When you’re teaching piano to beginners, it’s always important to remember that how you teach your students can have an immense impact on your students’ relationship with the piano on a micro level and music as a whole on a macro level.
Therefore, in today’s article, I will share some useful insights and strategies to help you better understand how you can teach the piano to your students in a way that will better help them not only learn how to play the piano well, but will also make the learning process more enriching and enjoyable for the student, as well.
How To Teach Piano Lessons
Let’s begin with Step #1.
Step 1: Know The “Why” That Composes The Journey
As the groundbreaking thing we call “the internet” continues to expand our lives, there are so many ways for musicians to make money.
Some of these options have more practical benefits than others, but there are more opportunities for musicians and music teachers to find work than in past eras. If you’ve decided that teaching beginners how to play the piano is something you want to do, I urge you to ask yourself what your reason for doing so is.
I advise you to not ask this question superficially. Instead, I invite you to revisit what music, being a musician, and playing the piano truly means to you. Understand how it has influenced the person that you are and perhaps who you’re even fast becoming.
Explore what it was before it was ever a “job.” Take a moment and consider that you can’t project your personal process and answers onto your student. You can control how you teach piano lessons, but you can’t control how they learn or how this process functions in their lives.
I begin by sharing this perspective because I see it as the often-forgotten soul of teaching piano lessons. Without keeping these ideas in mind, it ’s far too easy to teach in a self-serving (rather than selfless) manner.
For example, a teacher could implement a certain lesson plan with a student because they feel that is the best way to teach music. When a beginner student is really struggling at a certain point, it’s important for a piano teacher to pause and question the rationale of using this “superior” method.
Are they using this method because using something trusted and familiar is easy? Is the teacher sticking with it because it validates his or her expertise, therefore blaming the student for their difficulty learning?
None of these reasons consider the student’s individual needs as a fellow lover of music and a unique human being. That sense of empathy (which I will share later) is crucial, and its absence fails to feed a student’s motivation to practice and continue making the investment to learn with you.
Most of us, if not every piano teacher, can agree that the fundamentals of the piano are necessary for a beginner student to learn.
Though this is true, it can be really impactful when we rationalize our approach by considering the individual student’s goal. For example, if you have a teenage student and his or her group of friends woke up and decided to start a band one day, you might have to be ready to put the scales and solfege syllables on hold for a while.
Going straight to playing the chords of their most basic favorite song, even if they don’t fully understand the piano theory of what they’re playing, could actually build the excitement and confidence that will drive them to practice the scales and sight-reading at a later date.
So, in more simple terms—read the room. Understand the mood and temperament of your student on a day to day basis.
If you have a student who is primarily a vocalist but wants to run his or her own warmup exercises on the keyboard and improve their pitch, spending more time on memorizing the fingering, sound, and identifying traits of scales and intervals may prove unhelpful.
This reflects what it means to learn how to teach piano lessons to students in a meaningful way that doesn’t force them into the cookie-cutter shapes that everyone despises.
Step 2: Have Empathy
In the act of teaching, this skill goes a lot deeper than just asking how someone feels. Not only are we to be mindful of each individual student, but the best results can come when we genuinely extend our awareness to how that student shows up on that particular day, in that particular moment.
How we teach piano lessons should distinguish us from the countless YouTube videos and online piano courses that exist on the Internet and across various apps.
In this day and age, the most valuable piece of the live one-on-one lessons we offer (virtual or physical), is our very presence. Your students are not only paying money, but they are sharing their real-time presence with us also. The least we can do is teach with a genuine awareness of that presence.
So, you may be asking what this kind of presence can look like?
Well, if you were to ask me how to teach piano lessons with empathy, I’d tell you that one way is to offer it to your students by asking mindful questions.
Please be beware that empathetic questioning does not equate to flat-out prying into the private lives of students! After all, they are paying us to teach piano, not provide music therapy sessions. Unless we are qualified as well-trained and credentialed music therapists, we are not equipped with the skills to pose as a piano student’s therapist.
Instead, we can pay attention to many things (for example, how a student walks in, sits down, speaks, attempts to follow an instruction, etc), and make conscious choices. Our perceptions should never snowball into full-blown presumptions, but they may inspire what questions we ask, how we ask them, and how we choose activities and guide the rest of the lesson.
