Transitioning a Student from “I Don’t Like Piano.” to “I Love Piano!”

Smiling Student Playing Piano

Parents who value music in their student’s lives are a tremendous boon to our profession.

From an educational standpoint, you can’t beat music. Math and reading comprehension and they get to make pretty music?

Sign my kid up!

Parents who understand the value of learning music are our allies, our job security.

They know what will best help their little ones grow into responsible adults and will do everything in their power to make sure their precious ones are given every chance to be successful.

They feed their kids vegetables, not because the kids like them, but because it’s good for them, good for their growth.

If music lessons are carrots for kids, how do we turn them into carrot cake?

Start each lesson with a smile.

You know they probably don’t want to be there, so make them feel like you are their favorite.

This is sometimes easier said than done: particularly with the surly teenager set, but sometimes it’s a “fake it until you make it” situation.

I find that with classes/students that are a particular struggle, as I end their time with me with a positive statement, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Not only do I begin to see them that way, they begin to act that way.

Take a moment to get to know your student and make them feel like they are valuable to you.

Help the student make connections.

Take an interest in their other activities. And find music that complements it. When the student starts making connections, they begin to appreciate what they’re learning.

I once suggested a student use a mirror to practice. She was confused, so I asked her why she dances in front of a mirror at ballet practice.

She was much better able to understand the importance of muscle memory and doing the movements correctly and with a discerning eye and ear.

Turn the music into a story and have them tell the story. The student begins to seek stories themselves and really get excited learning a particular song.

Pieces and even etudes are a lot more exciting to practice when you have a story in your head instead of just looking at the black dots and lines!

Give sincere praise.

Showcase to your student and what they are doing well in their lessons. If they pick up a difficult passage quickly that most take much longer to accomplish, brag on them.

A student may not realize that she actually has an innate music gift. Leave participation ribbons out of it. Reward deserving improvements.

When they accomplish something major, bring the parent in to show them something they played well. Or if you teach in a location with many studios, call in another teacher to hear it to reinforce your praise.

Be sparing and cautious, though. It’s very tempting to tell a growing musician that they sound wonderful, but if they don’t, they likely know it, and your praise is no longer valid.

You can tell a student that you loved their energy without making it seem like everything they do is perfect.

Have them choose a song to learn by rote.

Sometimes we get so caught up in the technique, we lose the fun.

I like to ask my students (particularly those that don’t practice) what they would like to learn to play. Then, I allow them to watch me figure out the easiest way to teach it to them using the most basic notes, and then I teach it to them piecemeal.

There’s something about being able to sing the Disney song Let It Go while you’re playing it that really helps a kid enjoy lessons a little more.

Don’t even get me started on Star Wars!

Have a studio social.

If you allow students to socialize, they will play for you.

The reality is that most students do not stick with learning to play an instrument because of the music, the teacher or even because their parents make them.

They continue to play because they experience a camaraderie with other learners.

They like to be part of something, to be a part of a group. Let them see that they are not alone.

Now, this becomes a bit more challenging with private music students, but you can help foster this sense of camaraderie by hosting group lessons on occasion, or other group music events.

It will take a little extra effort to schedule these types of events, but I promise it’s well worth it!

When parents and students mingle, you’ve forged a bond and facilitated a love for learning.

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Working With the Over-Scheduled and Stressed Music Student

music student stressed

There are a vast number of opportunities that compete for time with music students today.

Sports used to be limited to one season and only a couple of practices a week. Now, there’s travel ball, extra practices, three-a-days, private lessons and extra camps.

Students are pushed to the max in school as well.

The couple of AP or honors classes that were offered in the past are now replaced by multiple AP class availability in all subjects as well extra tutoring sessions, future this-that-and-the-other clubs that seem to be so important, not to mention all the requirements of the typical student-athlete leave our kids today with little free time and even less music time!

So how do we deal with the hyper-scheduled and overly-stressed music student?

Employ the parents.

Many times, it is parental ego that over-schedules the kid.

They have high hopes of college scholarships and maybe even professional goals for their kids that are a bit unrealistic in other areas, especially sports.

Know your parents. If this is where their thinking is, you can use this to your advantage. Remind them that while all schools have a football team, not all football players can move around an instrument at a high level.

Playing an instrument for a number of years sets them apart from other student-athletes with similar prowess on the field and make them more well-rounded.

Help them understand that music is a quality of life thing, and their child should not miss out on the opportunity to really understand it.

It is very rare to hear someone say they wish they had never taken music lessons. Instead, they wish their parents had not allowed them to give up on it.

