I wish we could just have a magic formula for every single piano lesson we teach, but we all eventually realize that this is not the case. Do you ever wish you could have at least a guide on how to start a new piano student?
There are certain steps to prepare yourself for the first piano lesson with a new student. First, identify the type of student you will be teaching based on age and musical background. Second, define the type of lesson you are going to be teaching and plan the music scores and other materials for the new student. Make sure you have all your forms and policies ready to be handed out to the student or parents. The next step is to ask yourself if you will require the parents to be present during the first lesson. Then prepare yourself to be in the right state of mind according to the type of student you will be working with. The final step is for you to plan the main goal and assignment for the first lesson.
Types of new piano students
There are two types of new students: beginners and transfer students. You could ask “what about intermediate and advanced students?” but stay with me on this for a moment. Beginner students can be classified according to their age. So can transfer students, but the type of work you would do during the first lesson is different.
When a prospective student contacts you and inquires about piano lessons, you can always set up an appointment for an in-person interview or just have a phone chat. You might even offer a trial piano lesson. In order to prepare yourself for the first piano lesson with a new student, you need to establish what type of student you will be working with. Teaching a 3-year-old is very different than teaching a teenager, an adult, or even a transfer student of the same age. You need to know what kind of work needs to be done with students of different ages and different musical backgrounds.
This is how I classify the type of students I work with:
- Young children. I include children age 3-5. 3 years old is the youngest age I would accept. This is a tricky age to work with because I have had the opportunity to work with 3-year-olds who are very inquisitive, have great concentration, and their hands already respond very well. On the other hand, I have worked with 5-year olds whose hands are still too fragile to withstand the resistance of the keys, or perhaps they are still too hyperactive. Most students who fall under this category should start with a lot of ear and rote work. In some cases, I recommend short lessons for these students such as 15-20-minute lesson. However, I have had successful half-hour lessons with 3-year-old students. There are some specific method books that work well with these students, such as Music Moves, Suzuki, Piano Safari, and Wunderkeys.
- Elementary age. In this category, I include children 6 to 10 years of age. Most traditional piano methods are designed for this type of student. I am talking about methods such as Piano Adventures, Alfred series, Bastien series, Thompson, Wunderkeys, and Supersonics.
- Pre-teenagers. I have this category for a specific type of student within ages 10-13. Although these types of students would still be defined as children, most of them do not want to be treated like little children. Some students are not happy to have a method book with images that seem to be designed for a 5-year-old such as kittens or squirrels. Some methods offer a series they usually call “older beginner”. Students in this category could benefit from these methods. The downside is that some of these methods can move too quickly. This is not a major problem since you can always use supplemental material or repertoire.
- Teenagers. Most teenagers who are just starting piano lessons can easily handle an “older beginner” method series or you could go ahead and use an adult method series such as the Piano Adventures Adult. As I mentioned before, those “older beginner” methods could move too quickly for some students. I personally prefer using an adult series with teenagers. They usually appreciate the fact that I am treating them like young adults.
- Adults. Be careful with the method you choose for this type of student. You can easily fall into the trap of assuming that adults are more mentally and physically developed. That might be the case for certain things in life, but it might be the first time they have contact with music or a musical instrument. Some adults are overwhelmed by the new concepts or by the coordination they have to use while playing the piano. Some adults might have sensitive ears and can pick things up very quickly by ear only to discover how awkward they feel when they are playing their pieces. Some adult methods progress way too quickly and students can easily get overwhelmed. Look for a method that moves at a more gradual pace like the Hal Leonard Adult or Piano Adventures Adult methods.
- Transfer students. This type of student presents a different challenge because they already took lessons with one or more teachers in the past. There are a number of reasons why a student wants to transfer to a new teacher. The most difficult reason is when they had bad experiences with a former teacher. Some students are so desperate and frustrated that they will willingly share all their negative experiences. There is no need to criticize former teachers. You can even tell the student that the fact that they kept going with their teacher is a sign that the teacher did something good. You can expect that the teacher covered some things, but if you want to present yourself as a professional, you can’t criticize. What do you listen or expect to listen from a transfer student during the first lesson? Don’t worry too much about what concepts the student learned or didn’t learn. You will have plenty of time for concepts. Focus on sound first. Some teachers are horrified when they see certain technical habits found in transfer students. When students come to you with bad habits, do not tell them that you are going to fix things and make changes. Tell them that you are going to remove things that make their playing harder or things that make the piece harder. Do not speak about the bad things that the former teacher did.
I will write reviews about different piano methods on different posts. However, the age categories I mentioned above can at least help you establish an initial plan.
What type of lesson are you giving?
