How to Find Your Perfect Piano Teaching Method

By Megan Desmarais | Inner Circle

Nov 07

When you first start teaching music, one of the hardest things is deciding what your piano teaching method is going to be. What kind of teacher will you be? How will you inspire your students? These are all questions to consider before your first student walks into your sparkly new piano studio. 

To give us an insight into how to discover your piano teaching method (and to explore whether or not there is a perfect piano teaching method) we welcome expert teacher and Megan Desmarais. Megan has just released a course on teaching preschool students – you can find more information at the bottom of this email. 

Thanks Megan, happy reading! 

Discovering Your Piano Teaching Method

When I first started teaching piano lessons, one of my first questions was, “What will I teach my students?!”

At that time, I assumed that the only answer to my question would be to find the best method book and to use it with every student.

So, of course, I did what most piano teachers probably do and found old copies of the method books that I had used a child and started teaching that material to my new students.

Shortly after I got started, I was the fortunate recipient of a retired piano teacher’s sheet music collection which included many copies of every level of another method that had come along after my own method book years.

I spent the next several years of my teaching flipping through the pages of these books with my students and giving clumsy explanations of new concepts as they appeared in the books. I figured that there must be one right choice for a book out there, so it became my quest to try out as many books as possible, discover which one was perfect, then to learn it inside and out.

For years, my mission with my poor guinea pig piano students was to find the answer to this question: What is the perfect piano method to teach from?

There are certainly a lot of fantastic options to choose from and more and more books make their debut each year. As piano teachers, we are fortunate to have so many great resources right at our fingertips.

However, more than 16 years later, I still haven’t found my perfect piano teaching method. Thankfully, I’ve discovered that a perfect piano teaching method does not exist, so I’ve stopped looking.

The good news is, that excellent teaching does not rely on a method book. If you are in tune with a logical progression of concepts that every student should learn, nearly any method book should work.

The best thing you can do early in your piano career is to get on board with conceptual teaching. When you teach concepts to students, the method book simply becomes a vehicle. If you are teaching your students new concepts at an appropriate pace and in an interesting way, almost any book or sheet music will suffice.

Conceptual teaching is an approach to teaching music where the teacher focuses on musical concepts, teaches them to the student outside of the context of a method book, then transfers those concepts to music the student is learning.

This idea might seem complicated if you’re used to teaching concepts as they appear in a method book. But, once you see how efficiently and thoroughly your students learn conceptually, you’ll never go back!

There are countless ways to incorporate conceptual teaching into your lessons. Games, listening activities, movement, experiences, discussions and other off-bench activities are ideal.

Interested in learning more about conceptual teaching? Click here to see Tim’s chat with UK-based education expert Paul Harris, all about teaching concepts to students first!

How Does This Play Out?

Let’s look at how note values are typically taught in many current piano methods.

Often times, you turn the page of a method book, and suddenly there are eighth notes for the first time.

The page likely has a large title that says “Eighth Notes”, there is probably a picture of eighth notes and a text description of what eighth notes are how to count them. There might be some written work that involves drawing the note or writing in the counts that go along with it. There may be a chart that compares the value of an eighth note to other notes. There might be a few rhythm drills that the student will have to clap. On the following page, the student will have to play eighth notes for the first time.

Have you ever felt tongue-tied when you get to this page in your method book? Do you ever start talking too much about the new concept and lose the interest of your student? Have you ever had a student who isn’t successful playing those new eighth notes in that first song where they appear? Maybe you didn’t explain enough?

I can answer yes to all of these questions! You can see how this can be a problematic way of teaching. A handful of students may be successful with it, but it certainly doesn’t reach every student. It takes a very simple concept that even toddlers can perform and makes it confusing, abstract and overly academic.

Now, consider another approach to teaching new note values and rhythms.

At a student’s very first lesson, get your student moving to music. Have them march to the beat, clap rhythms, play with rhythm instruments like drums, rhythm sticks, shakers and bells.

Sing songs and clap or tap rhythms, then have your student imitate you and play along with you. Be sure to include a large variety of note values.

At this point, there is no need to give your student any type of academic explanation of what they are doing. You can simply enjoy making music together. Give your student pointers like “Listen to me and stay right with me.” Or, “Let’s wait a little longer right here.” “Can you clap faster here?”

All of these things are teaching your student the concepts of steady beat and different note values. As the teacher, you are preparing your student for the song with eighth notes that will show up down the road. But, from your student’s perspective, you are just enjoying music and feeling successful together.

In a future lesson, you might teach your students to say words or counts to help them experience the different note values for different lengths of time. Use words of a familiar song or assign words to each note value that they can consistently use. (My students and I say “hot dog” on eighth notes and “pie” on quarter notes.)

At some point before these note values appear on the written page, have your student tap or clap rhythms while looking at rhythm flash cards or some other type of rhythm drill activity.

Teach them which words correspond with each type of note represented in your activity.

At last, when your student sees a new note value in a method book or other sheet music, no explanation will be necessary. Your student will know exactly how to play the notes correctly. This is pretty exciting! You’ve helped your student to feel successful and made learning music easy and intuitive! At this point, you may choose to give more of an explanation. You’ll probably want to make sure your student knows that the notes are called eighth notes. Sometimes you may find that it’s ok to save that conversation for later.

