10 Secrets to Being an Outstanding Piano Teacher

10 Secrets to Being an Outstanding Piano Teacher

To all you music teachers/tutors out there, have you ever felt like you’ve hit a wall with trying to make your lessons more interesting for your students? You know, that one pupil who keeps asking when the lesson will be over and you can’t help but feel like what you’re teaching could be more engaging or not engaging enough. Or maybe you are struggling with ideas on how to make your lessons more interesting, or even feel imposter syndrome from time to time?

I cannot stress enough how so, so many teachers/tutors feel this way. When I started tutoring vocals and piano at Riverside Music College, just outside Glasgow in Scotland, I honestly felt so out of my depth compared to other tutors there. Tutors who had been teaching for 5+ years, tutors who had completed Grades 1-8 of either ARBSM or Trinity exams, tutors who had achieved their BA in Music and were pursuing a Masters etc. It made me feel like I didn’t belong there, like I wasn’t experienced enough or even had the right to teach if I hadn’t done my graded exams etc. If you ever feel like that, I get you 100%!

BUT, what made me understand that it doesn’t matter how “qualified” you are, if you enjoy teaching and have the knowledge, skills and qualities of a teacher and love what you do-you are the best person for the job! I picked up all my knowledge from other people I learned from and gained experience in my own way from teaching myself skills and knowledge or even just what I picked up from gigging, recording, teaching freelance or in college and school-I turned all that experience from that to my advantage, instead of worrying about-I don’t have all my graded exams, so I’m not good enough to teach someone else. Yeah of course, it does help, but honestly-there’s so much you can teach people without having to do graded exams so if that’s you and you want to know what to do in order to make your lessons interesting without feeling like;

1-You’re an “imposter” and shouldn’t be there amongst other teachers/tutors

2-You don’t have any ideas left in order to make lessons fun and engaging

3-Feel out your depth with it or aren’t sure what else to teach

4-Feel that your student has lost interest 

5-Or, feel so frustrated and like giving up, then these tips will hopefully give you some inspo on how to combat this!

Tip 1: Get to Know Your Students

Get to know your student, ask them what their interests are, particularly music that interests them i.e. their favourite artists, genres, songs etc. Maybe ask them what song they would like to play so they choose what they play, but if they’re beginner or young-then maybe try find a really easy version of the piece. Then use coloured pencils and illustrations to try and illustrate how you would play a certain bit i.e. staccato could be a mouse etc.

Tip 2: Teach Students to Write Their Own Music

Get the student to write their own music. Show them how to write basic/easy notation and help them to find notes they think sounds good then help them to write it then. Then once finished, help show them how to play it. They’ll be excited as they’ve written their own music and can play what they wrote. If you yourself have never written music, then you could maybe show them how to write something on the piano i.e. maybe show them a chord progression for the left hand, then how to create a melody on the right hand using notes of the chords/scale/key etc.

Tip 3: Use Piano Games for Younger Students

For younger students, use piano games or piano stories to keep the student engaged i.e. use the notes Middle C to High C as a street and every note is like a neighbour in that street i.e. D could be Mr Dog, F could be Miss Frog etc. You could then walk through  all the “houses” in the “street” using correct finger patterns  and make up a story from that, i.e. “Mr Gorilla went up 2 doors to see Miss Bat, then the both of them decided to go on a walk and visit Mrs Elephant”.

Tip 4: Don’t Put Yourself Under Too Much Pressure

Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to make it the perfect and most fun and engaging lesson! I always like to go with the flow, I don’t plan my lessons out to the T-I usually like to let the lessons be almost student-led i.e. I’ll maybe give the student the option of what they’d like to work on whilst also giving them some exercises/scales/pieces to work on that will challenge them at the same time. It’s about getting that balance of both fun and challenging and I’ve always found giving students the freedom to choose what they’d like to focus on, builds trust and rapport between teacher and student and that they know they won’t feel any pressure to play something they don’t enjoy, which I always feel works against what you’re trying to do in helping them learn.

Tip 5: Break Things Up

Try and break things up into sections i.e. maybe do like 5-15 mins of scale/technical practise then depending on the length of lesson, reward them at the end by giving them the chance to play something they really want to play.

