Techniques & Philosophy

If you have a two-piano studio, switch pianos with the student. In a piano lab, switch seating. If you have an electronic piano in your acoustic studio, have the student play on an electronic keyboard.
—Michelle Conda, Cincinnati, Ohio

I have the students teach me for a lesson. In a group class (at an age-appropriate level), I have them teach each other.
—Michelle Conda, Cincinnati, Ohio

I keep a laser pen in my piano studio for pointing to spots in the student's music that I cannot reach from the second piano. It is also handy for pointing to music without reaching across a student when I am sitting at the same instrument.
—Sheila Vail, Cincinnati, Ohio

Teaching is a constant learning process that will never end!
—Celeste Hardinger, Lakewood, Colorado

I have used a four-foot dowel for a pointer. Purchase a 3/8"- or 1/4"-diameter dowel at a craft shop or hardware store. Sharpen one end of the dowel in a pencil sharpener to make it an excellent pointer. Sure saves the back!
—Robin Stewart, Littleton, Colorado

If a student is having difficulty with a specific task even though you have tried a number of different approaches, try role playing with your student: The student imagines he/she is a world famous pianist. You can even make up a name, personality traits and so on, or give them a real person to portray (like a famous pianist or, better yet, the composer whose works they are playing). Take a moment and have them "get into character." Then ask the student to play the piece the way that famous performer would play it. They often respond by playing far beyond their current abilities.
—Rob Elfine, Cincinnati, Ohio

Take care of yourself. Think twice about taking the student at 9:00 p.m. after you are exhausted, just because the parents "beg" you. Are you really doing the student (or yourself) any good? The more rested and alert you are, the more you and your students gain.
—Michelle Conda, Cincinnati, Ohio

Say your student's name often. "John, that was a fantastic arpeggio!'' "Nicholas, what measure is the crescendo?" This is a simple, but effective way to show your students you care about them, and it lets them know that your time with them is special.
—Michelle Conda, Cincinnati, Ohio

Sometimes when a student is having difficulty with a piece, we will do a role-reversal where he or she is the instructor and I am the student. I will have the student listen to me play, and I will purposely make errors that are similar to theirs. Interestingly enough, when the student has the opportunity to play the role of the expert, he or she pays more attention to the details, and by the following session, many of the problematic issues are gone. This works especially well with younger students.
—Brigette Evans, Austin, Texas

Create a "piano honors notebook" for every student in your studio from the moment they begin studying. Buy notebooks in bulk (I prefer black, at least 2 inches wide.) that have a transparent pocket on the cover. In that pocket, insert a title such as "Susie's Piano Honors Notebook." Provide a divider page for each year of study. Put a supply of plastic document holders in the notebook. Everything the student earns throughout the year, such as studio certificates (give lots of them), auditions certificates, critiques, honors, recital programs, photographs and so forth, goes in the plastic pages in the notebook. If earned pages are given to students indiscriminately with no special place for them, they may end up in their sock drawer, backpack and who knows where else. I've had students fill two and three notebooks during their study with me. At recital time, all students bring their notebooks to the recital, where they are displayed…with much pride!
—Submitted by Martha Baker-Jordan, Fullerton, California

Exhibit reproductions or original art on your walls. Tie these pictures to the music of a particular period when teaching a new piece. It has multiple benefits:

  1. Marries two cultures
  2. Gives a sense of continuity in all arts
  3. Art helps illustrate line, texture, form, color and so forth

—Submitted by Carol Stivers, NCTM, Las Vegas, Nevada

When a student says something that makes me chuckle, I write the comment on notepaper immediately. Later, I slip the anecdote in a page of a small photo album. Parents and students enjoy reading this Studio Funny Book before or after lessons.
—Debra Hadfield, NCTM, Plano, Texas

If a student plays a piece almost perfectly on first play through at a lesson, I write L.A.L. "Learned at Lesson" at the top of the page. The student then skips ahead to the next piece. If a student learns a new piece at home (piece not yet assigned), the student receives a L.A.H. "Learned at Home" from me. On little girl wrote L.A.G. at the top of her song; I asked her what that meant-"Learned at Grandma's!"
—Submitted by Susan Snyderman, Fort Collins, Colorado

When a student knows and feels that you teach with love and have a sincere caring for the person they are, as well as the person they can become, the entire process of studying with you-and practice apart from you-becomes an opportunity for self-discovery, self-discipline, a conquering of self and accomplishment. It is a privilege to teach. As teachers, we need to understand that we can be a very special kind of "physician" in music and in the self-study of our students; for throughout the study of music, we are constantly learning about life and ourselves.
—Submitted by Andrea Marsavonian

"Talk less, listen more!" (quoting Barbara Kreader of Hal Leonard).

