The ability to make music is a beautiful gift to bestow upon a student. If you’re considering teaching piano, providing a solid foundation is the key to lasting skill and success. Just like building any other proficiency, without a strong base of knowledge and proper technique, it’s much easier for all you’ve gained to start crumbling.
Sometimes a teacher might sign on a new student who studied with another teacher first. The student may play elaborate songs from memory but is unable to read music at the same level.
Showing students where to place their fingers note by note to play a song might lead to impressive-sounding results. However, it prevents the development of tools and techniques necessary to become an independent musician who can make music throughout their lifetime.
With all the financial investment in piano lessons, it is a disservice not to provide students with a comprehensive musical education.
How to Get Beginning Piano Students on the Right Learning Track
Every student is unique, regardless of their age. Teaching a very young child requires a different strategy than an adult, so beginning lessons vary. However, some things are essential for any piano student to learn.
1) Teach Correct Finger and Hand Positioning
Though it may become problematic to make sure your student curves their fingers while striking the keys with their fingertips, it becomes even more arduous when trying to undo incorrect finger position later. Even the youngest of students can learn the correct habits if taught.
Some ways to approach this:
- Ask students to pretend they’re cupping a water balloon in their hands. If their fingers open too much, it falls out, and if they clench too tightly, the balloon pops. Now have them turn their hands over, holding their position, and place them on the piano, fingers remaining curved.
- Wrists remain level so that an object could balance on them.
- The first joint of the finger down from the tip should remain curved and not bend the other way, which happens if the student plays on the pad of their finger. Have the student place the top part of the thumb behind their finger at the joint to help.
Using fingers and hands correctly makes piano playing more articulate and expressive, especially as music gets more intricate.
Here’s a great video teaching some of this:
2) Make Sure Students Sit With Correct Posture at the Piano
Sitting slumped over or too far back on the piano seat negatively affects playing. Students should sit on the front half of the bench with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Suggest a piano footrest or a piano pedal extender for younger students.
With a straight back, ask students to let their arms hang by their sides relaxed. Then have them slowly bring them up to the keyboard. Encourage students not to lean their wrists on the piano. Their hands should easily reach the keys with a slight bend at the elbows.
Forearms should be level with the height of the keys and parallel to the floor. Shoulders should remain relaxed, though beginning students tend to tense up a lot at first.
Not sitting the right way at the keyboard can cause tiredness of the arms, back and hands more quickly.
3) Familiarize Young Children With Music Before Teaching Staff Notes
Doing these activities first with very young students helps them transition more effectively to actual notes and method courses.
- Have your little students march along or clap with the music you play.
- Let them improvise with notes on the keyboard while you play an accompaniment.
- Demonstrate high notes moving to the right and low notes to the left, and ask them to come up with things the high or low notes sound like, such as a bird or elephant.
- Play a rhythm on one key and have them copy it with their finger.
- Try listening exercises that encourage them to distinguish between minor and major chords, loud and soft, and eventually three-four and four-four meter.
- Use a whiteboard to draw notes and their counts before introducing them to the staff.
- Let students practice drawing them, too. Write a group of music notes with different counts and have students clap or play the rhythmic pattern with you.
- Explain the meanings of piano, forte, and mezzo forte and their abbreviations.
- Have them play the two-group black keys across the entire keyboard and then the three-group black keys.
- Establish right and left hand and the LH RH symbols.
- As an assignment, have them compose or create music about a storm, outer space, the ocean, or something else. You can record accompaniment for them to use at home to make it even more fun.
- Break lessons into smaller categories with opportunities to stand up and move. Doing so prevents distraction and restlessness.
- Explain the numbers assigned for each finger and get creative with games and stories to help them remember. Have them come up with their ways, too.
Now you’re ready to introduce number songs on paper, demonstrating where to place their hands on the black keys to start playing. Kids and parents get excited when the student learns a song they know right away.
4) Teach Notes to Develop Strong Sight-Reading Skills
You want students to eventually have the option to purchase their favorite pieces or songs and know how to play them without your help. The sky’s the limit once students can read music and have the tools to play it well.
Ways to teach notes effectively:
- Compare the grand staff to a ladder. The notes move up or down in steps from a line to the following space. Wait until mastery of stepping and then teach skipping over one key, which happens when a music note moves from a line to the very next line or space to space.
- Introduce intervals, the distance between two notes and how it looks on the staff, such as 2nds, 3rds, 4ths, etc. Eventually, the student recognizes these in the music and reads more fluently.
- Discuss the note names and where they fall on the piano. Familiarize students with the musical alphabet of seven letters. Explain how they repeat from the left end of the keyboard across to the right end.
