113 – Taking Time Off: The Tradeoff

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Episode Summary

Regularly scheduled downtime from teaching is important not only for us but also for our students and for maintaining a well-run business. Time off isn’t just about having unending hours to read, deep clean your freezer, or go for two-hour walks; it can also mean releasing ourselves from our normal routine to make room for other things.


Items Mentioned





I’m Amy Chaplin, and this is episode 113 of The Piano Pantry Podcast. This podcast is brought to you by a group of teacher friends on Patreon. This past week, at the Music Teachers National Association Conference in Atlanta, I was blessed to have dinner with some of those teachers – an evening that was a conference highlight for many, including me! If you feel moved to join my support crew, you can do so for as little as $4 a month by visiting PianoPantry.com/patreon.

You’re probably reading the title of this episode and imagining me touting the importance of self-care and balance. While those are certainly positive things, today, we’re going to go beyond the whole self-care conversation and see why regularly scheduled time away from direct teaching is important not only for us but also for our students and for maintaining a well-run business. So let’s get to it!

We’re at a point in the year when many of us are starting to look toward plans for the next school calendar year. While setting your schedule, consider whether you’re giving yourself enough scheduled time off at balanced intervals throughout the year.

For the longest time, I took two weeks at Christmas and one week at Spring break. I found, though, that the longer second semester was always so hard to get through – especially if I was attending the MTNA conference in March. If it landed the same week as spring break, it meant that I didn’t really get a break.

I don’t care how fun conferences are; they are still work and do not count as vacation or time off. A few years ago, I decided it was time to build in two weeks of no lessons at Spring Break so I could comfortably attend conferences and have a breather before plowing into the final six to eight weeks of the school term. It’s a decision I haven’t regretted in the least.

I’m sure I mentioned this in another episode recently, but I’m not worried about repeating myself on this one: We have to approach our tuition structure in a way that allows for downtime and professional development while still making a healthy salary. We cannot look at this job as a “by-the-hour” deal. There are so many factors outside of in-lesson time with students – it’s no wonder this community has struggled and toiled for so long to make a livable income. Ensure you are charging fees that are appropriate to allowing yourself this breathing space.

As the years turn, I find myself trying to move to a slightly more balanced and blended schedule. Consider the year-round pattern some school systems are implementing, where there are more balanced breaks. Generally, it looks something like 6 weeks in summer, 2 weeks in the fall, 2 weeks at Christmas, and 2 weeks in Spring.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be sharing a few tweaks I’m making in my own studio policies and design that try to move a little closer to something like this – where there’s not such a large gap from the end of May to the start of lessons in the fall.

Having a mid-size break from lessons, such as 2-6 weeks, has multiple benefits, too.

For the students, they’re away from lessons just enough that if they don’t practice much, their skills won’t diminish as quickly as if they skip summer lessons and go an entire 8-10 weeks in the summer. They’ll be away from lessons just long enough that, hopefully, they’ll still feel refreshed and ready to dig in again when they return.

As the teacher, this means making plans for students when they return won’t feel like such a “thing”—it allows for a more continuous approach than a stop-and-start approach.

Even for the two-week breaks, especially as a teacher, I feel like I have the time to spend on professional development and catch up on studio-related work and business management without sacrificing personal downtime.

The Summer of 2023 was pretty packed for me. I held two retreats for teachers, attended NCKP, taught my summer session of lessons to those taking them (an option that I used to have that is going to change – again more on that in a future episode), my husband and I squeezed several camping trips in, and my friend Joy brought back her retreat which I catered.

Normally, I have one entire week clear before I start lessons back in August, but not that summer, and it was horrible. I have never felt so off-kilter and behind at the start of the school year. It took me like 6 weeks to get all of my student photos done for the photo board.

For me, downtime isn’t just about having unending hours to read, deep clean my freezer, or go for two-hour walks. Yes, that’s good, but downtime can also mean releasing ourselves from our normal routine to make room for other things.

This is part of the reason I always liked holding group classes in lieu of private lessons every 6 weeks or so. The change in schedule freed up a little extra time for me to tackle those items that our everyday routines don’t allow for.

Let me give you some examples of items that I’ve tackled in the past during scheduled time off:

  1. Most recently, I just did another round of rethinking and redesigning the way I use my Todoist and Notion apps to manage both general daily recurring tasks and more project-based tasks. The time needed was approximately 2 hours.
  2. I spent time playing around with and learning how to use a new app for lesson time. Time needed: approximately 30 minutes.
  3. I arrange my studio (always). LOL Time needed: approximately 1-4 hours
  4. I publish a dozen books for sale on Piano Teachers Buy-Sell-Trade on Facebook. Time needed: approximately 30 minutes.
  5. Here’s an example of a small rabbit hole… I finally downloaded, printed out, cut up, and laminated that new game I purchased like 3 months ago.
    1. When I went to put it in my game storage, I realized my game drawer could use a quick tidy. There are several I’ve not used in years so I get rid of them. Bye-bye.
    2. I really need to take time to read through the game and make sure I know how to play it before doing it with students, so I spend 10 minutes doing that. Total time for this rabbit hole: 90 minutes.
  6. Another rabbit hole. As I’m looking through my duet music for an easy piece some siblings can play for the recital, I ask myself if I’m really ever going to use that single piece of duet sheet music from the 1950s someone gave me. Hello, recycling.
    1. Next, I noticed I have two copies of an ensemble book, one of which is brand new. Since I really don’t need two copies, I posted one for sale in Piano Teachers Buy Sell Trade on Facebook.
    2. Then, I realized my ensemble music is labeled with one file for each early elementary, elementary, and late elementary level. The same is true for Intermediate, but I do not have a folder for advanced duets—the ones I currently have were just placed at the back of my Late Intermediate file folder. So, I grabbed my handy-dandy label printer, a new file folder, and a clear tab holder and printed a new label.
    3. Once I find a selection, I spend time playing it and thinking through who will play what part.
    4. Total time spent on this rabbit hole: 45 minutes

And on and on and on. I think you know exactly what I’m talking about. Even when I’m working on studio-business-related items, it honestly feels like rest to me because I’m able to take the time to go down those little rabbit holes and, in turn, reset myself and my space for the next phase of lessons.

So let me ask you now – have you planned appropriate amounts of time off in your studio calendar? Are you allowing space for those “extras” that are so hard to tackle during a routine lesson day? If not, how are you going to change that in the coming year? Now is the time to be considering those changes.

Take the time off: the tradeoff is worth it.

A couple of spots remain for the 2024 Piano Pantry retreat, which will be held June 12-15 at my home in Northeast Indiana. This special getaway is designed to refresh and reset you and your digital workspace. Believe me when I say we cover all the basics you didn’t know you were missing.

You will walk away with a better understanding of how to manage your devices, your email inbox, your processes for storing digital files, and more.

For just $345, this three-day retreat includes breakfast, lunch, and snacks provided by me, accommodation, and lots of time for connecting with a small group of teachers. If you’re ready to feel more in control of the role technology is playing in your life at its most fundamental level, then this retreat is for you. Visit PianoPantry.com/retreat for more details.

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