The Ultimate First Lesson Plan for a Transfer Piano Student

It’s a simple fact: Transfer students are tougher to work with than those you teach from the very beginning. There are many reasons for this, but they all boil down to one thing: You don’t know what they have and haven’t been taught.

And that makes your job harder. It just does.

This post was originally published in October 2017, and subsequently updated in September 2021.

However, I’ve gone on record saying I actually like taking transfer students.

Although the holes in their knowledge and the uncertainty of what’s been covered so far can be challenging, I love opening up a whole new side of music for these students.

Most of the transfer students I get have never improvised or composed, and many have never even played a duet with their teacher.

I could cry out in frustration at this, or I could just have fun showing them this broader approach to music.

It All Starts at the First Lesson

The very first lesson with a transfer piano student is a highly charged situation – much more so than with a newbie.

The student probably has all sorts of expectations about what piano lessons are like and what you’re going to be like. And most of all they’re probably very nervous.

Newbie piano students are usually excited.

Transfer students are usually anxious and apprehensive.

So, your primary job is to make her feel comfortable and welcome her to your studio. Any assessing you need to do to move forward is secondary to this.

Maybe her last teacher was lovely, thoughtful and competent – and maybe she wasn’t. Either way, this is your student now. Whatever their last teacher was like is not the student’s fault and should not get in the way of how you teach them.

If you’re not sure how to get off on the right foot, here are the 5 steps in my own tried-and-true first lesson plan for a transfer piano student.

For a printable checklist of my lesson plan, enter your info in the box below.

Vibrant Music Teaching members, you can access this resource right now inside the VMT library. Not a member yet? Find out more about becoming a member here.

Transfer Student Lesson Plan Step 1: Something Comfortable

The first thing I ask my transfer student to do is play something for me which they know well – anything they love and feel confident playing. So ask them ahead of time to bring along anything they can play for you.

In my case, students tend to come from exam-led teaching so they’ll usually play a piece from their last exam. For your students, though, it might be a recital piece or a method book piece.

Now – and this is important – assure them before they start playing that you are not there to assess their performance. Tell them you just want to get a feel for their style and what kind of music they enjoy.

Of course you will be paying close attention to help you with your planning, but it shouldn’t look like you are.

Now – and this is important – assure her before she starts playing that you are not there to assess her performance. Tell her you just want to get a feel for her style and what kind of music she enjoys.

Of course, you will be paying close attention to help you with your planning, but it shouldn’t look like you are.

I like to actually roll my chair back a bit so that I’m out of my student’s peripheral vision while they play. They don’t know me yet, and I know how incredibly intimidating it can be to play for a stranger.

Transfer Student Lesson Plan Step 2: Scary Sight-reading

Sight reading is the hardest part of the first lesson with a transfer student. Although I wish I didn’t have to do it, I do find it necessary to be able to move forward.

You have to see your student read.

It doesn’t matter if the prepared piece was a flawless performance or a complete flop – it doesn’t tell you about their reading skills. You have no idea how that piece was learnt, so you still don’t know anything about their actual knowledge and skill base.

To make the sight-reading portion as friendly and non-scary as possible, make sure you:

  • Start way too easy. If your student is supposedly a level 5, give them a level 1 piece to read first (preferably not from a method book so they don’t know what you’re doing).
  • Use guiding questions. Don’t leave them completely to her own devices! Ask them questions before they begin to help hthem with the deciphering process.
  • Explain what you’re doing. Tell them that this is simply so you can figure out where they are, as each teacher teaches differently. This is about getting to know each other and is NOT a test.

I usually run through a few reading samples in this first lesson to gauge my student’s level. However if I notice they’re at all stressed out by it, I’ll stop after just one or two.

We can come back to reading later – establishing rapport is more important for the moment.

Transfer Student Lesson Plan Step 3: Goals Chat

This is by far the most important part of your first lesson with a transfer piano student. The only reason it’s not first on the list is that it’s usually better to warm up a little first.

You need to know what they wants from lessons.

  • Does they want to learn some pop music? Or jazz maybe?
  • Are there any pieces they started with their other teacher that they want to polish off?
  • Do they want to sit an exam or go in for a competition?

Depending on your new student’s personality, asking these kind of questions might cause an overflowing of requests and ideas – or they might just completely clam up.

If they’re too shy to give their input at first, try giving them two options at a time and just ask them to pick one or the other. This will still give you insight into their preferences, but is less intimidating than open-ended questions.

Transfer Student Lesson Plan Step 4: Quick Win

No first transfer student’s first lesson is complete without some quick wins.

These should be easy but impressive-sounding things that you can teach your student at the very first lesson so they can go home and sound awesome.

Your student should leave their lesson excited to practise.

Quick wins which work well for my transfer students include:

Prepare a few possible quick wins for your transfer students and pick out the one which best aligns with their goals.

Transfer Student Lesson Plan Step 5: Improvise and Inspire

I mentioned earlier that one of the reasons I love taking on transfer students is because I get to introduce them to fun stuff like improvisation. And that starts at their very first lesson.

There are so many improvisation activities you can do even with the most strictly classical, cautious students.

Some of my favourites come from the Create First books from Forrest Kinney. You can jump into these books even if you’ve never improvised in your life. It’s easy, I promise.

If you have time to spare in your transfer student’s first lesson, I suggest trying out the weather improvisations. They are so much fun and so vivid.

If you only have two minutes to spend on something creative, then spend one of those minutes on Sunrise and the other minute on Moonrise. Beautiful contrast, super inspiring and a great introduction to improvising on the black keys.

Your transfer piano student will almost certainly be inspired and fall in love with your studio if you include both a quick win and an improv exercise in their very first lesson.

Vibrant Music Teaching members, no need to wait for an email! You can access this resource right now inside the VMT library. Not a member yet? Learn more about what you’re missing out on.

What’s your experience been like with transfer piano students?

Share your ideas about their first lesson in the comments below. Then hop over to my centralised hub page all about Planning Lessons for ideas and tips about working with older students and more!

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