piano lesson

My Go-To Plan for First Piano Lessons

My Go-To Plan for First Piano Lessons

Where should we begin?

It's the age-old question we ask ourselves when we sit down with a new (beginning) student for the first time. What should we talk about first? Hand position? Finger numbers? Letter names? Where's Middle C?

I like to get the student playing as quickly as possible. We explore high sounds and low sounds and sounds in the middle, black keys and white keys and the patterns they make, and rhythm patterns based on our heartbeat. We imitate, improvise, and create.

The first lesson is all about experimenting with the instrument and exploring sound. Here is my go-to lesson plan:

    Monster Dance

    Monster Dance

    Last week, I introduced Jennifer Fink's Monster Dance to an 11-year-old student. It was a sight-readable piece for him - something we could put together in one lesson. The piece is written for left hand solo, though it ventures up into the treble clef partway through. Once we had worked through the key patterns, tricky moves, and looked for repeated material, he wanted to play it all the way through from the beginning.

    As he played, I thought about the beloved Disney/Pixar film, Monsters, Inc. (one of my personal favorites!).

    "Have you seen Monsters, Inc.?" I asked when he finished playing. "Um, yeah, of course!" he said, with a sparkle in his eye. "Have you seen Monsters University?" he asked. "Um, yeah, of course!" I said, imitating his inflection. "I was thinking - which monster is the best match for the music in Monster Dance?" "Definitely Sullivan," he said without pause. "I was thinking Sully, too," I said. "What about Mike Wazowski? What kind of music would fit his character?"

    He immediately went to the high side of the piano and started playing something.

    Creativity in the Piano Lesson

    Have you ever heard of the paper clip test? It measures creativity* by asking a simple question:

    How many uses can you think of for a paper clip? 

    Most people can come up with a list of 10-15 things. How many things do you think a kindergartener could list? Around two hundred. 

    There is an infinite amount of potential for teaching and learning with this level of creativity. The question is, how can we as teachers create opportunities for divergent thinking and foster creativity in our students? 

    Here are a few ideas:


    5 Ways to Foster Creativity in Your Piano Students

    1. Find ways to incorporate creative movement. 

    Introduce a new rhythm pattern (preparation for a new song, perhaps) and ask the student to create a corresponding movement. I had a student last week suggest elbows and fist pumps. I kid you not.

    2. Use different voices to speak rhythm patterns. 

    Sometimes, rhythm syllables and neutral syllables get old. Some other creative ideas include: opera star, baby, howling dog, barking dog, cow, etc.

    3. Improvise. 

    Build in time for an in-lesson improvisation, based on something familiar to the student.

    For instance, I had a student last week who had just gotten back from Zoo Camp. Naturally, I asked him to improvise a song about the animals at the zoo. He chose to include: lions, a tiger, a gazelle, a crocodile, a blue jay, and a mouse. (I know because he added in narration along the way.)

    4. Respond to the moment. 

    This is a creative challenge for teachers - what do you with a wiggly five-year-old at the end of their lesson when you're just trying to get through "In a Canoe" and they just want to experiment? 

    You propose a "murky water" improv section (setting the scene for the canoe) + patterns from the song. And you go with it.

    5. Give a weekly creativity challenge. 

    I add this to the bottom of the student's assignment sheet. I usually provide a few simple parameters (i.e. use only black keys or only short sounds) and/or a theme or point of inspiration. 

    Here’s an example for a kindergarten student:

    “Create a song about cars and trucks.  What do they sound like?  Are they driving or stuck in traffic?  Be sure to give your improvisation or composition a name!”

    Related post: 40 Ideas to Inspire Creativity in Your Piano Students


    Have other ideas for adding creativity into the piano lesson?  Leave a comment - I'd love to hear from you!

    *Note: If you haven't seen Sir Ken Robinson's TED talk on this topic, watch it here (short animated clip) or here (full video).

    Shooting Stars

    composition, beginning students, creativity, piano, piano teaching, piano lessons, writing music Earlier this week, I had an eight-year-old student bring this into her lesson – her first composition.  At our last lesson, I asked her to try making up a few of her own songs that used some of the same musical elements she had recently learned (quarter notes, half notes, legato playing, and changing registers).

    “Shooting Stars” is a piece for right and left hand in 5/4 time (how cool is that?!), spanning four octaves.  There are repeated rhythm patterns as well as tonal patterns and the ascending tetrachord in each pattern combined with the shifts in register really exemplifies the title.  Notice the “key” in the top left hand corner that indicates hand position (modeled from our lesson book, The Music Tree).  Up to this point, the songs in the book have only included black keys; I love the initiative it took to create a new piece on the white keys!

    I’m so proud!

    Daydreams

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    This was the name of the piece I assigned to Bobby last week.  Bobby is a well-mannered red-head, autistic, and in the 8th grade.

    Now in our third month of lessons, this piece from The Music Tree, Part I is four measures long with three 4-beat patterns total.  Bobby immediately brought his hands up to the keyboard and played through the piece, aggressively.  Looking at me briefly for approval, I pointed to the page and said, "What about this half note?"  "Oh yeah," he said quickly, replacing his hands on the keys.

