Intermediate piano students… what a special group!

They have stuck with piano lessons through the basics and their love of music continues to grow! Many teachers feel less prepared to teach this level because they have so much more experience with beginners. But those teachers who do teach intermediate students should count themselves lucky.

We should really value the commitment that these students make to continue on in their lessons.

We should also value this unique position in their music education that we get to be a part of. This is a big transitional time. Students who can make it through this intermediate level will become advanced students (the dream!! All the heart eyes!!)

These students are more likely to play music for the rest of their lives.

This is the time to really see musicianship bloom. And think of all the exciting repertoire!!

For our purposes, let’s consider intermediate level students to be those who have completed a basic piano method, or much of it. (I would consider Faber’s Piano Adventures book 5 to be decidedly reaching into the early intermediate level).

Students at this level have covered the basics, have a good grasp of basic technique and are starting to play longer, more involved pieces in a variety of keys.

During this exciting time, we can expect to encounter several common problems.

Probably the most common problem with intermediate students is simply keeping them in lessons!

Their school homework load is growing. Their extracurricular commitments are growing. And the pressure to be with friends or in other group activities is growing. It is probably pretty hard to sell them on the idea of 45 minutes of solitary practice a day! There will, of course, be those that just love piano and will continue to do so.

But for those on the outskirts- the ones that like piano (but probably not as much as lacrosse or volleyball)-those are the students that may quit if we don’t adjust our perspective and expectations.

So how do we win them over and convince them that piano is the best thing ever?!

First, we need to listen well to what they desire to learn in piano lessons. It is probably not the time to assign only Bach Inventions if you know what I mean.

We need to let the students discover and choose for themselves the styles, composers, and pieces they wish to play.

It may mean setting aside our ideas of “pieces you absolutely must learn as a piano student.” Some students will happily follow that plan in your mind, but others will not. And if we can keep them playing music -any music- shouldn’t that really be the goal?

So if we want to give them greater autonomy over what they play, we need to open their ears to the variety that is out there! We need to listen to music with them and assign listening for home practice. The greater the variety of music we expose them to, the more likely they are to find their niche. Watch some young piano YouTube stars with your students. They may have no idea that even exists and that actual kids their age are enjoying making music!

Here are some other ideas to motivate your intermediate students to stick with it:

1.) Let them choose a monthly theme or a recital theme. Giving them this kind of ownership will naturally increase their feelings of investment.

2.) Host occasional group classes for these students. Bonus points for duet or ensemble playing! Most students at this level love anything social!

3.) Pair your beginner students with an intermediate student mentor. They will enjoy imparting their hard-earned wisdom to the younger ones. This also helps grow the sense of community in your studio. When students feel a part of something, they are definitely more likely to stick with it!

4.) Make sure to include composition and improvisation in lessons for students that are interested.

5.) Have a composition contest.

6.) Help your student record a CD when they have a certain amount of repertoire learned.

7.) Have your student invite a friend to a lesson. They can give them a mini-recital, teach their friend one thing about piano, and they can play a duet!  Even if the friend has no musical experience, you could teach them an easy piece by rote, and your student could play a fun accompaniment alongside them!

So now that you’ve got your intermediate students sticking around,  another problem that often arises is repertoire burnout.

These students have been checking off their beginner pieces left and right, speeding through their books without too much of a problem. And now they are learning longer, more difficult pieces. Some students tend to shut down when they encounter this stage. They want to check off a piece in a week or two. They don’t want to polish every last detail, because it just seems to go on and on and on!!

The solution here is simply to choose repertoire carefully, building up your students’ tolerance to this kind of work over time. We may want to choose “growing pieces” for our students. But it’s a delicate balance, finding one that is going to stretch them just enough, not break them. Also, we should balance these growing pieces with easier pieces, pieces they can get a bit of instant gratification from. And that is a good thing for motivation, and also for sight reading!

Interconnected with the problem of repertoire burnout is another problem that often becomes highly evident during the intermediate stage: Students not knowing how to effectively practice.

And that’s maybe our most important job, isn’t it? We have to teach students how to practice. That begins with learning how to set goals. We should help our students set short term and long term goals for their pieces. I say help them set goals because again, they need autonomy; they don’t need us to set goals for them.

We can and should guide their goal setting, though. A short-term goal for a piece might be to play a certain measure 25 times a day for the week, or to be able to play a certain phrase 3 times in a row perfectly by the next lesson.

Long-term goals might include having a piece memorized in a month or learning a certain number of pieces during a semester. We should help them set attainable goals, the more specific, the better!

In order to be effective practicers, students need to be keen problem spotters.

Once they are good at spotting the problems, they must learn many, many different ways to solve the problems they encounter. Effective practice strategies would be a whole blog post in itself, so I’ll save that for another day, but a couple of fun books to explore that topic are Philip Johnston’s Practiceopedia and The Piano Practice Physician’s Handbook by Nicola Cantan.

Another part of effective practice is time management, and this is a crucial skill to develop at this level.

As aforementioned, intermediate students are often at an age where piano has to compete for time with several other activities and homework. Often a student will say “I had no time to practice this week.” And while some weeks that might actually be true, I am confident that we can teach them how to find some time in their schedule most days of most weeks.

The trick is once again, readjusting your (and their) expectations. They may not have 45 minutes, but if they have even 5 minutes, and they approach that 5 minutes with a specific and attainable goal in mind, then they will accomplish something. Too often, they are all or nothing.

If they can’t practice everything, they won’t practice at all. We can teach them how to prioritize and choose tiny, bite-sized goals for those days when time is limited. And they will see by the end of the week just how valuable even 5-10 minutes a day can be when used effectively and purposefully.

Of course, we hope to get more minutes than that, more often than not! But we’ve got to work with the time they have, and accomplishing something is always better than accomplishing nothing. A book that has changed my perspective on practice and setting expectations for practice is The Practice Revolution by Philip Johnston.

Finding new ways to motivate students, giving them more control over their repertoire, and helping them to set effective goals are all ways to help your intermediate students thrive during this exciting time in their musical life!

Looking for a great recital piece to inspire your intermediate students this season? Look no further! Enjoy this fun, well-crafted, and FREE piece entitled The Colorful Kite. Click the pic below and tell us where to send your free copy!

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