I wasn’t a great teacher to start with. Like any skill, teaching is something you get better at with practice, and my practice took the form of over a decade of trying a bunch of different teaching techniques, throwing away what didn’t work, and refining what did. These tips are designed to save you the pain of having to do all that experimentation yourself.
How I became a better music teacher
- I wanted to find a better way to teach than the traditional classical method
- … and so tested different teaching techniques for over a decade.
- Teach your students what they want to play
- … before you even teach them how to read.
- In fact, only teach theory when needed
- … but slowly show your students how music works.
- Teach your students at the right speed
- … and in a memorable way.
- Make sure they know how to practise properly
- … by writing lesson notes
- … and using videos.
- Be strict, but nice
- … which means having a (fair) cancellation policy.
- Let go of your ego.
- And finally, become a better teacher by being a good student.
Why become a better music teacher
HOW I BECAME A BETTER MUSIC TEACHER
There are 2 main things that made me a better music teacher:
- I wanted to find a better way to teach than the traditional classical method. I remember once hearing a bright 13-year old student play an arrangement I’d written for him of Chopin’s Prélude in C minor perfectly, and thinking it was a shame that he didn’t understand the chord progressions behind it. When I started describing them to him he said he didn’t believe that musicians thought in terms of chord progressions but instead just
expressed themselves, and so was amazed when I transposed the piece from memory to show him that they did. This made me resolve to come up with a way to allow my students to better understand how music worked, so that they too could play around with pieces instead of simply playing them as written. I didn’t realize at the time that this was the start of a several-year-long quest.
- I did all of this experimentation in the context of charging for one lesson at a time. If I’d been teaching in a school or college I could have taught badly for quite a long time without getting fired, if at all, but as a freelancer I could be
firedat the end of every lesson. If one of my students didn’t love a lesson they wouldn’t come back for another one, or if they didn’t progress enough after several they’d also stop. This forced me to balance instant gratification (they’d come back for the next lesson) with long-term fulfillment (they’d come back after several). A lot of the principles below are ways for you to achieve this equilibrium.
So here are my tips. All of them are what I call
force multipliers, i.e. for a given amount of effort from your students, each principle will multiply their results by a factor of 2, or 5, or 10. Use several in combination and it’ll have a powerful effect on their learning. Not only that, but your students will be so thrilled by the speed with which they’re progressing that they’ll make more effort, creating a virtuous circle of improvement.
(Note: I came up with these principles in the context of one-on-one piano lessons, but they should be generalizable to other instruments and group lessons.)
Teach your students what they want to play
A lot of teachers think,
they can learn to play piano first and then they can play what they want, after a few years. No. Start teaching your students what they want to play in the very first lesson. You might think that scales would be more useful for their technique than the melody of one of their favourite songs, but they’ll practise the melody from one of their favourite songs 10 times as much as a scale, and practising a lot is better for their technique than practising a little. Wait until one of their favourite pieces has a scale in it and then they’ll understand the value of learning scales. (If you’re skeptical about this approach, note than in the documentary
The Last Romantic, Vladimir Horowitz said that he never practised Czerny or any other books of technical exercises, but instead invented his own technical exercises to help him learn specific pieces. And, as we all know, Horowitz could really play.)
You might think that it’s impossible to teach your students their favourite music from the start, but I always found a way. Here’s how I did it: I’d get every student to email me a list of the 15 or more songs / tracks / pieces they’d most like to play before I’d book them in for their first lesson, and ask them to describe their level. Out of the 15 pieces, 3 or 4 would usually be much easier than the rest, and these would form the basis of the first few lessons. (This is why I’d ask for specifically 15: 10 would usually be too few to provide enough pieces to start with, and much more than 15 would take too long for me to listen to.) Not only was the list useful for me, but compiling it forced my students to clarify their own goals before starting lessons.
