Kid Too Busy for Music Lessons? Rather than Quit, Readjust Goals

One teen’s story illustrates how music lessons can lighten a heavy load

boy getting a piano lesson

Carlo and Doug enjoy a piano lesson.

by Lara Levitan

When Carlo was four years old, he was drawn to the piano. His older brother took lessons, and seeing him play inspired Carlo to tinker at the keys after his brother finished practicing. Noticing Carlo’s interest, his mother signed him up for lessons.

Even as a tot, Carlo loved experimentation, but the Suzuki method he studied left little room for the spontaneity and improvisation he loved. He eventually stopped Suzuki but continued his piano study.

Now 16 years old, Carlo once again loves playing and taking lessons with his teacher Doug Ferdinand—but that wasn’t always the case.

Struggling for Time to Practice

An ambitious high school student, Carlo was swamped. Hours of homework, after-school sports, and extra curricular activities left little time for piano practice. As much as he wanted to, Carlo couldn’t dedicate the time to the difficult classical repertoire Doug assigned.

“Even though Carlo maintained a positive attitude through everything we did, I could sense his frustration at times,” Doug said. “Carlo is not one to give up on anything, but I could tell he was not happy when there was a particular piece that would give him trouble and he didn’t have enough time to invest in it.”

Paola, Carlo’s mom, felt he was on the verge of quitting altogether—she’d seen it happen once already with her older son, who’d dropped piano due to feeling overwhelmed and hasn’t touched the instrument since.

But Paola was determined to stop that from happening again.

“One thing striking about Carlo is, he still goes to the piano on his own, rarely to do what the teacher has instructed him to do, mostly to do his own stuff,” Paola said. “This is his way of relaxing. He comes home from school, hears something and tries to reproduce it on the piano. In this way, he expresses his creativity without structure. He has a genuine interest, and I wanted to encourage that without it becoming a burden.”

A New Approach

Rather than let him quit— or allow him to feel guilty for being unprepared every week before his lesson— Paola consulted with Doug, and together they devised a plan.

“The change of approach involves a much looser and fluid weekly process,” Doug said. “We aren’t following any method books or curriculum, and instead the lessons develop Carlo’s original ideas, melodies, and chord progressions. We may also work on some pieces by ear and try to figure them out just by listening.This takes the pressure off of Carlo and may actually make him more productive as a result.”

It’s a strategy that’s proven effective. With little to no expectation for progress in the traditional sense, Carlo is able to enjoy what he loves most about music: the freedom to improvise, something he loved even as a four-year-old studying the Suzuki method.

“The change is, there’s no guilt when Doug arrives. He no longer feels like he’s putting Doug down by not practicing the classical pieces he assigned. Instead, lessons mean Carlo takes a break from his homework,” Paola said. “The two of them have so much fun, you hear them laughing. It teaches him that music is not a duty.”

Setting the Right Goals

This approach works well if the goal of music lessons is simply to foster a love of music, or to enjoy the relaxing, therapeutic effect of music-making. Progress can be measured not by technical achievement or assignment completion, but by satisfying a more personal musical goal determined by the student—even if that goal is just to have fun. The approach may work especially well for teenagers, who are old enough to begin to make mature decisions about what they want—or don’t want— from lessons.

Since Paola and her husband don’t consider themselves musical, she values the role Doug plays in his life. Working with a young teacher like Doug, who’s active on the music scene, can offset the solitary nature of piano-playing, as well as provide a unique sort of companionship.

“My kids grow with lots of grown-ups in their lives,” Paola said. “It takes a village to raise a kid, and a piano teacher inspires them, and gives them direction and quality time with someone who has a passion for music.”

“I don’t think our relationship has changed much,” Doug said. “Maybe he is a little more open with me in regard to what he would like to do, because essentially he is directing the lesson as much as I am. But Carlo has taught me how to be adaptable. I try to connect with my students and understand what motivates them, but sometimes that process can be long. Arriving at a good teaching procedure with Carlo took some time, but sometimes time is all you need.”

Learn more about setting goals and managing expectations for music lessons.

9 Helpful Tips for Teaching Adult Music Students

by Lara Levitan

WorkingGrownSexyMusicStudent

The beauty of teaching adult music students is no one is forcing them to take lessons. Unlike kids, their parents aren’t requiring it, or breathing down their necks to practice. (At least we hope not!)

Eager to learn and challenge themselves, adult students can be a true pleasure to teach.

Much of the advice below applies to students of any age, but may resonate in particular with preparing and managing expectations for your adult music students.

1. Be flexible and patient.

Adults have very real, high-stake responsibilities that can keep them from practicing or attending lessons regularly. For this reason, leniency is a must.

Acknowledging this in advance can help manage your—and your student’s— expectations for how quickly they progress.

2. Create attainable goals together.

“I’ve noticed that adults tend to be more self-aware and want to feel progress more than children,” said music teacher Anthony Allamandola.

Collaborating to create goals and steps for achieving them can be the fuel adult students need to stay on track with a practice schedule. (Especially important after a long day of work, kids, and chores!)

Be honest with your students when stressing the importance of daily practice. Help them find ways to make practice happen, e.g. get an electric keyboard with headphones so they can practice after the kids go to sleep.

3. Be open to where lessons take you.

Many older students may be taking lessons to relax and de-stress. Although playing music can be very soothing, sometimes this means playing very little music during lessons.

