The first lesson with a new student can be awkward for the piano teacher, too – not just the student. Especially with a young child, the teacher wants to captivate the child’s attention and build a connection quickly. These are four activities that are fun but telling; meaning, the piano teacher will learn important information in a matter of just a few minutes, and also set the right tone for the lessons and relationship moving forward!
1. Run through the student’s week.
Don’t just ask what sports the child plays or what her favorite movie is. Instead, work with the parent and the child to explain the student’s entire weekly schedule to you. Find out what time she gets up in the morning and goes to bed. Ask about when she gets out the door for school, and when she comes home. Discover whether she eats dinner with her family, or on the run. Learn about what other activities she is in, whether she has any siblings (and what their schedules are like), do they travel as a family frequently, do they have religious services they attend, are their weekend relaxed or busy, and so on.
Why? This may feel like a colonoscopy, but each of these questions is giving the teacher valuable information. By understanding the student’s schedule, you will know how awake (and engaged!) she will be when she comes for her lessons. A simply question about family dinner allows the teacher to learn whether the family slows down at all to cherish family time, or if they’re all just too busy for it. Knowing about other activities can help a teacher make music selections and explains concepts with appropriate metaphors. If the week is busy, knowing what the weekends are usually like within the family will help the teacher understand when the student may get to practicing.
Pro Tip: Allow the parent to help with this, but get as much information as you can from the child directly!
2. Get on the floor.
Children are used to playing on the floor. Even though a piano teacher may have been teaching piano lessons for many years, remember- the child is new to all of this. To help gain the child’s trust before bringing her up onto the bench, spend a few minutes on the floor. While you’re there, this is the perfect opportunity for rhythm clapbacks! Remember to keep them simple (ta ta ta ta, ta ta titi ta, titi ta titi ta, etc.), especially with a younger child. Since you’re on the floor, include parts of your body in the rhythm such as tapping your lap, shoulders, feet, head and the floor. If you have rhythm sticks and instruments, this is a great chance to play with those!
Why? Think back to when you were in kindergarten or early elementary grades. New things seemed larger than off, and this is no different for a piano teacher’s new students. Spend some time playing in away that’s familiar to the child so that you can build her trust before you bring her up to the bench. You will not regret taking the extra few minutes to build the relationship! The rhythm clapbacks will give you a good idea of the student’s innate sense of rhythm. Some teachers choose not to work with students who are not at least in the realm of good possibility, while other teachers believe that any child can learn. Use this opportunity to learn about the child to make your own judgement.
Pro Tip: Even if your student has has piano lessons before, still do this on the floor so that you have a few extra minutes to build the relationship before you start involving the piano itself.
3. Respect the piano.
Now that it’s time to introduce the child to the piano, start by showing the new student the bench. Explain how it works if it’s adjustable, or not to lean on two of its legs. Help the child to get properly situated and positioned. Walk through the pedals (not to hit them with the feet, etc.), the keyboard cover (not to pull on it, dramatically showing how her hands and fingers could get injured), the lid (that this is a no-touch area of the piano, and only the teacher can adjust it), and anything else on your piano that’s special. Basically, go on a roaming tour! If you have a grand piano, you could even walk your student around it.
Lastly, demonstrate a happy sound (pleasant tone), angry sound (very loud and low), and shy sound (quiet and around middle C) and begin the conversation of what sounds the child likes the best. This is your first lesson in helping the new student to learn to listen to the music. In addition, you can move into low and high sounds, explaining the two by demonstrating their sounds, then asking the student to mimic you.
Why? One of my most-loved aspects of the Suzuki method is how teachers and students are taught to respect the piano. This genuine respect leads to a feeling of appreciation for lessons, and changes the entire tone (pun intended) of how lessons and practicing are handled. If the piano is to be respected, cherished and loved then it will be much easier to instill a humble, positive, respectful attitude and approach to both the lessons and practicing.
Pro Tip: You may have to add a game to teach right and left hands and/or finger numbers before you begin the call-response activity with high/low sounds.
4. Teach basic fundamentals for the first week at home.
Always allow a child to leave the first lesson with something to do during the week. Suggested activities to cover include teaching the right and left hand, finger numbers, the musical alphabet, white and black keys with sets of two and three, high and low sounds, loud and soft sounds, and basic rhythms (ta ta titi ta, etc.). You probably haven’t even gotten to posture and hand position yet, so make sure not to get into home activities that will instill bad habits. Keep the activities to whole hand movements that do not isolate fingers or require individually striking keys. Use the second lesson to begin teaching posture and how to position the body, arm, hands, wrists, feet and fingers.
Why? The concept of practicing is completely new for the young child who has never even been assigned homework before. By making the first week simple but still sending the child home with activities and goals, you introduce her to what will happen moving forward.
Pro Tip: Make sure you never call it homework — remember, the child gets to take piano lessons. It is a privilege. Homework can have a negative, punishing connotation. Instead, say, “your goals for the week are…” or “your activities for the week are…” or “this week, you get to review how to…” This will help you continue the concept that you taught in step 3.