3 Keys to a Comprehensive Piano Lesson Plan - Creative Music Education

3 Keys to a Comprehensive Piano Lesson Plan

By Tim Topham | Creativity

Mar 08

Piano teachers are some of the most dedicated, committed and hard-working professionals around. But are we sometimes too dedicated for our own good?

I know that feelings of being overwhelmed and burnt-out are all too common. I think part of it stems from our own desire to always deliver that ‘perfect’ lesson. One that includes a little bit of everything, from arpeggios to aural tests and from repertoire to rhythm patterns.

Of course, there is no perfect lesson and you can’t do everything in 30 or even 45 minutes. So don’t even try.

Instead, think holistically about what you’re delivering in lessons and work on improving your ability to find and make connections between the activities that make up a piano lesson plan. 

In today’s post, I want to get you off the dancefloor of teaching and onto the balcony (with apologies to Jim Collins) where we can look down and get an overview of what’s going on.

The 3 Main Segments of a Comprehensive Piano Lesson Plan

I believe there are three main areas we need to cover in most lessons to ensure a well-rounded education. They are, in no particular order:

  • Technique
  • Creative/Exploratory
  • Repertoire

Here are some considerations:

  • Some of these will merge and cross over (Eg. you can make scales creative if you do some improv with them or use an app like Musiclock).
  • Not every lesson has to include all aspects. If your creative activity is providing an exciting, motivating and positive experience, keep working on it.
  • The factors included in a lesson must be dependent on the goals of the student.
  • Just because I haven’t written “aural work” or “sightreading” doesn’t mean that these are not important or forgotten. In my opinion, these are sub-activities of one of these three main areas. For example, sightreading can be part of repertoire (Eg. “Let’s do some sightreading in the key of G before we work on your Sonatina in G”). Aural is part of creativity or technical work (Eg. Can you sing that scale”?).
  • Likewise, games can also form a part of any of these components. You can play aural games as part of your creative segment. You can do note-learning games as part of your repertoire work.

You’ll notice that all my lesson plan templates, which I’ll be releasing next week, are based on these three key areas forming the main part of a lesson.

I like looking at just three segments because it’s so much more attainable than trying to do everything.

If you just cover one activity under each of these three areas every lesson, you’ll already be teaching better than half the teachers out there who only cover technique and repertoire.

See also my podcast: “5 reasons to get more creative in your piano teaching this year.”

Download my 3 Keys Cheatsheet

I’ve created a downloadable cheatsheet to help with your lesson planning.

It comes in two versions:

  1. For teachers (see image above)
  2. For students (with child-friendly images)

This means that you can use the teacher one for your own reference and the student version in-lesson. Students can choose one option from each of the 3 Keys at the start of the lesson, giving them autonomy and choice as to the activities you’re going to explore.

Just leave your details below and I’ll email it through to you. You might like to laminate it double sided!

Planning Around the Segments

Stay tuned next week when I’ll be releasing my piano lesson plan templates which you’ll be able to download for free.

These will include weekly and quarterly (or each term for the Aussies) piano lesson plans, depending on how you work.

I’ll also let you see examples of how I fill them in.

All of these plans use the three above segments as a basis for organising your teaching material.

What do you think?

Is this “3 Segment” approach too broad or does it help reduce the overwhelming desire to “fit everything in”?

Let me know by leaving a comment below.


About the Author

Best-known for his blogging and teaching, Tim is also a well-respected presenter, performer and accompanist based in Melbourne, Australia. You can check him out on Google+, Facebook and Twitter.

  • Jason says:


    I always enjoy listening to your podcast. I think it’s a great way to keep me thinking about creativity, though I can’t always apply everything you recommend. I particularly thought it was useful when Susan Deas talked about fitting things into a lesson by estimating how much time you may want to spend on something. While I agree that it’s good to be able to veer off course, I often find that I can do a concise and thorough job of teaching something in a shorter amount of time than I realized. I also think this is a good way to keep activities changing so that students don’t get bored.

    I need to ask you a favor. I’ve seen a lot of discussions about it on the forums in the past, but I’ve mostly stayed out of them. However, I know that you do a considerable amount of thinking about pedagogy, so I want to ask you about it. In your podcast, you mentioned several method books teachers might use to organize their curriculum. One of them was Piano Pronto. I’m sorry, but I think a recommendation of this method needs to be defended.

    I’ve looked through it a couple times, and I don’t see any evidence that it reflects any sound pedagogical research. I don’t want to do a page by page critique, but I will say that one of the basic tenants of good pedagogy is that learning proceeds from the known to the unknown. The method makes no attempt to relate new concepts to earlier concepts. While the pieces are attractive folk songs, they do not reflect a variety of styles and sound worlds, so the student ends up with a limited imagination. The postponing of the left hand as long as it does is inexcusable. Her use of the black keys to find “A” (when they are so much more useful to find “C” and “F”) is downright silly, especially since A is not used until the 10th piece in Keyboard Kickoff, and even later in Prelude. A note-by-note approach (as opposed to the intervallic approach) to learning the staff does not give the student any tools to figure out forgotten notes, nor does it reflect an understanding of how and why the staff is constructed as it is. To be honest, every time I look at the book I am saddened by the thought of how many kids will be deprived of a good piano education because the book is so well marketed. So I need to know what you see in the book that makes you able to recommend it to other teachers in good conscience.