They understand the value of music or they wouldn’t have brought their child to you.

Give them opportunities to see professionals in concert as a family. Encourage them to unplug and connect with our past.

What were those people living through when that masterpiece was created?

Be realistic.

Instead of focusing on creating a concert pianist or symphony musician, focus on creating a lifelong lover of music: one who will support the arts with enthusiasm and understanding.

These kids are the future audiences. Help them want to be!

Music may not be the top priority in your student’s life now, but it will always be something they can remember.

There are bound to be a couple of things outside of music or even one major one that hits the top for them. If it is not music (what?!?!?!), figure out what is and help show them how music adds to it rather than taking their time away from their primary desire.

Liken music to their other passions, and they will make room for it.

Be their light.

In the world of hyper-extended and overly stressed students, you have the
opportunity provide their respite. You may not realize how broken and defeated they are when they arrive for their instruction.

Show them how music is the break in their life: something to turn to when everything else is overwhelming. It becomes an outlet for their frustration, sadness, and even hyperactivity. It can be that one thing that helps them find their center.

With that in mind…

Program accordingly.

You have the opportunity to tap into those emotions they are already feeling and become increasingly expressive. Boom! Two birds, one stone.

Choosing appropriate repertoire is one of the most of the important aspects of our teaching. We need to select music that is attainable and exciting, that challenges but motivates.

Choose music that explores nuances that the student has not yet encountered that they can recognize in other concert pieces, pop songs, and movie soundtracks.

Know your student’s schedule. What are they actually physically capable of scheduling in terms of practice time?

At best, they’re getting ample practice time in at home. At worst (normal scenario for many), they’re only able to accomplish a little during lesson time.

When a student is able to achieve a high level on a piece of music, it only motivates them to reach higher! 

Four Strategies for Teaching Students to Play Music with Expression

musical expression

Okay. Posture is good. Technique is learned. Rhythm is solid. The notes are right. The dynamics are played (albeit cursorily), yet the music is lacking something.

Specifically, it is lacking music.

It is lacking that moment where the child transitions from playing the dots on the page to playing something that moves them (and you) to something that takes the breath away!

So, how do we teach students to play with expression?

Here are four simple, but effective strategies:

1.) Sing It.

The first step in being able to take your student’s breath away is to teach them where to breathe!

The easiest way to do this is to have them sing the melody. It always blows my mind that more music teachers do not have their students sing.

It is critical!!

When students sing, they find the natural rising and falling of the musical lines. They figure out where it feels right to breathe. Sing with them, then let them out on their own.

But I must warn you: the first time you ask your students to sing, they will not sing musically, and they will probably balk so fiercely, that you will never want to ask them to do it again.

Push through! It’s important.

2.) Move It.

Kids are naturally expressive beings. Physically, they skip and twirl and move and clap to anything that excites them.

When it comes time to learn music, we take away this natural inclination and instead focus on getting them to sit still and correctly.

Being overly focused on perfect posture in your students can unwittingly instill a sense of rigidity in their playing.

Without the freedom to move musically, the students miss the opportunity to make the music move.

This must be un-done carefully.

We don’t want our students to move so much that it is a distraction to their performance, but we do want them to have the freedom to engage with the music.

Using the concept of arrival and departure notes is an excellent way to begin tying together physical expression with musical expression.

Have students lean into arrival notes such as the top of an ascending line that is getting ready to come back down.

Naturally, their bodies will cause their hands to add that subtle crescendo you have been trying to accomplish.

Next, have them lean back into the bottom of a phrase.

At first, it will be very awkward to them to do and for you to watch: it’s kind of like watching those glass ducks that dip their faces into a cup of water.

However, the more they do it, the more natural it becomes, so it is a worthwhile strategy.

3.) Act it out.

I find my students play more expressively when they identify with the piece of music!

I like to make up stories to go along with whatever they are playing.

Sometimes, the stories are easily given to us, like a piece titled Dragonhunter. Sometimes, not so much (ex. the title Prelude).

If you lack an idea, go with one of theirs! The stories do not even have to make sense; they just have to make a picture.

“In this measure, the dragon is hiding, can you hear the heartbeat? Right here, the dragon jumps out, and the battle begins!”

Having the students identify and relate to the music will encourage them to explore new musical options.

I also love using analogies in my teaching.

When teaching a piece of music, I like to find similarities within the structure. Then, I liken it to everyday living.

For example, if a composer makes the same statement three times in a row, it likely should be expressed differently in at least one of the statements.

