Keeping young piano students on focus in group lessons can be a challenge.
Read through to the bottom to download Tim Topham’s 20 Creative Ways to Start a Piano Lesson handout to help motivate and inspire your young students.
Young learners (ages 3-5) are an absolute pleasure to teach…most of the time!
They can have their moments and we can have our moments of feeling like we have lost them. However there are steps we can take to ensure that group lessons remain as fun and enjoyable for everyone as they should be.
All young piano students in your room come to your lesson having had different experiences at home and school, different joys, different anxieties and different responses to you.
It is a wonder we manage to meet all of their needs just with regards to their emotional and behavioural responses, let alone attending to their different piano-learning needs.
But with experience and a few carefully thought-out considerations, we are able to manage the minefield.
Attention span has to be a big consideration when planning and delivering your lessons, but every young piano student has a different attention span.
I have seen 3-year olds with relatively long attention spans and 5-year olds with attention spans that last 10 seconds.
Whatever the length of attention of your young piano student, it is important to remember that it is always going to be shorter than you would expect and it might be longer one week than it is the next.
Therefore planning for a quick-paced lesson is essential.
You will need to be adaptable too.
There might be one task that you thought would keep their attention for a little while that ends up not (this happens with listening tasks in my lessons!), and conversely another task that you thought might be quick that in fact they are really taken by and spend longer on than you had anticipated; be flexible and adjust to the situation.
As well as considering pace in your planning, changing up the activities that you plan is essential.
Have a structure that the children become accustomed to (managing their expectations is a big factor here).
For example, I start all my lessons on the carpet with some singing, a finger-number game, then we make a floor piano with laminates and place pom-poms on the note that is our focus that week.
Then we will move to the main piano, find the focus note and play a couple of games at the piano such as an improvisation game or clapping.
I will then introduce what it is I would like them to be doing at the keyboards and they go to practice. They only need 5-10 minutes on the keyboard (and any longer will lead to off-task behaviour) and then we will perform to and with each other.
Finally we end up back on the carpet with some bubbles or puppet or something else relating to finger exercises and hand posture.
So we have moved around the room a number of times and they have moved, listened, played, seen and sung; some of those activities several times.
This is essential to ensuring your young piano students feel positive about the lesson and about their place in the class.
If you are asking children to do something that is beyond their skill-set they will become anxious and stressed, and will likely ‘misbehave’.
It is also important to challenge those that have achieved the task with ease.
In other words you need to have several versions of the piece/task that you are doing; one for support if the main piece is too challenging, the main piece itself, and one (or more!) for those that need a more difficult challenge.
This refers to the wonderful world of differentiation and is an area that is perhaps the most important of all when you are planning your group lessons.
Podcast Episode: Piano teaching games for beginner students with Nicola Cantan
Even with pace, changes in activity and appropriate challenge, there will be times when you need to get the attention of the children back to you.
This area of teaching is something that is very personal to each teacher. Some love to clap a rhythm, which the children clap back, some may sing a song such as “Everybody listening, listening, listening, everybody listening, listening please” or a saying such as “hands on top, that means stop” (children join with the second part).
Some even like a tambourine. Whatever it is you use, make sure, at the very start of their learning journey with you, that the children understand what the response is to your prompt.
Go through your expectations and even practice them so that they understand exactly what to do.
Some teachers are incredibly skilled at getting the attention of the class solely with physical gestures, putting their hands on their heads and children copying, continuing with various gestures until all the children have joined the copying.
Again, make sure they know what your expectations are here.
This is of course key to a positive and happy classroom; we are sometimes drawn to pointing out what someone is doing wrong, whether it be hand position, or not singing with everyone else etc.
But magic happens when you point out when someone is doing something right;“oh wow I love the way that Olivia is using her finger 1 on the C”. Suddenly you’ll find that everyone makes an effort to do just that!
Praising effort is also essential in order to build a learning environment in which everyone is able to succeed. Trying not to over-praise or praising disingenuously is also key.
Children are extremely skilled in spotting this and it means your praise is less meaningful and doesn’t warrant the respect that it should.
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Children are often keen to give you their backstory. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s great; it means they are building a relationship with you and are keen for you to nurture it by getting to know them.
However, it is important not to let their stories take over the lesson. For some classes I take a register and I say hello to each child and allow them this opportunity to tell me some news.
What they love is if you remember their news from week to week: “I remember last week you told me you were going for your first gymnastics class, how did It go?!” .
Don’t be worried about going off-task for a little bit of the lesson in this way as it will help the children to build that lovely dynamic that can be built in a group lesson.
Okay, so we all have times when we have lost the class.
I remember one such occasion myself where my class had just had wet play; in other words they hadn’t been able to run outside, and as a result they were very energetic (hyperactive!).
There might be a need to abandon your plan completely and stick to tasks that they can manage calmly such as colouring or writing down rhythms: something where they can focus on only themselves and not having to co-ordinate with lots of other children.
Something else I love to do is to have a picture book in my armour. Children are very well-versed in sitting and listening to a story and sometimes it helps just to get everyone’s attention back on you, plus stories are amazing at calming children down.
In extreme cases you may need to take some extreme measures.
What you do here will depend on your set-up.
Where children are finding it difficult to treat the instruments with respect, perhaps they will need to come off it for a short time (you could use a sand timer so they can see exactly how long this will last) or, if parents are waiting outside, you could take them out and ask them to come back when they feel able to join in.
These are for use in extreme circumstances but once you have done it once, you are unlikely to have to do it again. If you do have to continue to use extreme measures it is probably time to ask yourself (and the parents) whether the child is actually ready for such a learning set-up.
It is essential not to ever let this behaviour continue without any consequences, otherwise it will spiral. However with all of the initial suggestions in place, it would hopefully rarely come to this!
Are you looking to explain the benefits of a creative education to piano parents? Download Tim Topham’s ‘Open Letter to Parents of Piano Students’.
To conclude, this age group can be completely wonderful to teach, as long as they are teachable.
Plan for adaptability in pace, activity-type, and level of challenge, build a positive learning environment and a nurturing relationship with the children, and be consistent and clear with your expectations and you will be ensuring that they are indeed a pleasure to teach.
If you have read this blog post, you might be interested in downloading Tim Topham’s 20 Creative Ways to Start a Piano Lesson.
This will give you 20 great ways to surprise your piano students the next time they walk into your studio.
Instead of the dreaded, ‘So, did you practice?’ question, give them one of these creative tasks. Just click on the button below to download.