A Creative Piano Teaching Activity to Encourage Productive Practice

A Creative Piano Teaching Activity to Encourage Productive Practice

Silly Mistakes and How to Get Rid of Them!

Hi there, my name is Melody, and I am a piano teacher from New Zealand.

I have a studio of about 40 students, with a wide range of ages and abilities, and on the whole are an absolute pleasure to teach. I have been building the studio across the last 10 years with an aim to cultivate a balance between work ethic and creativity in my students as well as modelling these traits within my own teaching.

Most students practice at least six days a week and learn large numbers of pieces per year. Beginner students complete 80-100 pieces a year, and intermediate students complete 30-50 pieces a year depending on their level of playing. I think it is safe to say my students are all passionate about learning new music!

Read more: How Ben learnt 75  pieces in a single year

One of the biggest challenges I face as a teacher with students working on a lot of new repertoire is that many students attempt to learn a little too fast, getting caught up in the excitement and novelty of learning new music each week.

The consequence of this is we end up spending a lot of the lesson time pointing out the mistakes the students have made in their learning. Silly, clumsy mistakes they can absolutely avoid if more care was taken in their practice.

Some common note learning mistakes include: not noticing rests, wrong notes and rhythms (in seemingly straight-forward pieces), blatantly ignoring simple articulation and musical directions and so on.

Furthermore, because the students are eager practicers, when they have learnt something incorrectly and practiced it incorrectly for an entire week, the well-practiced mistakes have sunk in so well in their memories that it takes us a painstakingly long time to correct them.

Creative Piano Teaching

Being a teacher who believes the best changes come from the individuals themselves, I wanted to find a creative piano teaching exercise to encourage the students to be more mindful when learning new notes, not because I asked them to, but because they wanted to.

With all going to plan, we can then use the valuable lesson time to improve the more creative and enjoyable aspects of learning, adding character and expression to the music.

Sidestepping a little in May this year my husband and I got married in Wanaka, New Zealand. Prior to the big ‘send off’, we held a big party for all of our friends and family, and decided to get a Polaroid camera, photo props and a ton of Polaroid film cartridges for our friends and family to take pictures themselves throughout the entire event. It turns out we had grossly over-estimated the number of cartridges that were needed and had a number left over.

One day the idea came to me – I wonder if I can use the Polaroid camera and the colourful photo props to encourage students to be more accurate in their learning of new pieces?

More creative piano teaching help here: Five ways to get students to master rhythm

Student of the Week

Shortly afterwards, the Student of the Week Challenge was born.

The rules were simple: any student who learns their assigned piece(s) in one week, hands together, with correct notes and rhythm, gets their picture snapped holding two of their chosen photo props. We then stick the photos on a Student of the Week poster on the studio wall, so everyone who comes into the studio will be able to see their achievements!

Here is the poster I designed and printed:

Initially, I had no idea how many students would achieve the Student of the Week each week, and therefore how much the poster was going to get filled up. In fact, I was clueless as to whether the children of 2018 would even find Polaroid cameras cool!

 The power of 4 Chord Composing | Lesson plans you can use immediately

In week one of the school term, I explained to all the students in their lessons what the challenge is about, and gave them strict instructions to make sure they learn the piece carefully so they get their pictures snapped the next week. I also gave them tips on HOW to ensure they learn the correct material from the first day:

  • I will point out any tricky rhythms and notes in the lesson and make sure there are no confusions before they leave the lesson
  • I ask the student/parents to record me demonstrating the piece, and I ask the students to always go through the recording a couple of times before their practice so they know aurally what they are trying to achieve
  • Practice hands separately every day
  • Practice slowly every day

The things I am looking for the following week:

  • Correct notes, rhythms and fingering. Alternative fingering is OK, as long as it works.
  • Dynamics and articulation has been observed and added
  • A sense of the student has put in good work to complete the piece with good continuity. For the trickier and longer pieces (grade 4+), it is ok if they make some mistakes in their playing as long as I can see they have put in effort in learning the notes correctly. I also do not count the mistakes if they are caused by incorrect technique, as that is something I am happy to work on in the lesson.

As the weeks rolled around, the poster was filling up.

Students and parents are delighted to be a part of this experiment and we all get a giggle and a cheer when a student picks up the photo props and strike a cheeky pose! 

Related: Enjoying this blog post? Check out a huge catalogue of more than 140 podcasts episode on the Creative Piano Teaching Podcast.

Many students were absolutely enchanted by the ‘magic’ of the Polaroid camera. Some of them wouldn’t believe me when I told them the picture would appear after a few minutes. One even thought the Polaroid took a better picture than his mum’s iPhone, which his mum and I both found hilarious.

I was really impressed by the number of students that came in the following weeks with significantly more effort put into learning their pieces correctly, especially considering that in the past these same students would make a couple of unnecessary mistakes in every new piece they learnt.

Here are some more happy snaps:

The result…

At the end of the term, our poster was absolutely filled with cheerful portraits!

 Overall I am really happy with how this experiment went, and here are some thoughts on it at the end of this term:

  • The experiment did encourage the students to make an extra effort into their note learning, hopefully it will start to become a habit for the ‘clumsy’ students
  • An unexpected benefit – I noticed a few students started to play with more physical movement and expression, and I think it is a result of watching and modelling after my video demonstrations
  • Students and parents really enjoyed coming in each week to see if anyone they knew got onto the poster the previous week. Great week for them to connect with each other!
  • Would I do it again? I will probably use the same strategy in the future if I feel the students need a boost in any other areas of their learning – maybe sight reading next time?
  • Downside: this experiment can be costly. It comes down to be about $1 per picture, even if the cartridges are purchased in bulk.

Hopefully, this post brought you some inspiration or at least a grin. Happy teaching!


Are you after more creative piano teaching ideas? Tim’s Inner Circle is a place to connect with like-minded teachers and get access to courses and training modules, with new ones released regularly.

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Melody Deng

Melody completed a Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance with First Class Honours in Studio Pedagogy under the tutelage of Rae de Lisle. It was during this time she became fascinated with the different pedagogical approaches in piano teaching. She researched the pedagogy of piano technique extensively and presented her findings through a series of seminars at the University of Auckland. Melody’s current area of research interest is the teaching of musical expression. She dedicated her Masters research to finding strategies and processes used to foster expressive abilities in students. Melody runs a vibrant studio on Auckland’s Northshore, where she is passionate about inspiring and motivating piano students of the 21st Century with a creative and holistic approach.

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