Something Old, Something New

Maintaining a sense of momentum during the first year of lessons can be challenging. I find myself constantly weighing my student's abilities and motivation with my desire to have them play well.

I've come up with these simple rules to assure that lessons feel like progress is being made, even if it's a slow week in the learning process.

I use the "Something Old, Something New" rule to help me remember what it feels like to be a beginner.

  • Assign at least one new piece.

  • Check off at least one of their pieces and reward their effort, even if the piece isn't perfect. There's plenty of time for polishing on pieces in the future.

Continue working on a piece for more than one week with care. Remember that the pieces a beginner plays often take only ten or fifteen seconds to play. Maintain a sense of momentum by changing the pieces, even if you don't change the skill you're focusing on.

I used to feel nervous about "letting things go" at the beginning. I'm not talking about ignoring problems, but instead about choosing which aspect of playing I'm going to focus on. If I'm working hard on a student's hand position and their rhythm is lousy, it makes more sense to reward the excellent hand position and work on the rhythm in another piece. That way the student feels good about their progress and we have a fresh piece (without rhythmic problems already at play) to work on.

Because beginning pieces are so short and plentiful, I prefer to move laterally (teaching the same skills in different pieces) rather than belaboring a point in a single piece week after week. The multiple books at each level in method books (Theory, Performance, Technic as well as Lessons) can be useful for this lateral teaching. I use Piano Town which does a particularly good job of supplying plenty of material on any particular skill. I know that sometimes teachers don't want to purchase all the books in a method, but I always use them. I want to have the extra material at hand when I need it. Which is often.

Sometimes if a student is catching on quickly, I might skip the extra pieces entirely. This happened today with a little boy who flew through learning about 3rds the first time he looked at them. We'll skip the pieces in the other books and and return to them to review and practice sight reading later on.

I remember when my friend's son, Dave, was taking classical guitar lessons with a very serious teacher. He was about seven years old. He'd worked on an eight measure piece for several weeks - finally playing it with the metronome at 80 beats per measure as assigned.

Finally thinking he'd gotten it right (and that the piece would soon be history) Dave happily played the piece correctly with the metronome for his teacher.

"Good job," the teacher said. "This week let's move it right on up to 84 beats per measure!"

Dave quit taking guitar lessons.

One thing that helps me is remembering that if I let something go, the student doesn't know it. They don't even know how the piece is supposed to sound, so they aren't thinking, "Wow, I really got away with something."

They're thinking, "I did a good job. I can't wait to try something new."

And really, isn't trying something new what beginning piano lessons should be about? 

More information about the method Piano Town can be found here.