Student-Centered Music Lessons

Student-Centered Music Lessons

Student-centered is one of the four TopMusic Teaching Pillars:

But what exactly is it? And why should you be teaching student-centered music lessons?

Table of Contents

  1. What Is Student-Centered Teaching?
  2. Why Is Student-Centered Teaching Important?
  3. Work With Your Students
  4. The Importance Of Choice
  5. Student-Centered Helps Maintain Motivation and Interest
  6. Multi-Modal Assessments
  7. TL;DR

What Is Student-Centered Teaching?

Put simply, it’s when the student plays a vital role in decisions regarding their musical education. Rather than you making decisions for them, it’s making decisions with them.

Why Is Student-Centered Teaching Important?

Let me ask you a simple question:

What are the key learning outcomes of your music lessons?

What do you want your students to be able to do when they ‘finish’ lessons with you?

Was your answer along the lines of “love music”?

That’s great. But let’s go deeper. How about

  • To be able to play any piece they want with technical fluency
  • To be able to sight-read music
  • To be able to play for life
  • Show off to their friends that they can play the latest pop song
  • Play an incredible trumpet improv in the school jazz band

Here’s a list of some of the goals I personally think are crucial for students to be successful, lifelong music-makers:

  • Develop a better understanding of the inner workings of music
  • To understand the harmonic function of music
  • Understand why they’re learning theory and how it’s directly related to the performance and creation of music
  • To be able to sight-read better because they comprehend the harmony of music

But the point is:
While you may have your own set of goals you feel your students should achieve; unless you ask them about their aspirations, you’ll never be entirely on the same page.

Work With Your Students

Giving students this choice- this autonomy in their learning – is the core of a student-centered approach.

“When students choose their own piece, there is an 11-fold increase in productivity” – Professor Gary McPherson

It’s also backed by research.

  • Self-determination theory suggests that there are three key psychological needs for students to feel motivated about what they’re doing:
  • The need for competence
  • The need for relatedness
  • The need for autonomy

The Importance Of Choice

Think about how you learn best.

If you began learning a new skill today, would you like to have a curriculum set in stone and feel like you’re just a cog in a machine?

Or would you rather have agency in the direction of your learning?

If you’re like most adults, you’ll always opt for the latter.

Different levels of student-centered are required at different ages and stages.

Adults should have almost total control over what they learn for maximum motivation and engagement.

However, 6-year-olds should have a curriculum determined mainly by a teacher, with some room for choices over pieces, exercises, activities, etc.

Student-Centered Helps Maintain Motivation and Interest

The TikTokification of our children is leading to even shorter attention spans. Most children starting music lessons simply don’t know how long it takes to be good.

And this leads to quitting too soon.

Especially if the initial focus is solely on technique.

Sure, there’ll be the 1% of students with committed parents who are happy to focus on perfect technique and performance from the start without losing interest.

But these students are in the tiny minority.

You need to get just the basics down.

They need to know enough to get started making sounds.

Then, you must hook them into lessons to ensure they don’t give up too soon.

That’s what being student-centered is all about.

Multi-Modal Assessments

When you take a student-centered approach to teaching, you will naturally need to reconsider how you assess your students.

Put simply, the traditional, formal recital might not be the best way to assess and strive toward student progress for all students. And that’s okay. Recitals aren’t necessarily the best assessment strategy.

If you have students who find the idea of performing live absolutely terrifying, there are other ways to assess them and other goals you can set with them:

  • For students with a pop focus, you can run a pop showcase recital with a live band.
  • Create YouTube videos for your studio channel/ their channel. This is particularly great for student composers.
  • Help them build a social media following on their Instagram or TikTok to promote their playing.
  • Help students create backing tracks
  • Work towards creating an album.
    The task of recording and presenting finished audio files is an excellent experience for those interested. These files could then be shared with family members.
  • Create and present a portfolio.
    This is great for students who are studying various approaches. They can discuss their composition work or arrangements or showcase whatever they’ve worked on. They can present their portfolio to their family members or a handful of other students (if they present to younger students, they’ll instantly be an inspiration!)

If you’re running a traditional recital, try “softening” the edges and making it more accessible:

  • Make it “in the round” with the performance in the middle of tables of parents rather than on the stage
  • Accompany the performances with art or visuals projected on a screen (so eyes aren’t just on the performer)
  • Turn it into a pizza night where the emphasis is on students socialising with the piano being played more casually
  • Remove the need for memorisation
  • Make the dress more casual

Related: Are Recitals the Best Way to Assess Students?


Talk to your students. Give them different options. Let them make choices.

Giving your students agency in their learning is vital for self-motivation and a long-term commitment to music.

Student-centered is part of the Integrated Music Teaching approach. Learn more about IMT in the FREE TopMusicMag.

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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