Sometimes, even a mere half hour of private music instruction can seem long (both for the teacher and for the student). Very young students, beginner students, or just very active students can have trouble sitting through an entire lesson. It can seem like a seriously long time to focus on one task. Other students might learn a couple of beginner songs in just a few moments, but you don’t want to send them home with too many new songs to practice in one week. So what do you do if you need to ‘fill’ a lesson with good, pertinent material that reinforces important musical concepts? Here are a few of my favorite ideas of what to teach when you don’t know what to teach.
Note reading. There are tons of fun ways to teach note reading. For starters, I have a large vinyl grand staff that I spread out on the floor. I ask my younger students to throw Angry Birds bean bags at it. Their task is to figure out what note the bird lands on, then run to the piano and play it. It’s a great way to reinforce note reading and it gets those active students moving around. I also like to use music note flash cards, work sheets that create puzzles out of the music alphabet, and composition to reinforce note reading even more. For a sweet reward, you could print out a good size staff and use your student’s favorite candies for notes. Just make sure they don’t have any food allergies, first!
For beginners, you can focus on just the notes used in their basic hand positions. For more advanced students, you can always single out those difficult ledger lines.
Rhythm reading. Rhythm reading and notation can be a hard subject for a lot of students. I like to read through the rhythm of a new piece with my beginning students, using the note names in tempo (i.e. half-note). Of course, I read it with them to help them be more comfortable and to stay on tempo. It can take a few times through for them to really understand and be able to do it.
Some students need a more visual representation of rhythm notation to understand it, so we pull out our Rhythm Pizza game, courtesy of www.susanparadis.com. Each pizza represents four beats, and is divided up into different note values. For instance, one pizza is made up with four slices –each one being a quarter note. Another pizza is made up of eighth notes, and still another is half notes. I printed them on cardstock and cut out all the slices. Students can create various rhythm combinations using the difference pizza slices. They can mix and match as much as they want, as long as the combinations add up to a whole note.
One of the best ways that I have used to teach rote rhythms is to have the student echo a rhythm by clapping, singing, playing, and even writing the rhythm. Fill in the blank worksheets are great, too.
Music theory. I have always enjoyed music theory, and a lot of my students do, too. Even beginner students can learn to recognize skips and steps and slowly move on to simple intervals. Give them a blank sheet of music paper and ask them to complete intervals that you create, or have them find them on the piano or their instrument. Once a student can understand the difference between a whole step and a half step, they can create scales. And soon after that they can easily learn key signatures, too, and move on to chords.
Special pieces. If I think a student is getting bored with their lessons, I’ll let them pick out a piece of music that they really want to learn, no matter what style or genre. A lot of my students enjoy their lesson book and don’t have a need to move away from it, others learn better when we don’t use a method book at all. I try to have all the students earn special pieces from time to time, since it exposes them to new and different things and gives them motivation to succeed. It never fails to amaze me how a favorite song can inspire a student all over again. One of my favorite resources is the Adventures of Fearless Fortissimo from www.pianomusicforboys.com.
Instruments. My students enjoy getting to try the keyboard out from time to time, rather than playing all their music on my piano. They keyboard is an easy vehicle to drive a little fun because the student can choose from a plethora of different sounds to explore. You could use any instrument related to the one your student plays. If they play trumpet, have them try out a French Horn. If they play clarinet, see if they can test an oboe. A saxophone player can probably manage a few notes on a flute. It adds some fun and experimentation to the lesson.
Media. When all else fails, don’t be afraid to employ the help of a little bit of media. Videos, especially YouTube videos, are a great way to have your student experience different kinds of music, or even other interpretations of a piece they already play. And it always helps to hear a new piece before you play it. For safety sake, always preview any video you are going to show a student.
Also, iPad apps and online music games will help those electronically advanced students enjoy their lessons.
Music games. Musical bingo, music Sudoku, worksheets, or coloring activities are a great way to reinforce musical concepts or just have fun. One of my passions is to help students love music, so I find that just spending time having fun with music is essential during lesson time, even if it isn’t directly related to the lesson material.
Review. It never hurts to review. If you find yourself with a few empty minutes at the end of a lesson, go back and review some old pieces. Students usually enjoy playing something they already know since it feels easy after working hard at something new. I like to use the time to refresh older concepts that the student may have forgotten.
If you find yourself consistently struggling with filling up lesson time, you may need to be a little more proactive in creating lesson plans. I try to use the same activities or work sheets with all of the students around the same level, so that I can maximize the time I spend working on lesson plans. In any given week, I’ll have a beginner, intermediate, and advanced plan, whether it includes worksheets, games, or composition. That way, I create about three plans a week as opposed to one for each student.
As a final thought, a great pediatric physical therapist that I know once told me, “Everyone loves a paycheck. Even children.” A small reward- a sticker, a pencil, or even a (parent permitted) lollipop will make a great incentive to keep students working hard for the duration of their lesson. When they feel good about the work they have done, they’ll feel good about themselves, too. And the satisfaction of a job well done is a great lesson learned.