Transcript Mini Interview: Carissa Pitkin-Cox on Knowing “Why”

Transcript: Mini Interview: Carissa Pitkin-Cox on Knowing “Why”

Transcript for Mini Interview: Carissa Pitkin-Cox on Knowing “Why”

[00:00:00] Andrea: Hey, it’s Andrea with Music Studio Startup, the podcast about the business of teaching music. Learn from the startup stories of music teachers who are doing incredible things with their studios. Be inspired by creating musicians who are branching out and thriving as entrepreneurs. Be empowered by the insights of experts who will help you grow your own studio.

Let’s get started.

I’m gearing up for the start of Business Building 101 next week. I’ve already gotten to talk to several of the teachers who are enrolled and they’re a great bunch. I hope you’ll consider joining. Today’s episode is a mini interview with a past Business Building 101 participant. In it we talk about having clarity around a studio vision, how that influenced some of the key decisions and changes for this teacher’s studio, including a rate increase, and how she introduced those changes to families.

It’s both inspiring and informative. Here’s my conversation with Carissa. Hi Carissa. Welcome to the podcast. Thank you so much for being here. Can you introduce yourself and tell us about your studio?

[00:01:14] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. Thank you, Andrea, for having me on your podcast. Very happy to be here today. My name is Carissa Pitkin Cox. I am a teacher and studio, owner of Pitkin Cox Music Studio, which is in Tri-Cities, Washington in the Southeastern region of the state.

[00:01:31] Andrea: Awesome. And I had the pleasure of getting to know you because you participated in the Business Building 101 course this winter/spring session. And that’s what we’re here to talk about today. Kind of a mini interview about your experience in that course, and just share some of what you have to offer as an experienced music teacher. So, can you describe your studio before taking the course?

[00:01:54] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah, so I moved back home to Tri-Cities, which is where I’m from, around 2015. And that was my first step into being my own independent studio owner and my studio fluctuated in size a lot, anywhere from 20 to 36 students. When I started taking the course, I was at about 20 students and probably like most teachers who listened to this podcast, I kind of would take lots of different kinds of students. I was interested in really committed students, but didn’t necessarily always know how to identify what it was that I wanted from my studio, from myself, from my students.

So I think that I had a lot of great ideas. I didn’t really get excited about projects, excited about learning, excited about teaching. But in hindsight, as I look back now, I think that I didn’t necessarily have the focus or always took the next step with those ideas to really implement them in a way that, that felt really thriving and really focused.

[00:03:01] Andrea: Mm, I know you brought those ideas to our office hours and the rest of the cohort. We all got to benefit from your creative thinking.

[00:03:08] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. You know, that was so helpful, I think, to have those office hours to bring those ideas and just have a sounding board. I mean, it sounds so simple to share your ideas with others, but I think that one of the challenges as independent music teachers and studio owners is that we are our own little islands. We’re our own little contained world. And we have to sometimes be pretty proactive about seeking out the community that we want. Especially if, so for me, I lived in, in a mid-sized town city. I don’t live in a big metropolitan area. And so sometimes you have to do a little bit more to, to seek out your people and it felt so great to be in those office hours to just have feedback and reaction and feel like I was talking with people who were going through the same kind of thing that I was going through. Looking at how they wanted to build and grow their business and their studio.

[00:04:02] Andrea: Yeah. And we all benefited from your presence there too. So thank you. So you may have already touched on this a bit, but what was it that made you sign up for the course?

[00:04:10] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. So you actually were featured in one of the MTNA webinar links that got sent out by email to the MTNA members for a webinar that you were going to be doing and had a short little bio about who you were and that you had this podcast.

And so I started listening to your podcast and just thinking, oh my gosh, this is this missing link that I didn’t even know was missing for me. And I just started kind of gobbling it up as much as I could thinking. Wow. You know, this podcast is great. And then the next episode, oh my gosh, this is something I thought about. It’s so great to hear other people talk about it and give their expertise. So I just dived right into all of your great podcast content. And then, in finding who you were and looking online, I saw that you were just about to start this second cohort for the business building class. And we were in the middle of COVID and any inhibition that I might have had about, do I really want to take an online class? Just wasn’t even there because I thought, you know what, that’s how learning is happening right now. And I gave myself that opportunity and I’m so glad I did cause I learned more than I thought I would from taking that course.

[00:05:27] Andrea: Wow. Well, thank you for those kind words. Was there anything that in particular, like any question you were trying to answer or problem you were trying to solve in your business?

