Tailoring Your Teaching to the Student


by Jenny Simaile
Goonellabah, New South Wales, Australia


ave you ever seen a lady of considerable girth squeezed into a tight sweater and thought,  "What was she thinking!!"  Well, it wasn’t her fault—the label clearly said: One size fits all! What the manufacturer really meant, was that if you were a size 12, then this garment would probably fit you!  There is no such thing as one size fits all, because we’re all not one size!  It’s the same with learning—we all don’t learn the same way, so we all shouldn’t be taught the same way! In a school situation, this isn’t always possible, but when teaching piano one-to-one in a teaching studio, not only is it possible, it is most desirable and beneficial.  But exactly how does one teach the same basic concepts in a manner which provides the best help to each individual student?  This article will give you some suggestions about a process that will allow you to do that.




Start tailoring your lessons by finding out WHAT the student has in mind—especially if they are old enough to have an opinion about this! The motto of my studio is “Just for fun or serious study.”  My first problem is to find out where the student fits along this scale.  It will do the student little good to only assign Martha Mier pieces, if their express purpose in lessons is to do exams, or prepare for tertiary education.  On the other hand, a heavy workload and strict discipline will be disheartening for the person who is looking for a hobby to relieve boredom or depression.  Rare is the person who will front up for their first lesson and tell you, “I’m doing this to help with my depression”, but you will be able to get a fair idea of their situation if you are sensitive to their words and attitude, and the results you get from them after a few weeks of lessons.

Once you’ve found out WHY they want lessons, and what result they’re after, it’s easier to recommend a course of action tailored to their needs and abilities.   I have a stipulation in my studio policy that requires new students to have the minimum of three lessons. One of the reasons why I do this is it gives me a chance to get to know their personality, their likes, the way they learn, their attitude and their abilities.  It is then, when they tell me they would like to continue, that I recommend a book/s for them to purchase.  Ideally, a teacher would develop their own "method" which ‘fits’ each individual student perfectly.  However, this takes much experience and experimentation before a teacher has the skills, resources, and confidence to do this.  Starting with method books is a very good way to begin your learning.  

So how can you still tailor lessons when using methods? What is meant by ‘method’?  In this article we refer to ‘method’ as a series of books designed by one or a group of piano educators who present the various aspects of piano playing progressively, step by step. The variety is in the presentation and the level of progress. (This article isn’t concerned with reviewing the various methods available, but discusses how to include a chosen method or methods in your teaching. To see analyses and reviews of various "methods," see our page Piano Teaching Methods and the links on that page to our reviews of various method materials.)

HOW you determine what method would best suit a student begins with your preparation work away from lessons.  Learn how to and practise ‘reviewing’ methods. Be familiar initially with at least three methods.  Eventually, you will want to have at least some familiarity with most, if not all, the major methods, but knowledge of at least three is a good starting point.

Perhaps the most overwhelming consideration when choosing a method is AGE.  A beginning six year old is worlds apart from a beginning thirteen year old, and not just in terms of ability and learning capacity—their attitudes are like those from two different planets! Assigning the Bastien method with its large print notes and goofy pictures to a thirteen year old would be as insulting as tying their lunch money up in a handkerchief and placing it firmly in their pocket! Assigning Denes Agay’s Joy of First Year Piano to a five year old would be fighting a losing battle with its sophisticated sounding melodies and lack of visual stimuli.  Swap the two and we have a better fit! The wonderful thing about method books these days is that most usually tell you what age group the book has been designed for on the cover. Keep in mind, however, that publishers like to maximize their market possibilities, so there is no substitute for some first-hand knowledge of the materials.

The next consideration is LEVEL.  Again, the beauty of methods is their clear indication of levels displayed on the cover, e.g.,  early elementary/preliminary/preparatory/for the earliest beginner etc. If you are new at teaching, this is an excellent way to learn what kind of skills and element of difficulty is appropriate for each level.  Less of a concern is GENDER, as most method books take into account that both male and female will be using their books.  (This becomes more of an issue when you no longer use methods, but are assigning individual pieces.  Some boys don’t respond well if SPECIFICALLY feminine subjects appear in the title—”The Doll’s Complaint”,  ‘The Dolly Funeral”.  Alfred has published very gender specific repertoire, Just for Girls, Just for Boys, that is worth taking a look at, especially for ‘relief’ work, recitals, or any other special occasion.)

So now you have three methods that have been designed for the same age group and the same level.  How do you choose the method best suited to your student? Take these points into consideration: How are the concepts introduced—with words, i.e.. statements, pictures, instructions or a combination? How quickly does the method move along—is there a lot of opportunity to practise one concept, or does it introduce a new concept every page? What is the content—does it use completely original material, folk and traditional, classical, pop songs—if so, from what era?

Now think of your student: Does your student best learn aurally, kinesthetically or visually? Does your student pick up concepts very quickly, with a sharp inquisitive mind and an eager disposition?  Or does your student enjoy the time to ponder, consider, and repeat often? What music does your student enjoy listening to?  They will usually enjoy playing this type of music.