If you were telling the same story to the same person three times in one sitting, you would change your expression or hand gestures to keep it interesting.

Why would we not do that in music? It just makes sense!

4.) Demonstrate it.

The most important thing you can do for developing a sense of musicianship in your students is to demonstrate best practices.

Make sure you model for them.

It is important for them to see a talented, experienced musician practice the way they should practice.

I hope these four simple, but effective strategies help you in your important work!

Remember to sing it, move it, act it out, and demonstrate it 🙂

Happy music making!!

Interrupting the Pattern – The Secret to Engaged Students


Once upon a time, there was a little girl who loved to play the piano.

She was timid at the start of each lesson especially in the beginning but began to open up a bit more week by week.

One rainy day she bolted into her lesson room wide-eyed and more excited than her piano teacher had ever seen her before!

“Mr. Chris!” She loudly proclaimed.

“I’m so excited to tell you that…”

What a cliffhanger, huh?

My apologies! It’s not a real story. But I’m trying to make a point.

Did it interrupt the pattern you’re used to seeing on this blog?

Hopefully, so.

You, see, we humans are creatures of habit. But we’re also creatures who long for variety.

We want to be enchanted in some way from time to time.

This is why we like going to the movies or catching up on our favorite shows. It’s why we appreciate something new for dinner from time to time.

Variety is good!

Kids are the same way, you know?

They long for variety too.

And here’s a secret (just the truth!) – Interrupting the pattern from time to time is the secret to engaged piano students.

When was the last time you started the piano lesson a little bit differently? Perhaps, you were more humorous than usual.

Or maybe you began the lesson with a unique question related to one of your student’s pieces.

Or perhaps you began playing a song that you’ve been practicing just to see your student’s reaction and get her initial feedback (Did she like the piece? Why or why not? How did the piece make her feel?).

You can get really creative with this concept with beginners, involving lots of visuals, such as toys and little games.

Visuals and props work well for middle schoolers also, just make sure you choose items that are on their level 🙂

So, I encourage you to interrupt the pattern from time to time.

Enchant your students. Engage them in unique ways.

I promise you’ll see a massive benefit in the lesson room from this little bit of extra effort.

Happy teaching!

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Teaching Basic Technique to Beginners

basic technique

Many thanks to those who were able to join me on the recent Facebook live training on the topic of teaching basic technique to beginners.

It was a joy to share the spotlight with my almost five-year-old daughter, Emma-Kate.

She was oh so good and did a fantastic job demonstrating loose and relaxed wrists, arms, and shoulders.

No worries if you missed the live video. You can check it out below.

But don’t forget to grab the free parent engagement infographic.  I promise your students will get fantastic results when their parents implement these simple strategies.

Click here for your free infographic!

And enjoy the video 🙂

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Teaching Precise Rhythm to Piano Students

teaching rhythm

Teaching precise rhythm isn’t the most exhilarating thing to teach, but it’s essential. Especially, if we want our students to become well-rounded musicians.

The following video is from a free online training that I gave on the topic.

These are simple and straightforward strategies designed to help you teach your students how to play with precise rhythm.

Practicing Scales in a Musical Context

scales in musical context

Scales are important, but why do we learn scales? To play music, of course!

They help improve finger dexterity, hand and finger strength, speed, and coordination.

But scale exercises don’t have to be boring. So don’t put your students (or yourself) through the same dull routine.

The following content is taken from an online training I recently presented on the topic via Facebook Live.

I hope you enjoy it!

Here’s a link to the free scale exercises 🙂

A Day in the Life of a Piano Teacher

piano teacher

The work of a piano teacher is so important. Don’t you agree?

Think about the fantastic privilege we have – it is a joy to share the gift of music with young people.

But it’s not always cotton-candy and rainbows. There are days when our best efforts feel mediocre at best. Or when our genuine love an admiration for our students are met with hostility from the seemingly militant parent.

But it’s on these days that we dust ourselves off and continue doing our important work.

I want to bring you three inspiring stories today. These stories were gathered from willing participants inside the Piano Teacher Central Facebook group, a fantastic community of piano teachers who genuinely love and support one another daily.

I do hope these piano teacher stories inspire you, friends.

Aimee Black is a young piano teacher who’s had a lot of “ups” in her piano teaching journey thus far, but she recently experienced one of her first big “downs.”

Have you ever had a day like Aimee’s?

Aimee writes,

“So today my student’s parents tell me they want to stop lessons with me and continue with a different teacher. I have been teaching her for four years, she is now 12, and was my first piano student.

