Tips for Deciding What to Teach

My mom used to say it wasn't cooking dinner every night that was the problem. It was deciding what to cook. If someone would just tell her what to cook, she'd be fine cooking it. Over the years she just got sick of deciding. I know how she felt.

photo by Rochelle Hartman

My daughter is a vegetarian. My son doesn't eat pasta. I feel best when I eat grilled fish. My husband, thank God, isn't picky. (He used to say that one of our relatives was a Complainatarian. Whatever you made, she complained.)

Teaching a big load of students can feel like that. (I've taught a few Complainatarians. In fact, I have one student right now who WAS a Complainatarian. Here's the great news: she outgrew it. She is now an Enthusiasticatarian. It's delightful.)

It's deciding what to teach that's the challenge.

I've been writing progress reports all week. I have only six left to write. So far, I've learned a lot.

I will now say the ugly words that no teacher wants to admit.

I think about some students more than others. I enjoy planning for some students more than others. If a student is having a rough time, I tend to kind of not think about them until they come in for their lesson. Then I wish I HAD thought about them earlier.

I also think this is completely normal. 

What I like about writing Progress Reports is that it forces me to work my way through my list of students and think clearly and concisely about each one. I can't kid myself. If I'm writing to a parent about their child, I have to be evaluating that child's lessons so far, letting the parents in on my plans for their future (Hmm...better have some!) and pulling back my focus from the day-to-day lessons to the big picture. How is Susan doing in the bigger scheme? Is she learning the skills she will need to be an independent learner in the future? Am I leaving things out? Is there something I need to change about my approach? Am I being realistic and challenging in my approach?

I have to stop and think about where I am and where I want to be with each student.

Having a plan doesn't mean that I have every minute of every lesson accounted for. It means that I have given careful thought to the direction I'm going with every student during the coming months. It means goal setting - both for myself and for my students.

I like to make myself a big "To Do" list of all my students and do these reports a few each day. You might choose to do them all at once. Or something in between.

Goals and notes for me might look like this: 

  • Be more patient with Nick. Plan his repertoire more carefully. Keep his lessons more physically active and engaging. Use Skips and Steps on the Stairs.
  • Find a way to jump Anita into a higher level without overwhelming her. Big challenge is what she needs. Something snazzy.
  • Develop a better relationship with Jason. (Ask his parent to stay in the other room for a few weeks?)
  • Add improvising for Jeanette. She's getting stuck in the middle of the piano. Try Pattern Play Book One. Try Duct Tape Improv first, though.
  • Jump Kevin into the Attention Grabbers 2 book. Teach these by rote. Use Sight-Reading Flashcards for reading work. He's getting frustrated with reading and needs a boost.

One thing that helps is a great method. I've written about how helpful it can be to use one. I (not surprisingly) recommend the one I wrote. If you are lucky enough to live in Australia and can get it, there's nothing cooler than P Plate Piano. I happen to have a connection and get mine on the black market. (OK, not really, but I have to have them sent.)

Next is graded repertoire books. Collections of pieces at mixed levels can be great, but it's also really helpful to have a book where every piece is accessible for a student. My favorites are The Essential Repertoire Series. I confess that the accompanying CD's were recorded by me, but I would use them even if that weren't the case. The pieces are well chosen and students like them. 

I have written about some of my other favorite tried-and-true pieces. (I even refer to this list myself!)

Here are some Simple Sonatinas that I like with descriptions of why I enjoy teaching them.

Flashy Pieces that sound harder than they are is a category we all need sometimes. So much so that I wrote another post about More Flashy Pieces that sound harder than they are. 

I have recommendations for Christmas Music you might like. 

The bottom line is that if you don't take a little time before you teach, you won't teach as well and your business will ultimately suffer. Take advice from people who are more experienced. Rely on the works of composers you've enjoyed teaching. (For me that's Elissa Milne. I literally can't keep enough of her books in my studio.) For you it might be Melody Bober (I'm teaching her delightful piece No Worries right now as a "get back on track" piece for a 7th grader.) Or William Gillock whose compositions are always successful. (Currently teaching Lyric Preludes to a law professor, and Collected Short Lyric Pieces to a 4th grader who needs to work on her sound and imagination.)

You can always download pieces from my website at the last minute. There's a recording of each piece you can listen to before you buy, as well as sample pages. There are currently three solos - in the style of my Attention Grabbers. Popcorn Clouds, Cotton Candy Clouds and Skedaddle. Each of them comes with a set of pages called "Preparing to Play" which guide you through the process of presenting each piece and the challenges ahead. I highly recommend using the "Preparing Pages" the week before you present the entire piece. 

Another good way to remember pieces you've enjoyed teaching is to look through your old recital programs. "Oh yes," you'll find yourself playing. "I LOVED teaching Fountain in the Rain. I'd forgotten about that piece!" (I just found out that it's available for instant download. Even procrastinators can now teach good music!)

The bottom line is that taking the time to plan will make your days more pleasant, your lessons more successful and your business thrive.


To perk up any lesson, I recommend having already downloaded Rhythm Menagerie by Wendy Stevens. Here's a video of my students using it. Though it seems expensive when you see the price, remember that you can use it with every student forever.