Is 30 minutes enough?

Is 30 minutes enough?

“Enough for what?” you might ask.

If I asked how many of you find it hard to find the time to incorporate aural, theory, sight-reading, general knowledge, composition, harmony and improvisation studies into your students’ 30 minute lessons, would you put up your hand?

In order to provide our students with a holistic musical education (and prepare them successfully for exams), we know that we should be including all these things in our lessons right from the start of the year. However for many teachers, it’s hard to know where to find the time and as a consequence, aural, sight reading and general knowledge practice sometimes gets crammed (usually unsuccessfully) into the last two weeks before an exam.

So how can you fit all that into a lesson and still have time to work on students’ pieces?

The solution isn’t really about time at all; rather, it’s about finding connections and working smarter. Paul Harris, in his book “The Virtuoso Teacher” really got me thinking about this recently. In it, he discusses his concept of Simultaneous Learning where content from all areas of music (theory, aural, etc) are taught in a connected way during a lesson rather than compartmentalised and segmented into chunks at the end.

Put simply, if you separate all the above aspects of your lesson, you’ll never have time to do it all. Instead, Harris recommends finding connections between things students know and their new material and helping them to discover these connections by writing, playing, clapping and singing as a regular part of teaching (not just part of aural/sight reading tests). Harris’ ABRSM article “Simultaneous Learning: Teaching Pupils to Think Musically” is a great place to start your research into this topic.

Personally, “Teaching my students to think musically” has revolutionised the way I approach lessons.

One of the most important changes to my teaching is the way I introduce new pieces. Often, this was something I did near the end of a lesson: I’d play through some options for a student, ask him/her to choose a favourite and suggest that they have a look through it and try playing some of it during the week. If I had time, I might discuss the key, form and maybe have time to get started on learning the beginning.

Now, my approach is completely different. I’m much more likely to make this one of the first things I do in a lesson. Why? Because helping students find the connections between what they already know and the challenges in a new piece should be one of our main jobs! It’s also something that takes both time and preparation to do well.

Related: 3 Keys to a Comprehensive Piano Lesson Plan 

Harris talks about “finding the ingredients” in a piece and helping students understand these well before they set foot in the music, a little bit like a SWAT team preparing for a raid: “What’s the goal? What’s the terrain? Who’s going to be there? Do we know what they look like? Is there anything new about the place? What tools/weapons do we need? Do we need any new skills? Have we got a map?”.

Ingredients are things like recurrent rhythms, ornaments, chords, patterns – whatever it is that forms the building blocks of the piece. Perhaps it’s full of G major triads and arpeggios. Rather than reading these slowly from the music, Harris encourages us to connect students to knowledge they already have: do they know the C major triad? Can they play it? What’s the similarity with G major? Can they arpeggiate it? What does it look like on the music stave? Can they write it on blank manuscript – as semibreves/quavers correctly grouped either melodically or harmonically? Can they sing the notes up and down? What does it look like on different clefs/in different octaves? What’s important about the G major arpeggio given the key of the piece? What other arpeggios are likely to come up in a piece of music in the key of G? Can they play the G major scale as well? Is the use of arpeggios like this a stylistic convention common to music of this genre? Can they play it from memory?

The connections are endless when you start digging and I’ve found that preparing for teaching in this way is a really exciting process that really gets you thinking. The best thing is that teaching through Simultaneous Learning becomes far less reactive when students return the following week because of all the groundwork has been laid and the connections made. As a result, I have found that my students are having far more success in their practice and need less reactive correction when they return the following week.

It is only by helping students see, understand and experience the connections between different aspects of music that we can develop more integrated, self-directed musicians. With continued drilling, students can start to make these connections themselves which will help their future studies immeasurably. Even better, this process covers theory, harmony, aural, general knowledge, performance skills, sight reading, etc., all in a connected, positive and relevant way that is much more likely to stick in students’ minds than the dreaded, “OK let’s do some aural tests”!

This week, if you find yourself singing a melody line to help a student, ask them to sing it with you and perhaps write it down as well. If they are starting a new piece in 6/8 time, get them to do lots of clapping and writing of the most common rhythmic patterns in 6/8 well before they look at the music. If they are learning about key signatures, get them to write their own key signatures as well as recognise them. Getting students to write music is one of the best (and simplest) changes you can make.

These are just some of the ways you can incorporate Simultaneous Learning in your teaching this week. I just about guarantee positive results!

Article published in the Victorian Music Teachers’ Association journal, August 2012.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. Yes! This is exactly the post I have been wishing someone would write. I love the idea of putting the focus on developing “…more integrated, self-directed musicians” and working toward helping students to learn to make connections themselves. Thank you for the great insights and ideas!

    • Hi Diane. Thanks for your comment. I think this is all part of what should be a teacher’s prime goal: to make students independent enough to continue learning without us. Making connections is vital.

  2. I read the book a few times to internalize it — I understand how important is SL. Now, I’m just learning how to apply it. It doesn’t come naturally yet, but I hope I’m in the process to be a better teacher. Thanks to you!

  3. Connecting all the building blocks to build a piece is key. In art and design, it’s more straight forward up to a certain degree because there are established elements and principles that we work with; music is so ‘scattered’ that sometimes we have to continuously make these connections with the students so that they, too, understand how these work together. Thanks for sharing, Tim!

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