“Often times my adult students and I spend lesson time talking about music and why it’s important in our lives,” music teacher Leah Rockweit said. “I find that taking lessons, even if there isn’t a specific deadline or goal can be very therapeutic.”

4. Teach “beginner’s mind.”

There’s a well-known quote in Zen Buddhism: “In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s mind there are few.”

Unlike children, most adults aren’t learning new things every day.

“Adults cannot remember how long it took them to master the English language,” said music teacher Emily Volz. “They want immediate results in reading music.”

As a music teacher, you know the process requires hard work and is truly unending, depending on how long you stick with playing. Remind your adult student of this when she is uncomfortable with being less than perfect. Reassure him often, even if you start feeling like more of a cheerleader than a music teacher.

5. Give up control…at least a little.

When working with kids, you typically gauge their skill-level and decide what and how to teach from there.

Adults, on the other hand, tend to have specific ideas about how or what they learn, e.g. learning to sing a song to perform at a wedding, or playing The Eagles’ oeuvre.

This is one of the great joys of working with adults!

They can be a strong partner or even leader in steering the course of study. Bonus for you, they may also be more passionate and eager to learn from the outset.

6. Don’t assume it’s harder for adults to learn than kids.

Beginning lessons with an adult with the assumption that this is going to be difficult for them is just that— an assumption.

When Debby Dubow began piano lessons after semi-retirement, she was pleased to find her sight-reading better than it had been when she was a kid.

“Honestly I play terribly, but my understanding of music is better than it was [when I was a kid taking lessons],” Debby said.

Piano Power Student Debby Dubow and teacher Doug Ferdinand

Piano Power Student Debby Dubow and teacher Doug Ferdinand

7. Enjoy your break from teaching yet another Taylor Swift song.

Music teacher Dan Huber may have nailed the greatest bonus of working with adults: “They often have better taste in music.”

8. Don’t hold a “recital”, hold a “musical soirée.”

Keep the atmosphere casual and celebratory. Make memorization optional. And provide plenty of wine.

9. Celebrate the beauty of life-long learning.

A commenter on a blog post about adult music lessons had these lovely words to share about starting music lessons as a non-child: “Adults have futures, too. We need to continue to learn and to grow. When we play a piece, we play our best right to the end, to the very last note, without dwindling in focus. Life can be played that way, too.”

For more on adult music students, check out 8 Reasons You’ll Never Regret Taking Adult Music Lessons.

At what age should my child start piano lessons?

Cute, but probably too young for piano lessons.

Cute, but probably too young for piano lessons.

by Abraham Levitan

The right age to start lessons varies by child. Even if your preschooler exhibits a startling ability to rock her Fisher-Price piano, private music lessons may not be the best option.

Before you start experimenting, here’s some advice.

Piano lessons for 4-year-olds

Four-year-olds may love pounding on mom’s pots and pans, but their true passion is testing boundaries. Sitting and following directions at the piano for 30 or 45 minutes may seem like a threat to their burgeoning independence.

This is fun! (For ten seconds...)

This is fun! (For ten seconds…)

I recommend group music classes like those that use the Wiggleworms model (or, if you’re in Chicago, Stomp and Shout— my daughter’s personal favorite) as a more realistic way to warm your tot to music. Playing rhythm games, clapping along, marching around the room, and singing with a group are fun, age-appropriate ways to introduce your preschooler to the countless joys of music.

Group lessons offer regularity—and a relationship with an outside teacher—that prepare little ones for the discipline of private lessons. If you can’t fit a group class into your schedule, make music at home! No instruments are required, and toys will suffice. Clapping and singing with your kid is fun and can teach you a lot about their musical aptitude.

But what if my 4-year-old shows a special musical ability?

Let’s admit it: we all wear parent goggles when it comes to our little ones. I happen to find my 2-year-old brilliant for playing a Middle C with her tiny toddler finger. But what’s usually most important for preschoolers is continued exposure to music, and access to musical play and instruments– wooden spoons and overturned bowls count!

Nevertheless, I’ve been proven wrong. I’ve seen precocious 4-year-olds wow a recital crowd with their transcendent love of performing, and other pre-kindergarteners who became exceptionally driven due to having an older sibling in lessons. If you think your 4-year-old might have a unique ability, ask your kid’s group music teacher their opinion on next steps. They can be a valuable resource.

Piano lessons for 5-year-olds

Five-year-olds can succeed in private music lessons, but they still might encounter developmental challenges. With this age, it’s sort of 50/50. Reading level, the ability to sit still and focus, and fine motor skills are all factors that affect overall success, and these qualities vary greatly from one kindergartener to the next.

Ten little fingers, so many keys!

Ten little fingers, so many keys!

If you’re unsure about starting your 5-year-old in music lessons, ask yourself these questions:

  • Is he reading, or able to understand that certain letters represent specific sounds in spoken words?
  • Does she exhibit finger and hand dexterity? E.g., can she hold a fork and knife, tie a shoelace, grasp a pencil?
  • Can she sit still for at least thirty minutes when engaged in an activity?
  • While true for any age, 5-year-olds who have played music with a family member have an edge. If your kid loves duetting with grandpa during family sing-alongs, she already understands what it means to practice and perform a song.

    Similarly, having a sibling in music lessons can be a great motivator. In fact, leadership from older siblings or musician parents—or structure from a lead parent who is engaged with her child’s lessons—is one of the foremost indicators of success.

