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Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog, a dalmatian resc...

Sparkles the Fire Safety Dog helps teach children ~ Image via Wikipedia

Teaching is a fascinating thing.  For me, tapping into the unique way in which each person learns produces the best possible results.

Most of my students are age 16 and older.  Because they are taking lessons for one reason ~ they want to ~ they have no juries, exams, grades, or requirements.

So there is no list of prescribed repertoire.  I’ve been enjoying the freedom this implies.  (I also understand, having been a student and having taught in schools, that formal programs have requirements.  And there are several teachers I know online who have semester- or year-long projects for their studios full of young students.)

Each student is different.  Musical preferences, goals, prior experience, learning methods, and hand shape are unique to each person.

Therefore, I believe that repertoire and teaching approaches should be scrutinized.  Lessons need to fit each student.  Not only that, but lessons need to fit the learning capabilities of each student on that day.

Whose agenda is it?

Peoples’ energy levels vary with time of day, day of week, how much sleep they had the night before, whether they have eaten recently, how many papers need to be written in two days, and even changes in the weather.  It is every teacher’s job to pick up on all the variables.

If something isn’t working that day, the best way to make progress is to change direction.

  • Remove one or more parts from the music.
  • Leave out the ornaments today.
  • Work on a specific section.
  • Ask the student to play one hand at a time.
  • Make the piece into a duet for you and your student.  After you’ve played it one way, switch places.
  • Switch to a contrasting piece.

Three of my students brought pieces they had found to their lessons.  Even if a teacher may have had other plans for the lesson, I have seen great success in following the students’ suggestions.  That doesn’t mean that other things are not important.  Adding students’ ideas to their lessons provides ongoing motivation.  And music they bring along is usually more challenging than what they are playing already.

In this way, students can improve a level or two in a very short time.

Music we added

Golliwog’s Cakewalk ~ you can read about it in a previous post.

Chopin’s Prelude in E minor ~ read about it here.

Irish dances for flute and piano ~ another previous post.

Music from video games ~ my student’s college concentration is gaming.  Who knows?  Maybe he’ll compose music for games in addition to programming them!  His score reading skills have improved considerably, as has his ability to rewrite unplayable scores.


The UMass/Amherst Department of Continuing Education offered adult beginner piano classes for several years.  I taught these classes for four or five years, after which United States visas were restricted.  Enrollment dropped, and the classes were discontinued.

The most interesting aspect of the classes was that 8 of 10 students each semester were from foreign countries.  One woman, from Iran, told me both of her brothers studied an ethnic instrument similar to the guitar as children.  She wasn’t allowed to take lessons because she was a girl.  At age 40 or so, this was her first opportunity.  Her commitment was unwavering.

During one class session, I decided to walk around the room and answer students’ questions.  There were several, often concerning musical terms.  As each student had his or her own native language, everyone was trying to understand Italian musical terms in their first language as well as in English.  Not so easy!

After answering 5 or 6 peoples’ questions, two students seated next to each other asked me the same thing.  Finally!  I could help two people together!

Not so.  Each was from a different country, and translated differently.  So my first answer didn’t make sense to the other person.  I don’t think “one size fits all” works in general.  It certainly would have been inadequate here.

How do you teach?  Do you have a long-term plan that you adhere to, or do you vary your approach with each student?

Please share your experiences in the comment section below!

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