Teenage Beginner Piano Students (A Q&A with Jennifer Eklund)

Teenage Beginner Piano Students (A Q&A with Jennifer Eklund)

Teaching teenage beginner piano students is challenging. Right? Not according to Jennifer Eklund!

Before retiring in 2014, Jennifer Eklund taught piano for 20 years. She considered teaching teenage students her specialty – we wanted to quiz her on overcoming the challenges of teaching teenage beginners.

Table Of Contents:

  1. Teenage Beginner Piano Students Are A Challenge
  2. Flexibility is Key
  3. Musical Resources for Teenage Beginners
  4. Teenage Beginners and YouTube
  5. Teenagers Need Encouragement
  6. Final Tips On Teaching Teenage Beginners
  7. TopMusicMag: Teaching Beginners

Teenage Beginner Piano Students Are A Challenge

Why do you think teenagers are a challenge for some piano teachers?

Teenage students take teachers out of their comfort zone.

When they have a new eight-year-old beginner, they think, “Brilliant! I can bring out my Handy Dandy book I’ve used for the past 20 years. I’ll put it before little Jimmy, and we’re good to go!”

But that doesn’t wash with teenage beginner piano students.

I like to equate teaching teenagers to being in a car with a new driver. In the first lesson, you’ll be in the driver’s seat. But after that, they’re driving, and you’re coaching. The teenager needs to be behind the steering wheel because they need to drive the car forward.

Teaching teenage beginners is not dictatorial.

With young beginners, you can say, “Okay, this is what we’re going to learn.”

But with teenage beginners, you have to be flexible. They bring with them opinions and ideas of what they want to do.

Flexibility Is Key

So, would you say that flexibility is vital when teaching teenage beginner piano students?


You have to be really flexible, and you have to be flexible on the fly.

Be ready when a teenager walks in and says, “Hey, I want to learn this thing I just found on YouTube.”

You can’t just say, “Oh no, that’s not part of the plan.”

Make it part of the plan.

Always meeting them with “No” doesn’t breed mutual respect.

Use what they bring you and what they’re interested in to teach them what you want them to learn. Don’t just put their song to one side and shove a book in front of them.

Musical Resources for Teenage Beginners

That leads to the next question…What materials should we use with teenage beginners?

Always having the suitable materials on hand is tricky.

I used to see publications of “easy” piano arrangements that were 12 pages long, including every verse, bridge- and every part of the song. And I’d think the kid just wants to learn the chorus.

Just break down what they want to learn and teach them that. Chances are, they’ll get bored of that song in a couple of weeks and want to move on.

The musical world in a teenager’s life is changing constantly. It comes back to the importance of being flexible.

Related: Using the Piano Pronto Series with Jennifer Eklund

Teenage beginners tend to fall under one of three categories:

  1. Go With The Flow
  2. I Want To Sound Great Yesterday
  3. I Refuse To Read

“Go With The Flow” Students

“Go With The Flow” students just want to play. They’re pretty trusting of you from the beginning and they’re willing to roll with things.

They’re not put off by playing easy folk tunes. They find comfort in hearing something familiar.

I level with them and tell them we will go as fast as possible through the foundational skills so they can get to where they want to be. But how fast we get there depends on how much work they put in.

“I Want To Sound Great Yesterday” Students

“I Want To Sound Great Yesterday” students are less willing to roll with things. Their patience with things like Ode to Joy or Jingle Bells wears thin.

They’re out the door if you’re doing anything remotely childish with them.

These are the ones you have to meet in the middle.

Figure out what they want to play and how you can teach them what you want them to learn through their choices.

The goal is to get them out of foundational skill method-type material as quickly as possible and onto repertoire.

“I Refuse To Read” Students

“I Refuse To Read” students require you to throw everything out of the window. Teach them very basic foundational skills quickly. Then start doing things like lead sheet playing.

Use YouTube to play by ear and create your own lead sheets and arrangements.

Books are not going to help you.

Be flexible and creative.

You must also rid yourself of the mindset that teachers must be the fount of all knowledge.

You don’t have to deliver content all the time. They can get that content online by searching on YouTube for ‘how to play x song.’

They need the personal touch—someone to coach, encourage, motivate, and help with expression. These are the things they won’t get from videos online.

To be blunt- if you’re not coaching or helping your teenage students learn things they want to learn, they won’t hang around for too long.

Teenage Beginners and YouTube

What advice would you give teachers about helping teenagers who are learning things on YouTube?

YouTube is a blessing and a curse.

On the positive side, it’s terrific that it offers students a way to explore music during the week when we’re not around.

You can’t be mad at a student if they turn up to their lesson and says,
“Hey, I’ve been listening to and watching people play piano. I’ve been practicing this new song for hours a day.”

It’s a misstep as a teacher if you’re like, “That’s not part of the plan. Stop it.”

Maintain a balance

You’ve got to ease off on the control but try to maintain a balance—a balance between where you are, where you want to go, and all the other extracurricular piano activities your student is moonlighting with.

This will vary with every student and in every situation. You have to use that good teacher intuition that you’ve developed.

Sometimes, they bring things in that aren’t important to them. Students will bring in something they just want you to listen to and say, “Yeah, that’s cool. Good job. okay, let’s do what we were planning on doing.”

But other times, it’s everything. And if you shut it down, it’s heartbreaking to them.

I think sometimes teachers don’t realize how important some of this music is to their students.

Teenagers Need Encouragement

It’s all about encouraging students no matter what, right?


If you only take away one from this article, it’s to always encourage your teenage students. No matter where they are on their musical journey.

If they’ve had a couple of lessons but they’ve managed to pick out the right-hand melody of their favourite song, encourage them! Help them out. Show them how to add a simple left-hand accompaniment to fill out the sound.

If they’ve been learning for years and they’ve started to accompany themselves while singing a song their mum loves, encourage them!

Related: Motivating Teenage Piano Students

Final Tips On Teaching Teenage Beginners

You might feel like you’re not achieving much in a lesson with a teenage beginner.

This is a perfectly normal experience.

If you think you’re not really getting through to a teenager, or they’re not using their skills very well, that’s okay.

Because if that teenager is engaged in music and keeps coming back, you’re doing something right.

Temper your expectations. There are so many hills and valleys in a teenager’s life, and you’re going to feel all of them.

It won’t be the smooth upward trajectory you’re used to seeing with your average seven and eight-year-olds.

You’ll have lessons where you think, “What did we accomplish today? We did nothing.” But you know what? Those are often breakthrough lessons. Your students will often return to you a week later, and you’ll see something click.

The teenage market is a huge untapped resource in our field. You have a shorter lifespan with them, in terms of how many years you can actually teach them, but they can be very, very rewarding to teach.

TopMusicMag: Teaching Beginners

For more advice on teaching beginners (of all ages), download a copy of 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 topmusic.co 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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