    Piano lessons for 6-year-olds

    At age 6 magical things begin to happen. Why are 6-year-olds typically more ready for music lessons than their younger counterparts?

  • They’re more accustomed to the rhythms of school, which means they’re used to sitting still and focusing on one thing.
  • They tend to have basic reading ability, making note-reading and musical comprehension more intuitive. Their fine motor skills are more developed, leading to increased finger dexterity and ability to play with two hands.
  • By this point, your first-grader has probably performed in a school music performance, which means he’s acclimated to learning and performing a piece of music.
  • little girl playing piano

    Look ma, two hands! ©SWNS.com

    And here’s a situation where peer pressure can be a good thing. Your 6-year-old’s classmates are likely starting music lessons. She may want to take music lessons just to keep up. Besides, who wouldn’t want to play a lively piano rendition of “Happy Birthday” at their best friend’s party?

    Should all kids be required to take music lessons?

    I’ve been teaching piano for 15 years and running Piano Power for nearly ten, so you can probably guess my answer to this question. But the truth is, science backs up my belief in the universal power of music education.

    Music-making stimulates parts of the brain that no other activity does. It teaches interpretive and performative skills. It allows kids to feel accomplishment at having learned something new, and to see it through to completion. It teaches them what it’s like to feel proud of something and to share it with family and friends.

    But none of these benefits can happen without a supportive home practice environment. It’s unrealistic to believe your student will thrive in lessons without a conducive physical setting, and loads of parental support and encouragement.

    In my ideal world, every child would have a family pitching in to make music lessons a success, in combination with a great teacher who really inspires them.

    Older beginners

    Once they become adolescents, students need to be personally invested in music lessons if they’re going to succeed. With a growing interest in extra-familial relationships and a natural desire to separate from mom and dad, teens need to feel a personal stake in their extracurricular activities. Their lesson experience should include open communication with their teacher about goals and expectations, and a customized approach that capitalizes on what excites them about music.

    Regardless, music lessons have benefits at any age. If you’re interested in discussing music lessons for your child, or for yourself, please contact us or feel free to reach out to me personally at abraham@pianopower.org.

    Interested in signing up your kid for lessons? Take a look at our roster of exceptional teachers.

    About the Author

    Abraham Levitan

    Abraham is the founder and head of Piano Power. He began offering at-home piano lessons in 2001, continuously refining an engaging teaching style. He was proud to see students thriving through his curriculum, which mixed fundamentals, collaborative original compositions, classical repertoire, and the latest hits from top-forty radio. In 2007 he founded Piano Power, building a talented and enthusiastic team of instructors with this curriculum at its core.

    5 Creative Ways to Enjoy Music as a Family

    You don't have to be The Brady Bunch to have a groovy musical family!

    You don’t have to be The Brady Bunch to have a groovy musical family!

     

    Car sing-alongs and kitchen dance parties are par for the course. We asked Piano Power parents and friends to share their unique music-sharing traditions. Read on for some fun musical inspiration.

    1. Two words: family karaoke.

    Parent Beth Kurtzweil, whose sons are 13, 11, 9 and, 7, loved her experience at family karaoke night at The Rock House in Glenview.

    “At first the boys were like ‘oh, man’,” Beth said. “But by the end we couldn’t pull them off stage.”

    Love it or hate it, karaoke can be a true learning experience for kids. Reading lyrics, performing for an audience, waiting their turn, learning to respect others’ performances— there are some major lessons to be learned beyond karaoke’s goofy fun.

    If you’re not too shy to get onstage, kids can witness your own love for music, and see that mom or dad makes mistakes, laughs, and carries on.

    (Also, you can introduce them to the amazing, karaoke-friendly world of Bonnie Tyler.)

    2. Make it a game.

    Rather than Name That Tune, parent Ellen Mazza’s family plays a game that could be called Name That Artist. The rules: When a new song starts, the first to name the artist wins.

    “We never say ‘let’s play…’ We all know that if music on, the game is going,” said Ellen, whose blended family includes a child in every year of high school. “The fun part is that once you know about the game, you’re always playing.”

    This game presupposes that a.) Music is on at home, and b.) It is actively listened to. Rather than just serving as background noise, music becomes an integrated part of life, requiring attention, memory, and close listening.

    3. Life is a musical.

    Parent Jeremy Reichardt describes his 5-year-old daughter as a big talker.

    “I noticed her wanting to talk faster then she could form words, so I sang ‘You can’t talk, you are only allowed to sing to meeee!’ to some tune,” Jeremy said. “She sang right back with something like,‘OK then, dad. I will sing what I say to youuu!’

    This requires a bit of musical spontaneity on the parents’ part, but you can borrow the melody of any tune you both know.

    After the enthusiastic response, Jeremy kept up the game to help channel his daughter’s chatty energy.

    “It sets a pace and makes her form words to fit into a tune,” Jeremy said. “But mostly it’s just another silly game we play.”

    4. Take music lessons with your kid.

    The benefits of taking music lessons with your kid are too many to list— but we tried in this article about Why Taking Music Lesson With Your Kid is Awesome.

    Long story short, taking lessons with your kid is probably one of the best creative bonding experiences you can share. And one you’ll never regret.

    5. Family concert night.

    If your kid is a bit of a ham, this will be no problem. If they shy away from performing their instrument before the family, here’s the secret: You must perform, too. It doesn’t matter if you haven’t played the piano in 25 years. Sing Twinkle Twinkle Little Star while shaking a jar of popcorn. Bang out your best Chopsticks. Take it lightly and have fun. Your kid will follow your lead.

