Teaching Younger Piano Students Online

Under normal circumstances, I would suggest that young beginners would best be served by hands on instruction. However, sometimes situations arise where the online option is the only option. In this case, you will need to adapt your methods to ensure success.
This article assumes that you already have the technology component of online lessons worked out and that you are ready to reimagine your teaching approach to one that works over the internet. With that said, here are the basics of giving young pianists a good start towards a lifetime of musical enjoyment.

Adapting Your Teaching Strategies

If you are new to the concept of online lessons, one of the first things you will notice is that latency prevents simultaneous interaction. This means that you will not be able to play duets in real time, and your instructions will often be a few seconds late, from the perspective of the student.
If you are a hands on teacher who always counts for your students and shows them exactly what to do and when, this adjustment will require some patience. I recommend shifting to a “call and response” style of teaching, where you direct students what to do and demonstrate for them.

teaching younger students online
Learning to read music online

Here are a few things that you should aim to teach your students as early as possible: * How to find a finger position * How to find a measure number or line number (and what a measure is) * How to write on their music (you can demonstrate by holding your music up to the camera and asking them to make the same markings * How to feel a steady beat and understand the basics of rhythm
One of the main advantages of online instruction is that self sufficiency can be developed much earlier on, even if that is by necessity. Ideally, you will be first training students to copy you and follow your instructions, but then work to develop systems that they learn to rely on.

Parental Involvement

Young students can often require assistance during online lessons, just as they might during on-location lessons. During an online lesson, technical issues periodically arise and the parent will usually need to intervene. For this reason, parents should always be within earshot during lessons.
Additionally, parents should attend the lesson more deliberately during the first month or so of lessons. Teachers can engage with the parent frequently, especially when detailing potential assignments for students. Since these students are often too young to have free reign over a computer or phone, assignment notes can be emailed or shared in a Google Doc, and printed out for the student.
In my experience, parents who are concerned with the success of their young ones often enjoy learning enough about the piano to help facilitate practice. In a few cases, I have had a few parents sign up for lessons themselves! If you are positive, deliberate, and consistent about what the expectations are and what you need, parents will usually be happy to help. Parents can be a great ally for you and your students, and help you more successfully navigate online lessons.

Teaching Technique to Beginners

There are many pianistic techniques that we must master eventually, but I would like to suggest one in particular to start with. In my own personal experience, as well as the experience from significantly more accomplished pianists and teachers that I have learned from, students will be more successful earlier on if they think of playing a note as a pulling motion rather than a pushing one.
You can do this by training students to close each finger individually, from the finger tip (the thumb pulls in sideways), and then release before proceeding to the next note. The onset and release of a note should be very quick and forceful, and the release of tension instantaneous, and the fingers should stay on the keys during this motion. This is essentially a finger staccato, and is a great way to avoid the gnarled hands that kids usually have when they rush to legato playing at higher speeds.
I like to focus on this technique using a pentascale, and I generally have students count 2 or 4 quick pulses per note (which keeps their mind engaged and their tempo slow). The finger staccato technique will usually result in a stable hand with a rounded fingers automatically, which is one of the reasons I love starting students off with this idea in mind.
Over time, a student’s legato playing will start to resemble the stability they have when they use the finger staccato technique, and allow you the freedom to move on to other techniques. Until then, I usually have students practice pentascales or other exercises with a finger staccato for the first few months of lessons.

Teaching Rhythm to Beginners

Young students can be taught about whole notes, half notes, and quarter notes, as well as the basics of counting from day one. I highly encourage all teachers to train all students to count out loud while they are playing and consistently request it.
You can begin the counting training by having students count the pulse audibly, and then having them clap the respective notes in a particular passage of music. Again, this can be done on day one. Students are more likely to grasp rhythmic concepts of they don’t have to worry about notes at the same time. Additionally, they usually enjoy doing this.
When a student counts audibly, they are essentially prioritizing the pulse and location within a measure over anything else. This usually results in the student playing slower (which is a good thing), and learning how to visually scan a measure in a logical order. As we move from clapping to playing, keeping the counting going, at least during the lesson, ensures a much higher level of musicianship much earlier on.

Teaching Reading to Beginners

Since reading music is such a visual activity, it’s important to have a plan to visually engage your student with written music. One way to do this is to hold your music up to the camera and wait for the autofocus to bring a student’s attention to a certain spot on the page. Another way is to share your screen (if you are using Zoom or Skype) and bring up a copy of the music or other reading reference.
Teachers should invest in copies of all music that students will be learning and train students to identify line and measure number early on. I also find it helpful to randomly ask students to point to things on their score and hold it up to the camera. Try to encourage students to practice engaging with their music often.
When it comes to actually teaching reading, I find it most helpful to establish a few reference notes such as middle C and treble G, and then teach students to compare other notes to the reference notes. I will typically use flash cards (held up to the camera), and work my way out from reference notes until a student can read a full 5 note position.
To reinforce reading practice, I have students read their scores to me using pitches, finger numbers, and then intervals before actually playing the score. There are many different ways that we read music, and by isolating these closely related skills, we can simplify things for students and they will learn faster as a result.

Games and Activities

Students of all ages appreciate learning in a variety of ways, especially when the approach doesn’t feel so “academic”. Games and activities can be a great way to break up otherwise monotonous streaks in a lesson, but should be focused around reinforcing certain concepts.
The possibilities are limitless here, but I’ll provide a few brief activities that I usually use and what I am hoping to achieve with it. * To reinforce a student’s sense of positions, I often have them place their hands in their lap and look around at things in the room, and then quickly find a particular position. “Hands in your lap…now look at that lamp behind you, when you look back, find a D major position as fast as you can!” * To reinforce music theory concepts including notes, clefs, key signatures, dynamic markings, etc., I like to use flash cards and hold them up to the camera. I generally start with one or two and then introduce a new card every time a student goes through all the cards. Students will let you do this for a surprisingly long time and really seem to enjoy it. * Lastly, try to encourage students to draw musical symbols or notes and hold it up to the camera. You can even play a few notes, and have the student draw the rhythms.
Find games that direct students to actively recall information often, and be consistent with your approach. The recollection of a concept is more important than the repetition of the concept, especially for young students.

In Conclusion

Many of the things mentioned above are the very same things I would recommend when teaching a new student in person. The execution is slightly different, but overall, you shouldn’t be surprised if you manage to achieve the same results online that you do in person.
Try to keep things lighthearted and change activities often, but at the same time, be sure you are working towards the goal of student independence. If you can train students how to flourish without you sitting directly next to them, you will find much enjoyment and success in your online lessons.

teaching younger students online

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