This article on a piano teacher’s guide to transfer students originally appeared in Piano Bench Mag issue 44, reprinted with permission.
Transfer students. We’ve all experienced them at one time or another. Maybe you have a few in your studio right now. Or if you’re like me, perhaps you were a transfer student at one time.
Actually, I was a piano transfer student twice. My first transfer was in 3rd grade when my family moved from Pennsylvania to Tennessee. I was lucky and found another amazing teacher in my new town, and since I was only eight years old, switching piano teachers wasn’t a big deal.
When I was thirteen years old, my family moved back to Pennsylvania. This was a pretty difficult transition for me (moving at that age is tough!), and sadly my new teacher was never able to reach me as a student.
After giving my new piano teacher the “moody teen treatment” for about a year and a half, I’m embarrassed to admit that I ended up quitting for a couple of years.
Let’s face it: connecting with a transfer student can take some effort, but connecting with a teen transfer student can sometimes feel downright impossible.
Having been through this issue on both sides of the bench, I came up with a few tips for my fellow teachers when it comes to connecting (and thriving) with teenage transfer students:
Step 1: Identify the Reason(s) for Change
Questions about why a student is transferring can feel awkward, but over the years, I’ve found it more productive to address this issue from day one. When a parent or student first approaches me about transferring into the studio, I always make sure to ask them about their previous experience.
Easy questions might include: How long has Samantha been taking lessons? What kind of repertoire has she played in the past?
And then there are the harder questions: What kind of changes are you hoping to make as you start with a new teacher? Or if you have a teen who’s new in town, What sort of things did you really love about your old lessons?
Sometimes these questions can throw people off a bit, but I still make sure to ask them. Why? Because I want to be able to identify the needs of my incoming students. If we can pinpoint the changes that they want to see or what they loved about piano lessons before, then I can start lesson planning with those ideas in mind.
(Notice that I didn’t suggest asking the parent/student why they quit lessons. It’s not about why they’re quitting—it’s about the new goals that they want to achieve with you.)
Step 2: Build That Relationship
Student/teacher rapport is especially important during the teenage years and doubly important for transfer students. Whether your student is a new kid on the block or if they’re coming from another local teacher, your relationship needs to be a priority.
It can be tempting to jam-pack your new student’s lessons so full of activities, demonstrations, and information that there is little room left for any conversation or exchange.
Believe me, I get it. As the “new” teacher, we want to impress them and send our students and parents home with a sense of value from their new investment. Sometimes that means we go a bit overboard.
Just remember: don’t get so wrapped up in wowing your transfer that you forget to get to know them.
Set aside lesson time to build your relationship. Talk about how their day was, chat about their activities outside of piano, or ask them what kinds of music or movies they’ve been into lately.
This isn’t just about being friendly: building rapport with your student is a crucial step when it comes to creating an effective learning environment. By spending time on developing your relationship, you will help your student to become more receptive and better focused on what you want to teach them.
Step 3: Keep a Balanced (and Respectful) Approach with Piano Transfer Students
Does this scenario sound familiar? After a decent stretch of lessons, you find out that your transfer teen doesn’t quite understand something that you consider to be a basic music skill. You immediately go into “knowledge gap-filling mode” and spend the entire lesson drilling technical or theory exercises.
Sure, it’s our job to teach, but remember that teens are super sensitive to social evaluation (much more so than children or adults). If you draw too much attention to their knowledge gaps, you run the risk of insulting either your student or their former teacher, neither of which will be productive.
So even though your eyebrows might want to jump off your forehead when you discover that your student doesn’t know how to construct a major chord, just do your best to keep your surprise in check. The last thing your transfer teen wants to hear during every lesson is “I can’t believe your old teacher didn’t teach you how to play double octave scales.”
Keep a balanced approach. Help your students learn the skills that you feel they need, but don’t get fixated on bringing them up to speed with your other students.
Remember to spend time working on their strengths as well as helping them improve their weaknesses!
Related: Find our transfer student checklist, plus repertoire and methods specifically for teens in our Teens & Transfer Teaching Toolkit course, available in TopMusicPro membership.
You’ve Got This
Even though it can sometimes be a challenge to take on piano transfer students, trust me when I say that the time you spend investing in their education will be well worth it. Some of my favourite students started taking lessons with me as teens. (And one of my favourite piano teachers was someone who took me on as a transfer student when I was almost seventeen years old.)
Whether your transfer teen is returning to lessons after a break, coming to you from another teacher, or if they’ve just moved into town… I wish you all the best. Get to know one another, have fun learning together, and good luck.