    Again, he played through the piece, correcting his position when he realized he was off by a step.  He began again.  I could tell by his body language that he was just not in the mood to play music off the page.  In a moment of hesitation, Bobby suddenly diverged into another register and musical atmosphere completely, though I recognized a few patterns from "Daydreams."

    "Why don't you play this version of 'Daydreams' and then play me your version based on some of these patterns," I suggested.  Forcefully, he again played the four bars, struggling to keep the rhythm going.  "Okay," I said.  "Now play your version of 'Daydreams.'"  With no hesitation, Bobby brought both hands up to the keyboard in a fell swoop and began playing his improvisation.  Both feet immediately moved to the una corda and sostenuto pedals and he experimented with the change in sound with unabashed confidence.

    I listened intently to the layers of sound - covering the extremities of the keyboard - very carefully placed and intentional.  In some cases, it was musical babble; in others, it was very much an embellishment of the original piece.  Amidst the glissandi (yes, glissandi) up and down the keyboard, the cluster chords, the quick flourishes, and even a theme from the improvisation he played for me last week (I was amazed that he incorporated this), Bobby returned to the original "Daydreams" again and again.  "He gets it," I thought to myself.  Sometimes, the patterns were played softly in the upper register (above the wash of sound he created with the pedal) and sometimes he augmented them slightly in the middle register.  I also noticed a few black-key motives from his improvisation last week making a reappearance in this new context.  It was fascinating to see and hear his creativity.

    After a couple of minutes, I thought to myself, "So, how long should I let this improvisation activity last?  There are other pieces I'd like to get to in this lesson.  How do I know when he's at the end?"  At a seemingly logical stopping place, I interjected, "That's great Bobby!  I love your interpretation of 'Daydreams,'" but he simply glanced up at me and continued on with his improvisation.  I quickly realized that this was a valuable teaching moment and a perfectly appropriate way to spend our lesson time.  I listened to Bobby's use of tonal patterns, rhythms, and repetition.  I watched him play.  He was into it.  He was making music.  He was incorporating things we had learned but he was making it his own.  When he arrived at the end of his improvisation, I knew it was complete.

    We finished the lesson with a few activities from the lesson book but I was struck by what I had just witnessed.  I wondered if others would hear the things that I heard - the creativity, the sensitivity, the synthesis.  I learned something new today about music as a language.

    Making the Intangible Tangible

    My piano studio is officially up and running and I have nine students enrolled for the fall.  I have quite a spread at the moment with students ranging from age 5 to retired adult.  I am also teaching seven students and staff members at Fitchburg State University.  It’s a wonderful opportunity to teach at so many different levels but I must confess, Kindergarten and 1st Grade is still my favorite age. Yesterday, I had a lesson with 5-year-old Lily.

    With a head full of curls and always decked out in the latest fashion, Lily is bright-eyed and full of energy.  As such, we started our piano lesson with “warm-ups” a.k.a “get the wiggles out before you sit down on the bench.”  We wiggled our arms, we bobbed our wrists, and we wiggled all of our fingers (what a great way to promote large-body movements to fine motor skills and relaxation – something we all should practice!).

    We spent the beginning of the lesson reviewing the pieces we started last week: chanting the texts while keeping a steady beat (for the following piece I used an imaginary oar as a variation of the arm swing), tapping the rhythm on the keyboard cover, singing, and looking for musical patterns.

    Crossing the lake in a canoe, Paddling along enjoying the view!

    “What do you see when you’re paddling across the lake?”  “Umm,” Lily said, cocking her head to one side.  “I see some trees, and a blue sky… and some clouds, and – this is silly.”  “What is it?”  I prodded.  “A bread-tree,” she replied, matter-of-factly.  What is a bread-tree, you might ask?  In Lily’s words, “It’s a tree with slices of bread on it!”  What an imagination!  If only we could look at the world through the eyes of a five-year-old every once in a while.

    The second half of the lesson was spent on new material: We walked in place (keeping a steady beat while chanting the text), swung our arms, tapped our hands, and identified the starting hand position.  After demonstrating the beginning of the piece, I said, “Can you copy me?  Do you have it in your head?”

    Immediately, Lily’s facial expression changed and I knew this was a concept difficult for her to grasp.  Think about the question literally – imagine the notes swirling around or maybe the printed page crumpled up in your head.  Quick – improvise!

    “It’s not in your head?  Well, open it up (pretending to open a door into the top of my head) and put it in!”  She quickly copied my motions, smiling.  I knew she had heard me play the piece and we had spoken the text in rhythm several times as preparation.  Once we overcame this intangible gap, she played the piece just fine.

    I learn so much about myself as a teacher in these kinds of lessons.  I can’t help but come home beside myself with excitement and eager to share my creative experiences with Steve – it’s the five-year-old in me.

    Rodeo

    Five-year-old Alison had just finished playing one of her previous lesson book songs chosen from her “piano box” – an elaborately-decorated tissue box holding the names of all of her “checked-off” songs. Her mom says it’s one of her favorite parts of practicing at home and she begged to incorporate it into piano lessons, too. I think she feels a great sense of accomplishment when she can turn back a few pages and play a familiar song successfully and from the teacher’s perspective, it’s a great repertoire-building technique.