Tip 6: Do Research into New Ideas to User

Do some research! I always found when I was running out of ideas, I did a wee bit of research to see if I could find any tips, advice, exercises I could try out with students to make lessons more fun and they definitely helped. I found this great website that has some awesome piano activity sheet music that can be printed off, for younger children. These sheets are colourful, bright and have pictures all the while teaching children about basic music theory, like how to draw a treble clef or how to read bass clef etc with fun characters etc. Link below for that site.

Tip 7: Communicate Effectively with Parents

Have a chat with the parents. If you have a younger student who keeps playing up during lessons like, maybe they won’t sit still or they keep bashing the keys. Maybe they keep getting distracted and talking about something else or they just don’t listen. It’s so hard to stay patient and I know you’ll want to keep trying to make things as fun as possible for them. But at some point, a chat with the parents might help; telling them what’s been going on and letting them know that this has been going on for a while and that you would like to chat with them to see if there’s anything they could maybe do to help. Chances are, the parent either already knows what their child’s behaviour is like and wasn’t aware of how they were acting in lessons and will work with you in finding ways to try and help the student to focus either by sitting with them to practise at home or even sitting in on the lessons and taking control when their child does misbehave. 

Or if they’re not aware at all that their child is like this, most parents will want to know how their child is progressing and appreciate the honesty if you tell them how their behaviour has been. They know their child and it’s definitely their job to teach their child to behave. That isn’t your job and don’t let anyone walk over you-student or teacher, if a child just simply won’t try at all or refuses to learn, it’s then your job to speak up about it and let the parent know. You’ll know yourself when someone isn’t progressing through unwillingness to learn, practise or develop through their behaviour and if so, it’s time to maybe say to the parents, but that’s only when you really feel that’s the case. Do always try to be encouraging as possible!

Tip 8: Encourage Your Students

On the topic of encouragement, try to be as encouraging and as positive as possible! I have always found that the more I encourage my students and let them know when they’ve played something really well or learned something really quickly, the student will likely practise more if they know that they’re progressing. There’s a satisfaction that comes with knowing you’ve done something well and knowing you’re getting better and that in turn motivates you to keep going. By motivating and encouraging students, even when they’re struggling with something, by telling them, “well done, that sounded great, I can tell you’ve been practising so keep up the good work”, this really shows a student that you’re proud of their progress and encourages them to keep going and keep working on it.

Tip 9: Create Rehearsal Plans for Students

Make up rehearsal plans for the students who are really serious about learning. These are the students who really do want to progress, learn and achieve more challenging pieces etc. By setting them a practise plan, this motivates and helps students to practise at home and to a structure that works for them i.e. for an hour’s practise starting out with 15 mins of warm ups/scales etc using a metronome, learning new scales/theory/technical exercises for 15 mins then spending 20-30 mins on a couple of pieces. You could go into depth, pointer by pointer of exactly what to focus on and for how long. This gives students a more structured approach to practising at home and more motivation to do so if they know they have a plan to follow.

Tip 10: Don’t be so hard on Yourself

Don’t be so hard on yourself! You’re doing great, better than you think. There’s so many times I believed I wasn’t even making a difference as a tutor and then I had the loveliest feedback from parents telling me that their child was really enjoying their lessons and were happy to have me as a teacher and were improving too. This in turn gave me the approval and encouragement to know that I’m doing something right. Don’t pressure yourself to maintain this idealistic version of what the perfect teacher should be. 

Maintain your own practise routines. Challenge yourself to learn new things. Do a bit of research and find new techniques etc to teach. Don’t be overly strict but fair. But also be understanding, kind, patient and encouraging-try and get on the same level as your pupil, you were once a pupil after all and know how it feels to be one so go easy on yourself but keep challenging yourself and your students!

Resources: letsplaykidsmusic.com/free-resources/ & myfunpianostudio.com/music-theory/music-theory-worksheets/

About the Author

Katie Wills is a professional piano teacher based in Glasgow, Scotland. She has many years of teaching experience, helping students of all learning abilities to develop their musicality, confidence and overall playing ability. She is passionate about helping students of all levels progress and helps to create resources for music students.

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