She has a severe brain injury from a horrible accident 6 years ago, which causes her to wear out quickly, amongst other things. I have been part of her rehabilitation process, her doctors have contacted me saying the music is helping her brain to heal. Music therapists have also given me exercises to help her. However her disability barely affects her now, she is very talented and is playing around grade 2/3.

I also attend her band rehearsals every week for 2 hours because it is something she struggles with and needs help with. I take her to competitions (eisteddfods) because she loves performing. This family is close friends of my family, so I only charge $10 per lesson.

Her parents are very into horses, and that is their top priority. They just don’t think music is very important. They encourage her but do not understand music and how important it is.

The text I received said that they want “in school” lessons for her, as she is too tired after school. I don’t teach in schools, as I am a student myself.

I have done so much for this child, I can’t bear the thought of her having a different teacher. That may sound selfish, but this is the first time something like this has happened and I am a bit upset, to be honest! I’m not exactly sure what to say to the mother either.

Doesn’t your heart go out to Aimee? Mine sure does.

Within a matter of minutes, Aimee had dozens of encouraging comments from other piano teachers in the Facebook group. 

I love that Aimee approaches her students with such genuine love and admiration. She’s in it for the right reasons, folks.

It doesn’t make it easy, but sometimes we just have to let go.

Keep doing the important work you’re doing, Aimee! You’re making a difference in the lives of your students and families.

Now, onto a story with a bit of a  brighter hue.

Joy Smith of Sweet Sounds Piano Studio posted this inspiring story a few months ago.

Joy says,

“Some lessons you will never forget.

I haven’t seen a little girl in a month. The family took a long trip to the Bahamas (must be nice to have an ob as a mom and surgeon as a dad). The little girl loves to play but struggles with confidence in all areas of life and didn’t like to perform publicly.

Well, she came in tonight and said, “I have a story for you!” Plops on the bench and proceeds to tell me that at the resort someone was playing the piano. That person left and didn’t lock it up so she thought “why not.” She sat down and from memory played THREE songs!

People stopped to listen, complimented her, told her how nice it sounded and that she had a real gift. She was beaming ear to ear and I was fighting tears.

She said after that she felt like she could do anything. And THAT, my friends, is why we do what we do – why we sacrifice our schedules, higher paying jobs, and put up with crazy parents. Because what we do makes a real and lasting impression in the lives of others.

This young lady will NEVER forget that moment. My joy for her is indescribable.

I love this story! And I can just hear the passion in Joy’s voice. She’s sincerely happy and joyful for her student.

Way to go! Keep doing what you’re doing, Joy. You really are making a difference.

And now onto a story that’s remarkable, funny, crazy, and wonderful all at the same time!

Lael Portwood, a collaborative pianist and piano teacher from the Houston area recently posted this story in the Piano Teacher Central Facebook group.

Lael says,

“I was teaching a lesson at a student’s house yesterday when I started to hear dripping water.

(I’d like to interject something here. Dripping water at a student’s house? Never good. Okay, let’s continue…)

The student went to the source of the sound and shouted, “Oh, my God!”. I walked into the kitchen and looked up. Water was pouring out of one of the pot lights on the ceiling.

I slid the trash can under the leak, grabbed towels from the laundry room to mop up the water, all while two very large but adorable dogs were thinking I was playing with them. They were splashing through the water, jumping on me, barking cheerfully!

The mom was on the phone with her mother (who has the beginnings of dementia) because her mom had made a mistake with her bank account and apparently a big one…

The boy told his mom about the leak but she was already frazzled. She came in to the kitchen where I was trying to contain the leak, the puddles, and the dogs. I told her to run upstairs and see if something was leaking.

One of the boys had clogged the toilet. She ran downstairs to tell me.

I asked if she shut the water off to the toilet. She says she didn’t know how. I ran upstairs to shut it off.

All in a day’s work, my friends. All in a day’s work.

Can you believe this? Wow, what a story! Fortunately, this has never happened to me. Lael, you have superpowers beyond that of a piano teacher. How fortunate for the family that you were there teaching at that time. Kudos to you!

You see, friends, we’re going to have “ups” and “downs,” but at the end of the day, we press on because the work we do is so important.

I hope this post and these stories have inspired you to press on today. Keep being the super-wonderful piano teacher you are!

You know, superheroes (like piano teachers) need resources to help them do their superhero work!

I’d like to gift three piano performance pieces to you. I’ve received some cool emails from piano teachers using these pieces in festivals and auditions. I sure hope they can serve you and your students.

Click below to get your sheet music: