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.
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:
- 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.)
- 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. =)
- 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!
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? =)