Once you decide to move away from method books, it can be overwhelming deciding what to first teach on piano. No longer do you have a levelled book telling you the next step in the process. Depending on the age and interests of your student, you may need to adapt what or how you teach. But, there are 4 concepts that are integral to teaching piano to beginners. And, they can be adapted to any student.
I used to believe that once I found the perfect order of concepts, I would have perfected the art of teaching piano to beginners. Turns out I was wrong.
The “perfect order” doesn’t account for student interests, their approaches to learning, and the music they gravitate towards. It also can, to an extent, ignore the age of your student or whether they have neurodiverse or unique learner needs.
We can all agree there are certain things beginner students need to learn.
- Musical shorthand: Terms and symbols that makes it quicker for you and your student to immediately know what the other is talking about.
- Musical geography: Playing piano requires a strong physical understanding of keys in relation to others.
- Developing their ear: Integral to those early lessons when music may be learnt more by rote.
- Notation: There are many ways to read music and learning the basics makes it much easier to be flexible later.
Of course, each of these concepts has many, many moving parts within it. Depending on the specific factors of each student, your plan will modify to meet that particular student’s needs.
The First Question to Ask
While it’s tempting, the first question isn’t “What should I teach at my first piano lesson?” or even “How to teach piano to adults/kids?”
Instead, think about blending your incredible knowledge with what each student’s specific goals are. That first question morphs into “What order should I learn things on piano?” Obviously your student can’t answer that question. They don’t know the terminology or steps to get to their goal. But, you can answer that question. The “I” in that question just makes it more individualised to that particular student and less likely you’ll come up with a studio-wide answer.
Creating a Plan
While “everything” is important, learning it all right away isn’t feasible. Since there are so many mini concepts, it’s great to narrow that down to what your student needs to feel successful right off the bat!
One thing that has changed for me is how I think about beginner concepts. After years of teaching, my thought process has focused on which overarching skills tend to be a struggle at later levels. Those are the skills I try to strengthen from the start. Regardless of whether they appeared in those method books I used to use. Something I have kept from those method books though is creating a general curriculum plan (here’s part 1 and part 2 of my process). This process is the same whether teaching in person, travelling to students or online.
A big factor in the process of teaching piano to beginners is the age of your student.
Younger students tend to need more time with reading; they are often learning this both at school and music lessons. Often teen or adult students find it’s not the reading that’s the main struggle. It’s trying to find those darn notes on the piano and getting their fingers to play them the way they want.
Younger students may be more willing to play simpler pieces because they are used to this in the books they are reading outside piano. There are plenty of musical examples of “My cat sat.” However, teens and adults have been reading more complex sentences and material for years. Suddenly finding themselves looking at a musical primer can be disheartening. Playing the primer is even worse!
One thing that age doesn’t influence is the desire to play music that sounds good. So, how can you teach piano so students are proud of the music they create? A big part of this is giving students choice within boundaries you’ve set beforehand. Some options are:
- Classical music: There are fantastic modern reasons for including this.
- Music representing their culture
- Animal-themed music that matches their pet(s)
- Seasonal music for recitals or private performances (here are some Winter-themed options)
Depending on what your student gravitates towards, you’ll quickly discover the optimal order of concepts so they can play the music they choose.
4 Main Concepts to Teach
Since there are so many different things to consider when teaching piano to beginners, how do you choose what to focus on first? Let’s break it down into the 4 general concepts from before: musical shorthand, musical geography, developing their ear and notation.
In each category we’ll look at some examples as well as considerations depending on the age of your beginner.
Part of the shorthand of music is knowing what the music is telling you. This can include:
- Musical alphabet
- Parts of the staff
- Types of notes and rests
- Time signatures, measures and bar lines
- Intervals: Repeat, step, skip
When my kids were young I read to them a lot. They saw the words on the page well before they realized they were the prompt for what I was saying to them. As they began reading, I started making that connection between sound and reading more concrete.
When my piano students are learning a song by rote, I like to have a copy of the music for them. This goes back to what I did with my own kids. By having a copy of the music, my students have been exposed to what it looks like on the page … even though they’re not reading it yet.
But, the other part of this is terminology is the shorthand you use or that is common to music:
- LH/RH: Left hand and right hand
- Finger numbers
- Going up and down: Notation vs. keyboard
- Counting out beats: Numbers vs. rhythm syllables
- Measure numbers: Especially important if you teach online
- Hand shape: Each teacher uses their own terminology for what this looks like.
- Any unique shorthand you use on practice pages or music.
Firstly, the terms you use when teaching piano to beginners will also change depending on the age and maturity of student. “Pre-tty bir-die” becomes “Ti-ti Ti-ti” or “1 and 2 and” depending on your student.
Second, younger students may go with the flow more and let you lead. Teen and adult students may fall into two categories: “I just want to play.” or “I have a million questions about the theory.”
For students that just want to play, give them only as much terminology as absolutely necessary to understand each other. Yes, it will be frustrating at times because knowing the theory would help them more. But, you’ll lose them if that’s what you focus on. Sprinkling in a sentence or two about the theory throughout playing the song let’s them know there is more without taking away the part they want. Making music. Don’t worry though. Those questions will come up eventually.
One of my students is 70 years young and he is in the second category. He is fascinated with all the theory behind … well, everything. He also has asked me questions that no student has ever asked. For example, “Why are the notes names A through G?” Extensive research hasn’t shed the answer to that. (If you know, let me know in the comments!) The challenge here is balancing an inquisitive mind with actually playing. Give level appropriate answers then let your student know you’ll give more details as they progress. They want to stay for lessons because there is a sense of FOMO. “If I leave, I won’t find out the next level of x, y and z!”
