We’ve spoken with teacher Janna Williamson about her favourite music lesson planning tips to set students up for the best possible experiences and outcomes. (Also strong planning is key to not be eaten alive by your preschool students!)
With these lesson planning tips from Janna, you can focus on being calm and present and avoid that stressed feeling of starting 8 lessons for the day without a full roadmap of where you’re headed.
First, a bit of background on Janna:
Janna Williamson runs an independent piano studio in the suburbs of Chicago and coaches piano teachers around the world. She has been an MTNA Nationally Certified Teacher of Music since 2004 and holds bachelor’s and master’s degrees in piano performance. Janna enjoys performing solo or collaboratively and can be heard throughout the Chicago area on a regular basis.
Her TopMusicPro series, Piece by Piece, equips teachers in how they can successfully present intermediate repertoire in their studios.
So here it is — in Janna’s words:
Let’s look at the benefits of good lesson planning. This really depends on how experienced you are as a teacher and what kinds of materials you’re using.
For instance, I’ve been teaching professionally for 20 years now. And when I was first starting out, I didn’t have first-hand experience yet with all the material, even though I’d taken pedagogy classes. I did have a good sense of which materials I wanted to use, though, and why, due to studying the elementary beginner methods.
Still, when you’re starting out, you don’t yet know the intricacies of every single piece, and the way that various method books teach different technical concepts and all those sorts of details.
So for me, when I was younger, I did a little bit more with planning initially.
I taught group classes at a Yamaha Music School for many years, and I would make very detailed plans for those groups. It’s especially needed when you’re working with young children aged four to five.
With those ages, you don’t have any room to not know what you’re doing. (I always joke that preschoolers can smell fear.)
So, if you aren’t sure of how you want that lesson to go and what your pacing is going to be with students in a group format, it won’t go as well as if you’re pretty clear on what you want to do upfront.
When teaching private lessons, we have a lot more flexibility to tailor the lesson to the individual student. We can observe what the student has done throughout the week, to see if they were practising or not practising at home, and be more responsive to that.
At this stage in my teaching, I work with many intermediate level students. For these, there is not a lot of actual lesson planning required, such as writing down what I think I’m going to do for each lesson.
However, I like to keep all of my students’ assignments on a Google Doc. This gives you digital access to students’ assignment sheets throughout the week. You can then check in on which pieces they’re playing or about notes you’ve made to yourself. These can be checked anytime throughout the week. Then, on the morning of their lesson, pull up their assignment sheet so you can quickly have in mind what to do that day.
A note might look like, “Janna, be sure to introduce Burgmuller op. 100 no. 1 at next week’s lesson.”
At times, we have a studio-wide project happening, with everyone is working on themed work. Be sure to allow more dedicated planning time for these special projects.
For example, I sometimes make extra handwritten or digital notes, to explain how I want to do that project with each individual student.
I do spend a fair amount of extra time in repertoire planning. This is more challenging the more advanced your students get, particularly for early advanced students, and late intermediate ones as well.
For intermediate students, I often put them in intermediate repertoire collections. This way, you don’t have to plan every single piece of music.
You can rely on the grading and level of a good anthology from which to choose pieces. Once you’ve reached the tipping point of learning, and have accomplished as many in there as you wanted, you can move on to the next level or choose a different collection to use.
I would like to caution teachers not to actually be too rigid in their lesson planning. This is because we always want to have student-centred lessons.
Sometimes, for various reasons, the student may emotionally not be in a good state. They didn’t have a good practice week perhaps.
Or other happy reasons occur like your student arrived very excited about something new, and you had no forewarning of a spontaneous lesson plan change like this.
Being flexible in this instance is a gift. We want to be able to respond accordingly.
Here’s an example — I had a student last week bring in an arrangement of Pachelbel Canon in D. She found it online, printed it off, and played the whole thing for me without me knowing she had even begun working on it. So of course I wanted to spend time in that lesson working with her and helping her achieve an even higher level of ability on that particular piece.