[00:05:34] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: So , I’ll start more generally and then try to go into some more specifics. I think generally I was looking for a way to empower myself in my own business. I wanted to learn what it was that I needed to know to really define and set those goals for myself, for my studio. I wanted my studio to feel specialized. I wanted it to feel that it represented who I was. I didn’t know how to differentiate myself necessarily in the market. Only that, that I felt that, that inner urge to do that. And I didn’t know what I didn’t know. And so I thought, you know, what? Taking a, a course is going to lay things out very clearly. So that I can kind of start to see where are my areas for growth, or where are those places where I just don’t have that knowledge that’s holding me back.

You know, maybe those are really my blind spots in, in my business. And I would say that this course totally helped me do that. And discover where were those blind spots? Where were those areas for growth and, and just learning and educating myself on running a studio. Uh, specifically there were a couple weeks that I knew I was really looking forward to. You did a great job of when you sign up for the class, you see sort of a list of the weeks and what the different topics are that are covered. So I was really interested in the finance, creating a budget, creating revenue goals and learning how to do that, making sure that I knew the ins and outs of taxes, just having someone to kind of vet that ,okay, what I was doing was right. Or, you know, here are some additional ways that you can help you think about doing self-employment taxes. And then the other thing that I had no expertise in was web design or launching a website that can support your studios, studio growth, whatever you are using your website for.

I think a big thing for me that I kept coming back to in your class was I needed to know my why. and I didn’t want to just launch a website because that’s what people do. And it seemed like a good idea, you know? So I really wanted to know my why for myself and articulate, why am I launching a studio website? Or why am I taking this direction in my studio? And I feel like those questions are really important. If you are trying to develop a sustainable business and a sustainable business model and having those goals and those areas of growth, I think you have to first ask those kind of fundamental questions for yourself.

So. I felt like your class was a really great balance of those kind of very practical things. Like let’s talk about finances and taxes, and then some of those more kind of visioning questions of what’s your why, what are your core values and, and knowing that those drive so many decisions about your business and in fact, probably every decision about your business.

[00:08:27] Andrea: One thing I noticed, especially in conversations with you is that you had really clear lifestyle goals that you wanted to achieve and some boundaries that you wanted to set. Would you mind sharing some of those and how being clear on those has maybe influenced some business decisions?

[00:08:43] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah, that’s a really great question. So my studio teaching prior to taking this course, really has run the gambit. When I was living on the east coast, I was teaching at music school. I would teach till eight o’clock at night, sometimes teach on Saturdays. When I moved back to Washington state, I started to reexamine where I wanted my work life balance to be. And I know a lot of teachers do value teaching on the weekends. Teaching on Saturday, Sunday. I only wanted to teach Monday through Friday. I wanted a specific cutoff time. I didn’t want to be teaching till eight o’clock at night. So I had a cutoff time of, of like six o’clock. So I thought if I am going to grow, I have those finite number of hours during the week that are open for teaching. I’m willing to grow earlier in the day, starting at noon if I have an adult student or a college student, homeschool student, someone who can come, you know, earlier in the day, I’m happy to start my day early. But just knowing that I had that cut off time, it was important to me.

[00:09:50] Andrea: Have you shifted anything in your business to get those earlier students and not so many of the evening hours?

[00:09:59] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. You know, I’d say in the last year, I, I just don’t offer those times anymore. That’s a, that’s a real easy one. And I think, um, you know, there’s, there is pressure, I think on us as music teachers to be available for those after school hours. Especially because we have personal relationships with every one of our families and students and you know, some students have three, four extracurricular activities and then they come to you and they say, well, the only time we could come is at seven o’clock on Thursday, could you do it? You know, again, it’s hard to kind of hold those boundaries, but you know, if that is something that’s important to you, you have to hold that.

I do think that one of the ways that I’m growing those earlier hours is definitely reaching out to those markets that I know could do those hours. So reaching out to homeschooling groups, to the college kids, the college age students that I know live in the area. And so I’m still early in that, in that stage. But. I do believe that there is enough in the market that for the, the right student, that there are those times that that can work for them. So I think the other advice is just knowing not to rush, trying to fill those spots. And one of the other things that we did in your course that was really helpful was we outlined who our ideal student was. And so I think also just staying true to. It has to be the, the right student that fits in your studio.

[00:11:31] Andrea: And were there any maybe unexpected challenges that you had to face? It might have been a mindset thing or just a, yeah. Anything that challenged you in the course?

[00:11:41] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: I think the numbers and the, the money stuff was definitely the more intimidating part, um, again, which is why I signed up for the course. Because I wanted to get some help, some knowledge. I wanted to, to feel empowered by, by going through that.

