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The Ultimate Guide to Your Piano Teaching Curriculum

Let’s say an 8-year-old newbie just joined your studio. What do you want her to be able to do after the first 6 months? The first year? The second year? Taking that a step further, what do you teach – and when – to help guide your new student down that path?

The Ultimate Guide to your Piano Teaching Curriculum facebook 1

If you don’t have answers for those questions, you’re not alone. Too many of us approach our teaching just 1 lesson at a time without any real long-term plan.

I believe all teachers should have some sort of overarching curriculum to guide them. It doesn’t have to be fancy, but it does require some thought.

The content in this post was originally published in February 2019, then updated in July 2021.

What is a piano teaching curriculum?

A curriculum is simply a pathway which helps us guide our students from their very first steps for as long as they remain in your studio.

If you like listening to podcasts, we cover what a music teaching curriculum really is in this episode:

This loose framework is not a set of lesson plans. It’s not a prescription of exactly what you should do at each stage of a student’s education.

Your piano teaching curriculum is not an exam syllabus, nor is it a method book. 

Your curriculum should be rooted in your goals for your students. Not Randall Faber’s goals. Not John Thompson’s goals. Your goals.

The pathway you lay out will determine where your students end up, so it needs to reflect the goals you have for your students and the type of teacher you want to be.

Why You Need a Piano Teaching Curriculum

As I see it, a good piano teaching curriculum can provide a framework for what you teach and when you teach it. It doesn’t stop you taking detours, but it does give you some direction.

Analogy: Taking a Roadtrip, option 1

Imagine you want to take a roadtrip. First, you decide on a destination – let’s say the Rock of Cashel, for example.

Rock of Cashel

Good choice! The journey from Dublin will only be about 2 hours. Perfect for a day out. 🙂

Next you plug “Rock of Cashel” into Google Maps (or look it up on an actual paper map,) then off you go.

When you’re on the road, you see a sign for Castletown House and think: “Hey, that might be worth a look too!” so you head off on some side roads to find it.

Castletown_House_Celbridge_Co_Kildare_Ireland

Once you visited the 18th-century mansion, you get back in the car and head in the direction of the Rock of Cashel, stopping a few times along the way to absorb the views.

Analogy: Taking a Roadtrip, option 2

Ok, so maybe you’re the type not to plan your roadtrip. You prefer to just set sail and go where the wind takes you.

That’s all well and good, but I’m afraid your Ireland roadtrip will now be simply a tour of some green fields.

Ireland_fields

Nothing wrong with seeing all 50 shades of green (and it is a good representation of this little island!) but you can do better.

A little planning goes a long way. 

Roadtrip Analogy: Back to Your Piano Teaching Curriculum

Do you see how my analogy relates to your piano teaching curriculum? No? Let me lay it out for you.

Not planning your curriculum is like setting off on a roadtrip without any kind of destination in mind.

You might see some interesting stuff, you might not. You could end up at a cool castle in Cork, or you might just go around in circles and have to stop and ask some (probably very friendly!) strangers for directions.

Don’t you think your students deserve more than that? 

They’re getting in the car with you. They trust that you have a plan.

The destination of your student’s musical journey might change. They might decide they want to be in a rock band or write film music and you’ll have to be able to adapt to that.

That’s OK!

But I think sometimes we piano teachers use that as an excuse to not make a plan at all.

Setting a piano teaching curriculum for your studio doesn’t mean you’re locked into it. It simply provides a framework to explore music and develop wonderful musicians who can go wherever they want because they have the skills to do so.

If you need help getting into the more nitty-gritty details of planning, check out the resources in my Planning Lessons hub page.

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How to Create Your Piano Teacher Curriculum

As I see it, there are 3 ways to go about developing the curriculum for your piano studio.

Method 1: The Fill-in-the-Gaps Method

This method of designing your piano studio curriculum means starting with (1) what you know, and (2) what you know you like.

Step 1: Method Book or Exam Syllabus

Pick a method book series or exam syllabus you love.

library of books

You don’t have to agree with absolutely everything in the books, or the order in which concepts are introduced, but it should be in close alignment with your goals for your students and your teaching style.

Step 2: Write Out Everything it Covers

Once you’ve chosen your book series or exam syllabus, make a list of everything covered, in the order it is covered. This will be your starting point for figuring out your studio’s curriculum.

