Tackling Poor Piano Technique with a Teen Transfer Student

Stop me if this sounds familiar...

A new piano student walks in your door. They’ve had a few years of lessons and their parent told you they’re playing some pretty impressive intermediate repertoire. You’re excited to work with such a promising young student. 

They sit down on the bench…and the glass shatters. What are they doing with their wrists? Why are they sitting like that? How on earth is that happening with the tips of their fingers?

Teen Transfer Student with Poor Piano Technique

If you’ve been teaching for any time at all you’ve probably had this student. 

The best case scenario when you get a teen transfer piano student with terrible technique is they’re self-aware and motivated to fix the issues. Even then it’s going to be a challenge!

But the worst of all? When they simply don’t care. They don’t think their way is wrong and don’t see why they should fix it. 

Let’s tackle that stubborn teen first.

Get them onto the bus

Teenagers basically run their own lives. If they don’t think something matters, they’re not going to do it. 

So rather than spending agonising lessons going over and over technique exercises which never get practised, you need to have a proper chat with your teen piano student.

  • What do they want from piano lessons?
  • Is there a piece they would love to play one day?
  • What do they think it will take to get there?

If there’s a dream piece – whether that’s the Moonlight Sonata or Bohemian Rhapsody – it’s a great opportunity to open up a conversation about what it takes to play that piece well.

piano teacher sees poor technique from teen transfer student

Likely their current technique isn’t going to cut it, and you can explain (and demonstrate!) the specific reasons why. You can also lay out a map of the steps they would need to take to get to that dream piece.

Include practice expectations in that map, but be careful not to dash their dreams – help them discover how just a little technique work will make a big difference in opening up their repertoire world.

By making piano technique more concrete and tangible, your teen transfer student should be able to see that you’re not just a nag. There’s a reason you care about this stuff – and it’s ultimately for them.

These types of discussions, combined with training which encourages them to listen more attentively to their own and others’ playing, should be enough to get them onto the technique bus. And once they’re on the bus, you can get to work.

For more help working with teens, check out my centralised hub page all about Planning Piano Lessons.

Work on technique in short bursts

Whether your technique-challenged transfer student is the self-motivated kind or the stubborn kind, don’t try to enter them straight into full-on technique boot camp. That’s the quickest way to get a teen transfer piano student to jump right back off at the next stop.

In my experience, teaching technique to teens is best tackled in short, manageable chunks

Let them keep studying the pieces they were learning and enjoying before, open them up to new and exciting things like improvising or playing from lead sheets and introduce just a few minutes of technique work in each lesson.

You’ll get more results by keeping it balanced with short bursts because they’ll actually be awake during this portion of the lesson. And they might even be motivated to practice technique at home, too.

What’s your biggest struggle with teen transfer piano students?

Is technique your biggest challenge, or is there another bad habit you see in students who transfer to your studio? Tell me your teen transfer woes in the comments below or in our Vibrant Music Studio Teachers group on Facebook.

10 thoughts on “Tackling Poor Piano Technique with a Teen Transfer Student”

  1. Most difficult is students who learned Fur Elise or other impressive sounding pieces but never learned how to solidly read notes or rhythms. I don’t really want to teach people how to play songs by rote; i want to teach them how to learn new pieces themselves. They get very frustrated with music at their actual level.

    • Yes, true. I think it’s important to mix in both levels for those students. Do intentional rote pieces that sound big and impressive (ones that are highly pattern-based, not things it would be better to read) and also easier pieces to work on their reading skills. Make sure you let them choose the easier reading book too so that it’s music they enjoy.

  2. Perfect timing Nicola! Just started with a transfer teen who has been given her Grade 5 pieces by her last teacher but her reading level is grade 1 level at best. Sits far too close to the keyboard and as a result twists her whole body when playing pieces she has taught herself from YouTube clips by rote. Lots of work ahead I think but hopefully a rewarding journey for both of us!

  3. Thanks so much for this post. I just started teaching 4 sibling transfers who have absolutely no technique but they can read and play, Two of them are teens. I was skeptical how to help them without turning them off. What I decided to do fits almost exactly with your recommendations above. Coming from such a prominent teacher as you helps me feel I am on the right track. I needed this, so thanks, Nicole, for what you do to help other teachers.

  4. Great ideas, Nicola! In the past with this type of student I don’t think I’ve been specific enough about the skills needed to “play that dream piece” or take that student’s playing to the next level. I also remind the student that I’m on their side and want them to be able to pick up any piece they want to play without major struggles, now and in the future. With a little extra reading focus now, practice will become more enjoyable as their skills improve.

  5. This is a very interesting issue. Last year I started in a new town and had 18 students start with me, as they wouldn’t have to travel to their previous teacher in a different town. It was quite a shock to see kids who have learnt for a couple of years, not pay any attention to rhythm at all on their music pages, or know which note was which on the stave – one child did not know what middle c looked like in the left hand. With such a massive hole of knowledge to fill, I focused on rhythm first and used the piano safari cards, and supplemented with piano pronto method books to support their note reading. As a group they have come such a long way over the year and now I’m gradually sorting out the technique side of things eg hand positioning etc. etc. and use rote pieces to do this! By separating the reading from the technique, I believe that the kids will transfer the technique automatically to their reading of music while playing.


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