Beginner piano lessons with a student of any age can be pivotal. They can be ‘make or break’, so it’s no wonder they can make us piano teachers so nervous. Even after teaching for nearly 20 years, I still find first lessons nerve-racking.
‘There is evidence that the influence of early teachers is very important in maintaining the motivation of young children.’Hallam, S. (1998). Instrumental Teaching: A Practical Guide to Better Teaching and Learning. Oxford: Heinemann Educational Publishers. p. 140
Of course, it’s not just the case for young children, but for all ages. Indeed, for adults, who are often far more nervous, the first lesson can be a huge emotional undertaking.
‘Teaching beginners is certainly a huge challenge; it is also a huge responsibility, but one that reaps enormous rewards. Above all it is a real joy.’Harris, P. (2008). Teaching Beginners: A new approach for instrumental and singing teachers. Harlow: Faber Music. p. 5.
All this suggest that as nervous as the new student may be, there’s a lot of pressure on teachers too.
So, how can teachers approach these first lessons?
In this blog post, I want to share a little about the three things which I believe are essential to the first lesson with a beginner piano student.
I think they should be at the heart of the early stages of learning beyond the first lesson, and I think they should apply equally to all age groups. I think they can also be applied to whole range of different teaching approaches too.
When I started piano, I suspect that in the first lesson, we opened the tutor book, I was shown how to curve my fingers and where to find middle C. These are all important parts of learning to play the piano.
But how relevant is it being able to play middle C if a student doesn’t understand the difference between high and low pitches? How relevant is it for a student to be able to replicate an effective hand shape if they don’t know how sound is actually produced?
If you go on holiday to a new place, I expect one of the first things you want to do is explore. In some ways, I think the same thing can be applied to beginner piano lessons. Think about what you’d like a new student to cover in their first lesson: how much of that could be found through a combination of exploration and experimentation?
How many of these things we so often teach in a first lesson could be found by exploring the possibilities of the piano? What do the pedals do? How is sound made? How does the way we press the keys affect the volume? Improvisation can be useful here.
Above all, be creative, and encourage your students to be creative too. Not only will be it be a memorable introduction to the piano, but it gives them permission to experiment, something which will be important in the future.
Secondly, I believe that students need to feel encouraged. I repeat, an effective hand shape is important, but if this is taught in the first lesson and then repeatedly corrected, is the student going to go away feeling encouraged?
In my opinion, one of the most important parts of a beginner piano lesson is that they go away being able to play something. For all the arguments about rote teaching, notation and off-stave notation, the ability to play music on the piano is the reason they’ve come.
This is where rote-teaching can be beneficial, as can improvisation. Improvisations with teacher accompaniment can also offer a good deal of satisfaction. Whichever approach you take, if a new piano student feels empowered, satisfied and encouraged, they are likely to want to do more.
I think that often as piano teachers, we feel it’s our responsibility to get ‘stuck in’ straight away, and to teach all the ‘right’ things from day one. There’s certainly an argument for a sound start to learning, but in our quest, I think it’s easy to forget that most pupils want to go away feeling they’ve had a good time. First impressions count.
Maybe think of it in a different way. You’ve got half an hour to get them hooked; to make them want to come back. There’s a lot of pressure there, but enjoyment is at the heart of it.
Perhaps as piano teachers, we need to relax a bit too, and enjoy the journey alongside them? We need to build a relationship with our students, and the first lesson is no exception to that. Maybe we need to have fun too? The first lesson is a unique experience. That student, whether they be a child or an adult, will never have another first piano lesson.
I have collected together some additional resources related to beginner piano lessons on this Pinterest board.
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