Students respond well to a positive attitude in the studio. If a teacher greets each student with warmth and enthusiasm, the student feels encouraged and more motivated to follow the teacher's suggestions. His enjoyment of his own music making is a reflection of his teacher's attitude toward his lesson and performance.

Encourage your students to take a more active role in their lessons. Whether it's deciding which piece to play first or explaining an interpretive decision, this prompts students to take more responsibility for their learning.

Whenever possible, try to say something positive about a student's effort before making corrections. Remember, we teach children (and grown-ups!) first, then the music.
—Submitted by Lynda Gulley, NCTM, Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Have only one piece of music on the rack at a time for focus and concentration.
—Submitted by Kristine Wilbur, Portsmouth, Rhode Island

Play and sing for beginners.
—Submitted by Aurora Emdjian, North Providence, Rhode Island

For early elementary players, have students play their piece an octave higher, while the teacher improvises an accompaniment below. This should be done frequently, so the student feels the beat better and gets a sense of how harmonies sound. The result is bigger sounding and fun for the student.
—Submitted by Lynda Gulley, NCTM, Pawtucket, Rhode Island

Bribery is an acceptable form of positive reinforcement. Kids love stickers, bookmarks, pencils and the like.

A positive attitude and reinforcement goes a long way.

When your student walks into the studio, start playing a piece that the student can play well as a team with you, rather than using the "usual" routine (scales, Hanon, etudes, warm-up, and so forth). Start your lesson with music making!
—Submitted by Yu-Jane Yang, NCTM, Ogden, Utah

Never say "I only (taught/learned) ___ measures today"; instead say, "I (learned/taught) them perfectly."

Have each student keep a looseleaf notebook to bring to each private lesson. Divide the notebook into three sections: one for weekly assignments where they can check off items accomplished; the second for handouts, scale charts, music history periods, composers for study, solfege charts and so forth for enrichment; and the third for studio policies, calendars, group lesson student lists and schedules, and so forth.

Promote joy and enthusiasm for students' achievements. Share their achievements from a C-major scale, to the first memorized piece, to a concert. Don't lower your standards, but allow the process to be something that involves delight at the discovery. If one method doesn't work, try again. Music is a gift and should delight the soul of our students. We generally look at students while we listen to their performances during lessons. Our response to students' lesson performances will change if we do not look at them. Turn away, move to the far side of the room-you will gain a different and valuable perspective.
—Submitted by Kathy Hafner, Honolulu, Hawaii

Never assume knowledge! I learned this years ago from my son's kindergarten teacher, and it is my teaching mantra.
—Submitted by Mary Jo Wright, NCTM, Olympia, Washington

Students may, with time, forget what we have said, but they will never forget how it made them feel.
—Submitted by Lezlee Johnsen Bishop, Salt Lake City, Utah

Always begin with a few minutes of conversation and LISTEN to the student. Meet the student where he or she is on that day.
—Submitted by Susan Dersnah Fee, NCTM, San Diego, California

Communicate, communicate, communicate -and when that fails, COMMUNICATE! Instead of becoming exasperated when trying to explain a concept that just doesn't seem to be registering, make it a game to see how many different ways you can say the same thing. Use pictures, mental images, gestures and stories; when the light comes on, both student and teacher are delighted. Repetition is key, but nobody likes a nag!
—Submitted by Lucinda Lear, NCTM, Waterloo, Iowa

Respect the differences in people, and don't try to force their various learning styles into one mold.
—Submitted by Susan Dersnah Fee, NCTM, San Diego, California

Be sure to let your love and enthusiasm for music show in EVERY lesson, not in what you say, but in what you do and how you do it. Alternate between precision and romance in every lesson; don't wait for some unforeseen time in the future to hook the student on the magic and mystery of music, or that time may never happen.
—Submitted by Bruce Berr, Glenview, Illinois

Assuming that independence is one of the most important things we can offer our students, encourage them to think through the rationale as they make their decisions or consider your suggestions. Also, help them to transfer those concepts from one learning situation to another.
—Submitted by Gail Berenson, Athens, Ohio

