“How do you teach a brand new piece of music to a student?”
We get this question from piano teachers a lot. Usually padded with embarrassment, bursts of honesty and explanations of how just coping and teaching as they themselves had been taught simply wasn’t working for some of their students. We should all know the answer to this question, yes?!
But the fact is, we often simply teach the way we ourselves were taught. And while it might have worked for us… it might not work for our students. There’s no shame in wanting to improve.
If you have a nagging feeling that your approach to teaching a brand new piece of music is falling short, then this post is for you!
Hand-Holding and “Over-Teaching”… A Solution to Both
The key to approaching a new piano piece is to give your students the tools they need to decode a piece on their own with minimal supervision. If you feel like you do a lot of “hand-holding” or “over-teaching” then try this with your students to gradually wean them from needing you for every inch of their learning.
We’ve created this sheet you can print out for your own reference, or you can give it to your students for them to take home. I like to send my students home with a “decoding” project regularly to see if they are able to complete each of the 5 steps on their own. The steps they have difficulty with are the steps we then spend our time on in lessons.
The “Step by Step” to Learning a New Piano Piece
1. Search out patterns. This can be done with the easiest of pieces right up to the most advanced. Grab your colored pencils and circle each pattern you find in a cohesive color (all patterns that are the same are circled in the same color). You may end up with 3-4 different colours of patterns or you might just have one.
2. Search out rhythms. Identify rhythmic patterns and color the note stems in a cohesive color for each pattern set. You don’t need to do this for every rhythm in the piece, but if there is a clear repeating rhythmic pattern (or two, or three) then identify them in this way.
3. Search out intervallic relationships and chord shapes. Look for parts of the melody line that aren’t simple steps, skips or repeats and then identify the intervals involved. Don’t write the letters above the notes, but instead write “6th” or “7th” above to get your students used to how that interval both looks on their page and feels under their hand.
4. Search out Chord Shapes. Look for places that outline root chords and inversions. Identify what chord it is, and write the root note above. Highlight the notes within that measure that come directly from that chord. Discuss the relationship between your student’s hand shape and that chord. This works particularly well for left hand patterns like Alberti Bass.
5. Search out Key Signature and Accidentals. Look for places in the piece where notes are influenced by either a key signature or accidentals. Discuss the patterns that may be involved with this aspect of the piece (ie. “Every time I play this pattern it involves an Eb”, or “All of the F’s are F#’s” or “An Ab always follows the pattern that ends in G.”
Now that your piece is effectively decoded (and awfully colorful!) you can start to play. But avoid the “start from the beginning and play to the end” approach. Instead, use cues like “Can you play me the blue section” or “Can you play me the melody line where you reach up a 6th” or “Can you clap me the main rhythmic pattern” or “Can you play me the measure that outlines an A major chord.”
Once your student can find and play everything you ask for, then you can head into the hands together play through. And as they play you can watch those connections you just created set off little light bulbs of understanding. You’ll save yourself reams of time in starting new repertoire, in memorizing repertoire (with this approach memorizing is so much easier), and your students’ performances will be more confident. Why? Because they have made very strong associations within their piece. It is no longer 2 pages of jumbled notes, but rather a very logical arrangement that your student now understands inside out.
And now that your student understands how their music is created… it’s’ a great time to get them creating on their own! There’s no better way to further your students’ knowledge of music than to have them compose their own! And… there’s no funner (and easier!) way to do so than with The Curious Case of Muttzart and Ratmaninoff: Adventures in Composing.