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One Year of Teaching Piano - A Retrospect

It's been just over a year since I started teaching piano. I can't believe how quickly the time has gone, but I suppose more so I can't believe how far I've come as not only a teacher, but as a pianist and musician myself.



Jack Mitchell Smith Piano Teacher Macclesfield Congleton


When most people begin to learn piano, those with any ambition about progressing to a career in music tend to look at those high profile, name in lights type of jobs: professional concert pianist, session musician, events pianist, composer, musical director or supervisor etc. - I think it would be safe to say that most people who begin learning piano don't have the thought: 'I reeeeeeally want to teach this one day'.


This was the case with me, however - over the past four years it has become clear that it was perhaps the most logical extension to what I did want from piano. The name in lights dream has never been something I've yearned for. If I play piano I tend to be happy to do so for my own entertainment. However, music was too much of a passion to not progress towards being a career hence why the first push was to try and develop a creative, behind-the-scenes service such as composition. My theory: I write the music, somebody else brings it to life every night! My job is done and I reap the reward in hearing the final thing without all the stress of rehearsal, conducting and - for piano based compositions - performing them myself!


Needless to say, the average demand for bespoke composition is...limited! Certainly if I offered something along the lines of more traditional art - sketches, paintings etc. - it would be wonderful as people love to commission these as keepsakes, gifts and more. However, the idea of a bespoke piece of music or song seldom crosses people's minds. Those who are musically passionate would probably do it themselves anyway, and if not then it wouldn't really be something that they consider.


So the next logical step for me has led to a successful first year of piano teaching and gives me one year's worth of experience to advise those who are considering this career move or have just begun. Read on to learn more and be inspired in taking the steps yourself...



Preparation For Piano / Instrumental Teaching



Seek Out Advice On Teaching



Are you still in touch with your old piano teacher?


I was (am).


In fact, it was her who planted the seed about a year or so prior at a recital of some of her pupils - she asked me if I was considering teaching myself. This was a resounding 'no' at the time because I didn't know how to start!


Back then I thought that I'd only like to get pupils who had some experience playing.


But then I started to consider that they might be too advanced for me to teach! Panic!


So I thought maybe I'd start with beginners - but how?


It was immaterial thinking anyway...until I decided I did want to teach.


Then these questions emerged...


  • how do you teach a beginner?

  • how do you teach a child?

  • which books are best?

  • are books even the way to go?


and many, many more.


So I went round to her house, she made me a cup of tea (teacher's prerogative - ask one of my pupils the last time I made them a cup of tea!) and we had a good long chat where she talked me through everything she could according to the leading questions I asked (see above)*.


Ultimately we reached an interesting conclusion - put my name out there, see who - if anyone - bites, and go for it!


*NB teachers are usually delighted to help other teachers and prospective teachers, but don't forget that you are still taking their time and expertise. It wouldn't be unreasonable to be asked to book a lesson / discuss as part of a paid lesson, and also be respectful that if you are fairly local to each other you may be encroaching on their potential business. All sole traders are aware of competition, but a teacher absolutely has the right to say no to advising you purely on this principle! Consider your relationship before asking, and - if you are respectfully declined - do not push the matter.



Start Out Small



You'll likely not get enough of an influx to overbook anyway, but aim for a maximum number of lessons per week. For me, this was 16 half hours across two days (effectively four hours a day).


You will benefit far more from familiarising yourself with texts, workbooks and scores in your 'free time' at the beginning than working through it for the first time with your pupil and being equally as surprised!



Never Stop Learning



This isn't just in accordance with teaching. This is piano full stop.


I don't think anybody has ever reached a point in their piano learning and thought...'I'm good enough now!'.


So why should you?


Because you don't have time? Too many lessons you're teaching?


Teaching is an absolute joy, yes, but so is music itself. In fact, that was the fundamental joy that got you into this position of teaching it in the first place and so you have two responsibilities:



  • always keep enjoying music yourself

  • always strive to be better than your pupils



The last one sounds partly obvious and partly petty. But actually, it is so important for our Imposter Syndromes that we do feel we have a better than average grasp of the instrument.


You'll likely not get anybody super advanced coming to you straight away, so it's unlikely you'll be at their level, but it's equally important to know - at all times - when to say no to a pupil as well as when to tell a pupil that it's time for them to progress to somebody more able to teach them than yourself. This speaks nothing of you and your own abilities as either teacher or pianist, and your honesty will be met with much respect.