    Read more about why taking music lessons with your kid is awesome.

    7 Fun Ways to Replace Screen Time With Music Time

    by Lara Levitan

    kids using digital devices

    But they look so happy…

    For many parents, limiting screen time is a never-ending battle. We know that too much can be alienating and addictive, but to our kids it’s just plain fun.

    Really fun.

    Because on average, tweens spend an average of 4.5 hours a day on screen media. For teens the number is even higher.

    But we also know this: kids love music.

    Girl listening to music

    With these awesome jams, who needs an iPad?

    Which got us thinking. How can we peel our kids away from their devices for some irresistible musical activities? Sure we can set limits and use reward systems, but we can also have some fun.

    Here’s what we came up with:

    1. Have a dance party.

    We’re not talking decorations, invitations, and formal wear, people. We’re talking spontaneous, floor-stomping hoe-downs in the comfort of your own kitchen. The key? Don’t ask your kids first. Lead by example. Turn up the tunes and go for it. Even if your kids roll their eyes and refuse to join, at least you’ll have had a chance to shake it off.

    Shaking it off: healthy for all ages.

    Shaking it off: healthy for all ages.

    2. Go to a music store just to play around.

    Music stores are like musical playgrounds full of discovery and possibility. Your piano-playing kid might find unexpected joy within the sticks of a xylophone or the cymbals of a drum kit. (Just be sure to avoid the “May I Help You Riff”…)

    3. See a concert.

    With the weather warming up, daytime outdoor festivals abound. Bonus points if you go to a performance by your kid’s music teacher!

    4. Speaking of concerts, host your own!

    A family concert, that is. Tell your kid that, in the prehistoric era before TVs and computers, families used to entertain each other with singing and musical performance. This could be especially helpful practice if your kid has a recital coming up.

    Scene from Sense & Sensibility

    You’ll never have a better audience than your own family.

    5. Family karaoke night

    Do a little research and you’re sure to find a restaurant or bar that offers early, family-friendly karaoke. If not, sing-along karaoke CDs and DVDs are easy to find. Behind the facade of goofy fun, karaoke offers mucho educational benefits.

    6. Go hunting for musical instruments–in the house!

    The challenge: find unconventional household “instruments” and demonstrate how they’re played, e.g. running a thumb over the tines of a comb. A great activity for young children, musical instrument hunting broadens kids’ understanding of what music is and how it can be made.

    coffee bean can

    A can of your favorite coffee, or the ultimate shaker machine?

    7. Play Rhythm Machine.

    An idea we borrowed from a super-creative music teacher, Rhythm Machine may work best for
    families of four or more. The rules:

  • Sit in a circle. One person starts the Rhythm Machine by doing a simple rhythm that repeats over and over.

  • The person sitting to the left of the starter then adds a rhythm to go along with the rhythms that are already going. The rhythm has to repeat and cannot change.

  • When everyone has added a rhythm, listen for a few measures.

  • The first person will then stop doing their rhythm. Listen for a moment, and then the second person drops out. It continues until the last person is the only rhythm.

  • It’s fascinating to listen to how the sound changes. Players learn that a song consists of many parts working together, and that one part can make a big difference.

    Let’s keep the ideas coming. What are your ideas for musical non-screen time?

    For more ideas about engaging your family with music, check out 5 creative ways to enjoy music as a family.

    Music lessons & cerebral palsy: Sophia & Audie’s story

    by Lara Levitan

    Audie, Sophia, and Sophia's brother Finn at a recital

    Audie, Sophia, and Sophia’s brother Finn at a recital

    Piano Power instructor Audie Lomboy had never worked with a special needs student. So when it came time for his first lesson with Sophia, a then nine-year-old with cerebral palsy, he didn’t know what to expect.

    After meeting and conducting their first lesson on a toy piano— the family had not yet purchased a real one—Audie and Sophia quickly warmed to each other.

    “She was very engaged and had such a lively and friendly personality,” Audie said. “After our first lesson, Sophia constantly looked forward to her lessons, and so did I.”






    Music as Physical Therapy

    Like many parents of special-needs students, Sophia’s parents, Kirsten and Pat, turned to music lessons to help stimulate her development. Sophia was born with cerebral palsy, a motor disorder that cannot be cured, but doesn’t worsen over time.

    Though CP presents in different ways, for Sophia it causes spasticity, or stiffness, in her arms and legs, and a reduction of core strength that makes it difficult for her to hold herself up.

    From the very beginning, Audie, Sophia, and her family witnessed music’s therapeutic effect.

    “Stretching her arms out to reach the piano keys, and isolating her fingers to play one key at a time, became a secondary physical therapy for her,” Audie said. “At the same time it helped improve visual focus and hand-eye coordination. And even further, it provided aural stimulation.”

    Kirsten concurred, adding that once the lessons began to incorporate more singing, they also became speech therapy, improving Sophia’s volume and breath control.

    Adventures in Songwriting

    For some time, Audie and Sophia focused solely on piano. But something special happened when Audie initiated listening exercises, playing for Sophia and asking questions like, “Do these notes sound high or low?” “Does this chord sound happy or sad?” “What does this music make you think about?”

    It was the last question that led to experiments in singing and songwriting.