    I apologize for being such a pain, but I do think that it is important to say something about it. I am a firm believer in the intervallic approach. I trained (and still train) under pedagogues who worked with Frances Clark, so I am heavily biased. I would really appreciate hearing someone who’s thought about pedagogy a considerable amount give a defense of Piano Pronto. I worry about the future of a musical world where such a book represents acceptable piano education.

    I appreciate any time you’re willing to spend explaining this to me. I do want to clarify that I understand ways to use the materials. I know that transposition is valuable, that it can be supplemented, that you can switch hands, etc. Still, I think that a method book should do far more than Piano Pronto does.

    I’m looking forward to hearing you speak at NCKP, and I hope to meet you there.


    • Tim Topham says:

      Hi Jason thanks for your comment and the start of a great discussion.

      I should preface that don’t tend to use method books for any considerable length of time with students so whether it’s PA, PP, Piano Safari, etc. I tend to only use the first 1 or maybe 2 books before I veer off into my own land of creativity, reading, repertoire, etc. I should probably make this clearer when I discuss methods.

      I agree with your sentiments in many ways and you’ve made me think about how I phrase my recommendations as the way I teach using method books is much more varied and uses many more alternate resources than most teachers.

      I only recommend PP as something to start beginner teens who want to learn to read as I find that it moves quickly, it is more adult-like, has backing tracks, etc. Of course, while they are doing this in my studio, they are also learning to read and play chords, chord progressions, pop, play by ear, etc. so any method is only a small part of what I teach.

      With teens, I like to add harmony in the form of chords or 5ths in the LH right from the start which avoids the delayed LH issue in PP. If I didn’t do this, then I agree, the LH has a late start.

      I also teach intervalically using guide notes and given this isn’t explicitly explained in PP which starts at middle C and notes surrounding, I can see that it would seem to contradict that approach.

      Really appreciate you making me think more about how I phrase my recommendations and how important it is that I discuss the context of how I teach when I present ideas like this.

      You’ll probably be aware that I’m heavily biased towards Piano Safari now – are you familiar with it? I think this is by far the best approach for under 10 beginners and is backed by considerable pedagogy. Check out the recent podcast about it if it’s unfamiliar, but it sounds like you’ve got your finger on the pulse of these methods!

      What do you use, of out interest? Looking forward to meeting at NCKP.

      • Jason Gallagher says:

        Hi Tim,

        I have heard of Piano Safari and do think it is probably a great method. I know it is based heavily on the research that led to The Music Tree, which is the method I use. The problem is that Piano Safari level 1 is $16.95 + S&H, while Music Tree Time To Begin (Primer) is $8.99. I guess if you want the activities book the total is comparable to Piano Safari, but that’s also only the repertoire book. The Level 1 pack for Piano Safari is listed at $35.50, which is just too much. From what I saw, it wasn’t a significant enough improvement over the Music Tree to justify switching. That, and everyone I trained with (in pedagogy) trained with Frances Clark and Louise Goss.

        I know that Piano Adventures and Alfred Premier say they incorporate the intervallic method, but when they, for example, start on Treble G and say New Notes! A, B, C, D by counting up from G, I can tell they don’t fully understand the intervallic method. B is located by noting that it is up a third from treble G, not by counting G, A, B. I’ve experimented with other methods of learning the notes, and this one has just worked the best for me.

        Because Music Tree is structured based on the intervallic method (and Piano Safari likely does this too), the unit of on-staff reading including thirds contains pieces starting on B, E, A, and D, all 3rds away from the first landmarks. Kids who get this have hardly any trouble at all, as long as they practice. I haven’t yet found a way around practice, unfortunately. Of course, in addition we ask the students to read the lines by interval and pattern, so the method extends beyond simply finding the starting notes.

        So, see, it’s not that Piano Pronto appears to contradict the intervallic method. A book written with the method in mind facilitates its use. Piano Adventures could be taught using the intervallic method, but fourths and fifths need to be taught far sooner than the book presents them. And the pre-reading section of PA is almost useless, since it includes letter names in the note heads and no partial-staff reading (I don’t know if Piano Safari does this. Music Tree and Music Pathways, another excellent method, begin the staff with just two lines, adding the rest as needed). Piano Pronto could also be taught with the intervallic method, it just wouldn’t get much real use at first with so many pieces starting on C. And the teacher would have to introduce all intervals immediately, instead of one by one, since methods like this often write fifths and fourths assuming everything is fine because the student should know the note names. Too bad there isn’t any true relation between the name of the note and what finger plays it. Music Tree teaches this immediately, and that’s one thing that makes it invaluable.

        I do try to supplement. I’m a younger teacher, so I’m still getting the hang of when a book is appropriate. But I’m much less worried about supplementary material. It’s almost impossible to find books not based on either Middle C or Multi-Key. On the other hand, the supplementary books based on the intervallic approach often don’t sound very interesting, so I’ve got no problem using a middle C book as a supplement. I depend heavily on Accent on Solos 1 by William Gillock, since it’s a great first foray out into the wilds beyond the method book.

        I also try to use the methods in Forrest Kinney’s books, Pattern Play and Chord Play. It seems to be similar to what you talk about on here, but I’ve had the privilege of attending some of Forrest’s all-day intensives, so I feel like I have a good grip on how to use them.

        I’m looking forward to all your podcasts this month. Though it feels like I’ve trained exhaustively on working with beginners, it’s always good to get more ideas.

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