There are some questions that an empathetic teacher may ask to inform them on how to assist the student in learning this thing we love—the piano. The point is to be aware, care, and remember that we’re working with people who live, breathe, and feel.
The language, attitude, and openness of a teacher can make an impact on a student’s experience that you may never fully be aware of.
Something as innocent and beautiful as a piano could become a trigger for psychological trauma depending on how it is regarded when in the context of traumatizing life events.
Regardless of age, cultural background, ethnicity, or economic rank, you never truly know what your student may truly be going through. In an equally impactful way, an empowering experience of learning the piano can lead to the piano becoming a lifelong source of inspiration, stimulation, creativity, and personal development through life’s highs and lows.
Empathy in the teaching space is a great indicator of how a little can go such a long way.
Step 3: Know Your Toolbox
Now for some hands-on tips!
As many of us are teaching more virtual piano lessons than in-person, it can be important to be knowledgeable and willing to recommend and utilize technology for teaching. Scorewriters, music game apps, and YouTube can absolutely be your best friend!
Just like human best friends, this doesn’t mean that you call them for every single event or problem. What matters most is that they show up when they are most needed.
You may have a student that may have otherwise gotten too bored and quit without being introduced to a colorfully engaging game app only to find that you have yet to ever mention the very same app to a different student.
When teaching piano lessons, your line of questioning may reveal unique information. For example, you find out that a certain student remembers things better when they write it down with a pen and paper, while another student grasps things much better when you share your screen on Zoom and utilize a scorewriter (or music notation software) while they also have it open on their screen, doing the same thing.
Whatever the case is, do your research. Know what tools are available for the benefit of the beautifully diverse set of minds you may connect with on a musical journey. That alone can expand your own understanding of how to teach piano lessons.
Google Flat is free, accessible from an online web browser, and makes it pretty easy to share and save work just like a Google Doc. It’s not the most advanced or sonically attractive choice, but it’s been perfect for moments when I’ve needed a quick and convenient solution.
In college, I used Sibelius for various assignments. I haven’t required it for any of my beginner students, but it’s great to have in the arsenal.
For students who produce music or would like to become a producer, Logic Pro X is capable of presenting midi tracks as music notation on a score. Differently from a traditional scorewriter, it is possible to see complex melodic and harmonic ideas in a Logic Pro X approximated score that a student may struggle or lack interest in ever actually transcribing.
Step 4: Teach Them How to LISTEN!
Teaching the piano to a beginner student should include teaching the art of listening to the instrument and the notes being played. As teachers, we come with our own sets of various strengths and weaknesses. I want to preface this step by acknowledging that even if we don’t exactly have the ears of Mozart ourselves, ear training is an important part of teaching piano. When we teach it, we also extend the opportunity to brush up on our own skills.
Don’t be afraid of humbling yourself and letting your students bear witness to your own learning. Without developing their sense of pitch and ability to trust their ears, we are programming their fingers and eyes while leaving out one of the primary ways that we absorb music—through our hearing.
For a hearing student, this is crucial for their musicianship to remain present even when the sheet music is put away (I specify this for a “hearing” student because many deaf people play piano, and though I have never taught a deaf student, I do not wish to promote ableism in music).
It’s true that such skills can develop naturally over time, but awakening their potential of active listening from the beginning enhances their understanding of why what they are learning to read even matters.
An ear that can trust itself to identify where they made a mistake can also better trust itself to celebrate the student’s musical accuracy. One can not teach musicality, but it can be developed and supported by a conscious guide who knows how to teach piano lessons with the intentions in mind.
For example, I enjoy having students play their favorite song from a device and giving them the opportunity to find the root note of the key. Of course, this would only be done once they’ve been given a sufficient explanation of what a root note even is.
Once they can find it, I may use YouTube (wink, wink) to find a rendition of the same song in a different key and repeat the exercise. When teaching piano lessons to beginners, this provides another opportunity to talk about what other qualities the students might notice when comparing the two versions.
For instance, when my student has a cheap keyboard that can’t really pick up a range of dynamic markings, I can introduce those Italian dynamic markings as vocabulary words if one version is very loud (fortissimo) while the second rendition is a very soft (pianissimo) piano cover.