The time has come for you to meet the new student in person, or online. What kind of lesson will you be teaching? Is the first lesson a trial lesson or will it be the first official lesson?
In my early years teaching I accepted any student who contacted me, and I was ready to start the first lesson on that very first time we met. Years later, I discovered how unprepared I was for that first lesson. I would arrive at the student’s house, or they without arrive at my studio, and I had nothing prepared since I already knew how to play piano. I assumed everybody learned in the same way that I did. So, I thought I already had the formula for teaching piano.
Nowadays, I never accept a new student without requiring a trial lesson. I charge a minimal fee for this lesson, usually a 30-minute lesson, and I explained the purpose of this lesson. I have several criteria I use during my trial lessons. I evaluate while I work with the student, ask and answer questions, and determine if we are a good fit. Most of the time I must trust my instincts. I am very clear with my expectations, and I am not afraid to send a prospective student to another teacher.
If you are not familiar with or are hesitant about trial lessons, I will recommend you reading this article.
The most important thing we have to remember during every lesson is that people want to make music. They want to play the piano. They do not come to you because they want to spend an entire lesson clapping rhythms or telling you the name of each note aloud while you clap for them at a certain tempo. Maybe a small percentage of students do want that, but I have never met them. My number one goal during the first piano lesson is to make the students play music. Ideally, I will prepare one or two pieces the student can learn during the first lesson. I will teach those pieces entirely by rote, or at least I will write the finger numbers on a piece of paper just to give the student something visual they can also use while playing. I want to show the student how he or she has the ability to produce sound and make music. I do not want to intimidate a new student with musical concepts.
Compare this process to learning a new language. When you go and meet your new teacher, you want to start speaking the language immediately. You want to be able to say “hello” and “how are you” in the new language. You want to speak the language. You don’t want to learn about grammar and rules during your first lesson. It is the same with music. Let’s speak the language of music, and later on, we can learn about the rules and concepts.
I remember how many times I started a new student by pulling out a method book and I would start talking about quarter notes, half notes, five fingers, white and black keys, rhythm, and counting. I would expect the student to play the first few pieces remembering all the concepts I was explaining. Nowadays, I look forward to seeing new students leave my studio with a huge smile at the end of the first lesson. I want the students to feel a great sense of accomplishment. That sense of accomplishment should not be about remembering concepts. I want that accomplishment to be about playing at least one piece by the end of the first lesson.
I think many of us teachers are afraid of the stigma that comes from playing by ear. We assume that a student who only plays by ear is comparable to an illiterate person. Why should we look down on that student for already playing music even if they cannot read it? This feeling makes some teachers try to cover so much theory in the first months or the first year of lessons that they lose focus of their main goal: sound.
We have had incredible developments in the world of piano pedagogy which can be appreciated in the existence of the different piano methods that we now have available. Some methods emphasize the traditional reading approach, and there is nothing wrong with that. Other methods emphasize rote teaching or rote learning, such as the Suzuki method. We also have hybrid methods, which traditionally begin with rote teaching and slowly being to integrate note reading. I am thinking about the Piano Safari or the Music Moves method. Do not be afraid to combine different approaches in your teaching strategies. You do not have to be loyal to one single method. Why? Because students have different learning styles and strategies, and your teaching must be adapted to each individual student.
Are you teaching online lessons? If you are, you know you require certain equipment and preparation for this type of lesson. If you need a basic guide on how to teach online piano lessons with Zoom, you can find it in this blog post.
What materials should you prepare for the first piano lesson?
Most students are eager to start playing piano during their first lesson. So, make sure you have all your materials ready. If you already know what type of student you will be working with and what type of lesson you will be giving, here are a few things you should prepare for a new beginner student:
- Potential piano methods you would like to use with the new student. In this first lesson, you will be evaluating how a student works with music and with the instrument. This is also your opportunity to pay attention to how the student responds and follows your directions. I recommend having at least two different methods at hand. For example, if my new student is 4 years old, I could be prepared with my Piano Safari Book 1 and my Suzuki Book 1. You do not need to make a decision and assign one specific method to the student on the spot. These are just initial ideas while you evaluate the student’s attention, concentration, intellectual and physical maturity, basic motor skills, etc.
- Your instrument(s). Some teachers use acoustic pianos, digital pianos, or both. Have them ready. A lot of students are curious about how the piano works. If you have an acoustic piano, you could open the lid and give a brief demonstration of how the piano produces sound. Children are always excited when they look at the hammers and dampers move while they hear a sound. This type of demonstration is very effective when you have shy children. Before getting to work, invite them to explore the piano with you to get them to loosen up.
