6 Mistakes I Made When I Started Teaching Piano

We’re all still learning. Even the best teachers who have been teaching piano for decades will tell you that you will never stop learning. And that’s great, because it means we’re always trying to better ourselves, even if we make mistakes along the way.

I want to get personal and share the top six mistakes I made when I first started teaching piano so that:

  • You can learn from my mistakes (and hopefully avoid making them yourself!)
  • Teachers can see that mistakes are an important part of any learning process
  • You stop putting yourself down if you do something “wrong” (we’re only human)

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Table Of Contents

  1. How Mistakes Can Turn You Into A Better Piano Teacher
  2. Mistake 1- Worried About Teaching Piano ‘The Right Way’
    2.1 Is There Even A ‘Right Way’?
    2.2 What Happens If I Teach In ‘The Wrong Way’?
    2.3 The Benefits of Master Classes for Piano Teachers
  3. Mistake 2- I Didn’t Start Teaching From A Chordal Perspective
    3.1 Why You Should Teach From A Chordal Perspective
  4. Mistake 3- I Compartmentalised Different Musical Elements In Piano Lessons
  5. Mistake 4- I Was Afraid To Let Students Know I Didn’t Know Everything
  6. Mistake 5- I Was Teaching Piano Lessons Around An Exam Syllabus
    6.1 Why You Should Rethink Teaching To An Exam Syllabus
  7. Mistake 6- I Didn’t Make Sight-Reading A Focus
  8. What Mistakes Have YOU Made?
Quote about how mistakes help us learn when teaching piano

How Mistakes Can Turn You Into A Better Piano Teacher

Teaching is a learning curve for both yourself and your students. Whether you’re an absolute beginner giving your first ever piano lesson, or if you’ve been in the profession for years, you will always be faced with new challenges.

And that’s great. Exciting even!

Whenever you are trying to develop or improve yourself in any area, mistakes are a natural part of the journey. Whether that’s trying a new method, or learning a hard piece, you’ll make mistakes.

And that’s totally cool. What matters is how you use those mistakes to grow.

Mistake 1- Worried About Teaching Piano ‘The Right Way’

When I started teaching piano, I was always wondering whether I was doing things the way teachers are supposed to, asking myself questions like:

  • Is this the right method to use?
  • Is this the best way to teach note reading?
  • Should my students be holding their wrists higher when they play the piano?
  • Are my students making good progress compared to other teachers’ students?
  • Should I be telling my younger students to practice more?

Questioning yourself is the natural reaction when you start something new. When you’re new to something and committed to doing the best job possible, you’re going to doubt yourself. A lot. Even worse if you’re a perfectionist!

Questioning yourself, however, is a mistake. While it’s important to question your practices and always try to develop and refine them, worrying constantly about them can become debilitating and distract you from your core purpose: sharing your love of music with other people.

Is There Even A ‘Right Way’?

Keep in mind: there often isn’t a ‘right way’ to teach! The ‘Russian School’ of teaching, for example, is very different to other European schools and what they might be doing in America or Australia. Sure, there are some common pedagogical tactics (keeping fingers in a naturally curved shape, for example), but a lot of other things are open to interpretation.

Finding out the ‘right way’ to teach piano comes down to trial and error (and reading and research.) Many piano teachers are self-taught or have limited training before they teach their first lesson. Other teachers, however, like me, may have been mentored by an older teacher, providing them with an insight into good habits of an effective teacher. Some teachers will even have been pedagogy majors in University, studying the best ways to teach students. But sometimes, no matter how prepared or underprepared you are, finding the best way to teach for you can be a daunting task.

Recommended: 5 things I wish I was told when I started teaching piano…

Quote about teaching piano via creativity

What Happens If I Teach In ‘The Wrong Way’?

Unless you’re recommending piano students should start practicing on a cliff edge or encouraging them to play the piano with one hand in a power socket, the worst that can happen to them is that they don’t progress as fast as they could, they get into some bad habits or at very worst, they experience pain.