- Point out that all Ds sit in the same place between the two black-key-group and have them play all the Ds. Repeat this with each note. You can use descriptions such as the G A twins that both look the same between the three-group black keys. Ask students to think of ways to remember, too.
- Show where all the Cs are on the staff, starting with Middle C and then treble and bass C and high and low C on ledger lines. Have the student play them on the keyboard. It helps them get a sense of where the other notes on the keyboard are in relation.
- Use a magnetic whiteboard with a grand piano staff that allows students to place the notes you name in the appropriate place.
- Work with flashcards. Plenty of hands-on, rote activities helps children retain what they learn.
- Have students play a small section of music they’ve never worked on before during each lesson to sharpen sight-reading skills.
5) Practice Rhythm Exercises to Help Students Keep the Beat
Rhythm holds equal importance with notes in music. Without rhythm, music loses its form. Try humming Jingle Bells with a completely different rhythm. Speed up and slow down the notes in varying places. The tune becomes unrecognizable. Now tap the correct rhythm of the song on the table without humming. Everyone recognizes it immediately.
Some students feel rhythm more innately, while others need more guidance. Some suggestions to help them:
- Students clap the rhythm patterns of the notes with their hands before playing.
- Have students march with something you play until they master staying with the beat.
- Students can play two, three, four, or five-finger scales up and down with the metronome. However, help them internalize the beat rather than viewing the metronome and trying to match it.
6) Utilize a Comprehensive Method Course
Most beginning method courses, whether for a child or adult beginner, cover these essential elements of learning music from posture, position, note-reading, rhythm and vocabulary. Each section of a level must become fully mastered before moving on to subsequent ones.
It’s best to take a slow place, adding additional songs at the same level for them to learn for a while. It gives students a sense of accomplishment and more enjoyment and self-confidence before forging ahead. It also helps motivate students to continue.
7) Supplement Method Courses with Songs Students Want to Play
Though some students love music so much that the tunes in their method coursebook are enjoyable, some students need more inspiration. Each song in the book fosters a necessary skill in the student’s education, so they are valuable to learn. However, the teacher can find arrangements of songs the student wants to learn at the appropriate level.
Additionally, the song might slightly push beyond the student’s current level, but the student is so motivated that they acquire more skills along the way and don’t mind the challenge. Just make sure not to skip around a lot and keep finding songs that require weeks of learning to get down. Those weeks equal lost time in establishing tangible skills that lead to proficient sight-reading and eventual independence from a teacher.
8) Stress the Importance of Regular Practice
No matter how excellent the teacher, the half an hour to an hour they work with the student every week is not enough. Daily practice, at least four to five days a week, is crucial. Strive for five to ten minutes for ages five to seven, 10 to 15 minutes for ages seven to ten and 15 to 20 minutes as they get to intermediate levels. At the advanced level, they may need to practice at least 30 minutes a day.
To get beginners over that first awkward and difficult hump of learning a new skill, they need daily repetition and exposure, just like students learning to write in kindergarten and first grade. Then everything becomes more natural and less laborious. That translates into more enjoyment.
There is no point in paying for private piano lessons if a student can’t commit to consistent practice time.
9) Include Music Theory in Your Lessons
Method courses often come with accompanying theory workbooks to help teachers. A keen understanding of chords, harmony and how music fits together gives the student a comprehensive skill set.
With their knowledge, they can more readily:
- Play by ear.
- Compose music.
- Utilize online sources that offer chord progressions for songs.
- Read sheet music more comfortably by improvising with chords.
Additionally, students grow in their appreciation of all music and what’s involved in creating it. Along with the theory, assign arpeggio scales and chord progression drills to reinforce what they’re learning.
10) Give Plenty of Positive Reinforcement
Learning any new skill is challenging, and it’s easy for students to get discouraged. Model support, encouragement, patience and belief in their ability to succeed. Praise any accomplishment, no matter how small. The more self-esteem and confidence they feel, the more likely they will be to continue their lessons.
Don’t forget that adults need plenty of positive reinforcement, too and can often feel like giving up.
Students of all ages and parents alike will respect and value the thorough approach you give them in your teaching. By creating a solid knowledge base along with techniques that makes it possible to play more advanced music nimbly and expressively, you’re giving your students training that will stay with them for years to come. Whether going on to play professionally or only for the gift of making music itself, the reward is well worth the investment.
Eduardo Perez is a multi-instrumentalist with over 20 years of experience playing instruments such as piano, guitar, ukulele, and bass. Having arranged songs and produced music in a recording studio, he has a wealth of knowledge to share about analyzing songs, composing, and producing. Currently pursuing a Bachelor of Arts degree in Interdisciplinary Musical Studies at Berklee College School of Music. Featured on Entrepreneur.com. Subscribe to his YouTube channel, or follow him on Instagram.