Rethinking the Student’s First Piano Lesson

When I first began teaching in-home lessons, I created a mental list of all the things I felt were essential for a new student to know. I thought very carefully about what to say in order to cover all these topics with my student during the very first lesson. ”The List” included things like:

  • How to sit properly at the piano.
  • How to hold one’s wrists.
  • How to curve one’s fingers.
  • The finger numbers.
  • How to find the black key groups of 2?s and 3?s.
  • How to find Middle C.
  • How to find A-G on the piano.
  • What a steady beat is and is not like.
  • What a quarter note is
  • etc.

These are all important things, of course. But I hadn’t really stopped to consider what the student might be feeling at that very moment on my piano bench. I jabbered away cheerily through my lengthy list, anxious that my student would learn all the right things the right way from the very first day.

Put Yourself In Their Shoes

Do you remember what it was like at your very first piano lesson as a kid? Usually, new students are anxious, curious, unsure, maybe nervous — and usually they are very excited to play the piano. They might tell you they can play Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star for you which their mother taught them by rote. Or they might show off that they figured out Mary Had a Little Lamb by ear.  Or they might not know how to play anything at all, but they are definitely sitting on your piano bench practically drooling, anxious to get their fingers on those beautiful, shiny keys.

What to do?

What do you do about all this crazy excitement, energy, and motivation that is radiating from the student? I’ve messed this up many times in the past. I used to think, ‘Uh oh, now I’m going to hear another rendition of Mary Had a Little Lamb with all the wrong rhythm…’ and so I would try to get that over as quickly as possible. Then I would quickly start talking about sitting like this, and putting your hands like this, no like this, oh, and this is how you do this, and this is called that and I’ve since learned better than to start with The List.

Make a Connection

Certainly, the student needs to learn all of the things from The List, but there’s plenty of time for all of that. What’s more important at this moment is to make a connection with the student and to capture his/her excitement for piano and turn it into motivation to learn and practice at home.  The List can be deadly to such excitement and zeal about piano. Can’t you just hear them wondering, “Is this really what piano is about?”

What Will My New Students Love?

At the first lesson, you might first get some basic information from the parent and student but then be sure to save some time to do some interactive activities that will get the student playing right away! Not only will this help you connect with the student and capture his/her enthusiasm, it will help you assess the student AND demonstrate your teaching style to the parent and student. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

If they have a piece to play for you, ask to hear it.

As they play, jot down some quick notes to yourself about how they do. Notice things like body/arm/finger posture, dynamics, fingering, articulation, note & rhythm inaccuracies, etc. — but don’t say a word about anything that might be weak or lacking. Simply notice, and then find one or two positive things and share these compliments with them.  Now’s the time for observation, not “fixing.”

Choose Simple Interactive Activities

If you’ve got time to go into the basics of the music and the piano, choose simple interactive activities and always make a game out of it. Try having them clap back rhythms to you by ear. Play a three or four note motif on the piano and see if they can replicate it in another octave. Try teaching them a simple melody by rote to see what kind of musical memory they have. Show them what the finger numbers are and have them wiggle various fingers randomly. Then, let them ask YOU to wiggle certain fingers and be sure they correct you when you “mess up.”  These simple games all have objectives and build important musical skills. They don’t require the use of any books or materials. They are simple enough for new students and, best of all, they are all a lot more fun than The List.  =)

Improvise With Them

Even if they don’t know a single note, they just want to play those ivories. I rarely let a new/potential student leave the first lesson without doing a short improvisation with me first. The benefit?  Seeing how well a student improvises on the spot allows you to see what kind of musical ear they have, and how they handle so-called “mistakes.”  Simple is best: stick with black key improvisation because it will make them sound great. If they don’t naturally, try suggesting they keep in time with your ostinato and see if they connect to their inner sense of beat. Students will be thrilled to be making music within minutes of meeting you, and the parents will love it too.

The Result

I’ve learned my lesson. Connecting with the student through some skill-building activities demonstrates the teacher’s competence, qualifications, and professionalism much more than being able to spout off a bunch of facts.  Plus its a lot more fun for everyone.
In what ways have YOU reformed your teaching since you first began?

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