So it’s finally happened.
You’ve got your very first piano student and things are about to get real.
It doesn’t matter whether that first student is a friend of the family, a relative or a total stranger, you will still most likely be feeling a little overwhelmed. You have so much knowledge to impart onto your new students, so many things you want to get across – how can you possibly do it all?
Remember, all new piano teachers make mistakes, and that is totally okay. But, to help you get started on the right path, here are 5 things I wish I was told when I started teaching piano. Hopefully my experiences can help you!
I remember clearly one of my first students, her name was Beth, and she was the youngest daughter of one of my mum’s tennis mates, from memory she was around 10 years of age and I was just out of school, aged 17 years old, but heading off to Melbourne Conservatorium.
I remember having so much I wanted to get her to know and understand, so much I wanted her to be able to play, but guess what? She only wanted to play her latest favourite tune. It was either something from TV or the movie’s or on the radio.
Was she interested in drilling technical exercises, mastering her scales, completing theory worksheets or curving each finger ‘just so’ to get strength and control? Of course not.
If you get a student or parent telling you at the outset that they just want to learn for fun, then you need to listen. Adapt your expectations to meet the student’s expectations or the end result is one less piano student for you.
Every new student deserves your full attention when you ask them, and you should ask and keep asking them, ‘what do you want to achieve in learning the piano’ and ‘what do you want to be able to play?’
If they can’t answer either of those questions then it’s not always because they don’t care, it’s usually because they don’t know what the choices are or can’t articulate it. If this happens, then it’s time to experiment and keep the discussion open to find out what gets them excited.
Does this mean you have to kick technique, theory, ear training and the like out of the door? Of course not! Does it mean you need to adapt your focus to meet the student’s needs? Absolutely.
The same principle can be applied to the administration of lessons as well. You should be clear at the start with your lesson policies regarding makeups, lateness, payment, illness, cancellations and so forth so that all your students know your expectations and have no excuse to say it’s not what they expected!
Another one of my early students was Sarah. I used to travel to her home and teach her, her sister and a school friend straight after a busy day at university.
I remember wondering why although her mum always told me that she practised regularly at home most weeks that it took weeks and weeks to get each piece we were studying anywhere close to finished. Getting the last few details of dynamics, articulation and so forth seemed to take forever!
Over the years I saw this phenomenon over and over again and it dawned on me that although I knew what I wanted the piece to sound like with every little detail exactly correct, that Sarah (and other students like her) really didn’t care about perfection like I did. It wasn’t as if every piece was needed for a concert or an exam or some other performance opportunity, but rather that they needed to learn lots of music to a good standard and then move on.
Demanding perfection can quickly kill enjoyment as boredom replaces the joy of achievement quite quickly.
Learn when to know enough is enough and move on. If practise is decreasing and the same mistakes are being repeated each week despite careful lesson time and work, then it’s time for the talk.
Are you getting tired of this piece of music? Do you need a change?
If the answer is yes and there is still work to complete the piece, I will however usually make a point of discussing what could still be added or improved so if the student decided to return to working on the piece, there is no misunderstanding about the level they have achieved.
Regardless of how much you enjoyed or benefitted from your lessons, not everyone learns the same way.
It’s natural for you to want to teach your students the way you learnt, but there have been so many advances in education, understanding of how the brain works, and so many new resources available through technology and teacher’s sharing resources and ideas. Why use a method that is probably outdated now?
Certainly learn from it, but research and observe current teaching methods, resources and styles before you settle into your routine. Don’t forget to keep experimenting, researching and updating – we live in a time of change!
Just don’t do it so much you create a headache for yourself by having to spend hours planning every single lesson. Develop a rhythm for each lesson, organise a set of resources and keep it fresh.
My teacher simply pointed me to The Leila Fletcher Method book and said ‘use that one!’ and as far as I recall that was what I started with myself. I soon found that many students struggled with how the concepts were delivered, and that there were so many other activities that we should be doing in a lesson. That’s when I started building my teaching library. I bought lots of different method books and beginner music and resources and tried them with different students.
It was incredibly helpful to be able to jump into my library when a student needed something different, or something not so challenging or whatever and find something to suit. My library still lines a whole wall of my studio.
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If you were asked to write down every different practise strategy you have ever used, how long would it take you? I actually tried it once and found that I had to keep coming back to my list and expanding it with strategies I hadn’t remembered the first time I made the list.
The list ended up really long (and messy!) filling one and a half pages of ideas, and that was without the detail of how each strategy should be executed.
So how did I learn all these strategies? Some would have been trial and error, some from my piano teacher, some from other instrumental teachers, choir or ensemble directors I had the privilege of studying with over many many years of study on multiple instruments.
Goodness knows what young students think when they hear their teacher say to them, ‘Take this music home practise it’, for that very first time!
As teachers, we have as much responsibility to instruct our students with correct and appropriate content, as we do in helping them know what to do with that musical content. Remember, your students are only with you for up to an hour a week (if you’re lucky). Provide them with the knowledge of how to practise on those six days a week when they don’t see you.
My advice to every new teacher is to be prepared to repeatedly explain, simplify and adapt those practise strategies to suit each student so they learn how to practise and what the process means.
It’s exciting and fun when your student starts to ‘get’ the piece and you want to just keep working a few more minutes…you don’t have anyone to teach after them, so why not?
And then next time, you want to make sure they’ve really understood how to construct that chord progression and need just a few more minutes to really satisfy you.
It’s often the best students who we want to keep adding those extra minutes to, but it can also be the ones that are struggling who need that bit of extra time. You know that spending those extra 10 minutes doing an iPad note reading game will help them be motivated to do it at home, or that new piece will work better if you just go over it with them another time…
So what’s wrong with being generous? In so many ways nothing at all! But it also means you are undervaluing yourself, and not looking after you first and foremost.
The number of piano teachers who suffer ‘burn out’ is high. It’s not just the administration that goes with teaching, its the generosity of giving those extra few minutes over and over again. It’s these extra hours of correcting theory outside of lessons, organising duet music, planning concerts, competitions, workshops, parties that can sap your energy and enthusiasm.
Worst of all though is when you finally manage to finish your lesson on time and the parent or student makes a comment about how ‘short the lesson seems now’, or they ask if you can just go over that piece a few more times.
Over many years of employing teachers, I’ve had to make a point of asking teachers to not be generous regularly as I have had several instances over the years where a student has moved teachers, or a teacher has changed and they complain that they are getting short lessons, when actually they are getting exactly what they are supposed to get.
The moral of this one is that of course your students will love you for making sure they get great value from their lessons, and that if occasionally you give them a few extra minutes they should value that also. But do it regularly and it becomes an expectation they require and you have just given yourself an unnecessary burden.
What do you wish you were told when you started teaching piano? Leave your experiences in the comments section below.