If your student has special learner needs, being very concrete in your wording is the best approach. While some students thrive with creative imagery, this can backfire. Choosing the wording and terminology you will use in the future keeps things consistent and allows your student to experience success throughout their musical journey with you.
This is the concept that I’ve come to realise is one of the most under-appreciated parts of teaching piano to beginners. Why? Because it has the largest impact on whether students can play intermediate level pieces.
With my intermediate students, we focus a lot on how chords or common patterns feel under their hands and how to use the patterns of black keys to move within the song by feel. One of my goals is that they see a chord pattern on the page and automatically can move their hand into an optimal position. Even when they’re away from the keyboard. This frees them up to full engage with the artistic elements of the music!
Teen and Adult Beginners
While all students need to learn the patterns of black keys and what a skip or step feels like on the keyboard, how you go about this will change.
For young students, playing tag on the piano works great. “Play all the A’s while my fingers ‘chase’ you up/down the keyboard!” Chances are your teen or adult students won’t be too keen on this approach.
For my older students, I tend to relate these musical alphabet notes to chords much faster. This allows them to play ‘real’ music much quicker and holds their attention. Rather than tag, I ask my student to play the note or chord anywhere on the keyboard. Then, I get them to continue playing it on different parts of the keyboard until they’ve covered all options. Some students are systematic (low to high or vice versa) and others are all over the place. Either way, their brain is working hard to memorise the keyboard geography!
I also talk to my students about how we want to be “lazy” when we play. Setting up your fingers to easily play all the notes means less thinking about where to go next. One of my students took a couple of weeks to see how the initial hard “brain work” meant he got to be lazy later on. But, it stuck with him and continues to guide him every time he works on musical fingering.
Neurodiverse or Learners With Unique Needs
Depending on what challenges your students with neurodiverse or unique learning needs have, keep in mind that keyboard geography can be a real challenge. It combines physical dexterity and reading a new language. Two things that can be a real stumbling block in the learning process. Chances are regular review of the musical alphabet and where those notes on the piano will need to happen for years. Not weeks or months like you might expect from other students.
Developing Their Ear
There are so many musical concepts that students need to hear and interpret, aren’t there? And, often it can be difficult to even know what to focus on first when teaching piano to beginners!
- Notes in relation to each other: Pitch, intervals
- Basic rhythm patterns
- Mode or mood: Can seem interchangeable depending on the terminology
- Meter: Duple or triple
- Articulation: Bouncy or smooth
- Opinion: Do you like the song? Why or why not?
Part of this will be through rote pieces (like those in “Sam’s Life“). And, this is an important part of the process. But, there is a lot to manage when playing and listening at the same time.
Which is why I also love to give students a chance to focus on just the listening part with digital escape rooms. These are so easily adapted to the age and level of each student. They also allow students to practice hearing the same concepts over a wide variety of musical styles.
For younger students who may not necessarily know what styles of music they like, explore as many different kinds as possible. For older students, focus more on understanding why they like (or don’t like) a particular song. This will help your student develop a musical ear both when it comes to concepts but also developing a vocabulary for musical critique.
This approach is so freeing for students! There’s no pressure because it’s 5 – 10 minutes of their week vs. learning a song over several weeks.
Students of all ages and abilities can be surprised to learn they actually do like a specific genre. What a beautiful life lesson in being open to new experiences!
This has come to mean so many more things for me as I’ve grown as a teacher. Back in the day, notation was notes and rests on a grand staff. Period. These days, notation can be everything from:
- Scribbles on a page: perfect for rote pieces
- Pre-reading notation
- Partial or full staves
- Chord charts
- Lead sheets
- Falling notes (YouTube)
That last one still isn’t my favourite, but I can’t deny that some of my students thrive with this format. Since the overarching goal is to love the music they play, I can’t complain.
The Biggest Challenge
I find the biggest challenge in teaching piano to beginners of any age is visual spatial issues with intervals/chords/notes on page vs. the keyboard. This is where keyboard geography plays a vital role.
For younger students, we work a lot on “trusting your fingers”. The music tends to stay in one spot so this is possible. And, when it moves octaves we go back to our keyboard geography games!
For teens and adults, it’s still a trust exercise but also letting them decide where they will focus: memorise the music, the keyboard geography or memorise one hand so it’s easier to focus on something else. “You can’t focus on everything all at once so choose one thing.”
For special learners, learning what to visually filter out becomes an important skill. This might require covering part of the score with paper strips to reduce the visual overwhelm that can happen. Rote can be helpful, but keep in mind that memory may work different for your student so prompts like video tutorials can make a huge difference during the week.
I used to save chord charts for older students, but in recent years I’ve had much younger students using them as well with great success. Lead sheets are another fantastic option for helping a beginner student play that song they absolutely love!
Teaching Piano to Beginners
You may have hoped for a step by step lesson plan for adult students or kids, but the truth is that no one plan will fit every student in that demographic.
Though, if I had to choose one concept to start with it would be keyboard geography. When students master the basics of this it opens up so many other opportunities to play music.
Keeping an open mind to different options or orders of concepts ensures you individualise for each student without stress. And, it means they are much more likely to be playing their favourite songs before they know it!
Which general concept do you struggle with when teaching to beginner students?
- Musical shorthand
- Musical geography
- Developing their ear
Let me know in the comments!