How to Teach Piano in 9 Easy Steps
Teaching piano lessons is not an easy job. Multitasking between creating a relationship with the students and ensuring the musical education happens can be a delicate balance, however it’s a worthy one.
With the right teaching, anyone can play piano and eventually sound like a professional, but for the students who may only want to look cool to their friends and play pop songs, establishing fundamentals and classical technique can be difficult.
However, there are some fundamental and easy steps that teachers can take with almost any student to help build those techniques and curate a welcoming relationship with the ability to push students past their goals and limits to achieve standards they never thought possible.
While it takes time and patience, this article will outline 9 easy steps on how to teach piano lessons to students of various ages and levels of expertise.
How to Teach Piano Lessons
There’s one thing to always remember when it comes to teaching piano to students: there is no perfect how-to guide. However, there are indeed common tropes and strategies that have always been effective and remain effective to this day.
From the first few lessons that create a relationship between the student and the teacher to after the student has progressed to winning state competitions and playing 8-page pieces, the teaching aspect remains similar. Applying these techniques and steps to lessons can help any teacher, whether they are new to the profession or an experienced instructor looking for ways to improve their lesson plan.
However, just remember that list is not all-inclusive nor is it a strict step-by-step guide. Rather, this list includes foundational steps that all piano players should take at some point in their learning. If, however, you’re dealing with a student who is a bit more experienced and not a true beginner, feel free to skip a few of these steps and begin further down on this list.
Let’s begin with my #1 step, which is always make sure that you get to know your student on a personal level.
Step 1: Get to Know the Student
Piano lessons are only as good as the relationship between the student and the teacher. The main reason students quit learning piano is because their teacher was neither supportive nor understanding.
For this reason, it’s important to get to know the students and understand what they want to get out of learning piano; what are their goals and aspirations? Additionally, what do they hope to see from you, the teacher? Are they looking for someone to help improve their skill or simply just expose them to new music?
Setting student goals can help establish these answers as well as create a long-term relationship with piano in order to achieve these standards. It is common to have a meeting before lessons begin in order to establish all of these questions.
A pre-meeting is also helpful to allow a teacher to gauge the student’s skill level and get a feel for where to begin in lessons. On the other hand, it’s important for the teacher to communicate their expectations and goals for the student.
How often should they be practicing and in what ways will the student be pushed? The most important part of establishing goals and expectations is for both the student and the teacher to stick to them and only readjust as needed.
Step 2: Start Without the Piano
Good piano players need great foundations which are created by starting without the piano. Especially for younger students who struggle with self-control, having them start away from the piano to learn the physical foundations of playing can help them focus on one thing at a time, not to mention avoid the temptation to continuously press the keys and create disturbances in the lesson.
Away from the piano students can learn the playing fundamentals such as sitting with good posture and feet flat on the floor, hand curvature if they were holding an imaginary ball, and moving arms up and down an imaginary keyboard.
Curving their hands can be one of the hardest parts of piano playing technique, so many teachers give students who are struggling with hand position a physical ball to enhance the feeling of curving the palm and fingers.
These foundations are necessary so students learn the best practices to be the most flexible and get the best sound out of the piano. Eventually students can approach the piano and learn distancing and arm/hand placement.
Step 3: Play the Piano
Obviously to learn the piano, students will eventually need to sit at the piano and begin playing. Once again, taking lessons one thing at a time is a great way to proceed. Rather than begin with learning the staff and sight reading, get the student to start feeling comfortable interacting with the keyboard and it’s layout.
This includes learning where the all-important middle C is and how the keys are arranged (C,D,E,F,G,A,B,C). Piano warmups are a great way to ensure those foundational aspects are upheld while at the instrument and strengthen their fingers and mind-hand coordination.
Some of these warmups may include easy songs that can be learned through rote memorization or Hanon scales to help with movement up and down the board. By focusing only on pressing the keys down and getting familiar with the feel of simple piano playing, students will again be learning foundational skills that will help them as they progress through the learning curriculum.