All of these conditions are solvable, and while I’d never advocate teaching in a way that causes pain (!), improving your skills in these areas is just a matter of further research and with time and commitment, you’ll improve and refine your approach.

Don’t let your worry about providing the “perfect” piano lessons cloud your ability to get on with the job of inspiring your piano students. As long as you’re alert to possible issues in your piano lessons, you can find the solutions you need.

The Benefits of Master Classes for Piano Teachers

One of the best sources for learning more about how to teach piano lessons is to watch master classes, either live or on YouTube. The Masterclass Media Foundation is just one of many organisations that centre around this style of learning which is perfect for piano teachers.

As music teachers, we’re lucky, in that we can watch other piano teachers in action. History teachers would find it hard to watch other history teachers in action as master classes aren’t a common part of history instruction. For me, master classes are about my own professional development just as much as my piano students.

Quote about teaching piano using master classes

Mistake 2- I Didn’t Start Teaching From A Chordal Perspective

Surprisingly, chords were not a main focal point of lessons when I first started teaching piano. It was only after years of giving piano lessons that I realised the importance of chords in beginner piano lessons. I’m sure this will be a shock to those of you who have been following me for a while or have heard me speak at conferences!

When I first started teaching beginner piano lessons, like many teachers, I taught students that “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” (the rhyme we use to learn the notes on the treble clef here in Australia) and assumed that straight-out note reading was the best learning style.

I now know that this is far from optimal.

Why You Should Teach From A Chordal Perspective

The best place to start teaching is via creativity and exploration and educating about the chordal foundations of music from the first few lessons.

Every piece of music, all your students’ favorite songs (excluding atonal/serial compositions) are based on a harmonic structure derived from chords. As a result of not explicitly teaching beginners about chords from the very start, you are missing the best opportunity you have to deepen their understanding of music from day 1. 

I like to teach like a guitarist. If students learn how to play the I, IV and V chords in a few basic white keys they will be able to sound like pros in the first few weeks of lessons! Not only that, but they are also gaining an understanding of how music is composed and structured, all while having fun on their new instrument.

If you’re unsure about how to do this, I have created a 10-week chord teaching framework that is available in the TopMusicPro community.

You can grab the first 3 complete lesson plans for only US$6.99.

Oh, and students love it!

Mistake 3- I Compartmentalised Different Musical Elements In Piano Lessons

Separating individual parts of a comprehensive music education never works. If you try and fit aural, theory, sight-reading, general knowledge (and more!) into a 30-minute lesson time, you’ll never get there.

Instead, you must make connections between all these areas with every piano student, in every piano lesson, consistently. How?

  • Talk about the form of a piece as you’re learning it and explain the chord functions and cadences
  • Discuss the composer, their background and the title before you begin even playing the piano
  • Make sure they can sing part of the melody or bass line of their songs and incorporate sight-reading as much as possible
  • Dissect the harmony and explore the main rhythmic elements
  • Teach and learn new songs by working out the ingredients used in its composition

Not sure how to approach this kind of teaching? I discuss this method in-depth in podcast episode 9 with Paul Harris: TTTV009: Paul Harris on Simultaneous Learning

Making musical connections is one of the most fundamental aspects of becoming a skilled pianist, so it goes without saying that you should teach in this way as much as possible.

Quote about teaching piano and making connections

Mistake 4- I Was Afraid To Let Students Know I Didn’t Know Everything

Times have moved on from when teachers were the people who knew everything and students were empty vessels that needed filling up with information. In some places this might still be the case, but many piano teachers are now realising that the internet and technology are making the role of teachers more and more redundant.

The value of a teacher is now as a guide and mentor, not as a know-all.

As a beginner teacher, I was often worried about what students would think if I didn’t know an answer. I also thought piano lessons would not run smoothly if I made mistakes in front of students. This is understandable given that I was also questioning my own abilities!

I now know, of course, that this is a mistake.

Students don’t mind if you don’t know every answer. In fact, they’ll enjoy the fact that you admit it and might need to jump online for help during a lesson.

Assuming that you know the basics of music, have confidence in your piano playing ability, and are already a competent teacher, this is totally OK!

