How to teach piano to kids. Practical teaching tips from experienced piano teacher, Diane Hidy, help young teachers get started and veterans stay motivated. Pedagogy advice, free resources and inspiration.
Your student, Jenny, is coming in 15 minutes for her lesson. Things didn’t go well last week. She was distracted, couldn’t concentrate, and to be honest, you thought she might quit piano. To be even more honest, you were kinda hoping she would quit piano.
You may have been reading a lot about the buzzword “Creativity” in Piano Teaching. Perhaps, you think, you’re not doing well with Jenny because you’re not being creative enough. Thoughts rush in. “I need to be more innovative. I need to break out of my rut. I need to be more original. I need a Student Saver piece. A Superhero piece. More chords. Pop Tunes.”
I’d like to propose a different solution.
What if the problem isn’t that you're not “teaching creatively enough” but that you’ve forgotten to focus on Jenny. What if she isn’t a “problem student,” but simply herself. Not a student in need of a blast of “creativity,” but a student whose behavior is trying to communicate something to you.
Whenever I find myself needing to reassess things with a student like Jenny, I to try slow myself down. I focus on what I see. I take some time to consider the situation and gather my thoughts.
What is Jenny trying to tell me with her behavior? How can I describe what she’s doing?
For example, “Jenny seems distracted.” That’s not specific enough. I need to ask myself, “What am I doing that elicits this response?”
Another one of my students, Jason, likes his world to be complicated. If I ask him a “yes or no” question, his favorite reply is, “Maybe.” This can be challenging. If I’m tired, I can find his need for complexity difficult. “Why can’t he just say a simple ‘yes’ when I ask him if he likes something?” I’ll think. Strangely, that’s exactly the right question to ask. Why can’t he answer a question simply? What is he getting out of the interaction?
My best teaching happens when I stay focused on the messages underneath the words my students are saying. Not, “Jason makes me so angry when he answers a question with ‘maybe.’” But reminding myself to ask, “Why is Jason answering a question that way? What kind of interaction is he looking for? Is he trying to show how quick he is? Is he confused about the real answer? Does he want a higher level conversation? A bigger challenge?”
After you’ve established your goal, that’s the time to think about ways to meet the needs of your students. You may have some quite creative solutions up your sleeve. But talking about Creativity in Teaching as if it were something that happens in a vacuum does us all a disservice. Teaching never happens without a student. A particular student. At a single place. A specific time. Today. Now.
That’s when you meet the student’s needs. Anything else is just a buzz word.
We fell in love on the internet. Well, maybe that’s a teensy bit of an overstatement. Still, it feels like one of those miracle relationships that is only made possible by the magic of the internet. We met online, we collaborated, we helped each other, we visited each other and met each other’s families. He recorded a lot of my music.
This week, I was truly touched by his kindness. Jason Sifford, the brilliant composer and hilarious nonconformist of the piano pedagogy world dedicated a piece to me.
I present In the Wabe, one of a set of eight piano pieces called Beware the Jabberwock. These brilliant pieces inspired by the poem Jabberwocky by Lewis Carroll from Alice in Wonderland.
Mine, as Jason so kindly pointed out, is in the key of Mashed Potatoes. Life doesn’t get any better.
In the Wabe by Jason Sifford performed by Diane Hidy - YouTube
Natalie sings her own lyrics to Graduation Day - YouTube
Natalie has her own ideas. Lots of them.
As her teacher, I have choices. Lots of them.
Tell her she’s wrong.
Force her to sing the lyrics I wrote to Graduation Day from the Piano Town Primer. They’re perfectly serviceable words. In writing her own lyrics, though, she had to grapple with the rhythmic constraints of the music. She’d learned the piece correctly, so she had to stop and really think about what words would fit together with the rhythm.
Criticize her lyrics because they’re silly and fun and filled with whimsy.
Embrace her brilliant creativity and we could both have a zippy afternoon.
Obviously, I chose the latter.
When your students show their opinions, preferences and personalities, how do you respond?
The strangest thing happened. I can’t find September Song! (I’m sure that it isn’t because I got busy with a HUGE writing project, or that getting everyone settled for the fall was overwhelming ;)
To make up for it, I made a free downloadable Word Search puzzle filled with things you can find in my studio. Are these things in your studio as well? Perhaps your students will enjoy filling out this free Word Search. Then they can submit their suggestions for where I might find September Song. And when I find it, the best answer will receive a free copy.
I hope to hear some creative answers from your students. Send their answers to firstname.lastname@example.org.
My mother with the three youngest kids in our family. I'm the baby in her arms.
What a dilemma. I faced just this situation a few years ago when a mother came to me with three children. I immediately wanted to teach the older daughter and the younger daughter, but didn't want to teach the boy in the middle. There were lots of reasons why I wanted to teach the oldest and the youngest—they were interesting children, completely ready for lessons and I immediately liked them. They'd had some "lessons" with another teacher, but I could tell right away that they would be successful piano students.
The boy was completely different. He was definitely hovering at the edge of the autism spectrum and had great difficulty controlling himself. That wasn't what actually mattered in making this decision. Yes, he had some physical challenges that would make piano playing difficult for him. But even more important was the fact that he was fiercely competitive with both of his sisters. Even in the interview, he compared himself to them constantly. Trying to teach the three of them would have set him up for nothing but frustration.
Years ago I might have thought the only options were to take all of them or none of them. I've gotten wiser in my dotage.
Here was my solution:
I took the mother out for coffee. Sometimes it's easier to have difficult conversations in person. You can make eye contact and use non-verbal cues to convey your sincerity and warmth. Email can be particularly treacherous in situations like this, especially if you're just getting to know someone.
We met in a Starbucks to discuss the situation. I explained why I thought that having all three kids playing the same instrument was, in this case, not advised. I clarified exactly why I thought that playing the piano, specifically, would be more challenging for him than it would be for his sisters.
She agreed with me that he was too competitive to tolerate watching his sisters shoot ahead as he struggled. He needed something that, by definition, would make him special and make comparisons more difficult. I felt that it would be better if her son played a completely different instrument and suggested the guitar. (The guitar is easier to play, especially at the beginning, and almost impossible to compare to the piano.) I was completely honest with her about my assessment of the situation. And though I was kind and understanding, having raised a difficult boy myself, I didn't offer to take on her son as my student. I took the girls and, as I'd predicted, they did quite well.
Here's the thing: if you can see heading into a situation that it won't be successful, follow your instincts.
Any healthy parent would always prefer your honest opinion as long as you are kind, gracious, and offer another solution that will work better. You'll be doing no one a favor if you teach a child that you think isn't a good fit, even if the siblings are studying with you. It's far better to follow your heart and speak the truth kindly.
I'm at the Music Teachers Association of California annual conference. I know that it's hard to make a great conference happen. It's hard to make even a decent conference happen.
Tomorrow afternoon a man will present this session:
Fast and Furious — Technique and Repertoire for Boys When you consider all the sports, activities and technology that fill the lives of boys these days, keeping them inspired and motivated at the piano can be a challenge. This session will consider three key factors for motivating males: cool repertoire, relational teaching and appealing technology.
When my friend first told me about this, we joked about proposing a session for next year about how hard it is to keep girls motivated since they're so busy with all that makeup and girl stuff. Like baking and sewing. Maybe we could call it Slow and Sullen.
Then I realized that this session was going to happen. An actual man was going to get up and talk about boys as if their musical needs and preferences were:
a. different than those of girls b. deserving of special attention c. going to be addressed, though those of girls were being ignored