    “At first I’d improvise a song and ask for her feedback on what sort of picture it would paint in her head,” Audie said. “Later on, we started creating stories, then the lyrics and melodies came soon after. Before we knew it, she was performing her first original song, ‘Bajj Runs the Race’ at the winter recital.”

    Audie and Sophia’s songwriting collaboration is emblematic of their chemistry as teacher and student.

    “Audie gives Sophia full creative freedom and never shoots down any of her ideas,” Kirsten said. “He encourages her to make up her own stories, and helps her turn it into a beautiful, finished piece.”

    “When it comes to writing music by myself, I oftentimes have so much trouble,” Audie said. “But with Sophia it’s so automatic. The music that comes out is heavily inspired by the images that she paints in my mind. To be part of such a process means a great deal to me.”

    A Model Teacher

    From the get-go, Kirsten and Pat were amazed by Audie’s ability to challenge Sophia in ways that really worked. During one lesson, she struggled to identify high and low sounds.

    “Audie would get up and stand behind her while he hit notes on different sides of the piano,” Kirsten said. “She thought it was very funny, and it did help her to master the concept. He just seems so comfortable and thoughtful, which comes from his innate kindness and intelligence.”

    Though Sophia was Audie’s first special needs student, he is close with someone who has physical limitations. At a young age, a close friend had a stroke that altered his ability to think, speak, and use his hands.

    “Growing up together, it became something that I got used to,” Audie said. “I didn’t see him as weird or odd. He only had different qualities about him, just like everyone else.”

    When asked how working with Sophia is different from working with his typically-abled students, Audie said it isn’t.

    “The approach is very similar: find genres or aspects of music that they love and use it to help them develop their abilities, broaden their appreciation, and grow as an individual,” Audie said.

    Advice for Parents

    Kirsten and Pat had a hunch that Sophia, a kid who’s always “brightened up” around music, might thrive with lessons. As choices for students with motor disabilities can be limited, Kirsten noted, music lessons are a viable option.

    “This is a great activity with a finished outcome they can be proud of,” Kirsten said.

    When looking for a teacher, she recommends finding someone who doesn’t fear the disability.

    “Often people don’t know what to say to someone with physical disabilities,” Kirsten said. “They are unsure of the person’s ability to speak, understand, and move, so they just avoid them altogether. It’s so refreshing when people are unafraid and initiate conversations and acceptance. It’s always a good day when you meet someone like that.”

    Advice for Teachers

    Audie continues to work with Sophia, who is now 12, as well as ten-year-old Joey, another student with cerebral palsy. With Joey, who is passionate about musical theatre, Audie takes the same student-focused approach.

    “At every lesson, back then and now, Joey would pick out whatever musical he was feeling at the time, I’d whip out the songbook, and we’d rock out to all the tunes,” Audie said. “The primary emphasis is for the student to have fun. Find what they enjoy musically and run with it.”

    For teachers of students with disabilities, Audie emphasizes patience, baby steps, and flexibility in lesson planning. If unsure of what direction to take, think about these areas: tactile, aural, vocal, and visual.

    Most important, perhaps, is to focus on what these students can do, rather than what they can’t.

    “We all have our limitations,” Audie said. “It’s how we approach them that counts.”

    About the Author

    Lara Levitan

    Lara Levitan is Communications Manager for Piano Power. She is a freelance writer and a professional music-appreciator. You can reach her at lara@pianopower.org.

    The time I quit music lessons

    by Abraham Levitan

    I often hear from parents who are concerned about their kid losing interest in music lessons, or whose kids are wanting to switch instruments for the third (or tenth) time. Truth be told, I hit a wall with piano myself halfway through seventh grade, and I took a year off.

    Me rocking out on a homemade guitar.

    Me rocking out on my homemade guitar (in my mom’s scarf).

    Throughout my adolescence (actually, since kindergarten), I wanted to be a rock star. Someone like Bruce Springsteen (see photo at left), whom my dad was (and is) a huge fan of.

    My piano teacher, Ms. Meadows, taught in a traditional style. But she also had a fun side. At the recitals she cleverly disguised as holiday parties, she let me play pop songs I arranged myself. And I loved the opportunity to show my stuff.

    Despite my rock-star heart, I enjoyed the discipline of my weekly lessons with Ms. Meadows. As a conscientious, structure-loving kid, I found that the method-book approach worked for me: I was progressing, and I could see the payoff every week.


    But right around seventh grade, something wasn’t clicking anymore.

    I became more adventurous in my listening, delving into everything from James Brown and Memphis soul to Led Zeppelin to Elvis Costello and Lou Reed. Obsessed with pop and rock music, I wanted to figure out how it worked, to explore the chord structures behind it. I’d begun writing my own songs and wondered— could lessons even support that? Did my interest in writing and performing rock music make me such a rebel that I was somehow beyond music lessons?

    That was around 1990 or ’91. I asked Ms. Meadows to teach me contemporary music. She was a great teacher, but her suggestion of teaching me Chicago and REO Speedwagon songs seemed a little behind the times for my vision.
    My goals are too radical, I thought. I’ll have to teach myself.

    So I quit lessons.

    This was (long) before YouTube could teach you how to do anything, so I made recordings of myself playing and singing my own music. I was quickly humbled. I didn’t have tools for knowing how to write interesting chord changes. My fingers weren’t very fast.

    Over that year, I saw my blind spots, and I decided I could use some help again.