You can do this in Excel, Google Docs, a notebook or on a bunch of post-its. The format is not important; just get it down somewhere where you can see it clearly. 

Step 3: Shuffle and Fill in the Gaps

Now it’s time to mess with it a bit.

Is there…

  • Something you always wish was introduced sooner?
  • A hurdle which you feel students get stuck on, and would be better introduced later on in their journey?
  • Anything left out which is important to you?

Keep scribbling, shuffling, adding and subtracting until you end with a list and a timeline which makes sense to you. Congratulations! You now have a piano teaching curriculum.

Don’t stop here though. I recommend trying the next method too – the goals method. It provides a different perspective. 🙂

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Method 2: The Goals Method

Starting with your goals for your students means you can get a bit more thoughtful about the broad picture before getting stuck in the weeds.

Step 1: Start at the End

Pick an amount of time that an average, happy student would stay in your studio, all things going well. (I don’t mean your average retention rate here; this should be more of an ideal than a statistic.)

For example: If you start most beginners at age 8 and a happy student will stay until age 18, you might choose 10 years as your “end”. If you mostly work with adult students who just want to reach a solid intermediate level of playing, maybe it’s 4 years.

Once you’ve chosen your time frame, write a list of all the things you want that student to know and to be able to do when they “graduate” from your studio.

Perhaps your list looks like this:

  • Can play from a leadsheet
  • Knows how to accompany singers
  • Has learnt at least one Beethoven sonata or Bach prelude & fugue
  • Has passed at least the grade 5 theory exam

That’s just a random selection. I’m not saying those are the right goals or the wrong goals, and you should certainly have many more than that. But it gives you an idea of what a “goal” might look like.

Step 2: Work Backwards

Once you have the end in mind, the rest is easy.

Planning in reverse

Work backwards one year at a time to decide what this student should be able to do at each stage. Always relate each goal at the end of each year to your original graduation goals. 

The goals for the first year should be relatively easy to achieve for the average student who follows your direction. If it looks more like a superhuman prodigy’s progression through their piano studies, then you should modify your end goals and start the process again.

Method 3: The Off-the-Rack Method

Both of the above processes are useful exercises for any teacher to go through. But there is also a third, no-stress way to set up your piano teaching curriculum. You can use one which has been developed for you, like the Piano Powerbooster series inside the Vibrant Music Teaching Library for teachers who subscribe to our membership program.

I created this curriculum to cover all the bases for piano teachers who want to ensure their students get a well-rounded music education. It’s also flexible enough that you can modify it to suit your teaching style and goals.

Members can instantly access Powerbooster One, Powerbooster Two, and Powerbooster Three inside the VMT Course Library.

Haven’t heard of our membership site? Find out all the goodness you’re missing out on and sign up today.

Have you tried these exercises to create your own piano teaching curriculum?

How did you find the process? Let me know in the comments below – I’m curious to hear how you got on. 🙂

17 thoughts on “The Ultimate Guide to Your Piano Teaching Curriculum”

  1. Thanks so much for this Nicola.
    I really need this curriculum for Piano teaching.
    In my country there are not much resources to depend on. It will be so great of you to make one available as a sample to further adapt to our situation here or outright adoption.
    Looking forward to reading your next week article.
    Regards

    Seun Akin-Ajayi

    Reply
  2. I’m so on the same page Nicola! As a relatively new teacher whose students are just starting to graduate from method books, I am feeling the need to develop a strong road map – or maybe several – depending on students’ ages, goals, etc. I love how your challenge board ensures students are getting a well-rounded education, and the last few videos & worksheets that you put out on your blog have been so timely, especially as I’m working on a pedagogy diploma. I think it’ll take me a few more years of experience before I can truly say I have a curriculum, so I’m looking forward to reading your next post!

    Reply
  3. One of my favourite topics, Nicola! And thanks for these wonderful pictures of your country! Love them!

    I thing I have a strong curriculum for beginners, but once they are intermediates I feel lost and overwhelmed. So many possibilities! I want to find paths to propose to my students and let them choose. Looking forward to your second part!

    Carina

    Reply
  4. I’m very delighted to have access to you online. I love your approach to piano tutoring and it’s uniqueness. I learnt how to play the piano the traditional way…without games.
    Thank you for sharing your knowledge!
    Dieko

    Reply

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