While vocalizing may naturally be part of anyone’s piano lesson, a beginner piano student with any background in singing could reap great benefits from singing for the purpose of strengthening their musical ear.
For some students, the question of “can you hear that” can better be offered as “can you sing that”. Of course, singing might make a student feel overly exposed or too vulnerable.
If you find yourself teaching piano to a beginner, you should invest the effort to gradually build trust, confidence, and joy! I take great liberties in challenging my students to be more musical only when I know they’ve enjoyed working with me and trust that whatever they do, their sense of dignity is perfectly safe in a lesson with me.
For teachers who have multiple harmonic or tonal instruments in their toolbox, this listening skill can be enhanced in even more ways for students who are also interested in or have a background playing multiple instruments.
I’ve worked with students who know some guitar chords but are completely new to the keyboard. When I have them play the chord on guitar while I’m explaining the relationship of roots, thirds, and fifth, connecting the two instruments through the music theory builds on what they already know and can hear.
The beginner student who is used to “playing by ear” should not be forced to throw that part of themselves away. There are strengths worth capitalizing right there… in that very same ear! The student who retains and understands the technique and concepts very quickly should not only be taught to regurgitate, but I would see to it that they are challenged to play by ear once in a while.
Step 4.5: Get Them Notating Early
When teaching to a beginner, one of the most rewarding moments is seeing that student compose their own melody. It’s one of my favorite uses of notation software, although I maintain the practice of mindfully picking and choosing who and when I invite to this activity.
When used, there is an emotionally gratifying sense of “wow! I really made that!” for some students. In a practical sense, the act of actually writing an original idea or even notating the melody to a familiar tune can help clarify confusion about the staff, rhythmic notation, or any other related issue. In most other contexts, we plainly call this phenomenon “learning by experience”.
Step 5: Review The Experience
I would hope that it is common practice to go over content from a lesson either at the end of one sitting or at the beginning when reviewing topics covered prior.
When working with anyone that is still getting to know you, your teaching style, and your instrument, it can be just as important to go over how the student experienced the lesson as well. Sometimes we may think we’re among the most attentive, empathetic, and resourceful piano teachers in all the land!
Unfortunately, our egos do not have a magic wand that makes this automatically true. There is no shame in inquiring with our students about how they felt during the lesson and if how you were challenging them or demonstrating for them was okay or “worked” for them.
Just because the student learned the lesson does not mean it was a rewarding experience for them. This is not meant to imply that each lesson should end with huge smiles and beaming joy. However, regularly maintaining an open line of communication enables students to be more honest when it matters most.
This honesty may bring about opportunities to learn useful information about how a certain approach actually translated to the person you’re working with.
This step brings us back to Step 1 – “Why”. Questions I may bring up at the end of a lesson may include “How did you feel about that new thing we tried today”, “We spent a lot of time on YouTube today instead of playing, how did you feel about that”. Sometimes, I get answers that are better than expected. Other times, the response can be painfully underwhelming (like when my nonchalant teenage students don’t seem to have any preference or opinion and everything is ‘fine’).
Still, I believe they continue to come to me because perhaps, all of that questioning lets them know how much I care.
If I were to summarize these steps into one word, it would be “empowerment”. I truly believe that a teacher who is empowered to deviate from their own comfort zone is more likely to help students grow beyond theirs.
The 2nd and 3rd place words that I could have chosen are “purpose” and “connection”. I could take another 6 pages of writing to explain why I’d mention those words, but how can a student connect to their purpose of playing the piano if they do not feel empowered? What would be the point of such a phony honorable mention?
Much of my ideology about teaching piano grew from my training in music therapy. In Nordoff-Robbins’s approach to music therapy, there is this idea of the “music child” that exists within all of us.
When a person falls in love with music enough to want to learn how to play, that innermost part of the person should not feel completely defeated and erased by the process. When teaching piano to beginners, there is value in feeding into that love that can be reflected in how the student continues to develop their musical skills.
Sometimes, the reflection of how much love is retained can be found in the teacher’s ability to retain the student. The student, of course, has their own “why” for wanting to learn. For me, I take pride in honoring their “why” and empowering their desire to learn this beautiful instrument.
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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