So I think a big challenge was knowing how to kind of set my rates and knowing how to value what I was offering. I think that was a big kind of mental barrier that I worked on overcoming that I could really set my rates where they can be and not just what I thought would help get students in the door.

[00:12:21] Andrea: Yeah, that’s a hard one. Facing the financial realities of what it takes to get to your financial goals and then also the believing you’re worth it, which you are . Yeah. And then yeah. Facing those conversations with families. And that leads into the next question really well. So what are some, how is your studio evolved since the course? So we ended around the end of April and it is now mid-July that we’re talking.

[00:12:46] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. You know, I was really lucky during COVID that the 20 students I had stayed with me. They are my 20 very well established students. So I have a really good base now to grow from. And one of the good kind of affirmations I would say that I got taking your course is that the 20 students that I had retained in my studio were pretty well aligned all as my ideal students.

So that was a really great affirmation to see. And then looking at growing my studio and wanting to attract additional students that also really fit. So I made a couple changes after taking your course. One is I raised my tuition by 15% and I also started charging for, I will be starting to charge for my studio classes, which run in the fall semester and the spring semester. And I also changed the way. I structured the tuition. So instead of having them pay month to month, by the number of lessons they are taking, they are going to be paying 10 equal installments from September to June. And that was a, probably one of the biggest changes from taking your class was just understanding how to restructure what it was that I was offering. Because we talk a lot about how, when students come into a studio and they are taking lessons with you, they’re studying with you. It’s not just about the lesson that they come to to see you once a week. It’s about a whole experience. It’s a kind of a whole educational process or transformation that they’re committing to.

And that we’re fostering that potential in them over, you know, many years. And so I think also I’ve started to do a much better job at articulating the value of what, uh, families are getting when they are in the studio. So really looking at different ways that I’m adding value to what the students are getting. And that’s in different kinds of recital programming, a different kind of curriculum that I’m using in the, the studio. And one, the other one other change that I made that’s I’m really excited about is I’m going to be starting to offer partner lessons. So I have already, uh, I’d say five or six of my current students are interested in doing their lessons as partner lessons in the fall.

And this kind of ties in to the question you asked about work and personal life boundaries. And, and, uh, one of my goals was really staying in a set number of teaching hours during the day, Monday through Friday. By having the partner lessons, you have two students coming at the same time. There’s a certain kind of curriculum that you’re using when there’s two of them in the studio together.

But that means that I can have more students in my studio. I’m creating a larger community, which is important for me. I want a dynamic community. I want a diverse community. That is one of my values of my studio. So. Going towards that goal of growth with more students without having to change my boundaries of teaching hours. So I’m really thrilled and excited about, you know, continuing to grow in that area.

[00:16:04] Andrea: Awesome. Yeah. This particular cohort was really fun to work through because there were so many different business models represented. There were teachers who were wanting to open co-ops, teachers who wanted to do private studios and then yep. More traditional multi teacher studios. So it was really interesting. And everyone was so open with sharing their, like we worked through financial projections and everyone was so open with sharing those. It was awesome. And, and it was neat to see how, as you wrestled through those numbers and knew your financial goals and knew your, how you didn’t want to teach past six o’clock and how you could orient your studio, like the lesson structure to achieve that. That was. Really.

[00:16:47] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. And, you know, I, the other thing that I will just jump in to say, cause I think this was really revolutionary for me mentally was that it didn’t have to be an either or proposition. That, you know, having those teaching hours that I wanted to have and growing my students and pedagogically I think the partner lessons are incredible. I’m, I’m really excited to start offering that to my students because I see a lot of value for them. I see the, the collaborative aspect that they can have theory, and music history is really important to me. So there’s elements of that, that they can be doing also in the partner lessons. So, you know, that it really does tie back to my core values. It ties back to one of my whys that motivates me. And so, you know, I loved kind of finding this elegant solution that really served every aspect of what I was, was looking to do.

[00:17:44] Andrea: Yeah. Yeah. It’s not, you’re not giving something up by doing partner lessons and these other things. Yeah. I think it came to a really good solution for now and you could change it later and that can work too, but yeah. Yeah. One of the things you said you did was raise your rates. And I think you said you already have communicated those changes with families.

[00:18:02] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. So I actually did a one-on-one coaching with you, Andrea, during the period of the, the 12 weeks that we had the course. And what we got to talk to specifically in that one-on-one coaching was about me kind of rolling out these changes of tuition rates and kind of restructuring of how the tuition payments worked. And so I decided to raise the rates effective the upcoming school year. So that will happen starting September 1st. Uh, I wanted to give them plenty of time. That was one of the things that we talked about in, in our coaching was just giving them lots of heads up notice.