Even if the student was a complete beginner, it was always possible to teach them a melody or riff from their list at the very start of the first lesson, and they’d find it thrilling. It might take someone a few years before they’re able to play Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 3, but even a novice can play the RH of the opening melody in their first lesson. In fact, I start my Beginner Piano course by teaching students how to play the riff from John Lennon’s
You might be thinking that these 2 pieces are quite difficult to read, which leads me on to my next principle:
… before you even teach them how to read.
Did you learn how to read before you could speak? I didn’t think so. So why learn how to read music before you can play? There are several advantages to teaching beginners how to play before you teach them how to read:
- They’ll play better. They can focus on things like hand position, fingering, evenness, legato, etc., without also having to think about the complexities of music notation. If you give them too many things to think about once they’ll get some of them wrong, so let them focus on their playing until their habits are sufficiently well established that they can add music notation into the mix.
- It’s more intuitive. If you’re a music teacher you probably learned how to sight read so long ago you’ve forgotten how difficult it was, but think about something like rhythm. Music notation hasn’t changed that much since it was invented by mediaeval monks who didn’t have to write down complex modern off-beat rhythms, so it’s really badly designed to deal with them. Any child today can copy the rhythm of a pop song by ear, but it’s much harder to decipher a string of off-beat 1/8-notes and ties. Using sheet music to think about rhythm is a bit like doing arithmetic using Roman numerals: slow and cumbersome. So get your students playing first and then show them how music is notated.
- It’s more fun. Playing is fun. Sight reading is not fun. And you want to keep your beginner student as enthusiastic as possible. In fact, this leads us to a more general principle:
In fact, only teach theory when needed
The purpose of music theory is to make music easier, not harder, so have your students play as much as possible and only introduce theory when it’s immediately useful. For instance, in my Beginner Piano course I get my students to add the LH to the riff from
Imagine before I even introduce finger numbers, let alone note names. By that point it’s obvious that it’s easier to say
2 and 4 instead of
your index finger and your ring finger, and before long my students realize that it’s worth learning the note names so that I can say
F and A instead of
the white note just to the left of the group of 3 black notes and another white note 2 notes higher.
The order in which I introduce theory in my Beginner Piano course is:
- up / down
- finger numbers
- white note names
- black note names
- hand position
- playing hands together
- playing with a metronome
However the order you adopt should depend on which pieces you’re teaching (I think it would usually make more sense to introduce rhythm before playing hands together, for example). The important thing is that I only introduce sight reading after my students have mastered all of these fundamental concepts in practice.
… but slowly show your students how music works.
So far I’ve only talked about the theory of playing, but what about the theory of playing by ear / composing / improvising, e.g. melody, harmony, modulation, etc.? I think this is worth teaching your students even if they have no intention of doing these things, for a number of reasons:
- It’s empowering. This is what I mean by
learn music like a language, after all. Instead of a student merely
recitinga piece, they have some insight into how it’s constructed.
- It improves their sight reading. Studies show that high-level sight reading is all about chunking information, i.e. recognizing familiar shapes rather than simply reading hundreds of individual notes. Therefore learning about melody and harmony will allow your students to sight read faster and more accurately, once they’re sufficiently advanced.
- It helps them remember pieces. If they rely entirely on muscle memory and go blank on a particular bar / measure then they have nothing to fall back on to help them remember the next one, but if they know, e.g., that they’re in the middle of a circle of 5ths progression then they know what the next chord is, which will help trigger their memory of the rest of the notes.
- The might like it more than they expect. A lot of students have no intention of learning how to play by ear / compose / improvise because they think they’re not
musically talented, but if they learn some theory and realize that it’s within their reach it might spark their interest.
