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6 mistakes I made when I started teaching piano

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

Dec 11

teaching piano

In this post, I want to get personal and share some of the mistakes I made when I first started teaching piano.

I think it’s great to share stories like this for two reasons: so that others can learn from them (and hopefully avoid them) and also so that other teachers realise that mistakes are an important part of any learning process (ours and our students), so why not share them?

We’re all learning, right?

If you are trying to develop or improve yourself in any area, mistakes are a natural part of the journey. Trying something new in your teaching? Trying to play something hard? Trying out a new app? Accompanying an instrument for the first time? You’ll make mistakes.

And that’s totally cool 🙂

My Top 6 Piano Teaching Mistakes

1. I worried too much about whether I was doing things ‘the right way’

When you first start doing anything new and you’re committed to doing the best job possible, you’re going to doubt yourself.

A lot.

Even worse if you’re a perfectionist!

Unfortunately, many piano teachers are self-taught or have limited training before they begin. While some, like me, may have been mentored by an older teacher and some will have been pedagogy majors in University, for the vast majority, finding out ‘the right way’ of teaching comes down to trial and error (and reading/research).

When I started teaching piano, I was always wondering whether I was doing things the way teachers are supposed to: Is this the right method to use? Is this the best way to teach reading? Should my students be holding their wrists higher? And so forth.

The reason that this is a mistake is because, while it’s important to question your practices and always try to develop and refine them, worrying constantly about them can become debilitating and distract you from your core purpose: sharing your love of music with other people.

Recommended: 5 things I wish I was told when I started teaching piano…

teaching piano

Ultimately, unless you’re recommending students practice piano on the edge of a cliff or with one hand in a power socket, the worst that can happen to them is that they don’t progress as fast as they could, they get into some bad habits or at very worst, they experience pain.

All of these conditions are solvable and while I’d never advocate teaching in a way that causes pain (!), improving your skills in these areas is just a matter of further research and with time and commitment, you’ll improve and refine your approach.

As long as you’re alert to possible issues in your teaching, you can find the solutions you need.

Keep in mind another thing: there often isn’t a ‘right way’ to teach in any case! The ‘Russian School’ of teaching, for example, is very different to other European schools and what they might be doing in America or Australia. Sure, there are some common pedagogical tactics (keeping fingers in a naturally curved shape, for example), but a lot of other things are open to interpretation.

One of the best sources for learning more about how to teach is to watch master classes – either live or on YouTube. The Masterclass Media Foundation is just one of many organisations that focus on this style of learning which is perfect for piano teachers.

Music teachers are lucky, in that we can watch other teachers in action in this way. History teachers would find it hard to watch other history teachers in action as master classes aren’t a common part of history instruction. For me, master classes are about my own professional development just as much as my students.

Always think about your teaching methods and how you can improve, but don’t let worry about doing things perfectly cloud your ability to get on with the job and inspire your students.

Image: NYU: Steinhardt Piano Artist Master Class Series

Master classes should be an integral part of any teacher’s professional development. Image: NYU: Steinhardt Piano Artist Master Class Series

2. I didn’t start teaching from a chordal perspective

If you’ve been following me for a while or have heard me speak at conferences, you’ll probably be surprised to know that I didn’t make chords a focus of lessons when I first started teaching. This was something that I realised was important over time.

When I first started teaching, like most teachers, I taught students that “Every Good Boy Deserves Fruit” (the rhyme we use to learn the notes on the treble clef here in Australia) and assumed that straight-out note reading was the place to start.

I now know that this is far from optimal.

The best place to start teaching is via creativity and exploration and teaching about the chordal foundations of music from the very beginning.

Every piece of music, excluding atonal/serial compositions, are based on a harmonic structure derived from chords. If you’re not explicitly teaching students about chords from the beginning, then you are missing the best opportunity you have to deepen their understanding of music from day 1. 

I like to teach like a guitarist: Give students the ability to play the I, IV and V chords in a few basic white keys and they will be able to sound like pros in the first few weeks of lessons! Not only that, they are gaining an understanding of how music is composed and structured.

If you’re unsure about how to do this, check out my 10-week chord teaching lesson plan (available to members of my Piano Teaching Community) and my online lesson: Strategies for Teaching Improvisation to Beginners which goes into this topic in more detail.

Oh, and students love it!

3. I compartmentalised aural, theory, sight reading, general knowledge, etc. into separate parts of the lesson

If you separate out all the individual parts of a comprehensive music education (like those above) and still try to fit it all into a 30 minute lesson, you’ll never get there.

You must make connections between all these areas in your teaching of every student, in every lesson, consistently.

