Friday, December 14, 2012

Classes vs. Privates (Part 2: Privates)

In the first part of this series, I discussed group classes. This article focuses on the pros and cons of taking private lessons. If you didn't read the first article, titled Classes vs. Privates (Part 1: Group Classes) I suggest you do so when you get a chance. (I'm thinking "before or after this one," but that's just me.)

To review just a little from the previous article to set the stage...
Group or private lessons? People argue about these questions for hours:
  • Should I take group classes?
  • Should I take private lessons?
  • Are private lessons worth the cost?
The answers are easy if you're a "know it all" like me. The answers are (in no particular order): Yes, yes, and yes!

Learning styles vary among individuals and it’s important to find a situation that matches the way you learn, your budget and your sense of urgency. The stronger dancers generally take both group and private lessons for a while, and you can get great value from both, but the return is different.

One size doesn't fit all, and here's my take on private lessons:

Private lessons with the right instructor are the fastest way to improve your dancing. While I like group classes and take them regularly, there is a major difference when the instructor focuses exclusively on improving me! I may be MUCH slower than average picking up a specific combination, move or concept, so in those areas they can slow it down to MY level, which may be dramatically slower than you need (or in a few cases, faster than someone else.)

For example, because of my music background, they quickly figure out I probably know more about the music than they do, so we rarely invest any time on the music unless I decide it would be helpful. That doesn't mean I can't improve my musicality, just most instructors are going to spend less time on that subject than they might otherwise.

Since I'm paying, I can also be specific about what I want to learn or explain my focus and goals, and the instructor doesn't have to worry about making everybody in a class happy. If I’m making progress, we both win.

I also record every lesson on video, so I can review later this week and months from now. As I’ve grown in my dancing, reviewing previous lessons has allowed me to fine tune countless details that were over my head the first time they were explained. I may be so focused on my footwork, I don’t even remember the comment about my hands or the specifics about the partner connection. The video allows me to get more value out of each lesson, because I review the main points the next week, and often find new insights months or years later.

Side note: I don't take lessons from someone who doesn’t allow me to video. I will sign a document stating the videos are for personal review only and that posting them for others to view is outside the scope of our payment arrangement. I know a couple instructors have been burned by students taping a lesson and then posting it to YouTube without the instructors permission. That is totally unacceptable in my book.

Since I’m a little older than most in the dance world, I want accelerated learning. Privates also keep me honest in terms of practicing. If I’m in a group class I can hide a little; nobody knows if I practiced. Knowing I have a private three days from now motivates me to practice more. I hate going to a lesson unprepared, so I work harder between sessions.

The question is often “Is it worth it?”

If you are in a hurry to learn, private lessons can dramatically reduce the time from "what the heck are they talking about" to "wow, you look really great on the floor." In my experience, three months of privates will trump six to nine months of group classes.

The primary problem with private lessons is the start-up costs. Private instruction ranges from $40-$120 per hour (or more) so it's obviously more expensive than a $10-$20 class in the short term. On the other hand, if you go to a group class, miss a detail and practice a bad habit for a few months, you may take a few months to undo that habit. In privates a decent instructor will call you on the issue before it becomes an ingrained habit (or minimize the damage already done if something is already mindless.)

Your private instructor has a new set of eyes and can do more for your dancing than you've ever imagined, and because you are paying them, you tend to actually listen to them and make changes.

I’ll go even farther and let you in on a secret of mine: Privates allow me to get dramatically more value from my group classes, because I know details the instructor just can’t go over in a group setting. I’m practicing the same exercises as the others, but working on the finer things I learned from the privates. In other words, I use the group classes as part of my practice time, but I’m doing the class moves with a clearer mental picture than most.

I see others in the class “doing” the moves, but they clearly don’t realize the instructor is leaving out many details. They think they are doing great when I can see they are simply building bad habits. And the most interesting fact: after a few months, I get other students coming up to me and saying something like, “Wow… have you ever improved.” They are still doing the exercises as they did in the past and my feel has dramatically improved, because I have the motivation to practice. (Hey, I’m paying real money, and I refuse to throw it away by not practicing.)

For me, the ideal scenario is as follows:

Take a few group classes from the instructor, figuring out if you like the way he/she teaches. Then take a few privates from them, and continue to take their group classes. In the privates discuss any issues missed in the group classes and have the instructor verify you are doing everything up to your potential.

And the bad news: Privates don’t take away your responsibility to practice! If you don’t practice the material, privates are mostly a waste of money, although if you are taping, you’ll get the value when you practice later. As stated earlier, taping the lessons has provided huge payback for me, allowing me to fine-tune something months after the lesson. The instructor may have demonstrated something specific, but as I mature I can find other things that didn't apply in the initial lesson.

For the cynics out there: Instructors (including me) can make more money doing group classes--often a lot more. I’m talking about this because I still take privates, I believe in the value of them, and I’ve seen amazing results because of them. I’ve had some months where I’ve averaged two privates per week, so I have and still do put my money where my mouth is on this one.

If you can pull it off, save up and take a set of privates (5 to 10) before evaluating their value. Assuming you are practicing, you'll find enormous payback from your investment.

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Don Baarns - Unlikely Salsero