    My next piano teacher, John Bizianes, made a huge impact on my musical education and my life. An easy-going, basketball-playing twenty-something, John played keyboards with his twin brother in a band called Double Vision. They played out at clubs in Louisville, my hometown. It was so exciting for me to learn from someone who was actually doing what I wanted to do, out in the real world.

    John also happened to be an amazing jazz pianist. I wasn’t specifically setting out to learn jazz, but John showed me that if I really understood jazz theory, then I could easily apply it to pop and rock.

    John demystified songwriting by showing me there were only a few main chord sequences that every genre uses. I felt more on top of it, like he was teaching me the secret musician vocabulary.

    Regretfully, I didn’t play my original arrangements for him. I thought what he was teaching me was so heady and sophisticated that I couldn’t open up to him about the simpler stuff I was writing and performing with my high-school rock band.

    I wish I’d shared my songs with John while I was writing them. Looking back now, I see that I was assuming adults wouldn’t respect what I was feeling musically, or what I wanted to do.

    In my own story, and in working with Piano Power families, I’ve learned that brave, honest, and clear communication among teachers, parents, and students has to be a top priority.

    Part of Piano Power’s mission is to understand when our students want to change course. Sometimes switching teachers does the trick, but other times it’s a matter of encouraging our students to be totally honest with their current teacher about what they want—or don’t want— out of lessons.

    Like me in the early nineties, students might believe that parents (or teachers) can’t relate to their musical goals.

    They may need a little reminding that we teachers understand a lot more than it seems. After all, we were once–and maybe still are– young rock-stars-in-training, too.

    About the Author

    Abraham Levitan

    Abraham Levitan is the founder and head of Piano Power. He began offering at-home piano lessons in 2001, continuously refining an engaging teaching style. He was proud to see students thriving through his curriculum, which mixed fundamentals, collaborative original compositions, classical repertoire, and the latest hits from top-forty radio. In 2007 he founded Piano Power, building a talented and enthusiastic team of instructors with this curriculum at its core.

    Teaching the First Drum Lesson

    A Simple Plan for Finding Rhythm with Your New Student

    boy at drums

    by Lucas Gillan

    This article is part of a series on teaching first lessons; read teaching the first voice lesson, and teaching the first piano lesson.

    First Lesson With an Experienced Student

    For a student with some drumming experience, start off with some time-keeping. Whether the student is a beginner or advanced, ask them to “rock out” on a favorite beat while you assess their time-keeping ability and creativity.

    If the student claims not to know any beats, then you already have a clear-cut goal for the first lesson: get a basic beat under the student’s fingers, to the level where he or she could whip it out on command.

    For students who do a good job of “rocking out” on a favorite beat, you can use that beat as a jumping-off point. Experiment with creating longer phrases including fills, moving the right hand ride pattern to different parts of the drum set, etc.

    You should also take some time to assess the student’s hand technique. Have him or her play single strokes on the snare at a moderate tempo, and take notes of technical issues that might need to be addressed. You can decide whether to address the issues immediately, or to get some momentum on the “fun stuff” first, saving technique for lesson two.

    If there’s still time after working on time-keeping and addressing technique, ask the student to show you material they’ve been working on with their previous teacher or on their own, whether that’s music from school band, exercises from a method book, or a song.

    Of course, you should also devote time to talking with the student about what he or she hopes to get out of drum lessons, and whether they have any specific goals (get into middle school jazz band, start a rock back with friends, develop rudimentary technique for marching band, become a master of blast beats, etc.)

    Once you’ve gotten a grasp of the student’s technique, time-keeping ability, experience with other material, and goals, you should have a pretty clear picture of what to do going forward.

    First Lesson With a Beginner Without a Drum Set

    For a typical first lesson, the student will need a pair of sticks (bring extra in case they don’t have any), a practice pad (again, bring your own) and some manuscript paper/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like listening to.

    For true beginners with zero experience, I recommend going into the first lesson with three goals: 1) establish an awareness of steady beat, 2) get started on developing good hand technique, and 3) teach them a basic drum beat.

    I often start the lesson by having the student tap to the beat on their knees, along with a song played through a phone or laptop (I use “Billie Jean” because the beat is so straightforward and everyone loves Michael Jackson, right?)

    Once the student can tap steady quarter notes on his or her knee along with MJ (or whomever you choose), it’s time to put some sticks in their hands. Demonstrate medium tempo single strokes and have them try copying you. Notice what aspects of the student’s natural technique is already good and what aspects will need help. For instance, maybe their grip looks good, but they’re jamming the stick into the pad without letting it bounce. Compliment them on what they’re already doing before going down the list of things they’re doing wrong.

    All of the elements of good hand technique can seem overwhelming, so it’s good to come prepared with a handout detailing them all in one place. Mine looks like this:

    Basic Hand Technique Checklist

    Grip

    [_] Strong fulcrum (main balance point) between the index finger and thumb

    [_] Fulcrum situated at a good location on the stick (on Vic Firth sticks, right about where the American flag is)

    [_] Back fingers loosely wrapped around the stick

    [_] Stick going diagonally across the palm

    [_] Hands turned so that you see back of the hand, not top of the thumb

    [_] Sticks making a “V” shape

    [_] Arms relaxed and resting at side

    Stroke

    [_] Use wrist, not arm

    [_] Knocking or throwing motion, not “karate chop” motion

    [_] Let stick bounce naturally, like a basketball

    [_] Move stick in a straight up-and-down motion

    The teaching mantra “pick your battles” should be heeded here. The idea is to build the student’s awareness of good hand technique, not to demand perfect form by the end of lesson one. Once the student can play some single strokes with some evidence of steady beat and improved technique, move right along to learning a beat.