Talk about the form of a piece as you’re learning it and explain the chord functions and cadences. Discuss the composer, his/her background and the title before you begin learning notes. Make sure they can sing part of the melody or bass line and incorporate sight reading as much as possible. Dissect the harmony and explore the main rhythmic elements.

Teach and learn by working out the ingredients used in its composition.

don't pigeon hole your teaching

Don’t pigeon hole your teaching. Image: http://motls.blogspot.com.au/

Not sure how to approach this kind of teaching? I discuss this method in-depth in podcast episode 9 with Paul Harris: TTTV009: Paul Harris on Simultaneous Learning

Making connections is one of the most fundamental aspects of effective teaching, so it goes without saying that you should teach in this way as much as possible.

4. I was afraid to let students know if I didn’t know the answer

Do you remember the time when teachers were the people who knew everything and students were the vessels that needed filling up with their information?

In some studios, this might still be the case but most of us in education are now realising that the internet and technology is making this role more and more redundant. The value of a teacher is now as a guide and mentor, not as a know-all.

As a beginner teacher, I was often worried about what students would think if I didn’t know an answer or made a mistake in front of them. This is understandable given that I was also questioning my own abilities!

I now know, of course, that this is a mistake.

Students don’t mind if you don’t know every answer – in fact, they’ll enjoy the fact that you admit it and might need to jump online for help.

Assuming that you know the basics of music and are already a competent teacher, this is totally OK!

Remember that you should be learning things just as much as your students are learning new things everyday. How boring life would be without challenging your own knowledge!

Be open to failure and being unsure, even if it’s in front of your students.

5. I built my teaching around an exam syllabus

In Australia and the UK (and no doubt other areas of the world), music education can easily become fixated on examinations.

Students prepare the pieces required for an exam, sit it and move onto the music required for the next level, often on an annual basis. Repeat this until student has finished all exams and therefore knows how to play piano and you’ve got a method of teaching used by many around the world.

A really bad method.

Many of the first students I started teaching when I was a beginner were already in the exam system and so I continued this way of teaching until I realised how anti-music it can be. Read my post: Why working to exams is anti-piano for a deeper discussion about my views on this.

Of course, I’m not saying that music exams are bad. The mistake is to base your teaching around an exam syllabus and use the syllabus like a curriculum. 

As ABRSM Executive Director Tim Arnold says in Podcast 17,

“…an exam is only part of your toolkit and if you were to only learn three exam pieces a year, you would only have scratched the surface of music over an 8-9 year period”.

We want our students to do much more than just scratch the surface of music, right?

teaching piano

I want my students to leave my studio having explored a huge variety of music, both written and composed, in heaps of styles and through a process that involves lots of creativity. You can’t achieve that through teaching to an exam syllabus year after year.

If you are making this mistake now, I urge you to stop and re-think your teaching practice for next year:

  • Students shouldn’t sit an exam until they are already playing a number of pieces (minimum of 10) comfortably at that level. That way, the exam becomes a true assessment of ability rather than a hurdle that students can only just get over (before they just do it again).
  • Students need to explore, be creative and improvise as well as learning written pieces and this takes time.
  • Students should be playing lots of music at all different levels of difficulty while they prepare for exams (see my post about Ben learning 75 pieces!).
  • Different exam boards will suit different students so check out my podcast episodes and look for the ones about exam boards if you’re interested

If you’ve been caught in this trap, make 2016 your year to get out of it. I guarantee your students will thank you for it.

If parents are on your back, you need to educate them about the merits of a broad-based music curriculum in the piano studio. Ask them if they want their child to pass exams or learn to love music?

If you haven’t made this mistake: well done and keep up the great work!

6. I didn’t make sight reading a focus of every lesson for every student

It doesn’t matter if your student is a beginner or concert-level performer: get them sight reading all the time. It’s one of the most important skills a pianist can develop and, as a teacher,it’s your responsibility to guide and encourage them to understand the importance and to work on improvement.

When I first started teaching, I didn’t give much thought to sight reading. I have always been a good sight reader so I assumed that my students would be too. It wasn’t until I’d been teaching for a while that I realised that this was far from true.

teaching piano

I’d say that around 90% of the students that I come into contact with (my own students, when examining, at master classes, etc.), struggle with this key skill which I now make the focus of the start of every lesson with every student.

Just allocate 3-5 minutes to help your students understand how to sight read in class and set them work to do over the week.

I like using the Piano Adventures sight reading books as they are structured in a week-by-week format and they introduce and practice ideas in an intervallic and chordal manner which suits my teaching.

What mistakes have YOU made?

I’d love for you to share your biggest mistake as a beginner teacher. What would you like other young teachers to avoid?

Please leave your thoughts below.

If you’re a new teacher looking to get off to a great start to your teaching career, why not check out my new course on ensuring your studio is set up to succeed?

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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.

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