Step 4: Learn to Read the Music Staff
Once students have gotten a feel for movement along the piano and playing the keys, the next most important step is to learn the staff. It is suggested that teachers begin with the treble clef staff considering that usually carries the melody.
Acronyms are always helpful when learning new things, one common acronym for the line names on the upper staff is: Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge (from bottom to top). And for the spaces one might try FACE (again, from bottom to top). For the bass clef staff some acronyms may include Great Big Dogs Fight Animals for the lines and All Cows Eat Grass for the spaces.
Of course there are many other ways of learning to read the music staffs, but this is a common one. In addition to learning note placements, students should also begin to learn note lengths and rhythms. This can be done simultaneously with sight reading, however if a student is really struggling then having them clap the rhythms is a good first step.
Step 5: Start Sight Reading
No student can improve their piano playing without learning to sight read. Sight reading teaches students to start learning how the piano and compositions go together. They also learn to start thinking ahead to the upcoming notes and musical phrases so that sight reading isn’t entirely choppy.
Many times it can be helpful to start sight reading with one hand at a time. Right hand practices the melody first, then left hand comes in with the undertones. Breaking down music into smaller chunks like that is always a good thing, especially once the student begins to advance and play longer and longer pieces with more complicated rhythms and techniques that are more and more intimidating.
If a student is especially new, sight-reading pieces they are already familiar with may be helpful in reinforcing note staff placement as well as coordinating reading music at the same time as playing the piano.
It encourages students to train their ears to hear the wrong notes and check the staff to see what the right note is while not placing as much strain on the multitasking of reading and playing because they already have a vague sense of how the song is supposed to sound.
Step 6: Learning the Rest of the Sheet Music
Any experienced piano player can tell you that music and playing the piano is about more than just the notes. It’s about how they’re played (A.K.A. the rest of the “stuff” on the music sheet—the things that make the notes and the music interesting).
Dynamics and accents especially are the simplest way to make any piece sound more sophisticated and experienced. The “other stuff” on the sheet music is how students begin to advance their playing. It creates an interesting melody and adds different aspects to the music.
Again, it’s emphasized to take one thing at a time. Learn and master dynamics before moving on to accents before moving on to tempo before moving on to the next musical aspect.
Step 7: Challenge the Student
Once a student has learned the basics and begins implementing more advance musical aspects they may seem like a relatively experienced amateur piano player.
Maybe it seems like there is nothing left to teach them. This is incorrect. The best way to help an experienced piano player improve is to start teaching them the more complex foundations.
The teacher’s role is now shifted from mainly teaching students to challenging them. A great way of doing this is beginning with piano theory, a complicated and messy topic. What constitutes the tone and persona of a certain piece? How do you make an improvisation sound good without creating dissonance? What are different scales and chord types and how do they fit together/enhance piano pieces?
Just for the record, there are tons of great books on piano theory.
Especially for students who are interested in one day becoming teachers themselves or composing their own music, theory can be a great way to keep them interested and invested in their piano studies as well as open a whole new world of the behind-the-scenes piano tactics they can apply to their own playing.
Step 8: Exposure to new music
It is important to expose all students to new types of music because it not only can enhance their playing but teach them new ways of approaching difficult sections, fingerings and techniques.
Many students can easily find the pieces they enjoy whether that’s fast paced and finger-y or slow and melodic, once they find this style it can easily be all they want to play.
However, while they may get very good at that one type of music, it limits their piano playing abilities. New music not only broadens a student’s horizons and breadth of piano knowledge, but also may be able to spark a new interest in the student.
Techniques and foundations are transferrable between music so what student learn from pedaling and floating within melodic pieces may be able to enhance pieces that are fast-paced and aggressive while needing a melodic touch. Not to mention that many pieces have multiple sections that may differ in tempo, key and melodic touch that require a quick transition and things learned within new music can be put into and enhance those sections of the music the student loves.
