being the only member of their family who can play the Moonlight Sonata, we are connecting with this drive and creating additional value for them.

The “drive to bond” includes the desire to feel liked by and connected to others. While music is often a very social experience, pianists can (and often do) get away with being solitary, because the instrument is so satisfying to play by itself. Indeed, many piano students are relatively introverted and may not have the “drive to bond” as strongly as, say, someone who wants to play trumpet or violin, or guitar so they can join a rock band. Still, we shouldn’t assume that students might not like more social satisfaction from their lessons. There are obvious ways to help students satisfy the drive to bond, such as group lessons, connecting students with each other to play duets, or connecting them with other instrumentalists. How else might we satisfy the drive to bond? We could have a “wine and cheese” party for our adult students, with the invitation (but no expectation) to play for each other. We could have an occasional fun music party for young students, more informal than a recital, with opportunities to play games – perhaps related to music – and make new friends. (Parents aren’t invited!) What else have you done?

I suggested above that the “drive to learn” needs no explanation. But still, we should make every effort to understand the unique learning motivations and goals of every student. One way I do this is by having new students fill out a comprehensive questionnaire. Among other things, I ask for information about:

  • Favorite musical styles
  • Short-term and long-term goals
  • Their interest in learning creative activities such as arranging, improvising or composing
  • Specific pieces they would like to learn

The more we know about each student’s unique drive to learn, the more likely it is we will be able to fulfill it.

Finally, there is the “drive to feel.” Obviously, learning to play the piano may be enough satisfy this drive. But how else might we be able to satisfy the desire for intense experiences and emotions? One way that I do this – and I admit I could do a better job of it – is to make music appreciation a regular ingredient of lessons. We can tell students interesting stories from music history in order to pique their interest in certain composers or compositions. We can introduce them to keyboard music that they may not be ready to play, either by playing it for them or by playing a recording and talking about it. We can ask them to acquire a recording and talk about it in a future lesson, and to make sure we find out how the music makes them feel.


Every successful business creates value, and an important aspect of creating value is satisfying the five core human drives. Provide fulfillment for every drive that brings your students to lessons, and the more likely it is that your studio will prosper and flourish.

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