    First, introduce the concept of counting in 4/4, having the student count “1,2,3,4” along with you. Then go back to “Billie Jean” (or your song of choice) and count along with the song, so the student can hear and get an intuitive understanding of meter.

    Then, teach the basic quarter-note rock beat: while counting out loud, play the right hand on all four beats, the left hand on beats 2 & 4, and stomp your right foot on beats 1 & 3. It helps to play the right hand on a different surface than the left (such as the rim of a Remo practice pad, or even just a hardcover book) and to have a louder stomping surface (like tile or hardwood floor). To convince the student that this is indeed a real drum beat, demonstrate some more complex beats using the same surfaces and show him or her how cool that can sound.
    If your student really excels at that, you can come full-circle and try playing the beat along with “Billie Jean.”

    If you’ve helped the student to understand steady beat, good technique, meter, and even a basic drum beat, that’s a pretty great start! With very young students, it might take weeks to get all of those checked off, and with more adept students, you might get through all of that with time to spare, but either way, that’s a great foundation on which to build for future lessons.

    First Lesson with a Beginner With a Drum Set

    If the student is a total beginner and has a drum set, you can lean a little more on the drum beat portion of the lesson plan described above. Follow the instructions for learning steady beat and good hand technique, but be sure to watch the clock and allow time to get a basic beat happening on the drums.

    After introducing the concept of meter by counting in 4 along to a song, tell the student that you’re about to learn a real rock drum beat. First, take a few minutes to teach the student the names of the different parts of the drum set and tell them that there will be a quiz on it next lesson. Then focus your attention on the hi-hat, snare, and bass drum.

    As described above, teach the student the “basic quarter-note rock beat” by having him or her count “1,2,3,4” out loud, playing right hand strokes on the hi-hat (keeping the hi-hat closed with the clutch if necessary), and then adding the snare on beats 2 & 4, and eventually bass drum on 1 & 3. If the student does great with that beat, then you can try teaching the “basic eighth-note rock beat” by explaining that it’s the same thing, but with one extra hi-hat stroke sandwiched in between each of the existing hi-hat strokes. You should also teach how to count eighth notes, “1 & 2 & 3 & 4 &”.

    If your student can play a either of the basic rock beats by the end of the lesson, they will feel a great sense of accomplishment and motivation to keep going.

    All material © Piano Power 2015

    Learn more about Lucas and our other great instructors.

    Teaching the First Voice Lesson

    Little girl singing

    by Emily Volz

    First voice lesson with an experienced student

    For a student you “inherit” from another teacher, begin by asking the student about their singing background and what they were last working on in lessons. Have the student sing something they’re comfortable with, whether from their last recital or something else they may be singing more casually.

    This is the perfect opportunity to assess their voice and habits in the following categories:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato
  • After hearing the student, gauge their sight-reading, and try some fun music theory activities to test their level of knowledge. Also find out if they have any piano background.

    From this point, doing some more warm-ups may be necessary to assess the categories listed below.

    Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also works, but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.
  • Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”
  • Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels
  • You shouldn’t need to bring any new books or assign a new song to work on. Bring new books for students after you’ve already met them (i.e., for the second lesson), rather than before. This way you can find out what style of music they’re interested in singing, and find a book that fits their voice type and age.

    After warm-ups, it is best to have them explain their concept of breathing for singing. A great way to find out what the student knows is to ask them to show you (with their hand on their own body), where air goes in respiration. If the student does not know, or points to an area of the body that is not the lungs, see Breathing under “First Lesson With a Beginner” below.

    First voice lesson with a beginner

    For a typical first lesson, you’ll need only a manuscript/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like. For true beginners, I recommend doing the following:

    Sing: See if the student is comfortable singing for you. If they’re shy or don’t have anything prepared, a good sample phrase to have them sing would be:

    My country tis of thee

    Assess: Move this phrase into different keys, higher and lower, to assess the three most basic and important concepts of healthy singing. Listen and watch for these three important concepts:

  • Body alignment and/or posture
  • Breath and breathing habits
  • Qualities of the voice: tone, range, vibrato/non vibrato
  • Vocalize: Continue doing warm-ups with some suggestions below for assessment.

    Warm-ups for assessing range:

  • Slides or sirens from scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 to see how high and low they can sing comfortably.
  • Lip trills or buzzes, scale degree 1 to 5 to 1 also work,but sometimes this is difficult if a student holds tension in their face.
  • Warm-ups for stimulating/finding vibrato:

  • Long tones held on simple vowels like [o] “oooooh” in middle range of voice
  • Whole note exercise moving from scale degree 1?3? 1 on [ma] “maaah”
  • Warm-ups for assessing tone quality:

  • [a] [e] [i] [o] [u] “ah, eh, ee, oh, oo” on one pitch in middle range of voice
  • [ma] [me] [mi] [mo] [mu] and [na] [ne] [ne] [no] [no] also work well for connecting vowels
  • The most important concept to teach to a new beginner

    Breathing!

    Regardless of age, all students should be able to understand the basic anatomy and science of their bodies. Explain that breath is the foundation of all noise that we produce with our voices. Without air we wouldn’t be able to make any sound! Breathing allows us to whisper, speak, shout, and sing.