Step 9: Reset Goals
Ideally each piano lesson will constitute a new goal for both the student and teacher. However, especially with more experienced students who may begin to feel stoic in their piano playing, setting new long-term goals can be really helpful for both students and teachers.
For students they now have something to work towards, a reason to practice and get better. For teachers they know where their student stands and what they hope to achieve in their piano playing. This can help guide future lessons and music choices.
For example, if the student’s goal is to compete and eventually win a state piano competition, then lessons should be geared to finding the right approved piece and working on it and tweaking it. After all, there is no such thing as a perfect piece.
However, if the student’s goal is to just have fun and continue playing pieces they like then, while the teacher should continue to expose them to new music, the teacher also knows to focus on the more fun pieces that the student likes to keep them involved in playing. Taking these goals into account can also help teachers push their students past their own goals and achieve new standards they never thought possible.
Lessons are essentially teaching students how to practice.
After fundamentals for a student are established, the focus of lessons changes from teaching the piano playing, to teaching how to practice pieces on their own. Learning to break pieces into chunks and work them out, playing with a metronome, achieving their practicing goals. The more strategies and techniques students have to use in their own practice time, the faster teachers will be able to see improvement and continue to push and challenge their students.
Focus on one thing at a time
It can be easy for students to get overloaded with information, especially when they are first starting out. Focusing on one thing at a time and mastering the fundamentals can help decrease issues in the future while increasing maximum learning in the present. Reinforcing this mindset can also help students create good practice habits of practicing one measure or one line at a time and mastering it before putting pieces all together.
The simplest things are the easiest to forget
As students gain more experience and play more difficult pieces they may get swallowed up in the escalation of skill. They want to be playing harder and harder pieces, but at the same time getting frustrated when they don’t pick it up right away or stumble through constant sight readings.
This is the main job of teachers of experienced students; to remind them of the simple things to make learning pieces and playing piano easier. Reminders to take pieces one line or measure at a time until it’s great before moving on to the next one, or that students don’t have to start practicing the piece at the beginning every time, isolate the hard parts and practice them alone.
The most important part of instilling these reminders into students is to be extra supportive. It’s easy for students to feel dumb for making these common and noticeable mistakes, so with teacher support and reassurance it helps to give them the motivation to keep moving forward with the piece and not feel stuck.
As a piano teacher, lessons should not be stressful or create strain in your life. Both the student and the teacher need to be having fun and invested in the lessons, otherwise they become a chore. Obviously there are several ways to achieve this goal, but for the most part it should be involuntary.
Playing duets with the students is a great way to both create a bond and remind yourself that you are a piano player too. There are piano teachers who play pieces at the end of their students’ recitals because sometimes it’s easy to forget the teacher loves the instrument as well.
Clearly student and teacher share a common interest or the relationship would never have been set up in the first place. So have fun! Play the new pieces for your students first so they can hear them and decide if it’s a good fit. Stay invested in the piano community and in your students.
Encourage them to step outside their comfort zone and watch them achieve their goals. Don’t forget that you were once a novice as well and how much fun you had just bashing around on the keys. Spark that joy and love for the instrument in your students by putting your own passion into your lessons.
Teaching piano lessons is not an easy job. Students can range anywhere from the new student being forced to learn an instrument by their parents to the experienced student who believes they have nothing else to learn.
There are many different books that can help piano teachers know what order to teach things and aid their lessons, however the important key in knowing how to teach piano lessons is to find the student’s interest. What type of music do they like to play?
Keeping that in mind make sure to try and broaden their horizons. Introduce them to similar music or completely different music that may just light a spark in them. If the student enjoys what they are playing lessons become easier and more fun. The shared passion and enjoyment from playing the piano will make teaching lessons come second-nature and if you run out of ideas just remember the music can guide you.
If you’re still interested in learning how to play piano or keyboard, get your copy of Piano for All today, which features 10 eBooks, 200 video piano lessons and 500 audio piano lessons!
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