So I do a parent teacher conference in the spring, and, uh, that’s a chance for the parent and I to just sit down one on one and talk about what goals we had set for the school year, how progress was going for their child, and then sort of looking ahead to the next year too. So I think that check in with those parents is really, really valuable. They love it. They love just getting a chance to connect, to hear my perspective on their student. I think they love to be able to share what they’re seeing too. And I think just that simple exercise of us meeting helps to make sure that we are in line with each other, that, that the goals are the same.

We really are a three person team. So myself as the teacher, the parent, and the student, and I think just all feeling, really invested and, and excited and enthusiastic about the lessons. Having those spring conferences is really helpful for that. So at that time, I handed out my new studio policy and kind of briefly explained that there would be these changes and just asked them if they had any questions to let me know. But everybody was like, this is great. I think the really cool thing was that I was able to present it in a way where yes, those rates were increasing, but there were these, again, added value components to changes that were going to be happening in the studio that they could be excited about. And I think that the fact that they were so quick to say, oh yeah, that sounds great was really affirming for me because it felt like, you know what they are saying, yes, we are committing or, and we’re continuing to commit at a high level to the music education and the instruction that our child is getting. And I, that feels really satisfying as a teacher to hear that and to, to see that commitment and feel that from our, uh, the families that we work with.

[00:20:37] Andrea: Yeah, definitely. Was having those conversations, a daunting prospect to you or how did you approach it?

[00:20:46] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah, I think it was. I think I wanted to present it in a way where it felt informative without feeling defensive. And that was one of the things that you and I talked about, I think one on one, was making sure that I could present what I was doing and making these changes, but not kind of preemptively being defensive about, well, do I have to defend why I’m making these rate changes? Are the parents going to understand, or am I going to have to kind of persuade them? So I think mentally just orienting myself the right way, mentally going into those conversations was important.

[00:21:24] Andrea: Oh, that’s such a good observation cause there’s such a natural tendency to do that to automatically assume the worst and doesn’t necessarily work that way, but.

[00:21:34] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Well, and I think too, that as, as music teachers and as creatives, we often are very empathetic, intuitive people. And so we, we care a lot about how people. think and feel, and we are always thinking about, you know, trying to understand that person and how does that person work. And so I think that sometimes we can go down that rabbit hole and almost get ourselves kind of caught in that, in that loop. So, so always trying to kind of zoom out and look at that big picture, I think is important.

[00:22:07] Andrea: And you had those conversations in person, as opposed to sending an email or something. You had the natural place for them, with parent teacher conferences, which I think are an awesome idea. Do you think that had any impact on how parents responded or would you do it that way in the future? Would you change anything?

[00:22:25] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: I absolutely would encourage those kinds of conversations to be done face to face. That was one of the things that you had suggested was doing them face to face. And we were just coming out of COVID. And so, you know, we, we did meet face to face with masks on and all of that, but I think it was important because I think that it was a nonverbal way to communicate to the parent that this was an important conversation. That they mattered that their child mattered that their child’s education mattered to me. So I think sending an email can seem kind of more businessy, a little more separated. But because this obviously was\ a change that was really important to me, I think that communicating that by sitting down with them face to face was really important, was really valuable. And I think helped to add to the success of those conversations.

[00:23:17] Andrea: Something about that in person or yeah, face to face. Just the human element. I think there’s a strong reminder of that and they tend to go better. And what goals do you have for your studio in the coming year?

[00:23:32] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: So one of the other goals that I’m looking ahead to for this next school year, that really came out of taking the course with you is some revenue goals, some growth goals.

So I am making three kind of small changes that are really going to help me reach those goals. So, first one I had said already was I did increase my tuition by about 15%. Second one was I have two different studio classes that I teach and I am starting to ask for a class fee for those studio classes, for the students that enroll in that class.

And then the third thing is increasing my student enrollment by adding about 10 students to my, uh, studio. Those three changes, if they all happen in this first year, will increase my revenue for my studio up to 40%, which is a huge increase to look at making in such a small amount of time. And I think with some relatively small changes that, and the changes themselves are really orienting my studio in a direction that I want to go in. So it’s getting back to the why you’re making those changes. So there’s a certain impact that I want to have in my students’ lives, but that, that is connected to the income growth that I’m, I’m looking to reach.

[00:24:56] Andrea: That’s incredible. Yeah. And, and you said you had a reaction to the finance section about numbers. Can you share that?

