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A dear friend and colleague (who also happens to be a former student) is about to start teaching piano lessons and asked me for advice. Rather than text her like a normal person, here I am!
The advice below can be adapted to teaching lots of things besides piano, but I tend to believe that specificity illumines more immediately useful information than general principles. Which is, in itself, a lesson about teaching.
1. Start small.
It is much better to begin with something tiny and build up than start big and break it down. Not every student can bounce back from being given more than they can handle, even when it would be irrational for them to expect themselves to be able to do what you are asking. Begin with one note, played well, and go from there.
2. Show, don’t tell.
It is all to0 easy to get very “explainy” when you’re excited about sharing something with a student, but this is likely to lead to overwhelm. The younger the student, the more time you should spend just silently showing them how to play the simple melody and rhythm patterns that comprise your songs. Go ahead and sing, but I don’t do much explaining at all. If you find yourself needing to explain something, you’re probably trying to teach them something too complicated.
Explaining works well when you’re trying to help someone understand a process, as I am doing here. But the actual material, the actual music, shouldn’t need much explanation if you follow my first piece of advice and start small.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “How to Design an Effective Practice Program (Video)”
3. Aim for performance.
As soon as possible, get your student performing for friends and family and in recitals. To do this, you will need to teach your student actual songs, not just exercises. Your student will need to be able to play them, memorized, when you are thirty feet away.
You can accomplish this on day one with a very simple song and build your student’s performance repertoire from there, yet many students still can’t perform anything from beginning to end after three years of study. Their teachers have failed to ensure that a musical piece was learned fully and completely before moving on, most likely because the piece was too complex in the first place.
When you prepare your student to hit the stage eight weeks after beginning lessons and every eight to ten weeks after that, you’ll avoid this problem. You’ll make choices that help your student learn actual pieces. You’ll be developing a piano player, not just a piano student.
4. Build on what’s working.
Most of your students won’t practice. The third-grader who is so enthusiastic about piano is simultaneously studying fencing, participating in gymnastics, on the robotics team, and becoming a certified pet groomer. Both of her parents are working, the babysitter doesn’t care, and she goes skiing every weekend with her family.
This is frustrating if you expect it to be different. If you accept it and work with it, you can find fulfillment. Every lesson becomes an opportunity to inch them forward a little bit on piano — to cover what you did last time, plus a tiny bit more. And if any practice happened at home, any at all, praise the heck out of the student and the parents. “Wow! I can see that she practiced once. It made such a difference. Great work, everyone!”
If you do this, your student and her family will view the piano lesson as a safe, happy place with good feelings attached to it. Over time, their commitment may grow. If not, at least you have done no harm.
+ Read more on Flypaper: “What Are Études, and Why Do Composers Write Them?”
5. Measure your success by your ability to stay present.
If you find yourself wanting to be anywhere else, or at the very least buried in your phone, it’s a clue that you are off track.
Just like in meditation or yoga, return your attention to the present moment. Regardless of what’s happening with your student, you can practice gently (and repeatedly) nudging yourself from boredom to contentment. This is a mental muscle that will pay off in every area of your life.
If this becomes difficult to do, you may want to troubleshoot: Have you taken on too many students? Are you physically tired? Hungry? (Don’t forget to bring snacks, since you’ll be working through dinner.)
Some days will just be difficult to get through — keep bringing your focus back to your student.
Teaching piano lessons was an enormously fulfilling career for me. I am always drawing on the lessons that I learned in that role. May your life be enriched by many joyful experiences and relationships as a result of this new endeavor.
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