Tips for Teachers: Cultivating A Fun and Successful Lesson Environment

Tips for Teachers

All teachers want their students to enjoy lessons and be successful in music.  
Asking the right questions at key points in their development will help your students get the most out of their studies with you.

Deciding Whether to Accept A Student

Teacher Tips

Know your strengths and specialties, and outline them clearly in your Lessonface profile.  Ideally your new students will choose you carefully and your expertise will match their interests.

If a student requests instruction at the edge of your expertise, first ask, “Am I capable of giving this student what they need?” Obviously, if you lack the experience or skills that the student needs, tell them directly.  Recommend a more appropriate teacher or encourage them to post an inquiry.  It is far better for the teacher to decide that they are a poor fit for a student than for the student to begin lessons and discover it themselves. 

Sometimes the line is less clear.  While you may be able to give a student what they need with extra preparation, you also must ask, “How much time will I need to prepare this student’s lessons, and is it worth my while?”  This question is important to answer honestly.  Most of us balance teaching with other musical pursuits, and having to constantly prepare extensively for  a single student cuts into those other projects.  Just because you could teach a student doesn’t mean you are obligated to.  It’s perfectly acceptable to recommend they find a teacher better suited to their interests. 

As early on as possible, try to discern if you are a good match for the student’s personality and situation.  For example, I’ve had a few adult students tell me that they need me to be hard on them if they don’t practice enough.  While I understand that some personalities respond well to strictness, it is simply not in my nature to lecture or reprimand adults.  Similarly, while I enjoy teaching children, I require communication and involvement from the parents.  If a parent is too busy to check in with me about their child’s progress and enforce practice time, I don’t feel like I can do my job well. In these situations, I don’t necessarily refuse to teach the student, but I do communicate my shortcomings directly and let them decide whether to continue or move on.   

First Few Classes

The first several lessons are important for assessing a student’s level and goals and figuring out how to structure their learning.  These are the key points to discuss directly:

Musical background.

Is the student a beginner on the instrument or do they have some experience playing?  If they are a beginner on the instrument, have they learned music on a different instrument?  That can make a big difference in how you approach topics like reading notation and proper practice habits. 

Musical goals.

Does the student have a specific goal with a timeline?  Are they preparing for a conservatory audition or important performance?  Or do they simply want to learn, enjoy, and improve over an indefinite period of time?  The first kind of student needs a structured, organized plan to help them achieve their goal.  The second kind of student benefits from a more relaxed approach.  Take time to get to know them personally and musically.  Explore their interests thoroughly and experiment with teaching approaches to see what fits them best. 

Practice time available.

This is really important for crafting a curriculum and setting reasonable goals between lessons.  Check in on practice time frequently.  Students’ schedules often change, and they get frustrated when they can’t meet goals set. 

Duration and spacing of lessons

This doesn’t have to be set in stone, but it’s good to discuss.  Lesson spacing and duration should allow for adequate practice time between lessons, but not enough time to let them lose momentum or get stuck on a particular technical or musical error.          

First Few Months

The first few months are critical in establishing a rhythm and dynamic in your lessons.  Some students are very open and communicative about how they want to be taught.  More often though, you need to explore the following questions with intuition and trial and error.

How much structure and discipline should you impose?

Some students sign up for lessons specifically because they want structure and pressure to practice and advance.  For these students, outline a curriculum and share it with them.  Follow it strictly, and check in periodically on how the student feels about their progress.  Adapt goals and strategies as necessary.

Other students are comfortable taking the reins in their own musical education and want the freedom to pursue whatever excites them in the moment.  These students are usually self-motivated adults who play regularly and want to improve gradually, not necessarily for any specific future goal.  They value your feedback and suggestions, but they want to be in charge of choosing their repertoire and setting the pace of the class.  Though their study plan might not be one that you would devise, or even see the logic in, they do improve.  

How does the student respond to corrections and suggestions?

Assessing this as soon as possible is vital to a healthy teacher-student connection.  Some students are extremely sensitive to corrections and even the most gently-delivered constructive criticism.  For these students, frame corrections and suggestions with plenty of positive feedback.  Other students, in contrast, will not even hear your suggestions unless you communicate them bluntly and repeatedly. 

I try to err on the side of sensitivity at first. You can do a lot more damage criticizing a student too harshly than too gently.  If multiple repetitions a suggestion have no effect, adapt your approach.  Also keep in mind that this dynamic can change over time.  Some students are sensitive at first, but as they become more comfortable with the lesson environment, they benefit from more direct communication. 

What is the appropriate balance between enjoyment versus advancement?

Some students, even if they have no ambitions of becoming professional musicians, need a sense of continual advancement and improvement.  These students are receptive to doing scales and technical exercises and enjoy the challenge that a difficult piece provides.  They also tend to do well with external motivators such as performances.  Encourage them to find open mic nights, master classes, and workshops outside of lessons so that they have plenty of goals and opportunities to gauge their improvement.

Other students, while they may like the idea of musical growth, prefer to prioritize simple enjoyment in a relaxed environment. They prefer to learn songs appropriate to or below their level that require minimal tedious detail work.  Even with easier repertoire, they will encounter some challenges that can help them advance.  Approach those challenges with gentle discipline, and balance them with plenty of fun, easy projects. 

How many projects should the student pursue at one time?  

Students have different attention spans and patience levels.  Some students prefer to focus on one piece at a time, and they have the patience to work measure by measure with careful attention to fingerings.  

Other students would die from boredom with this approach.  They need to flit between several pieces in order to maintain interest.  Learning too many pieces simultaneously runs the risk of neglecting quality of study.  Help them avoid a large repertoire of half-baked pieces.  For these multitasking students, I recommend choosing pieces a few levels below their capacity.  That helps ensure they play musically and can make small technical advancements along the way.        

Over the Years

Once you’ve found your rhythm and dynamic with a long-term student, lessons can really take off.  It’s still important to check in on goals and assess progress periodically.  At least once a year, devote several lessons to reviewing the year’s repertoire, recording a few of their favorite pieces, and discussing their goals for the upcoming year.  As your student continues to develop musically, encourage them to learn from other teachers and resources in addition to private lessons.  Keep an eye out for appropriate group workshops and master classes on Lessonface.  Also encourage them to attend local performances and festivals, and, if available join an ensemble. 

Teacher Tips

Know When to ‘Graduate’ Your Students

Students come and go.  To some extent, it’s simply the nature of our field.  Sometimes life circumstances force a student to put music on hold. This is always a shame, but there’s not much you can do about it.  As long as it’s clear the student has thought through their decision and there’s no issue you could help them resolve, you just have to wish them the best.   

A much happier occasion is when the student has learned and developed so much under your instruction that they move on to more advanced studies.  I love having the pleasure of preparing a student for university or conservatory auditions and see them go on to pursue music as a career.  

Sometimes students start off with you as beginners, and then develop a musical interest outside your specialty.  While you might be able to start the student along that path, they will reach a point when they need a teacher whose specialties match their new interest. 

Some students may study with you for many years.  Long-term students are extremely rewarding to teach, and I love the level of confidence and friendship that develops after years of lessons.  But even when the teacher-student relationship is nearly perfect, no one student takes lessons from the same teacher for their whole lives, nor should they.  Every teacher has their own way of understanding and explaining music.  After many years with one student we may have shared all we have to offer.  It’s important to approach this topic delicately, and I wouldn’t force a student I liked to move on to another teacher.  Just let them know that branching out could offer them different angles and approaches that would benefit their musicianship.  If they decide to move on, keep in touch and stay up to date with their musical pursuits.   

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