improving as a teacher, Motivation, Studio Business, Teaching Piano

Rethinking The Student’s First Lesson

Okay, so I’ve been thinking about this topic for a few weeks now, and today I’m spilling all!   Sorry about the length. =)

Don’t Make My Mistake!

When I first began teaching, I created a mental list of all the things I felt were essential for a new student should 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 long, long list, anxious that my student would learn all the right things the right way from the very first day.

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!

So what do you do?  What do you do about all this crazy excitement, energy, and motivation that is radiating from this student?  

Since this is kind of a confession post, here goes:  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.

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?”

I daresay that even transfer students (of any age) experience some of the same excitement and anticipation that new beginners do.  They are excited to learn from you, get to know you, and get better at piano, but most of all, they probably want to play for you to show you what they can do.  Let them!  There are some great reasons to do so.

What Will My New Students Love?

At the first lesson, you might first get some basic information from the parent and student (see this post for ideas, although I admit I’m beginning to use these forms less and less — I need to update them) and perhaps give a tour of your studio.  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:

  1. 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.”  (Observe how they receive your compliments too.)
  2. 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 ditty 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.  =)
  3. 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 (read more about improv here) 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.

And What Will I Love About This?

If I haven’t talked you out of using The List yet, let me further make a case for how activities such as the ones described above are so valuable:

  • Assessment: The first few lessons are for assessment — figuring where the student is at level-wise and what kind of learner you have sitting on your bench.  What better way to assess a new student than to hear them play something — anything!  Interactive, game-like activities will give you a lot of information regarding hat kind of musical talent/background they already have and their ability to pick up and apply new information.  Improvisation, for starters, allows you to assess their creativity, their sense of beat, their ability to be spontaneous, and their willingness to try new things.  Having an accurate assessment about the student’s ability and learning style, more than anything else, will help give you an idea of what teaching this student will be like and help determine which method books / styles of music might best suit them.
  • Personality: Rather than imparting all of the “basic knowledge for beginners” upon them, why not figure out what makes them smile and laugh, what gets them excited and motivated, what their interests are, and how their brain operates?  These things are valuable to know as a teacher so you can tailor your method of delivery to the student.
  • Establish a Bond and Capture Their Excitement: Playing those interactive games with the student is much more likely to establish a bond with your potential student than resorting to The List.  Respond to the student’s feelings.  The student’s excitement for wanting to show you what s/he can play is fulfilled when you ask them to play for them.  The student’s nerves are relieved when they see that learning musical concepts and skills is really like a game for the mind and body.
  • Show them what music is REALLY about:  Best of all, these interactive activities really show what music is all about: it’s alive and breathing, it’s spontaneous, it can happen anytime anywhere, it can depict the rain outside or my pet kitty at home, or it can express what mood I’m in.  What greater gift could you give to the student during the first lesson than to truly show them what music is all about!  They are excited to learn the magic of reading and making music, and you are going to show them the way.  Sure, there will be bumps in the road, but this zeal for music is real!  Give them a peek into the world of music that the student can only imagine is there — and the student will be hooked!

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, it’s WAY more fun for everyone.

In what ways have YOU reformed your teaching since you first began?  =)

Photo Credit: woodleywonderworks | CC 2.0

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30 thoughts on “Rethinking The Student’s First Lesson”

  1. Great post, Joy! I have fallen into the exact same trap of going through a boring “list” (well, boring to a young child!). I think you are so right that we need to capture the excitement of our students right from the beginning and get them playing! Thanks for this post, I love reading your blog!

  2. Great post Joy! My first lesson with students is always an orientation lesson. Getting to know the “studio” a little so they can start feeling comfortable. We go through the binder and what everything means, we go on the computer through some of the games that may not be so easy to do when you have never done them before. Then we end the lesson by playing a song or two.

    I recently attented a rhythm workshop, which I will be blogging about soon and in this workshop we always began with a drum “circle” of everyone improvising on their drum. It was soooo fun and really set the tone of the day. I really liked that and decided I was going to do something similar from now on. Whether we start drumming rhythm or improvising on the piano, I think beginning with making music and ending with making music is going to pull it all together. I’m really excited about it!

