Engaging Intermediate Students With An Integrated Approach

Engaging Intermediate Students With An Integrated Approach

Engaging intermediate students can be a challenge. They’ve finished their method books, and they’ve moved into the big wide world of intermediate repertoire.

They’re also highly likely to be of an age where the piano is battling for attention against school clubs and other extra-curricular activities. Keeping students engaged and interested is vital in retaining them and helping them reach the advanced level.

But how can you do that?

Janna Williamson, an expert teacher, has shared some great tips for us!

Table Of Contents:

  1. Who Is Janna Williamson?
  2. A Quick Note About Theory
  3. Basic Areas of Intermediate Curriculum
  4. Intermediate Students Learn Best When…
  5. Engage Your Intermediate Students With Connections
  6. ‘Key’ Connection
  7. Connecting Traditional Repertoire And Pop Songs
  8. Accompaniment Exploration
  9. Sounds Interesting
  10. Connections in Practice
  11. Connections = Engagement = Goals

Who Is Janna Williamson?

Janna Williamson is TopMusic’s Intermediate Repertoire Specialist. You can find her in the TopMusicPro membership in her Piece By Piece series, where she breaks down how to teach intermediate repertoire to your students. This includes how to teach your students to teach beautifully, with expression, and how to navigate technical demands.

When it comes to teaching intermediate-level students, Janna knows her stuff!

A Quick Note About Theory

Theory knowledge should be infused into every part of intermediate students’ curriculum.

Theory is the glue that binds everything together.

The following integrated teaching tips are shared with the assumption that theory will be discussed and understood in every activity.

Many teachers with a theory background comment how they were never taught how to combine theory with practice. They were taught theory away from the piano. It wasn’t related to their repertoire so it became boring.

When theory isn’t used to help with music and is instead presented as a separate entity, students can lose interest.

Integrated teaching allows students to combine theory with their repertoire and make connections. This engages students as their theory knowledge and practical skills slot together like a puzzle. They begin to see the bigger musical picture.

Related: The Art of Keeping Music Theory Fun and Engaging

theory knowledge should be infused into every part of intermediate students' curriculum

Basic Areas of Intermediate Level Curriculum

The four basic areas of intermediate level curriculum are:

  1. Technique
    This is the movement we make with our bodies to make sound on our instruments. Everything we do, from sitting position to arm movements.
    Technique is also scales, arpeggios, and chords.
  2. Repertoire
    The pieces your students are learning.
  3. Creative skills
    Improvisation and composition.
  4. Functional skills
    Lead sheets, sight reading, accompanying, chord chart playing.

Intermediate Students Learn Best When…

Intermediate students learn best when they:

  • Make connections across disciplines and different activities.
  • Apply theory (however basic) to the piece they’re learning – for instance, identifying scale patterns or chord patterns in their new piece.
  • Combine the basic areas of curriculum – for example, connecting their repertoire piece to creative activities or functional skills.
  • See connections to something else they’ve done – for example, another piano piece they’ve learned, a piece they played in band, or something non-musical like a topic covered in history at school.
  • Connect repertoire pieces to creative activities or functional skills – maybe they can use the chord progression they identify in their Sonatina in a composition.

Engage Your Intermediate Students With Connections

Intermediate-level students are usually at the age when they start questioning everything in life (that fun time of teenage discovery!) They want to know what’s in it for them. If they don’t see or understand the reasons and benefits, their engagement level starts sinking.

Bring back their engagement by explaining the “why” and helping them make connections.

If you ask a student to learn and practice their scales you may be met with a blank stare as they think, “That sounds like hard work. Why should I do that?”

But explaining and demonstrating why learning and practicing their scales will actually help them? Well, that’s a whole different thing.

If they can see that by doing (x) they’ll actually be quicker at (y), chances are, they’ll do it.

Understanding connections = improved engagement.

Related: Teaching Expression in Intermediate Historical Repertoire

‘Key’ Connection

If you know which repertoire piece your student will be moving on to next, there are a few activities you can do to prepare. Say that the key of the piece is D major. You could:

  1. Instruct your student to play through the D major scale, arpeggio, and chords that week to really solidify their understanding of the key.
  2. Ask your student to improvise a short piece in D major.
  3. Have your student improvise using the D major scale while you play an accompaniment. You could even swap roles and have them accompany you.
key connection

Connecting Traditional Repertoire And Pop Songs

  1. Find a 4-chord progression from a repertoire piece (many times, you’ll be able to find a 1 4 5 1 progression)
  2. Instead of playing it in the way it’s written in the repertoire piece, play it in a pop-song style (i.e. block chords)
  3. Discuss what you can do with that chord progression – different styles you could play it in to create different feelings and moods.
  4. Find a pop song with the same chord progression as your current repertoire piece (HookTheory is great for this sort of search)
  5. Find a lead sheet for the song.
connect traditional repertoire and pop songs

Accompaniment Exploration

  1. Pull out the accompanimental pattern from your student’s repertoire piece.
  2. Use this pattern in a new composition.
  3. Alternatively, they could use the pattern in an improvisation.
  4. Find a lead sheet or chord chart and use the accompanimental pattern underneath the melody.

This is particularly useful if a student is new to Alberti bass. It can be awkward when a student is first learning it, but if they’re practicing it more than once in different ways (in the repertoire piece and also in their own composition) then they become more comfortable with the pattern.

accompaniment exploration

Sounds Interesting

  1. Look through their repertoire piece and help them pick out an interesting harmonic moment or unexpected chord.
  2. Discuss what makes it interesting or surprising.
  3. Use this feature in their improvisation or composition activity.

Connections In Practice

Some teachers are more comfortable with making certain connections. Perhaps you’re a teacher who can see how to combine functional skills with repertoire, but you draw a blank when it comes to creative activities.

Here’s a real-life specific example to show you in practice, using Chopin’s Waltz in A minor.

This piece is based on the same chord progression over and over again: A minor, D minor, G7, C.

  1. Improvisation: Have a conversation with your student about finding the chord progression. Find the chords. Find the inversions. Create an improvisation using that chord progression.
  2. Pop song lead sheet: Play through the chord progression and see if your student can think of any pop songs that use the same progression (use HookTheory to help). Find a lead sheet for one of the pop songs.
  3. Left-hand accompaniment: The main thing about this piece is that it uses a jump waltz bass. The low note of the chord is displaced by at least an octave. As this pattern comes up a lot in pieces from the Romantic era, you might want your students to become more comfortable moving all over the piano. One way is by finding a lead sheet and using that pattern in your arrangement of the piece.
    For example, you could use “Silent Night” from TopMusic’s Easy Christmas Lead Sheets free eBook and play the jump waltz bass in the left hand.

Connections = Engagement = Goals

Forming connections between repertoire and other skills not only helps the student with their pieces, but it also allows them to explore the world of music in creative ways. This helps retain their engagement and also helps you set goals for your intermediate students.

For example, by working on their compositional skills alongside their repertoire, a student may discover that they have a passion for music-making and would like to explore that avenue.

Or maybe playing from lead sheets and boosting a student’s chord knowledge has opened up the opportunity to play with other musicians in a band.

Setting goals and meaningful milestones for your intermediate students can be key in keeping them going through the “Intermediate Wildness” and we have something to help you with that!

Georgina Wilson

Georgina is a piano teacher who loves making learning fun and enjoyable for both the student and the teacher. She is often found pestering her cat or creating music resources for BusyLittleTurtle

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