One thing I LOVE about being a piano teacher in 2016 is how much of a global community we have to draw from. So many teachers are sharing their approaches, observations and methods freely online.
We have access to so much information and combined experience through blogs, Facebook groups, and other online communities. It’s very different to when I started teaching in 2005.
When I started teaching piano, it felt like other teachers had secrets that I didn’t have access too. Maybe they had some greater purpose and plan than I did. Maybe they knew mysterious things that I had no comprehension of.
This was all quite true in a sense. I couldn’t look into other teacher’s lessons. Let alone the hundreds of studios all over the world that I can peek into these days!
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The Mysterious First Lesson
I’m now a confident teacher with (ever evolving and developing) plans. And I want to share something that I think will help teachers out in what I know to be a sometimes terrifying prospect…
The very first lesson with a new student.
I’m going to be writing a series of these posts detailing how I approach a first piano lesson with different types of students, and I’m kicking off with the example of a 5 year old beginner.
There’s so much to think about in a first piano lesson, and this is just one way to do it. There’s no “right” or “wrong” here, but I know it would have helped me when I was starting out 11 years ago.
For me there are two important viewpoints to consider…
1. What you want to know
The first side to look at when planning this first lesson or interview, is what you want to find out about your new student. The more you know, the better you can plan for the next lessons, and the better you can match books and resources to the student’s personality and learning style.
In a first lesson with a young beginner, there a few key things I want to know.
- How well they can see patterns of keys and navigate the keyboard.
- If they have developed any aural pitch awareness.
- Whether they match pitch when they sing.
- How developed their fingers are, and how much control they have over individual fingers.
- Whether they have yet developed a sense of pulse and if they can keep a steady beat.
There are definitely more things I’m paying attention to in my first interactions with a child. These are just the key musical abilities that I want to assess. The reason for choosing these particular ones is that they are the most common stumbling blocks for students this age.
As we move forward, I want to be proactive and prepared so that I can put everything in place. That way, when we do reach the hurdle, my student will glide right over it.
2. How you want the student to feel
Now, all that said, this isn’t the way we want our new precious student to think of their first piano lesson. It absolutely shouldn’t feel like some kind of assessment or test.
I want this new student to leave with a beaming smile, impatient for the next lesson! Setting off on the right foot can set you up for a wonderful student-teacher relationship for (potentially!) years to come.
So, this is where the delicate balance of masking these little assessments and observations as fun and games comes in.
The key aural skills I want to find out about with a five year old beginning piano student like this are these basic opposites:
- Loud vs. Soft
- Short vs. Long
- Same vs. Different
- High vs. Low
At five years old, the toughest of these is usually high & low. Especially once you apply that to a piano where high=right and low=left. This just boggles the mind of some kids. Others will get it right away.
One of my favourite ways to practice these beginning aural skills are the listening paddles I made a little while back. In a first lesson we might not get to more than one of these pairs, or we might do them all.
Follow the child’s lead here. If they look at all concerned or stressed by the exercise, move on! I also don’t recommend correcting their answers at this stage. Keep it positive and reaffirming.
Some five year olds can already perfectly match pitch, and some are a long way from doing that yet.
I include lots of singing in lessons, it’s a big part of my teaching style. I want to know right away how much coaching this area is going to require.
It’s usually easier initially to match like with like. Start with getting your new beginner to sing along with your singing, not with the piano.
Two pitches is often enough to start with. I simply use a pattern of so-mi accompanied by the Kirwin hand signs. If I have a natural and enthusiastic singer on my hands, I’ll switch it up between so-mi patterns, and do-low la patterns.
Even if you don’t use a lot of solfa singing in your studio (Wait, why not? 😉 ) I’d still recommend some kind of singing activity. Even singing along with a CD from a method book can tell you so much about a child’s pitch awareness.
This one is BIG at this age. There is huge variance in finger strength and agility among five year olds.
I’ve met five year olds who are still grasping a crayon in a fist instead of a pen grip. Equally I’ve met some five year olds who have as much dexterity as the average seven year old.
This is why we tap it out. I get them tapping individual fingers on a table or closed piano lid. Call out “finger 2!” and demonstrate tapping this finger independently.
As with everything else here, this needs to be adapted to have a positive experience. Fingers 1 & 2 could be enough for the first day. Or, you might be able to utilise all the fingers, and specify which hand to use.
Keeping the Beat
Do you have a friend that claps along with songs in a sort of hap-hazard, erratic manner?
Does it drive you bananas?
Let’s not inflict this on the next generation. If we catch them at this age, they’ll never become those slightly out-of-time adults we all know and…love in spite of their clapping style.
We don’t want to confuse fine motor skills with actual sense of pulse either. Get your student marching, jumping, stomping, and playing percussion instruments. Develop and assess the gross motor skills first, and you can go from there.
Navigating the Keyboard
This is really about visual pattern recognition. To find our way around the keyboard we need to see it as a series of two and three black key patterns. Not all five year olds will see this right away.
Improvisation can also help with beginning navigation. Even simple specification such as “Let’s play only white keys.”, or “Let’s use only three black key groups this time.” can prompt exploration and understanding of the keyboard geography.
How might all this look?
Every individual lesson is different and every child is different. However, I think it can be useful to see all this laid out in specific terms.
The plan below shows the general focus of each activity, a brief description of what that activity consists of, and the time estimated for that activity.
You can download this lesson outline as a pdf by filling in your details below.
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It is not meant to be a prescriptive and exact lesson plan, more of a guideline. I hope it provides you with a starting point and inspiration for your first lesson with a very young beginner. Use it in any way you find helpful!
What does a first lesson look like in your studio?
I’m excited to hear how everyone approaches this important first interaction!
There isn’t one perfect first lesson for a young beginner. I believe we can all learn so much by sharing how it works for us.
Share your favourite first lesson activities for young beginners below!