  3. I agree that it’s a higher priority to capture the student in the first lesson. But hopefully the two goals aren’t completely mutually exclusive and we can also find ways to make The List fun. 🙂

    I also make a point to play for my students in the first lesson. I used to ask them if they wanted something slow and pretty or something loud and fast, but I don’t ask anymore since they always request the latter (and honestly, a 6-year-old’s appreciation for good dynamic phrasing and rubato only goes so far… one nanometer to be exact).

  4. Great post, Joy! I made this same mistake for a long time, as well. While I think it is important, like Chad said, to try to make “the List” fun, I also feel that the “List” doesn’t need to make an appearance during the very first lesson. The first lesson is all about sowing a seed of trust & enthusiasm between you & the child that you hope to harbor in all of your future lessons together (which will hopefully last a long time!). The first lesson should be more about meeting the child’s enthusiasm, gifting them a fun first lesson & possibly giving them one or two TINY bits of information that they can “show off” at home–“tiny” for us is often HUGE information for kids. I no longer teach them the musical alphabet or how to find Middle C at their first lessons. Those things can wait.

    What can’t wait is trust-building, love or kindness towards each child. What kids really need is someone to show them that they’re important and full of potential–and that they now have someone new in their lives that truly cares for them and values them as an individual. If you don’t spend the time trying to establish this at their first lesson, it will take a very long time to build it up later (because their first-impression of you wasn’t what it should have been). Or they might just end up quitting before you ever get there.

    “Piano things” can always wait until their next lesson, “people things” need to be established from the beginning.

  5. I personally use the first lesson as an overview, instead of a teaching opportunity.

    I bring my copies of the books students will use, then I show them what process we will go through to be able to play the songs they want to play.

    I do this because I want the student to see the big picture, the why of what we are doing. I explain what books I use and why, and what we’ll be doing.

    Mainly, I look at the first lesson as selling myself to both the student and parent on why we should keep doing lessons and what’s in it for them.

    The second lesson is when I really start teaching stuff, once they’re clear on why.

  6. Hey Joy, what a great post! I completely agree with you! I also used to make similar mistake of having a “list” and now I’m getting away from it. You are right, students are usually so excited to show the teacher what they already know and there is no need to show them that what they know is not good enough (yet). It’s all about connecting with them and learning what makes them excited. Then they will want to learn from you.
    I wish I knew that earlier when I just started teaching…

  7. Hi Joy,

    I’m so glad I found your site today. Next week I will start teaching for the first time with my friend’s studio. I have all beginners (except for one transfer student that I will meet today!) so in mentally preparing for the first lessons, I had also made a list (pretty much the same one you have listed above). But I knew deep down that I wanted the lesson to be fun and interactive. I felt like I had 30 minutes to get that all done and I didn’t know how it was going to work. I would have totally rushed it and made all the same mistakes. Thanks for sharing your wisdom. I’m now, instead, making a list of games and interactive activities to get to know their level and ability as well introduce them to the piano. Thanks SO much! I’m going to subscribe to your blog. I think you might be helping me a lot this year. 🙂

    1. Hi Melanna! I’m so glad you found us too – it’s great having a network of teachers to exchange ideas with, and I hope we can continue to be useful to you in the future! 🙂 Good luck with all those new beginner students, and thanks for leaving your comment!

  8. I’m so excited to have found your blog! I’ve been reading it like crazy today. So many fabulous ideas! I have been a piano teacher for many years and still struggle with that first lesson for the exact reasons you mentioned! I get so hung up on needing to get through my list that I rush through it way too fast. I think I feel I need to impress the parents with all that their child has learned in just 30 minutes. It’s so silly. Anyways, great post and I love your blog. I’m excited to start implementing some of your ideas!