Advice on Running a Business and Teaching



It can be super hard to know where to begin when it comes to running your business and progressing lessons, so here are some pointers than will help you!



Be Definite!



If there's one thing that I have learnt, it is that humans don't like choice. We like yes and no options.


Before I decided which days I would offer as my regular teaching days (Tuesdays and Fridays), I left it as a free for all. Yes, we got somewhere eventually, but conversations would often go along the lines of:


"When would you like to come?"

"When have you got?"

"Any time to suit you"

"I can come any time"

"I could do Tuesday. Would you prefer morning or afternoon?"

"I don't mind - I'm retired"

"How about morning at 10:30?"

"That's great, thank you"


Mix in to that that most of my first contact with a pupil is via e-mail, so this is a lot of to-ing and fro-ing.


Compare this:


"Would you be free on Tuesday at 10:30 am"

"That'd be great thank you. See you then".


OR


"Would you be free on Tuesday at 10:30 am. I can also offer afternoon if your prefer to come later"

"Afternoon would be better - have you get 3:00 or around then?"

"Yes, no problem. I'll book it for 3:00 on Tuesday"


So. Much. Quicker.


And it's a completely reasonable assumption to think that if they're asking about piano lessons, they already want one!


I used to answer their question(s) and then say "please let me know if you'd like to go ahead and book". These types of responses from my end were either met with tumbleweed OR a response to say no thank you.


Strike while the iron's hot!


"Yes I do offer piano lessons. They're priced at this much and I'd be delighted to help. I do actually have a spare slot on Tuesday at 10:30 if you'd like to come down for that? This could become a regular slot if you decide to continue"


100% of pupils who I've offered a lesson to straight away have come for it!



You Know So Much!



This is partly to satisfy your Imposter Syndrome as it creeps back in over the weeks - you will realise as you talk and as you listen to your pupils perform how good you are!


But be warned!


You don't want to blind them with science, as it were.


Music has more exceptions to the rule than rules, it would appear, and it is so important that you help your pupils to understand the rules of music first.


My initial theory was that if I didn't tackle it upfront, it would confuse them at a later date.


Wrong.


It confuses them right now! I can assure you that if you bring up exceptions to the rule, you will spend longer trying to explain the exception than the rule itself, meaning the whole thing is futile! Focus on what needs to be taught and only when they are:


  • confident on the rule and

  • actually needing to know the exception


...is it time to cross that bridge.



Log Student's Progress



This will be a shock for my pupils who I know are continually impressed by my outstanding memory of everything I've done with them previously.


I have a spreadsheet on my iPad with every single lesson logged, what we plan to cover in the lesson, what we did cover, notes about how they are doing (what needs improvement), homework set and when their next lesson is.


Your memory will serve you better with these little prompts. I also schedule my pupil's times so that there is 10 minutes between lessons. This is partly for my benefit in case I need a quick pause or bathroom break, but really it's so I can log these things when it's super fresh in my mind!



Children Learn VERY Differently



I naively thought that a child would learn the same way as an adult, but just through a different tone of voice.


That couldn't be farther from the truth!


Children learn in the most fabulously interactive ways to the point that - as a piano teacher - you will start to feel a guilt complex as to what you are even achieving. To some point you may have to spend a good chunk of time bringing them out of themselves anyway - particularly if they are very shy - but to assist with their shorter attention span we have to get creative in how we teach them:



  • Games

  • Drawing



A parent would be forgiven for thinking that the teacher has, indeed, lost the plot here, but the simple truth is that children's minds need constant stimulation in order to be successful in learning something.



Casual Learning Doesn't Exist



Perhaps a controversial take, but I have a fair few casual learners. To define, they wish to learn for their own personal gain, free from the pressures of exams and public performances.


It sounds delightful, but the brutal truth that I already knew about the piano that became even clearer with some of my casual learners is that learning piano is hard work regardless.


Learning casually is absolutely fine by the definition given above, but I am very clear with everybody upfront now who wishes to learn in such a way that this does not and should not exempt them from a practice / homework / revision schedule.


The expectancy of many pupils is that the lessons alone will carry them - if they come regularly, such as once a week, then that's the bulk of it and they can enjoy the rest of the time.


Unfortunately that isn't how it works!


Setting even small goals can be a fantastic way of bringing each individual pupil to their fullest potential regardless of what their ambition might have been at the beginning of their piano adventure.



 

Jack Mitchell Smith is a piano teacher based in Macclesfield, Cheshire. Click here to find out more.


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