    Simple breathing exercises

    To find out what the student may know or misconstrue about breathing, ask them to show you, with their hands, where the air goes after respiration. It’s common for students to place their hand on their lower belly, which happens to be just intestines. Show the student, on your own body, that air enters the lungs, which are located behind the rib cage. Ask the student to take a few breaths and focus only on expanding the lungs underneath the rib cage.

    Have students place hands around their rib cage. Ask them to close their eyes and breathe “wide” instead of “deep”. The goal should be to expand the ribs to full capacity with little movement in the lower belly. “Deeply” usually makes students raise their shoulders and puff out their lower abs in order to take in a decent breath.

    As they breathe, check to make sure there is no raising of the shoulders, puffing of the lower belly, or loud gasping sounds. Breath should be inaudible.

    The one thing that must happen during the first voice lesson

    It is essential that your student learns part of a song by the end of their first lesson. Both students and parents will consider this a huge accomplishment, and will be much more enthusiastic about moving forward.

    Bring a copy of an easy (i.e., non-strenuous) folk or pop song that you can teach a few phrases of (by ear if need be). For their first assignment, ask the student to practice a few phrases for the next lesson with their new way of breathing. Proper breathing will be a hard concept to master, considering the shallow chest-breathing we use daily for speech.

    Extras!

    As you’re moving along, make sure you’re keeping detailed notes about how to practice (how many times, how many minutes, etc.), so that they develop great practice habits from day one.

    It’s also a good idea to record their warm-ups and their songs on a phone or tablet, and then email or text them to the student and/or parent. This will help the singer practice if they’re not skilled enough at piano to play their own warm-ups or vocal melodies. Students also really enjoy hearing their own voice — and their vocal progress — through recordings.

    Final Note

    Whether you’re starting with a new student or an experienced student, consider your first month an extended job interview: demonstrate an extra degree of professionalism in your appearance and your teaching, and be present and engaged when communicating with students and parents.

    All material © Piano Power 2017

    Check out our 9 easy ways to care for your voice!

    Teaching the First Piano Lesson

    Little girl smiling at piano keyboard

    by Abraham Levitan

    This article is part of a series on teaching first lessons; read teaching the first voice lesson, and teaching the first drum lesson.

    First lessons are full of possibility and excitement. As a piano teacher, they were among my favorite parts of the job. Here’s a guide I wrote based on my experience, and that I share with my instructors. Hopefully it will help you to get a great start with new students!

    First piano lesson with an experienced student

    For a student you “inherit” from another teacher, use the first lesson to explore what they’ve been working on, and maybe assign a bit more in their current book. You shouldn’t need to bring any new books– save those for the second or third lessons. The first lesson is mainly diagnostic, and the info you get will be very helpful in determining what new books, if any, they need.

    First piano lesson with a beginner

    For a typical first lesson, you’ll need only a manuscript/assignment book. You’ll be going slowly, getting to know your new student, finding out their overall likes and dislikes (favorite foods, favorite classes in school, etc.), as well as what kind of music they like. For true beginners, I recommend the following:

    1. Trace their hands (in their manuscript book). Ask them to write “L.H.” on their left hand, and “R.H.” on their right hand.

    2. Teach them about the finger-number system — write “1” on their thumbs, and see if they can write in the other numbers on the other fingers.

    3. Discuss the music alphabet — how it goes from A to G, starts on the lowest note on the piano, etc.

    4. From there, explain where Middle C is (ideally by saying the alphabet from the lowest note up to Middle C).

    5. Teach them about putting their hands in Middle C position (LH on F-G-A-B-C, RH on C-D-E-F-G, thumbs sharing Middle C).

    6. Teach a basic warm-up — I like to use the “Spider Song” — both thumbs play together, then both 2’s, then both 3’s, etc. You can use this piece to begin writing songs out for them in their manuscript book, prepping them to eventually read with two staffs. So, it would look like this:

    Spider Song

    Explain that, when numbers are directly on top of each other, it means to play RH and LH at the same time.

    7. Teach them a basic song, using the same system of notation. For example, Twinkle Twinkle would be written as follows:

    fingersong

    It is essential that your student learns a song by the end of their first lesson!

    Both students and parents will consider this a huge accomplishment and will be much more enthusiastic about moving forward.

    Other things to teach and remember

    As time permits, teach them a bit about good form — sitting up straight, keeping straight wrists, keeping their hands curved as if they were holding “little baseballs”, etc. If they’re really moving quickly, you could write out another song for them using the same system of notation outlined above.

    Of course, as you’re moving along, make sure you’re keeping detailed notes about how to practice (how many times, how many minutes, etc.), so that they develop great practice habits from day one.

    For the second lesson, you should arrive with books, based on what you learned about them during the first week. Usually, I’ll bring a Primer-level song book (I’m a fan of the Faber & Faber “Pretime” series), a theory workbook (I’m a fan of The Music Tree), and a warm-up or scale book (I like the Dozen a Day series of warm-up books, and the FJH First Scale Book).

    Final note

    Whether you’re starting with a new student or an experienced student, consider your first month an extended job interview. Demonstrate an extra degree of professionalism in your appearance and your teaching, and be present and engaged when communicating with students and parents.

    Good luck!

    All material © Piano Power 2015

    Learn more about Abraham and our other great instructors.