Teach your students at the right speed
I often used to say that
teaching is all about managing your students’ cognitive load. Let me explain what cognitive load is:
If I throw a handful of coins on a table and there are up to about 7 of them, you can probably
see how many coins there are without having to count them, i.e. if I throw 5 coins on the table you can just
see that there are 5 of them, you don’t have to go
1, 2, 3, 4, 5 to know that. However if there are 8 or more, you probably have to count them to know how many of them there are, or use some other kind of reasoning, like
there are 3 over here and 5 over there, so there must be 8 in total. That’s because your brain can’t consciously think about many new things at once before it gets overwhelmed – it has a limited
cognitive load. (If you’re technical you can think of it like RAM in your computer.) It’s also why you can’t count backwards from a million while writing an email – it’s too many new things at once. However, this only applies to new things, not old things. You can hold a conversation while tying your shoelaces, because tying your shoelaces is an old thing: you’ve done it so many times in your life you don’t have to
think about it – or, more accurately, you do have to think about it but the thinking’s unconscious, so you’re not aware of it.
The practical implication of this is: only teach your students one new thing at a time. So, to use the above example, teach them finger numbers and then note names, not both at the same time. And make sure they’ve mastered one thing before moving onto the next one. The way you can tell if your student’s mastered something is if they can do it without
thinking – in other words, if it’s unconscious. So you want to make sure that your students have mastered finger numbers before moving on to note names so that if you tell them to put their 2nd finger on G, they’ll think,
okay, I need to put my second finger on G – that’s this one, rather than,
okay, I need to put my second finger – that’s this one – on G – that’s this one. This is what you want to avoid: your students thinking about too many things at once. To use a playing example, it’s only when a student can play a phrase accurately hands separately without
thinking that they’re ready to start putting it hands together.
You can tell if you’ve exceeded your student’s cognitive load if they can’t carry out the instruction you’ve just given them. If that happens it doesn’t mean that they’re stupid, just that you’ve given them too much to do at once and so need to break the task down into smaller steps.
… and in a memorable way.
It’s one thing to teach your students something, but it’s another to get the information to stick. There are 2 things you need to do to achieve this:
1) Make your points striking in some way, and connected to other bits of information. The more surprising, or funny, or colourful they are, and the more they’re part of a larger story, the more they’ll stick in your students’ heads. Over the years I developed a number of novel ways to teach the fundamentals in unusually simple and visual ways, which I teach in my courses:
- I deliberately teach the note names out of sequence, using mnemonics, so that students can hit a note straight away when they hear the name without reciting the alphabet in their head.
- I teach sight reading using a colour-coded reference note system, so that students don’t have to recite things like
Every Good Boy Deserves Fudgeevery time they want to read a note.
- I use another colour-coded system to teach the pattern of the major and minor scales. Usually scales are defined in terms of the gaps between the notes, using tones and semitones (or
half-steps), but I teach the scales in terms of the notes themselves.
- I organised the major and minor triads into groups, based on what they look like on the keyboard, instead of how they look on the page, or as chord symbols.
- I describe the harmonic circle of 5ths in the context of famous songs rather than as an abstract theoretical construct.
2) Make sure that you test your students on any new piece of information at carefully spaced intervals. According to a study by Paul Pimsleur, of Pimsleur Language Programs fame, a student needs to be tested on a new piece of information after
5 seconds, 25 seconds, 2 minutes, 10 minutes, 1 hour, 5 hours, 1 day, 5 days, 25 days, 4 months, and 2 years in order for it to enter into their long-term memory. (This is because of the forgetting curve, a phenomenon formalized by Hermann Ebbinghaus.) So don’t just get your students to work on their current pieces, occasionally get them to refresh a piece they learnt 4 months, or a couple of years, ago. Ideally you want everything they’ve ever learned to be part of their active repertoire.
Make sure they know how to practise properly
Your students will only continue lessons if they’re progressing, and most of their progress should take place outside of lesson time, so make sure they know how to practise properly. Just run the numbers: even if they have a one-hour lesson every week and only practise for half an hour, 5 days a week, they’re still spending 2 1/2 times as much time practising as they are in lessons. So make sure that your students not only know how to schedule their practice time, but also how to use it well. Help them come up with a schedule that’s realistic, i.e. that doesn’t involve getting up at 5 a.m. every day to practise for 2 hours, and get them to practise sections in lessons so that they know how to practise efficiently (2 articles on these subjects to follow soon).
