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What really happens in a piano lesson?

This is a question that may be particularly important for those who have never studied an instrument, but also could be asked by those who have studied music before, but never studied with me. It would be tempting to simply say that every student is different and every lesson is different, but, in fact, lessons do fall into a basic pattern. The goal of taking lessons is to progress in one’s skills. For this purpose I need to balance an examination of the current assignment with the introduction of new skills. I also try to balance all the elements of music, so that a student continues to develop in their technical ability to play well, their theoretical understanding of music and music history, their exposure to various music composers and styles, and their ability to create music on their own.

A typical lesson order might look like this:

Warm up and technical studies

I generally start with some type of technical warm up, because I want my students to get in the habit of doing this first in their own practice. Even students who have only had a few lessons will have simple exercises that allow them to concentrate on the physical aspects of their playing. This is when I direct their concentration to their hand position, finger strength, supple wrist, arm weight, and so on. As students move forward, they begin a graded technical regimen of scales, chords, arpeggios and the like. Each level gets more difficult as their skills increase.

Review of previous assignment

After the warm up, it is time to hear what their week of practice has produced. Beginning students, whose pieces are very short, will have 4-5 pieces, and generally will go on to new pieces every week, if they practice consistently at home. As they move through their elementary phase, the pieces become gradually longer, I assign fewer at a time, and they may take 2-3 weeks to complete a piece. With more advanced students, I still like to assign about 4 pieces at a time, but they may take a month or more to learn a piece, so most lessons become a mix of old and newly assigned music. It is during the review of assigned music that I feel most like a coach. “What is the difference between the first line of music and the second?” “How is the repetition of this idea different from the original?” “These two parts look the same. What makes one part easier to play than the other?”

New concepts and new repertoire

Most of my students are working on music theory assignments, either as part of their lesson book or in a separate theory book. I use the lesson time to introduce and explain new concepts, but they practice their theory at home through written assignments. Most of my students also have a set of practice tools that I have written which they keep in their practice binder. One of my most important responsibilities is to teach how to properly practice the piano so that they make steady progress and are able to work efficiently.

The last part of the lesson is also when I introduce new pieces of music. I found, when I first began teaching, that it was important to spend enough time to properly introduce a new piece of music to the student. Failure to do so meant that the student practiced developed lots of bad habits throughout the week, which I then had to correct the second week. It is much easier to get started out right. I try to assure this with a more thorough introduction. At the same time, if the piece of music uses concepts and skills that the student already knows, I will sometimes assign a piece to be learned entirely on their own.

Final preparation for the week

With all but the youngest beginning students, students leave with a printed lesson assignment, usually with specific instructions for how to actually practice their music.  Their practice binder provides a place to keep their lesson assignment, instruction on practice techniques, and a record of their practice throughout the week.