The first piano lesson is so important. It’s where the relationship, environment, rules,and expectations start to be established.
We sometimes miss out on some important stuff in that first lesson when we try to teach too much. I really see the first lesson as more or an exploration with the student.
You’re learning about their personality and learning styles, and they’re often meeting the piano for the very first time.
In my last post in this series, Plan the Ultimate First Piano Lesson for a Five Year Old Beginner, I talked about the two conflicting goals.
We want to know certain things about our student after the first piano lesson. We also want the student to feel fantastic after that same lesson.
If a student comes out of the first lesson with nothing they can play at home, that’s not good. If they come out of that lesson with tons to play but a negative feeling, that’s even worse. We want a balance.
Starting piano at this age is a very different experience for the student.
An average 7 year old beginner is unlikely to be too self-aware or self-conscious. A young kid may not notice whether they’re making quick or slow progress. She is also more likely to have been prompted by their parents to take the lessons.
A 12 year old is a completely different story. She may have sought out or asked for the piano lessons herself. There’s perhaps less parental pressure, and more peer influence involved in her decisions.
When I have a new student around the preteen age I make sure to treat them as such. Don’t turn to her parents with questions, treat her as a young adult. Ask about music tastes, interests, goals and why she wanted to take lessons.
Unless the answer you get back to the why question is “because I want to study serious classical music so I can go to a conservatory” you need to teach her something cool.
Whatever cool means to her.
Yes you can still teach technique, etudes, sonatinas and scales. But first and very importantly she needs to get the wow factor.
Find the Gaps
Starting at this late stage of childhood presents teaching challenges too. Unless she has had other musical experiences (formal or informal) you may find there are big gaps that you take for granted in a younger beginner.
With all that in mind here are some of the things I want to understand about a new student. And how I find them out in a way that’s fun for a 12 year old beginner.
Aural & Singing
I want to know how well developed her pitch awareness is. If she hasn’t been encouraged to sing up until now, you might find this needs a lot of extra help.
Now let’s keep in mind something crucial. We do not want to embarrass our new student. If they haven’t sung much, they’re not going to want to sing a solo for a stranger. So don’t ask them to.
To gauge her singing ability I’ll ask her to sing along with some simple solfa exercises. I use some of the exercises from Thinking Theory Book One for this. You should still be able to hear whether they’re anticipating the pitch or just following you and the piano.
Further assessment of their aural skills can be done using play-backs and call & response on the black keys.
Finger Strength & Dexterity
Ah, that feeling when a brand new student magically and instinctively puts their hand on the keys in a beautiful round shape with firm fingertips. That’s happened to me exactly twice in the 11 years I’ve been teaching.
It was beautiful. Sigh.
If you don’t luck out you need to be aware of where you are starting from. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, my favourite exercise for this is ‘Zechariah Zebra’ from Piano Safari.
Using this exercise I can see how naturally they can use their arm weight, if they can stop their fingertip joint from collapsing, and whether they naturally have a loose or locked wrist.
Plus it sounds pretty cool when played with the teacher duet. Not just a dry technique exercise but something to play musically.
Keeping the Beat
Older beginners often struggle to keep an even tempo. Whereas my younger beginners are getting immersed in steady beat and just absorbing it more naturally – beginners at this age may need more conscious effort and study in this area.
To get an idea of the base we’re starting from I will always include some kind of drumming or tapping exercise in the first lesson. Marching to the beat works great with younger students, but by this age most kids feel self-conscious and silly marching around the room (even if I do it too 😉 ).
A simple tambourine or hand drum will work fine, but I prefer clapping activities. When you give specific directions such as “Clap, lap, lap, clap” she won’t realise that what you’re really looking at is her sense of pulse.
Excellent sneaky sleuthing.
Memory & Pattern Recognition
Several rote pieces are definitely a must for me in the first lesson. There’s two reasons why this is better than reading pieces at this stage in my opinion.
- They can learn more about navigating the keys and using aural & visual patterns.
- They can play something cooler. Much cooler than any song that uses middle C, D, & E.
I want this excited new student to go home with something they can show-off. Like I’ve said, something cool.
(Sorry for repeating myself – but that really can’t be said enough.)
When you teach a chord pattern, you can teach pedalling. And pedalling is honestly the coolest part of playing piano.
Don’t believe me? Go play something awesome right now and don’t touch the pedal. Something a teenager would like (not Bach please). I’ll wait…
I’ve blogged about the specifics of how I do this in ‘Beginner, Meet Pedal‘ if you want a specific lesson plan series.
How would all this look in practice?
Below is a sample lesson plan based on these ideas and values. You’re very welcome to download it and use it, or base your own plans on it.
This plan is for a 45 minute lesson as all beginners over the age of 9 start with 45 minute lessons in my studio. You could of course adapt the plans to whatever lesson length is standard in your studio.
(Click on the image to download a pdf.)
What’s your favourite thing about teaching preteen beginners?
What do you find the hardest about teaching these students?
Do you disagree with any of the ways I approach that all important first lesson with a 12 year old?
Whatever your experiences it would be great to hear from you.