  9. Hello, I’m a freshman in high school and I’m starting to give piano lessons to some younger children tomorrow. This article really helped me get an idea of what I should say / do for my first lesson. Thanks! I’ll be back here often : )

  10. You are a lifesaver! I taught piano for many years, then quit to work with my husband. Once that job ended, I was kept busy babysitting grandkids. Now, after many years, I am ready to resume teaching and was feeling rather apprehensive about it. How did I used to do it?! You have provided such concrete, down-to-earth information and helped me feel much more prepared for that first lesson! Thank you so much!

  11. I have also developed a very similar routine for the first lesson. The students seem to respond great! But, my question is: what sort of assignment do you send home for that first week of practice? I always struggle with this as the first few pages of the method books are important, take time to go over and contain no songs!

  12. Ditto all first time teacher comments above. Thank you for the inspiration on how to make my 1st lessons today really fun! Appreciate your wisdom.

  13. I love your website Joy. I have been teaching only for a year and a half, while in school for music myself, and you’re activities and suggestions have been a wonderful help. One thing I LOVE to do the first time I meet with my students (and I didn’t see that anyone posted this): I show them how the piano works. We open up all of the parts, pluck strings, touch the hammers. I press the petals while they look inside and we talk about what everything does. I talk with the parents about policy, and I talk with the children about their musical experiences. We go through our books (I really love showing them the last pieces in the books because they can’t believe that they’ll be able to play it. It gets them excited). But certainly, looking inside of the piano is always the highlight : )

  14. For the student’s very first lesson, I conduct an informal interview. I ask questions pertaining to topics such as birthday, age (kids are usually quite proud of how old they are!), favourite topics/activities at school, whether they play sports or not, if they like to sing, what their favourite music is, why they are taking piano, etc…

    This is helpful because it gives me an opportunity to connect with them as a person. I can respond to some of their answers with, “I really liked that subject in school, too!” or “I love playing soccer, too, but I’m a terrible goalie!” Anyone, including adults, find comfort in commonalities.

  15. Joy, thank you so much for the great ideas! I used it for my free trial on Wednesday and it turned out so well!! :> the student’s smile after we finished the improvisation was so beautiful and precious! And the same happiness from the mom too!!
    Wish I had found this earlier and used it for other free trials too!! :>
    Thank you so much!!

  16. I find that having a free “Meet and Greet” opportunity wirks well. Where possible I arrange for the parent and pupil to come around to see where I teach, even meet the cats and dog! This way they feel more at ease for their fisrt formal lesson. I still have my list, but I go through it far more slowly these days and include more activities.

    1. I do something similar too, Margaret! I like that you call it a “Meet and Greet” — that’s a great name. Many teachers call it an interview, but I’ve never called it that to parents because (1) it sounds scary, and (2) since I recently relocated, it’s not like I am going to be turning down any students. At this point, I’ll teach anyone who wants to learn. 🙂

  17. Thank you, thank you, thank you for this post! I am a new teacher and struggle with first lessons and how to help a student have a desire for playing the piano instead of a boring list! These are great ideas.

  18. Joy! This is such a great idea. First lessons are always tricky, but you gave me some great ideas. I stumbled across your blog on pinterest (ooof course!) and I am so excited to look through it. You are so great to share your ideas with people. THANK YOU! 🙂

  19. I also just stumbled across your blog and am so grateful for your tips!! I think in the past I have been more nervous for the first lesson than the student! I will be reading your blog inside and out! Thanks again!

  20. I’m so glad I came across your site. I love all the printables and the helpful teaching tips. I’m in my first year of teaching beginner piano for the after school program for the elementary school that I work at during the day. I’ve played piano since I was 6, but have never taught it. Two very different things, I’ve come to learn LOL!I have absolutely no resources given to me and I buy or make all my own teaching aids. Your site is a godsend. Thanks!

    1. Ally, what lesson books are you using? Its hard to break down something that you do naturally.

  21. Thank you. I’m teaching my first lesson today. I’ve taught a thousand trumpet lessons. Piano is more daunting for me because I started learning at 2, and don’t remember.. Lol. I didn’t want to DO THE LIST. I MADE THE LIST, lol. So, your post rules. Great thoughts.

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