- Games and Activities. The first lesson is a great opportunity to evaluate the student’s ability to imitate either patterns or sounds. You might want to work on melodic and rhythmic activities. I call these “you do what I do” activities, very common in rote teaching. You could prepare some rhythmic instruments and ask the student to imitate several rhythmic patterns. Melodic activities could include having the student sing back short melodic motives you play on the piano. You can also have the student with you at the piano, play a short melodic motive with one finger, and ask the student to play it back. Now, let the student be the leader. Allow the student to play a pattern or give you a rhythm, and you have to sing or play it back. Students like to test you, give them the chance. It is a fun activity, especially with children.
- Concepts. There are certain concepts you can introduce from the very beginning. You can easily introduce black and white keys, higher and lower sounds, moving and playing up and down the keyboard. I would not introduce note names nor rhythmic notes yet. You can teach a couple of pieces by rote without having to introduce note names or rhythmic notes. You will have plenty of time for that in future lessons.
- Piano bench, footstools, and boxes. It would be ideal if we all could have adjustable piano benches in our studios, but this is not the case. You need to be prepared for children of different heights. Young children will probably need something to sit on top of in order to adjust their height at the piano. Some teachers use large size books, leftover pieces of carpet, or foam mats and place them on top of the piano bench. They will also need to have something under their feet. This will give them support, and they will feel balanced. Some teachers purchase sets of wooden or plastic boxes of different heights that can be stacked. Some online music stores also sell adjustable footstools for the feet. You don’t have to be so fancy. You can use cardboard boxes instead.
We talked about your materials, but what about the students’ materials? Will you ask them to bring anything with them? If you are, make sure to let them know before the lesson. I usually ask new students to bring with them:
- A notebook.
- A plastic or paper folder.
- Pen or pencil.
- A carry bag.
- Previous music books and materials, if they are transfer students.
Do not expect transfer students to be able to play everything from their previous books and materials. Although the student might have worked on several books before, this does not guarantee that they will remember everything or that they actually went through every single concept, exercise, or piece in those books. Many teachers panic when a student plays a piece from one of their books but cannot identify the names of the notes in the piece that they just played. Try not to scare the student with negative comments about the work they have done before. You are only asking them to bring the materials with them so you can assess the work that has been done.
Forms and Policies
Let’s talk about business. As a business owner, you need to dot your I’s and cross your t’s, and you will do that in your forms and studio policy. This must be written. When you are dealing with new customers everything must be written and recorded. You should prepare at least documents:
- Basic information and Registration form
- Studio Policy
- Tuition fees
If you need help, I invite you to look at the free resources Joy Morin’s “COLOR IN MY PIANO” website has. Thank you Joy Morin! I will include the link to her resources page at the end of this blog post.
Should the parents be present in the first piano lesson?
This is a controversial topic because it presents a few situations you need to consider:
- Parents who give their opinion during lessons and do not let their kids respond. This situation is very common. You are meeting a new student. You want to establish your initial connection and communication, but the parent doesn’t let you because he or she keeps interrupting your communication with the student. Some students or their parents will ask you whether they are allowed to enter lessons. I always tell the parents that I have an open-door policy, as long as the student wants them inside. As long as they do not speak, I will let them be present. I explain this very clearly to the parents.
- Students who do not want or should not have their parents present during the lesson. Students develop their own relationships with their teachers. Students must see their teacher as an authority figure, but this relationship is very difficult to establish if the parent is always interrupting or telling the student what to do or answer. There is an old saying: “No man can serve two masters.” There is no formula here. It is just that some students behave differently when a parent is in the room. I have to follow my instinct before deciding or asking the parent to stay or leave. It only takes a few minutes before I realize when a child is engaged with me or if the child is always looking for the parents’ approval on anything he does or says. I have been with children who are afraid of doing or saying things in the lesson because they expect a certain reaction from the parents. When I sense this is the case, I politely ask the parents to allow me a few lessons with their children alone so I can evaluate the way they work with me when they are not present. In most cases, the result is very successful. Now, this situation is different for younger students. I always require the parents to be present during all lessons for children younger than 6 years old. A lot of the activities I do with such young students are in the form of games. Including the parents in these games can be a lot of fun. After all, parents do need to supervise the students’ practice at home. Therefore, it is important they know what you are trying to accomplish.
- Suzuki lessons require the presence of an adult at all times. Suzuki philosophy requires a lot of involvement from the parents. This is why a Suzuki teacher will usually require an adult to be present at all times. Ideally, the adult will be the child’s parent.
- At what age will you stop requiring a parent to be present? You need to decide on your cutoff. I mean, what teenager wants their parents present in their lessons?
How will you present yourself to your new piano student?