[00:25:05] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: So, you know, I don’t know if this was you that said it, Andrea, but you know, numbers are just numbers. And I think once you get over, you know, maybe they’re scary. Maybe they don’t make sense. I think a lot of times, if we don’t understand numbers, then we kind of distance ourselves from that. But once you realize that numbers are just numbers, they just become another tool and they are a huge tool that can really help you get towards some higher level goals. You know, I think just realizing that those numbers that you are working towards are very possible and that I think kind of setting some of those revenue goals free you up to think about some of those higher level goals that, that really feed us as teachers. I think that’s important.

[00:25:55] Andrea: That’s so powerful. And I know sometimes out of those financial conversations, sometimes they’re convicting in a way that teachers realize, oh gosh, I’m never going to make it at these rates and they need to raise them. And so they’re powerful in that way, cause it like shows you a picture of reality in a, a really clear way. But in other circumstances, it shows what maybe is, seems like a huge unattainable goal and breaks it down to something that all of a sudden, like you said seems possible. So yeah, they are just numbers. They’re not positive or negative in terms of like emotionality. They’re just that they’re just numbers.

[00:26:32] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah. And I think that too, especially as a solo entrepreneur or a sole proprietor individual business owner, you know, I’m not looking to grow to a multi teacher studio. And so I think, like you said, being very realistic about how do I reach a sustainable business model when I’m just one person. I have a finite number of resources in, in time in myself in that I am my product in a way. And so how can I more effectively give that to each of my students? And I, yeah, I think it all ties together. The numbers, the how do I give value and give myself and my product to my students when I am the only one running this business.

And I think that that really helped too, for me to see, you know, I can really reach some big goals, even though it’s just me. I’m not a big company. I’m not a big school. Those goals still can be for me as long as I am thinking creatively and educating myself and using the tools that I have. So, you know, again, overall, the whole experience was just very empowering for me. I think taking that course and getting to have some great camaraderie with fellow teachers also doing the same thing. Yeah. It was a really impactful.

[00:27:49] Andrea: Thank you so much. Yeah. And thank you for sharing that. It was great to have you in the course. And where can listeners get in touch with you and follow your studio?

[00:27:57] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Yeah, so I am on Instagram. It is at PitkinCoxPianoStudio. And then my website will be launching next month and that is

[00:28:09] Andrea: All right, Carissa, thank you so much for coming on and sharing your experience in the course and just everything that you’ve experienced as a studio owner that can help other teachers. Thank you.

[00:28:20] Carissa Pitkin-Cox: Thank you, Andrea. It was great to talk to you today.

[00:28:28] Andrea: Carissa has such a great attitude toward learning and growth. I love that she came to the business building course to empower herself in her own studio. It’s so much more comfortable to avoid our blindspots, but Carissa was intentionally trying to find them and face them. That’s a bold move. And it’s cool how Carissa has gained confidence in those areas she was less certain of before.

We heard Carissa refer to her values and her why over and over again. This is key to building a thriving studio and Carissa shared some of the ways clarifying these things have influenced important changes in her studio. In the course, we work the business from two angles. We start with the why and identify core values and put together a grand vision for our studio long term.

This could be a thriving solo studio, like Carissa, a multier school, a co-op or some other business model. Then we work the numbers and test different scenarios to see how we can bring those visions to reality. I also loved how Chrissa brought her why into her communication with studio parents, as a way of framing the conversations about the changes she was implementing.

This is one of those episodes to keep around for inspiration the next time you’re facing one of those potentially intimidating conversations with a studio parent. Now, I’ve also had the privilege of working with Carissa in a mastermind for the last quarter. And I could not release this episode without bragging about one of her new projects.

As a teacher, she has a real gift for combining technique and theory in a way that’s fun and meaningful for her students. She’s been putting her own method down on paper and video, which is awesome for two reasons. First, now we can all learn her ways. And second, this is not just another theory or technique book. Carissa has designed a curriculum and video series to be a supplement or extension of lesson time.

So students come for their regular lesson and then get to go home and have this additional lesson every week. Carissa did this because she realized she was spending a lot of time and lessons teaching the same thing over and over, and she wanted to free up the lesson time, but still has the students get good instruction for these topics. While solving the problem for herself, carissa also solved it for all of. I’m just gushing now, but truly this is going to be a huge time saver for teachers and value add for students. I’ll have links to Carissa’s sample content in the show notes and of course the link to enroll in Business Building 101. If you’re looking for clarity and confidence like Carissa, check it out today at

The next live cohort will be starting next week, so don’t wait to enroll. That’s all for today. Thanks for listening. I’ll be back next week.

Previous Episode
Transcript Mini Interview: Scarlette Kerr on Professionalizing a Private Piano Studio
Next Episode
Transcript 098 – Karen Thickstun on Fundraising