When a student says I want to learn this, or hey, I brought this song in, then it starts my wheels turning and I think, hmm they’re really motivated by this particular style… I need to do future research and think about what else I can find for them that’s going to scratch that same itch.
It’s really a do-not to send a student home with no written record of what they’re supposed to do throughout the week. First of all, they won’t remember! (I wouldn’t remember if I were them either — there’s just too many things going on in my life!) So it’s really important to either handwrite or make notes in a digital app detailing what you want the student to do at home.
I am passionate that this should be extremely clear and detailed, and that it’s even more important actually at the elementary levels such as late elementary through mid intermediate.
Those are the real years where you truly learn to practice, and where you are dissecting a piece of music on a page, or learning the analytical tools, or an improvisation or composition project. It’s the teacher’s job to teach a student how to practice.
One tip is to create a massive toolbox of practice techniques, teach your students the titles or the names for those practice techniques, and then write them on their assignment sheet, which again I use as a Google Doc.
Example: Student, please work on measures 9 through 12, using the Seven Stages of Misery.
(If you don’t know what the Seven Stages of Misery is about, it’s borrowed from Philip Johnston’s book called The Practice Revolution.)
My students learn all these terms and then it’s not that I direct everything for them; I just write out their sheet. Instead of a dictatorial style of saying ‘You have to do this, this, and this’; I simply ask them, ‘Okay, let’s find the trouble spots. Let’s figure out what you’re going to practice this week.’
And then I ask them (once they have some vocabulary for this and we’ve worked on these things a bit): ‘What do you think would be some good practise strategies for this piece this week?’
We always take time to look at a new repertoire piece, whether it’s elementary level or intermediate or advanced. Take a good chance to look at it together.
You might perform the piece for them as an example, and then closely examine the score for sections to find what might be challenging.
Maybe the student picks out something that they think is going to be difficult that actually isn’t difficult and I can say, ‘Oh, good news, you’re really not going to struggle with that part, but you know what, many students have trouble over here instead.’
And then you ask the magic question: How will you practice this piece?
Then you can guide them through the process of figuring out if it’s a longer piece– how much they’re going to tackle in that first week, how they’re going to approach first practising this. Or if it’s contrapuntal they’re going to want to do some hands separately. And if it has broken chords you can label the chords and block through them. Then write those things down on their assignment sheet so they can remember what you talked about when they go home and be the most efficient that they can be for their age and their level of experience at this point in their study.
Lastly, there are some things I do differently now in my lesson planning than I did when I was first teaching when I was younger.
When I was less experienced, I used more materials that were very teacher-friendly methods series that you might call a turn-the-page series. You complete one piece and turn the page, with the method book really guiding your every step through each concept in a fixed progression. Piano Adventures is a good example — it’s an excellent method, and quite self-explanatory. You don’t have to do as much lesson planning on your own. I always recommend for new teachers to start with a fixed method like this simply because it is much easier, and you don’t get overwhelmed.
For my experience level now, I tend to prefer materials that allow the teacher to have more freedom and choice in how they do things.
I use Piano Safari more these days, but also I feel free to use materials in the intermediate and advanced repertoire that require me to make more choices about interpretation, and that’s just because I have the experience, the knowledge and the ability to do that.
When I had less experience, I used materials that I knew would support me in answering some of the student questions before I had taught the repertoire so many times. There is no shame in using high-quality student or teacher annotated editions, either! Those help you make a lot of decisions and help you teach in a professional way.
To find out tips learned from 9 expert teachers including Janna Williamson, take our upcoming free webinar on lesson planning tips – sign up free here, ahead of our new course Lesson Prep Quest that covers planning from preschool to group teaching, to online planning. Janna also is featured in TopMusicPro’s course Piece by Piece, helping you learn to teach intermediate piano literature repertoire with direction and confidence, available now in TopMusicPro.
Emily Laney teaches piano privately in Texas, where she enjoys helping students find their self-expression through music. She's helped develop the careers of concert artists through the Van Cliburn Foundation's International Piano Competitions, and promoted classical concerts from Lang Lang to Yo-Yo Ma. At TopMusic, find her directing operations and content, and collecting Blackwing pencils.
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