When evaluating a student's progress after completing a piece, ask yourself, "Can this student apply the underlying skills of this piece in another new piece, without any help from me?" Test it often by assigning on-your-own pieces. Don't confuse mastery of pieces for mastery of underlying skills.
—Submitted by Bruce Berr, Glenview, Illinois

Teaching students with learning differences can sometimes appear to be a daunting task. Communication with parents, teachers and community members can be invaluable to studio teachers. Many students with special needs have an Individualized Education Program (IEP) that outlines their areas of challenge as well as short- and long-term educational objectives. Many parents will readily allow a studio teacher to view their child's IEP and many classroom teachers are willing to speak with studio teachers to share insights about the students they teach. Communication is an important key to success with special learners.
—Submitted by Alice Hammel, Richmond, Virginia

Stand when you teach; don't sit. Your body is a much more musical communicator that way, and you're also more likely to move around, gaining different visual perspectives on the student. This also helps make each lesson feel different-moment by moment-to the student.
—Submitted by Bruce Berr, Glenview, Illinois

Before you offer feedback on a student's performance in a lesson, consider for a moment what you would want to hear and would find most beneficial if you were suddenly in that student's shoes.
—Submitted by Gail Berenson, Athens, Ohio

At the beginning of a lesson, never play the piece the student has prepared before he or she does. That way, the student doesn't have to begin the lesson by failing to measure up to what you have played.
Submitted by Keith Groover

Never be afraid to ask any question you may have, even if it has been explained many times before.

Never say you can't but can try.

"Do you hear what I hear?"—a teacher's plea to the student.

I utilize a lot of games, charts and other motivational activities in my studio and have come to find the "Workshop in a Box" is a great tool to use. It is filled with ideas for games, studio incentives, recital themes and other activities that are useful for both private and group lessons. I keep it right on my piano and often let the students choose a card when they walk in the door.
—Lonna Possehl, Hudson, Wisconsin

As independent music teachers, we are encountering increasingly more occurrences of students with learning disabilities and special needs. There is an ever-growing population of exceptional learners who exhibit the characteristics of autistic spectrum (autism, Asperger's Syndrome and so forth), Sensory Integration Disorder, dyslexia, and ADD/ADHD. Independent music teachers are frequently the first people to identify the symptoms of these disorders due to the wide range of skills and discipline required in the music learning process and to the close relationship that often develops between the music teacher and student.

In general, parents are not forthcoming in sharing information about learning difficulties, although they are more likely now than ever before, to divulge this important information. If you suspect or know that the student is taking medication, ask the parents the purpose for the medicine and whether it has any implications for your teaching situation. If they tell you that, in fact, their child has been diagnosed with a disorder, ask for more information on how you can include or reinforce ongoing behavior modifications, coping skills and learning techniques and so on. Ask them for continuous interaction in evaluating your teaching and their child's response and reactions to you and the lessons. Request any recommended resources, guidance and materials they may have available to increase your effectiveness.

If you are unaware of any medication and only suspect that there may be a learning disorder, approach the situation with great care and discretion. Find an appropriate opportunity to discuss the student's difficulties in lessons and question whether the student is experiencing similar problems in school or at home. If the student is having difficulties in other situations, ask whether the child has had any professional testing and if so, the results. Sensitive, diplomatic interaction will show that you are observant, caring and interested in obtaining more information to increase your teaching effectiveness.

If the parents are non-communicative and your conversation with them is unproductive, take advantage of the many resources and research available to you at libraries, from music therapists and health professionals, and through colleagues and parents of children with identified disabilities. The internet offers an incredible amount of very accessible, current and pertinent information. Experiment with information you obtain and adapt it to your teaching. If you know that there are distractions or certain things that trigger behaviors during a child's lesson, remove or change as many as possible. This might mean de-cluttering your studio--moving a picture or hiding certain objects-adjusting or reducing your expectations and demands for perfect rhythm, notes and so on, or choosing repertoire specific to the student's interest, not your pedagogical agenda.

Exceptional learners often appear to be the most "lazy" or "disinterested" students in your studio, but in reality, they are often, or can be, some of your most brilliant and talented students. These students must be met on their terms and through their own unique learning styles. They will stretch your patience and your knowledge of repertoire, activities and language. They are demanding, they are exasperating and incredibly rewarding when the shoe finally fits.
—Sue Steck Turner, Louisiana