Ten Tips for Interviewing a Prospective Student

There's an adorable prospective student sitting in front of you.

What do you do with her?

Here are just a few of the things I like to do at interviews. Obviously, there isn't time for every one at every first meeting. It gets easier the more you do it, but it helps to have a few ideas ready.

1. Be yourself.

Fill your studio with students who like you and what you have to offer. Trust your intuition. 

2. Pay close attention to the relationship between parent and child.

You will become a part of this family system. Does this relationship seem healthy?  Is this a family you feel comfortable with? Do you like the parents? Do the parents let their child speak for herself? Do they interrupt or speak on their behalf? 

3. Improvise on the black keys. 

For those of you who find this daunting, I've written an Interview Improvisation for you to download, print and keep up your sleeve for just this moment.

Play this music (everything but the reading in the key of G Flat Major is easy) as a background for your prospective student. Ask him to play anything he'd like on the black keys.

Improvising offers you a chance to see if the student can listen and respond to your changes in dynamics, speed, and character. Does the child feel comfortable expressing herself? Can she take the lead? Is she interested? Try playing it faster. Slower. Louder. Softer. Add a few staccatos. How does the student react?

If you're both enjoying it, try playing the same improvisation on the white keys. (The same piece works fine if you just eliminate all the flats.)

4. Clap a simple rhythm. Can they clap it back to you?

Here are the Interview Rhythms I find myself using again and again. There's space to take notes. Again, free to download, print and use.

Whimsical illustrations like these from    Go Dog, Go!    keep assessing a child's reading level from becoming too serious.

Whimsical illustrations like these from Go Dog, Go! keep assessing a child's reading level from becoming too serious.

5. Ask the student to read something to you.

I like to find out level the child is reading. For a very young child I might use something like Go Dog, Go! 

6. Can the student see the patterns of black and white keys? 

I like to do this using Japanese Erasers. Let the student pick a few erasers from your stash. Then ask the student to place erasers on:

  • Groups of two black keys
  • Groups of three black keys
  • All the D's

From a child's point of view, the animals look more like this.

My students particularly like their erasers in bright colored cupcake holders.

The patterns spring to life.

Use this activity to watch their gross and fine motor skill. Can they place the erasers easily? Is it challenging for them to hold onto the erasers? If it goes well, we'll do the same activities with their fingers on the keys.

7. Ask them to play something on their own.

For a transfer student this might be a "real" piece. For a beginner, it might be a tune they've been taught by a friend. Have they made up any pieces on their own? Even the simplest thing they might play can give you information. Do they use their fingers individually? Are they attracted to certain sounds? Do they explore the entire piano or are they stuck in the middle? Can you encourage them to move around on the keys?

I'm always less concerned with a student's "achievements" than their attitude and potential. Does this student interest me? Do they seem ready for the kind of lessons I like to teach?

8. Try a page from your favorite Lesson Book.

Sometimes I open up a Piano Town Primer Lesson Book and explore a few pages. 

Ask a student what they see in this illustration? Can they find the Ferris Wheel? The kites? The drawbridge? These will all appear in their journey through Piano Town.

I try this piece with a prospective student. We answer the questions and then play the piece. Bonus question: Can they find the lamb hiding between the houses?

9. Make a Puzzle

Doing a non-music related task together is a great way to get information about learning style and ability to take direction. Can they see patterns? How are their motor skills? 

I use a puzzle like one of these: 

The Elephant Family Puzzle is easily stored in its handy box. Though it has only a few pieces, it's challenging.

The  Cat Family Puzzle  is adorable and unusual.

The Cat Family Puzzle is adorable and unusual.

10. Even the best interview might not tell you enough. 

I thought my student, Rebecca, was ready for lessons. She did a fabulous job at the interview. At her first lesson when I tried to show her something, she swatted my hand away. Twice. She wanted to play the piano, all right, but she didn't actually want any input from me. We put the lessons on hold for a year. Now she's flying through repertoire and we're both having a wonderful time. 

Don't be afraid to make a change if you get more information later on.

For the flip side of this information read:  How To Choose the Best Piano Teacher for Your Child.