It is time to talk about the social aspect of piano lessons because your presentation and behavior should go according to the student you are working with. Perhaps you have a home studio, and you like being in sweatpants and a sweatshirt. A child could see you like this and will feel very relaxed around you. This might not be the case with a teenager or an adult. So, you should probably behave differently with a 4-year-old student than with an adult.
You can help students and parents feel more comfortable with you by spending the first few minutes making small talk. They might know of your reputation as a teacher or as a pianist, and they might feel intimidated. You can ask questions and tell stories about something funny that happened to you this week. With children, I always ask about their age, what grade they are in, what school they go to. If I have students who attend the same school, I might ask if they know my students. Some kids come wearing a sports uniform. You can ask about what sports they practice. If you want to talk about music, ask about their favorite music, musicians, songs. Ask if they have music class at school and ask if they like their music class. Ask about what instruments they have played or what songs they have learned in music class at school. Ask if they already know a song at the piano. Most children are eager to show you what they already know.
I have heard teachers who describe their personalities in a certain way and believe it is the student who should be responsible for accepting the teacher’s behavior and manners during lessons. This should be the other way around. Teaching a student is not about us. It is about the student. You are a professional educator and being a classroom teacher is not the same as being a private teacher. As a teacher, you are the one who needs to adapt to the student’s learning style. Do not force students to behave, act, or learn in a way that does not work for them. Just because you learned piano or music theory in a certain way, it does not mean all people will learn as you did. Just because your own teachers treated you in certain ways, that does not mean that your own students will respond to the same behavior.
Perhaps you are an extroverted teacher who is always cheerful and energetic. Let me tell you that it could be an intimidating behavior to certain students. The same applies if you are an introverted person and receive a highly extroverted and cheerful student. Remember, it is your job to adapt your teaching style and strategies to the students’ needs. If we look at this as a business, the student is the customer, and you are the service provider. Your product or service should offer what your client needs and what your client is looking for. Unfortunately, the client sometimes does not know what he needs. So, this in fact is more work for you.
Finally, make sure you also behave like a professional business owner and a respectful teacher. Give the student your full attention. If you are going to lose their attention, apologize. Set rules for the students during the lesson. For example, tell them “you are not going to play until I ask you to play.“ The first lesson is a great opportunity to go over your expectations in terms of their behavior during each lesson.
What should the first assignment be?
How specific are you going to be with the first assignment? You need to remember that when you give an assignment, sometimes you have to design the assignment for the student or for the parents, in the case of younger children. Do not assume that a 5 or 6-year-old student will remember or understand what you want them to do during the week before the next lesson.
There are different tools you can use to assign homework. You may want to use a traditional notebook, or you could integrate technology for your students’ assignments. A few years ago, I designed an agenda I still give to all my students with weekly sheets that I use to write their assignment. If you offer online lessons, you should probably consider using online software to manage your students’ assignments. There are a few free options available to you such as Google Docs or Microsoft OneNote. I know some teachers who simply send weekly text messages with the assignment. If you want to go fancy, consider a membership website such as mymusicstaff, which can help with all the administration of your studio.
Here is a useful video about using the software Evernote in your lessons.
You might also want to use traditional email as a way of communicating each week’s assignment to your students.
My number one recommendation is video instructions. At the end of a lesson or at the end of my day, I record myself telling and showing each student what I want them to work on, how much time to practice, how many times to repeat something, how to practice, and if needed, I also give instructions to the parents. Then, I just sent the video either to the student or the parents. There is a number of apps on your phone which allow you to share the video such as iMessage (only for Apple products) or WhatsApp. In the next lesson when I see the student again, I start by reviewing my video instructions from the previous lesson. This is how my students know that I will always ask them if they did the work that was assigned in my videos.
- There are two types of new students: beginners and transfer students.
- Classify your students according to their age and music background.
- Define the type of lesson you will be teaching in order to design your lesson plan.
- Be prepared with music scores, potential piano methods, games, and activities, etc.
- Prepare your instrument(s) and accessories such as piano bench, cardboard boxes, footstools, large size books, etc.
- Notify the students if you expect them to bring materials with them on their first lesson.
- Be ready with your printed forms, including a registration form, studio policy, and tuition fees.
- Inform the parents if you expect them to be present during the lesson, but make them aware you might ask them to leave depending on the student’s behavior once you start the lesson.
- Think of the social aspect of the lesson. Think about your presentation and put yourself in the right state of mind according to the type of student you are working with.
- Plan your main goals and assignment for the first lesson. Think about how you will share that assignment with the student or the parents.
- Remember to have fun!
Links mentioned in this blog post:
– Joy Morin’s “COLOR IN MY PIANO” free resources page. Great resources if you are looking for ideas on how to write your studio policy and other useful forms.