… by writing lesson notes
The best way for your students to know what they need to do during their practice time is if you write them detailed lesson notes that act as a to-do list. That way when they sit down to practise they don’t have to decide what to do, they can just start work on the first item on the list. Part of what they’re paying you for is to do some of their thinking for them, after all.
I used to buy all my students little red practice books and write lesson notes by hand, but had one student who used to cycle to lessons and his practice book would often fall out of his back pocket. After he retrieved it out of busy London traffic for the 3rd time I decided to switch to digital notes, which I’d email to students within 24 hours of the lesson. This way my students had a permanent, searchable record of all of their lesson notes, with links to their practice videos in context.
… and using videos.
You might have wondered how students were supposed to remember what to practise, a few sections back, when I advocated not introducing sheet music until they’d mastered the basics. If they can’t consult a score to jog their memory, how are they supposed to remember which notes to play? The answer is videos. Now that almost all of us have videocameras in our pockets, we might as well use them to help us learn. Even after a student’s learned how to read music, videos can still be useful to remind them of a particular hand movement, or of a theory concept best demonstrated on the keyboard instead of on paper. And of course if you’re teaching someone how to play by ear or improvise you might want to avoid sheet music altogether.
I used to record practice videos for my students after each lesson, using a webcam attached to the head of an Anglepoise lamp, and then upload them to unlisted pages on YouTube before inserting the links into lesson notes. Here are two example sets of lesson notes:
Of course, writing extensive lesson notes and recording videos after each lesson was very time-consuming for me, which is one of the reason I stopped teaching one-on-one, but you can always write brief notes and record simple videos in lessons if you don’t want to have a lot of work to do afterwards.
Be strict, but nice
This is one of the things I found hardest to implement (being strict that is, not being nice). When I first started out I was always open to different approaches, but the more I saw what worked and what didn’t, the more sure I was that my students needed to do things the way I suggested. This is not to say that I taught all my students the same way, just the opposite – my lessons were very tailored to the individual. It was more that it became less and less common that I found myself in a situation that wasn’t very similar to one I’d seen before. You might not naturally be a very bossy person, but your students are paying you to tell them what to do, so tell them what to do. If they think they know better than you, why are they coming to you for lessons?
strict doesn’t mean
mean. The purpose of being strict is to keep your students on track, and they can stay on track better if they feel good about themselves and the journey.
… which means having a (fair) cancellation policy.
It’s obvious why having a cancellation policy is good for you: if you don’t have one people will cancel the whole time for daft reasons (early on in my career one of my students once cancelled a lesson 30 minutes beforehand because it was raining), and then before you know it you’ll find that half your week’s teaching income has disappeared. However it’s less obvious that a cancellation policy is good for your students. Piano playing is hard, which means that your students are only going to get good at it if they take it seriously, and part of taking it seriously is making an appointment to study it and then sticking to it. So give them a strong disincentive to cancel.
A strict cancellation policy also implies that you’re in demand, because you’re good, which will make your students respect you, and therefore do what you say, which in turn will make them progress more. Win-win! This is why I say that having a strict cancellation policy is something to look for in my article on how to find a good piano teacher. Get your students to confirm that they’ve read and agreed to yours before even booking them in for the first lesson – it’ll set the tone for lessons and also allow you avoid future conversations on the topic.
Of course, sometimes circumstances beyond your students’ control will force them to cancel, but your students’ problems don’t have to become your problems as well. You’ll have enough problems when you have to cancel lessons, for whatever reason, and you can’t lose money every time anyone has to cancel a lesson for any reason. The only time I didn’t charge for cancellations was when something serious happened, like an accident or a family illness. Then money and piano playing seem less important.