Remember that you should be learning things just as much as your students are learning new things every day. Life would be no fun without challenging your own knowledge!

Be open to failure and being unsure, even if it’s in front of your students.

Mistake 5- I Was Teaching Piano Lessons Around An Exam Syllabus

In Australia and the UK (and no doubt other areas of the world), music education can easily become fixated on examinations. Lessons can follow the structure of:

  1. Prepare pieces required for an exam
  2. Sit the exam
  3. Start learning the music required for the next level
  4. Repeat until a student has finished all exams and therefore knows how to play the piano

This is a method of teaching piano lessons used by many around the world.

A really bad method.

Many of the first piano students I started teaching when I was a beginner were already in the exam system, so I continued this way until I realised how anti-music it can be.

Read my post: Why working to exams is anti-piano for a deeper discussion about my views on this.

Of course, I’m not saying that music exams are bad. The mistake is to base your piano lessons around an exam syllabus and use the syllabus like a curriculum. 

As ABRSM Executive Director Tim Arnold says in Podcast 17,

“…an exam is only part of your toolkit and if you were to only learn three exam pieces a year, you would only have scratched the surface of music over an 8-9 year period”.

We want our students to do much more than just scratch the surface of music, right?

Why You Should Rethink Teaching To An Exam Syllabus

I’m sure other piano teachers are like me, and want piano students to leave the studio feeling accomplished. Becoming a skilled pianist means exploring a huge variety of music, both written and composed, in heaps of styles and through a process that involves lots of creativity. You can’t achieve that through only sticking to an exam syllabus year after year.

Quote about teaching piano and mistakes being an important part

If you are making this mistake now, I urge you to stop and re-think your teaching methods for next year:

  • Piano students shouldn’t sit an exam until they are already playing a number of pieces (minimum of 10) comfortably at that level. That way, the exam becomes a true assessment of ability. Not just a hurdle that students can only just get over (before they just do it again).
  • Allow your students to explore and have fun while being creative and improvising, as well as learning written pieces in piano books
  • Students should be playing lots of music at all different levels of difficulty while they prepare for exams (see my post about Ben learning 75 pieces!).
  • Different exam boards will suit different students so check out my podcast episodes and look for the ones about exam boards if you’re interested

If you’ve been caught in the exam cycle trap, make next year your year to get out of it. I guarantee your students will thank you for it.

If parents are on your back, you need to educate them about the merits of a broad-based music curriculum in the piano studio. Ask them if they want their child to pass exams or learn to love music.

And if you haven’t made this mistake: well done and keep up the great work!

Mistake 6- I Didn’t Make Sight-Reading A Focus

When I first started teaching, I didn’t give much thought to sight-reading. When it comes to playing piano, I have always been a good sight-reader so I assumed that my students would be too. It wasn’t until after quite a few lessons that I realised that this was far from true.

Whether your student is an absolute beginner or a concert-level performer, they should be sight-reading all the time. As a pianist, you know it’s one of the most important skills a musician can develop. And as a piano teacher, it’s your responsibility to guide and encourage them to understand the importance and to work on improvement.

Quote about teaching piano and not letting worry cloud your ability

I’d say that around 90% of the students that I come into contact with (my own students, when examining, at master classes, etc.), struggle with this key skill. I now make sight reading the focus of the start of every lesson with every student.

Just allocate 3-5 minutes during their piano lesson to get your student practicing their sight-reading skills. This will help them understand how to sight-read both in private lessons and on work you set them to do over the week.

When it comes to my preferred lesson book for sight-reading, I like using the Piano Adventures sight-reading books. They’re structured in a week-by-week format, and they also introduce and practice ideas in an intervallic and chordal manner which suits how I like to teach.

What mistakes have YOU made?

I’d love for you to share your biggest mistake as a beginner piano teacher.

What would you like other young teachers to avoid?

Please leave your thoughts below.

If you’re a new teacher looking to get off to a great start to your teaching career, why not check out my new course on ensuring your studio is set up to succeed?