Be aware that each method has strengths and weaknesses.  Make sure you know where this method falls short.  For example, does it emphasise position playing?  If so, make sure you give the student plenty of opportunity to practise reading the individual notes, and not just playing to patterns—which can result from position playing.  Does the method concentrate on chordal accompaniment — supply the student with repertoire that also teaches independent accompaniment — in the Baroque tradition for example. You can get an idea of some of the strengths and weaknesses of various methods by reading our page, Piano Teaching Methods.

What can you do if your student appears to be losing interest with the ‘method’? First, ascertain the reason from these usual causes:
The method is progressing too quickly for the student to grasp each concept well enough to feel a level of achievement. The method is progressing too slowly, and boredom is setting in. The method doesn’t offer any repertoire the student can relate to, and their enjoyment is diminished. Keep in mind that the parents have trusted in your decision and have purchased the required method thinking it will benefit the child.  Of course you can admit “I seem to have made the wrong decision” and ask the parents to buy a new method.  However, they will no doubt wonder, “And what if you’ve made the wrong decision again?”  You and I know how EASY it is to get things wrong.  Unfortunately, teachers are considered a little like doctors in this area—it is expected that we DO have ALL the answers, and they are definitely the correct ones!

Instead of disregarding the book altogether, ADD to the method whatever is needed. For example, is the method too strenuous for the student?  Slow the progress down by concentrating on the skills the student is having difficulty with.  Design specific exercises for the student to practise.  Include games.  Assign extra pieces of the same difficulty or with the same skill needing practise.
If the method is too slow for the student, assign individual repertoire that is of similar difficulty, but perhaps longer, or with an element of extra difficulty.  There is also nothing wrong with asking the parents to purchase another book that you would like to include in their learning.  Continue with the first method, and assign pieces from the other book for the student to tackle on their own at home. If the method offers no familiar material, ask the student what piece they would really love to be able to play on the piano.  If the piece they tell you is beyond their skill level, find an alternative of similar style (including a simplified version).  Again, there is nothing wrong with asking the parent to purchase this ‘special’ piece of music, as you are not disregarding their previous purchase, but complementing it.

So far we’ve talked about choosing the best method for each student.  This can be likened to going to a department store, saying to the sales assistant “I would like to buy a dress”.  The sales assistant shows you many on the rack and helps you find an appropriate style, colour and fit. Teaching without methods is like going to a specialised tailor who has yards and yards of material, a tape measure draping his shoulders and a mirror or two or three. When you ask to buy a dress, he doesn’t just ask for your size, he will take the time to measure almost every part of your body! As ‘tailor’ piano teachers, we too have to take the time to find out as much as we can about our student.  This of course would include the basics: age, gender, type of music they like, previous experience, pace of development, attention span, method of learning.

A tailor's job is easier when the customer says, I want THIS material in THIS style and hands him a picture or a pattern. This is like a student saying, I want to learn THIS piece of music, and hands over the score. This is an ideal way of teaching adults or those old enough to have such strong convictions.  Taking the piece as the goal, it is then your job as the ‘tailor’ to work out exactly how you can best teach the piece.  Consider these aspects: note range, style, key signature, time signature, length and skills needed. Then, design lessons to teach all of the above requirements.

How do you design lessons? If you are new to this type of ‘tailoring’ teaching, it is best to put all your thoughts and ideas down in writing.  It’s easier to organise thoughts when they’re on paper. These are the elements of lesson plans:
Aim: overall GOAL
Objectives: specific SKILLS practised to achieve the above
Method: WAYS in which you will achieve the objectives
Resources: MEDIUMS by which you can achieve the aim, e.g., other piano pieces, worksheets, games, exercises, scales. aural tests, drills etc.

More often then not, the most information you will get from your student is a style they enjoy (i.e. pop music, classical etc) or a favourite artist/composer.  This is like a customer saying to the tailor “I want a blue dress”.  It is then up to the tailor to show the many ‘blues’ he has in his store. The range may be extensive, so he may ask “Dark or light blue” to narrow down the choice.  He then may choose to offer only three or four to begin with, hoping the customer will find one she likes.

If your student says, “I want to learn classical music”, you could ask, “Do you have a favourite composer?”  Or if they’ve said “I really love Beethoven,” you could ask, “Do you like his really fiery works, or enjoy his more gentle pieces?” Taking into consideration all you know about your student, you may offer him three pieces to choose.  Play them for him.  If he says “I don’t know, you choose”, then do so.  Often, and practically always when dealing with children, their response to questions is “I don’t know.”  Don’t spend too much time trying to get an answer when they’re really just telling you the truth.  Young children have not had the opportunity that adults have had to develop likes and dislikes.  So, it is up to you as the tailor, to provide them with variety.

A successful tailor not only has the life experience and skills to his credit, he will also have an array of wonderful and varying materials he can access.  As tailoring piano teachers, we too need to have an extensive knowledge of repertoire and have access to it. Like that tailor who never ceases to accumulate new and interesting textures, the piano teacher always studies and learns and accumulates new resources.  It can be a life-long endeavour, and a most interesting and satisfying one when we can look back on all of our students and take joy in the fact that they are all wearing unique tailor-made outfits!  

Page created: 5/13/04
Last updated: 01/30/15
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Reprinting from the Piano Education Page The Piano Education Page, Op. 10, No. 1, http://pianoeducation.org
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