    We turned the page for her new assignment, “Rodeo.” As exciting as the piece looked on paper, it just wasn’t engaging enough to hold her interest today.

    I asked, “Did you remember your cowgirl hat? You need to wear it in order to play this song.” “Yep!” she replied enthusiastically. “I have it right here,” she said as she pulled the imaginary hat from behind her back. “Guess what color it is?” said the girl dressed in all pink. “Pink,” I said. “Yeah,” she said, as if no other color existed. Hat in place, she began to copy my phrases as we sang together.

    I was pleasantly surprised that the imaginative distraction worked – she was actually learning the new piece without even realizing it! I thought too soon. Halfway through, she stopped suddenly and turned to her mom. “I need a skittle! I can’t play anymore until I have one!” she said dramatically. “The skittles are in the car – you can have them after your lesson. Only a few more minutes – I think you’ll survive,” her mom replied.

    Alison was insistent, jumping off the bench to plead a little more. “Alison, didn’t you put your skittles in your cowgirl hat?” I asked, trying the imagination tool once more. “Oh yeah!” she said. “I forgot I put them in there!” She pulled the imaginary pink hat off her head and pulled out an imaginary handful of skittles. “What color do you like, Miss Ashley?” “I like the green ones,” I said as she pulled a few imaginary green skittles out of her imaginary handful and handed them to me.

    After the brief imaginary skittle-break, we resumed playing “Rodeo,” imaginary pink cowgirl hat in place.

    Improvisation

    One of the most exciting things about being a teacher is improvising. I’m sure I already have some disagreement out there.  Now, I admit I am the “planning-type.”  I arrive 15 minutes before my first lesson so that I have enough time to plan activities for particular students and to make sure my materials are in order.  This week was no different.  I arrived at 3:00 p.m. for a 3:15 p.m. lesson.  I had a rhythm activity planned for a later lesson making use of that stress ball I got last semester.  3:15 p.m. came and went with no sign of my student.

    About 15 minutes later, a frazzled mother and a bright-eyed, grinning five-year-old girl appeared.  “I’m so sorry we’re late – and I forgot her book bag – you have copies of her books, right?” Normally, yes.  This particular day, no.  I took the first few volumes home the night before for some lesson preparation.  “How about we just play some games today?  How does that sound?”  “Yeah!” Alison responded eagerly as she jumped up on the bench.

    We began with a familiar song.  Alison’s choice was “Alouette” from earlier in her lesson book.  To make this into a “game,” I challenged her to transposition.  She of course doesn’t know the formal term yet but she has responded well to this concept in the past and proceeded to play the piece in G major, F major and Gb major.  Next, I pulled out the stress ball.  “Now let’s play the song with this ball.”

    Poor choice of words as I soon discovered.  Alison followed my directions literally and played – finger by finger – the melody of “Alouette” on the ball.  Playing along (“I meant to do that…”), I commended her effort. (Note: It’s quite challenging to play a legato melody on the surface of a ball!  Try it!)  I suggested next we use the ball for the rhythm of the piece (while singing the melody).  I set a steady beat and we began passing the ball back and forth in time.  After about two measures of nice rhythm: pass-pass-pass-pass, the pattern began to morph into pass-toss-pass-toss, each toss leading me to chase the ball as it escaped across the floor.  Next game.

    “Can you sing “Alouette” and bounce this ball on your shoulder?”  I challenged.  “Yes,” came the confident reply.  And she did.  “Can you sing, bounce the ball on your head and march in place?”  “Yes.”  And she did.  Though multi-tasking, Alison was able to sing the song tunefully and keep a steady beat marching.  And though my intention with the ball was to keep a steady beat, Alison often bounced the ball in the rhythm of the song while marching to steady quarter notes (even more impressive!)

    We repeated this series of rhythm and movement activities with another familiar piece, “Mary Had a Little Lamb.”  Not a former lesson book song, Alison wanted to play this piece before anything else.  After demonstrating a few times through, she played it successfully on her own (while singing).  The last activity of the lesson was with crayons – excuse me, markers and highlighters (Alison’s selection from the box of coloring utensils).  I drew a 2×2 grid on a blank sheet of paper and we sang through “Mary Had a Little Lamb” again.  As we sang, I pointed to each empty block:

    1 – “Mary had a little lamb” 2 – “Little lamb, little lamb” 3 – “Mary had a little lamb (it’s)” 4 – “Fleece was white as snow”

    The project was to write something in each block that represented that part of the song.  I expected a picture of a sheep or possibly some quarter notes.  Alison drew “E-D-C” in the first block and “D-D-D, E-E-E” in the second block (after some negotiations with the piano).  Next week when we finish filling in the blocks I’ll ask if any parts are repeated (i.e. the music/words in blocks 1 and 3) – a beginning lesson on form!

    Drastic times call for drastic measures.  Lessons learned today: be resourceful, think like a five-year-old, and keep up the change of pace!