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Teaching Strategies

8 Strategies for Starting a New Piece

One of the easiest areas to become stuck in a rut – usually without realising it – is in how you introduce a new piece to a student. The first step you take can frame so much about how your student views their repertoire. 

None of the strategies below should become a default for you and your students. Choose carefully and keep mixing it up!

Sight read

From time-to-time, it’s great to just open up a new piece and ask your student to “go!” This can help develop independence and give you a good opportunity to check in with their progress. 

Choose the pieces you do this with carefully, though. You don’t want to be setting a student up for failure when there’s something in the piece they can’t figure out with their current skills or knowledge.

Interesting part 

Have you ever had a piece where you could play the beginning beautifully but then it kind of crumbled as you got further along? 

Many students fall into the trap of always starting at the beginning. Often it’s much better to start with whichever section is the most challenging for a student and then work outwards from there. This way they will get the most practice and guidance with that tricky spot.

Reverse

A similar strategy is to start at the end and work backwards. You can begin by working on the last line or phrase, or you can work back bar-by-bar (measure-by-measure) from the end with more challenging pieces. 

This technique is a great antidote to students who have a case of Start Again Syndrome in their practice at home.

One hand at a time

This is many teachers’ default mode, but I like to reserve it for when it’s really needed. I only have students try whole pieces hands separately first when there is a particular coordination challenge. I rarely have them practice this way for a full week, either. I prefer to get them playing hands together within that first lesson, even if it means working on a smaller section of the piece.

This is not to say that hands separate practice is not useful as a way to work through challenges. Just that I believe students’ reading skills develop faster when they do not default to this for new pieces.

Listen for…

Some teachers play every piece for their student before they start it. Others refuse to demonstrate pieces because they’re afraid their students will learn by ear and memory rather than reading.

As with all the strategies on this list, I believe “sometimes” is the best answer.

Hearing a piece before they learn it can inspire and motivate students. Hearing all their pieces before reading them can cause certain students to become overly reliant on their ear and learn by accidental rote.

If you are demonstrating a new piece for your student, make sure to give them something to listen for or watch for. Be specific about what you will ask them about when you’re finished as it will be difficult for them to listen to every detail. If you don’t give them a listening task, they may just choose to zone out instead!

Rhythm first

Focussing on the rhythm first is a great way to communicate to our students that we value the rhythm above the pitches. Try getting your student to clap or tap (with both hands) the rhythm of their piece before they’ve played a single note. If you have students who struggle with rhythm you may consider doing this for every one of their pieces every time they play them – I call this “Rhythm Rehab.” Otherwise, it can be a strategy you use in moderation like the others in this list.

Interval ID

Much like putting the rhythm first, going through the intervals first is a great way to get students to focus on them. Have your student go through and touch the gap between each pair of notes and name the intervals. You can do this occasionally with students or consistently with students who are struggling with intervallic reading for one reason or another.

Sight sing

Another great option – and one I don’t think teachers use enough – is to have your student sight sing their new piece. They don’t have to do this accurately for it to be effective. Just the act of thinking through the shape of the melody as they sing (or even hum or kazoo!) the music is a great way to develop their audiation skills. 

11 Ways to Work on a Piece

There are endless ways to work on a piece in a lesson with a student. The 11 provided here, however, will give you a great starting point. 

Start by picking out 2 strategies you want to try with your students. Once you’ve become confident using those, add on one new strategy at a time, repeating each with different pieces and different students until you feel you have mastered them. 

Double Up

Strategy: Play the piece at the same time as your student, either on a second piano or in a different octave on the same piano.

Benefit: Playing pieces in unison with your student is a great way to have them improve their accuracy. They will also pick up on your subtle movements and technique over time if you do this regularly.

Echo

Strategy: Play one bar (measure) or phrase and have your student play it after you, aiming to make it sound as much like yours as possible. Continue in this way through the piece or section of a piece you’re working on. 

Benefit: Echoing can help students absorb a rhythm they are struggling with or fix something which they’ve practised incorrectly for some time. You wouldn’t want to rely on this for every piece, but in certain cases it can be useful. 

Relay

Strategy: Play one bar (measure) or phrase and have your student play the next, alternating through the whole piece. Tell your student the goal is to make it sound like one person is playing the piece. (If you have multiple students in a lesson you can also do this between students rather than teacher-to-student.)

Benefit: Relays encourage active listening and great rhythm skills. They also give students the opportunity to absorb details from your playing without you specifically correcting them.

Brain Sync*

Strategy: You play your student’s piece and stop at a random point. They play from there and stop at a random point. You pick up again from there and so on, all the way through the piece. 

Benefit: Like the Relay strategy above, this one encourages active listening and solid rhythm skills. Brain Sync is even more challenging, though. Since each player can stop at any point, the student has to pay very close attention and know the piece extremely well. 

*Credit to a wonderful member, Lori Cheiman, for this idea!

Singalong

Strategy: Sing while your student plays their piece.

Benefit: This is one of the easiest and gentlest ways to correct note errors. Most students will hear the discrepancy between what you’re singing and what they’re playing and correct it. This strategy is also helpful for nervous students, as they will feel more secure knowing they are playing it correctly since you’re singing with them.

Spot the Difference

Strategy: Play your student’s piece the correct way and then their way. Ask them to spot the difference. (Repeat several times if necessary.)

Benefit: This is a better way to correct students in many cases because they’ll have to discover the error themselves (whether notes, rhythm, dynamics or anything else) and will therefore be more likely to remember the correction.

Student/Teacher Swap

Strategy: Tell your student you want them to be your teacher for a change. Demonstrate something “the wrong way” and ask them to correct you.

Benefit: This can teach so many things from performance etiquette to dynamics to posture. Make sure your demonstration is dramatically wrong for the ultimate giggle factor.

Simile

Strategy: Ask your student to play “like a…” or “as if…”

Benefit: Using similes is much more effective and fun than simply asking for a certain tempo or dynamic. There is no better way to get a student to actually play slowly than asking them to play like a snail!

Crossing the River

Strategy: Put 3 dice, erasers or other small objects on the left side of your music stand. Ask your student to play a short section of their piece. If they played it correctly, they can move one item to the right side of the music stand. Ask them to play it again. If correct, they can move another item to the right side. If incorrect they must move an item back to the left side. Continue until items are on the right side.

Benefit: This is one of my favourite practice strategies to teach students, but it’s great for in-lesson work too. Bring this out any time your student needs to focus on a short troublesome section of their piece.

Metronome Monkey

Strategy: Find a tempo at which your student can play their piece/section cleanly with a metronome or drumming track. Have them play it at this tempo, then increase the tempo by 5 bpm and play again. Continue increasing until you find a tempo at which they cannot play accurately even after a few tries.

Benefit: This is another strategy which students use both in the lesson and in their practice at home. It’s a great way to work on increasing the speed of a piece. It also helps to steady a piece when a student is playing some parts much more quickly than others. 

Feedback

Strategy: Tell the student what they did wrong and what they could do better next time.

Benefit: Sometimes students really do just need direct feedback in plain language. Do not default to this as a teaching strategy, but keep it in your tool belt for when you need it. If there is enough trust in your relationship students, will be happy and willing to take onboard the feedback.

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