Piano lesson ideas for ‘no-book’ lessons
Have you ever had a lesson where your student rocks up but has forgotten to bring his/her books?
No music, no assignment book/music diary, no notes from last week. Nothing.
As I predominantly teach teenagers, this seems to happen a fair bit and it is particularly an issue if you’re teaching at a school or institution where students have to make their own way to lessons.
If you’re teaching at home and parents bring their children to lessons, this tends to be less of an issue as parents tend to do the organising for child. But when this responsibility gets transferred to the student as they get older, things can sometimes go wrong.
So what do you do when all your plans have gone out the window?
Even if you luckily have perfect students who always remember their books and don’t often find yourself in this situation, the suggestions below will hopefully be of use to at the start of a new year or term or immediately after a big exam or recital program when you’d like to try something new.
While it would be perfectly reasonable for you to rant and rave and get upset about your student forgetting everything, I’ve found that this doesn’t really have a very positive impact on the student, the forthcoming 30 minutes or your ongoing relationship.
If you send them home or back to class, then you’re also missing a great opportunity to do something different with them, that you might otherwise not readily make time for.
Students generally don’t leave their books at home on purpose. It’s more often due to a lack of organisation and rushing around in the morning before school. Many households are absolutely frantic during this time and it’s incredibly easy for students to forget all sorts of things.
While I’m reasonable about the situation, I’m certainly not condoning this behaviour.
It’s of course very frustrating when you’ve got a lesson planned and can’t follow through with your goals for the student. So you need to make it clear that students must remember to bring their books (their parents are paying a lot of money for the privilege of lessons after all) and they need to take more responsibility in future weeks. If it keeps happening, you have every right to start getting frustrated and probably contacting parents who will need to help their child with their organisation.
The best advice I offer my teen students is to set up weekly reminders in their phones to remind them to pack their books. We all know that students are glued to their phones 24/7 so why not use them as the perfect reminder device?
On iPhone, students can easily set reminders using the standard calendar app, by setting a repeating appointment the night before their lesson, reminding them to pack their music books. Set it to an alert at the time of the event and make sure it repeats weekly.
Laptops/iPads/tablets can also be used for the same purpose through the Calendar (eg Outlook) function.
Now, onto the good stuff!
So here are the top five activities that I like to do with students when they forget their books.
You’ll note that most of these activities focus on creativity as this is perfect time to get creative. They don’t have any music to read and you’ve got some time up your sleeve. Why not try it out?
If teaching and learning about chords is not something that you normally do in your lessons, this is the perfect time to try it out.
Another piano lesson idea is to explore some of Daniel McFarlane’s amazing creativity ideas from Podcast Episode 1.
I have Daniel’s “Composing Cheat Sheet”, which you can download from the show notes page, on hand with my Circle of 5ths next to the piano at all times!
A simple idea he gives is to explore major and minor pentatonic scales over simple chordal progressions which either you can play or the student can play with LH. He explains and demonstrates all this in the podcast so make sure you have a look on YouTube.
This is cued to the part where he starts talking about this:
I’ve previously mentioned how I love Diabelli’s 5-finger duets for working with students on phrasing and ensemble work. While this isn’t such a creative endeavour, the idea of using 5-finger music is that you can quickly form an ensemble piece that not only sounds good, but can basically be sight-read by students.
Another awesome activity that involves sight reading is to use the PianoMaestro app by JoyTunes. This app is basically a completely interactive library of music, exercises, backing tracks and method books that listens and responds to students’ playing, creates a video-game like experience for them (great for your teen beginners) and is just great fun to use. Best of all, it’s now completely free for teachers and their students. I can’t recommend this app highly enough – it’s without-doubt one of the best apps for beginner piano students on the market. Oh, and did I say it was free? What have you got to lose?!
Most of you have probably seen and read about how I teach students the 12-bar blues and what a profound effect in can have on students’ listening and reading skills and general musical understanding.
In my opinion, a no-book day is a perfect time to explore this genre of music as it’s so common in so much of the early teaching repertoire. Students will gain a greater understanding of the structure of music, making sure they feel and keep a steady beat and a little about improvising which you can then build on in future lessons.
Here’s how it looks when I introduce it:
This is the best time to try exploring that new app that you heard about at the last conference and have been meaning to try. What have you got to lose?
Here are a few that you can try with nil or little up-front cost:
Rhythm Lab – this is my new favourite rhythm tapping practice app. As part of my students’ weekly lessons, I used to write-up rhythms on a whiteboard for them to clap; now I do it all on the iPad with this app. It has heaps of built-in rhythm patterns in all sorts of meters and students can tap right on the screen and get instant feedback. It even has example rhythms from some of the big classical composers built-in! Read more about this in my article here.
NoteStar by Yamaha has lots of recent pop music and has been a hit with my teen students in particular. While the app is free, you pay to download the songs you want (you get a free 30 second preview of any song you choose from the catalogue so you can instantly see how hard the music is). You then get access to on-screen auto-scrolling music, plus backing from a band and, the best part: vocals. You can change the key instantly, and slow the music down to suit your level. Brilliant app!
Chromatik is a free app for exploring pop music with your students. It brings up a score on screen and then links to the YouTube video of the song so that students can play along to the recording on YouTube. Pages turn automatically and you can read lead sheets or full scores. Great fun for when students have learn a song and want to try it out with the original band!
Try out any of the other ones you’ve heard about recently but haven’t had a chance to explore!
Most of the above suggestions are activities that students will enjoy and that you can build upon in future lessons, so don’t miss the opportunity for follow-up with your student in the next lesson to see what they thought of the activity and how you can progress. For example, the pentatonic improvisations from Daniel’s cheat sheet could build into all sorts of great composing concepts; the 12-bar blues can be played in other keys; Piano Maestro can form a regular part of each lesson and the Diabelli Duets could be performed at a concert.
I’d love to know your main tactic when students forget their books.
Do you fall into one of these categories?
Which number are you? Please reply below!
Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, 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.