Now that we’ve established that you should have a cancellation policy, what form should it take? After many years of experimenting I came up with one which both me and my students were always very happy with (although, importantly, my students weren’t so happy with it that they cancelled lessons frequently):
Most teachers charge the full lesson fee if you cancel with less than 24 hours. However, I don’t think this is fair on either you or me, because:
- that way you pay something for nothing, and
- the vast majority of my students book at least a week in advance, so I can rarely fill a slot even at 24 hours’ notice.
Instead I’ve come up with what I think is the fairest cancellation policy in the world, which is that if you cancel with less than a full week’s notice you’ll be liable for the full lesson fee, but:
- if I can book you in for another time within the same week I will (note that rescheduling to the following week counts as a cancellation, and you can only reschedule a lesson once)
- if another student books the slot there’s no cancellation fee
- if I can’t reschedule you and no-one else books the slot, then I’ll use the time to write arrangements and / or record videos for you, so you’ll never be paying something for nothing.
The policy also benefits you because it’s good to have deadlines!
If you’re not sure whether you can make a time or not you can always postpone booking until you are.
The policy relied on the fact that I wrote customized arrangements for my students and made them practice videos, and the week-long notice period was because many of my students booked lessons several months in advance. You might teach a little differently, in which case adapt the policy to your needs, but keep the central principle in place: that if someone books your time they need to pay for your time, but then you need to devote that time to them, even if they’re not there.
Let go of your ego.
In my article,
- works out you know and what you don’t
- and therefore what the next thing you need to know is,
- then gives you the information you need in the right order and at the right speed.
In other words, you have to build a bridge from them to you, rather than the other way round. This means living insides your students’ heads, and exclusively seeing their wants, needs, and difficulties from their point of view, instead of thinking about your own knowledge and skills. You can only do this if you let go of your ego. If you’re worried about yourself at all – how you’re teaching, how you’re coming across, how everything else is going on in your life – your mental energy won’t be entirely free to devote to your students. But you have to make your lessons about your students, not about you.
The only time it makes sense to make yourself the focus is when you need to demonstrate competence in order to make your students listen. But the motivation should always be to benefit them rather than you. The more you help your students in the short term, the more you help yourself in the long term.
And finally, become a better teacher by being a good student.
I’m assuming you’re already a great musician, otherwise you shouldn’t be teaching, but music is practically-speaking infinite, so it’s always possible to improve. The more obvious way to improve is to deepen your existing knowledge / skills, i.e. get better at what you’re already good at, but don’t forget to also widen them, i.e. learn new things. So try learning a new skill, or style, or instrument. Doing something new is tougher on your ego, but it therefore puts you in your students’ shoes. Also, every style and instrument not only sounds different but also requires a different way of thinking, so if you master new ones you’ll be able to bring insights back to your own. Plus the better a musician you are, the more your students will respect you, and the more they’ll listen and improve.
So, to sum up:
Teach your students what they want to play, before you even teach them how to read. In fact, only teach theory when needed, but slowly show your students how music works. Teach your students at the right speed, and in a memorable way. Make sure they know how to practise properly, by writing lesson notes, and using videos. Be strict, but nice, which means having a (fair) cancellation policy. Let go of your ego. Finally, become a better teacher by being a good student.
WHY BECOME A BETTER MUSIC TEACHER
It’s obvious that becoming a better teacher is good for your students, but there are probably more benefits to you than you’d imagine. All the time I was teaching one-on-one I had other projects going on that took up a lot of my time and energy, but the more energy I put into teaching, the more I enjoyed it, and the better a musician I became. Every now and then I’d get a new student who was particularly good (or famous), who’d force me to up my game, and my life always improved as a result. Over time, students gave me free tickets to concerts and charity events, introduced me to producers, funded my projects (without me even asking them to), and became lifelong friends. And they all taught me a lot.