Hear-Do-See Label

An excellent model of conceptual teaching is found in Hear-Do-See-Label, which I first learned about through Debra Perez and Will Baily’s Recreational Music Making books.

Hear-Do-See-Label is the sequence of events that should happen when a student is learning a new concept. You’ll notice that this sequence was followed in the example about eighth notes above.

To break it apart:

Your student hears music that contains the concept your are teaching.

Your student does something to experience the concept.

Your students sees how that concept looks in sheet music.

You label that concept with correct music vocabulary.

All of these steps may happen in a single lesson, or they may play out over the course of many lessons. In the example with eighth notes, I have my students experience and work with eighth notes from their very first lesson, but often, they don’t see them in their sheet music for over a year.

If conceptual teaching is already second nature for you, congratulations! Consider yourself ahead of the curve. But, if this is a new idea for you, don’t worry! It’s really not hard to make the switch.

Have you ever thought of teaching group piano lessons? Debra Perez and Tim Topham have recently released their 7-part course, Growing a Group Teaching Studio, exclusively to the Inner Circle. Click here to join the Inner Circle, or here to read more about converting to group teaching

How To Get Started 

Here are some ways move to conceptual teaching:

  1. Think long term. You can see from the eighth note example described earlier that some concepts might be a year or more in the making. Don’t get in the habit of teaching your students only what they need to know right now. It’s never to early to introduce concepts that are coming later. But, be sure to incorporate these concepts in a way that make sense now. That leads to the next idea.
  2. Think through tricky concepts that you find difficult to teach or that confuse your students. If you find yourself struggling to explain things to your students or if you notice trends with your students responding with confusion or disinterest in what you are teaching them, it’s probably time to find a new approach. Conceptual teaching will often do the trick in these situations.

    When I previously taught material strictly as it appeared in the method book, I often struggled with the way scales and chords were approached. It seemed strange to me that one day we would arrive at a page with a C Major scale on it and start playing the scale from that day forward, by reading notes on the page.These days, I teach 5 finger scales in all 12 keys by rote from the very beginning of piano lessons. As soon as a student has the finger dexterity and a solid understanding of keyboard geography, we move on to full octave scales. No books or lengthy descriptions are necessary at first, just simple rote playing.Then, when scale-like passages appear in their music, students know exactly what to do. Previously, I would have taught the scale at that moment, but now, the work has already been done and we transfer that concept to our assignment.
  1. Break things apart into tiny pieces. Make every concept that you teach your student digestible right now. If a concept is too complicated or if it contains multiple steps, break it down into the smallest possible idea and build on that idea over time.Think about how method books often begin introducing sharps and flats in music notation. It’s another one of those surprises to your students where, if you’re following the method strictly, there’s a good chance this is a completely foreign concept.Now consider ways that you can begin introducing this concept before it appears in the book:
  • Teach your student to play 5 finger scales in every key. Have your student use their ear to hear that often black keys are needed to make the scale sound correct.
  • Teach your students about half steps by finding the very closest black key to each white key. Do activities such as using an eraser or small toy to place on sharp keys while ascending the keyboard chromatically, and flat keys while descending the keyboard chromatically.
  • Play games where your student has to find sharps and flats. Let your student see what the sharp and flat symbols look like, not in notation, but just next to a letter, such as F#.
  • Finally, when you arrive at that page in the method book where sharps and flats are suddenly being used, there should be no surprises. You can help your student see how sharps and flats are labeled in the music, and your student should have the understanding and confidence to approach this “new” concept with ease.
  1. Start early. Conceptual teaching works remarkably well with your youngest, beginning students. Most children are very intuitive about music, and often times, teachers and books make music seem more confusing and challenging than it needs to be. Start teaching musical concepts as soon as possible.In my own studio, I use a preschool music class to begin introducing musical concepts to pre-piano students. My preschool students do activities that teach them concepts such as high and low, keyboard geography, lines and spaces on the staff, finger numbers, step-wise motion, loud and soft, rhythm, steady beat, patterns and much more. Wouldn’t it be awesome if all of your students arrived at their first lesson with an understanding of these concepts?These students are at an advantage because these musical concepts are now apart of their language. When they are ready for piano lessons, none of these concepts will feel foreign or confusing. They will be ready to apply them to making music.

If you’re intrigued by starting a preschool music class in your own studio, I invite you to learn more about my course, Teach Preschool Music.

  1. Get to know your students and their strengths. Conceptual teaching only works if you are teaching to your students. Every student comes to you wired differently, with a different background, different interests, different challenges and different strengths. Learn as much as you can about each individual student and their preferred learning modalities. No two lessons will look the same and expect the process to be messy and unpredictable. And, teach your students to enjoy the learning process and celebrate every success.

For more practical examples of how to implement conceptual teaching with your own students, click here

Conclusion 

How did you find your piano teaching method? Is there such thing as a ‘perfect’ teaching style? Please leave your questions and thoughts in the comments section below.

Megan Desmarais

About the Author

Megan Desmarais runs a dynamic piano studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA where she helps students from ages 0-70 to succeed with and to love music. She blogs at verypiano.com where she loves to share resources and ideas with teachers and learners of piano. Megan recently created Teach Preschool Music, a comprehensive online course for piano teachers who wish to add a preschool music program to their studio. Megan enjoys spending time with her husband and 2 kids, playing violin in a community orchestra and learning new things.

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