7 Things you MUST do in every student’s first lesson
First impressions leave a lasting mark, there is no getting around it. Of course, all beginning students have had some sort of musical impression, but their first lesson is their first impression of what it means to create music in a formal setting. That means their first lesson has the potential to set them on a path of a long, exciting musical journey. But it also has the potential to leave them thinking that maybe it’s too hard, or maybe it’s too boring. With the following steps, you can ensure that beginning students will leave their first lesson loving music and looking forward to what comes next.
- Tell them how excited you are
Convey how much it means to you that Sally is starting piano lessons. Every teacher has their own style, but whether you are open or reserved, make sure you communicate sincerely that Sally is important to you, and that you are looking forward to working with her. Ideally, this is a teacher-student relationship that will last for years, and establishing a good rapport from the first lesson ensures that your students will feel comfortable with and will look forward to learning with you.
- Inspire curiosity and creativity
The methods will vary between age groups, but you want your students to view music as a world of discovery where they can use their imagination without limits. Rather than limiting this world with dull instructions, allow students to discover. For example:
X Tell your student exactly how to sit at the piano.
√ Show your student various “silly” ways to sit, one “correct” way, and then ask them to imitate
the correct position
X Tell your student, “These are the high notes,” (demonstrate) “and these are the low notes.”
√ Demonstrate some high notes in a bird-like pattern, and ask your student, “Does this sound like a bird, or a bear?” Then demonstrate some low notes, and repeat the question. Continue the discovery process by asking your student to choose an animal to “recreate” on the piano, or by asking him to show you where he would expect to find a cow, an elephant, etc. If your student gives an unexpected answer, ask why they chose those notes to represent that animal.
- Share exciting music
Have something fun and flashy to play. I personally like to play Henry Cowell’s “The Lilt of the Reel” for students. It just takes a couple of minutes, it is fun and cheerful, and it also inspires their curiosity with its extended use of tone clusters. (“You can play piano with your ELBOWS?!”) Furthermore, it establishes your credibility on your instrument from the first lesson. You don’t have to play anything overly virtuosic (certainly not Liszt’s Piano Sonata in its entirety!), but do play something that you enjoy, that shows your strong-suits as a performer, and that will pique your student’s interest.
- Inspire greatness
Tell your student that they are capable of accomplishing great things in music. You can incorporate this step by playing your flashy piece of choice and then saying, “I promise, that if you practice and follow the instructions I give you, that someday you will be able to play this piece.” The idea is not to promise it will be easy, but rather to promise that it is possible with quality, hard work.
This step is invaluable because expectations tend to become self-fulfilling prophecies. Several years ago, a researcher from Harvard carried out a study which indicated that teacher expectations have a significant impact on student performance. In this study, children in a classroom received regular IQ tests, and were then divided into groups at random. The groups were statistically equal, but the researcher told the teachers that, according to a special “predictive test”, one specific group was about to experience significant intellectual growth. (Remember, the groups were actually equal. This step was only to influence the teachers’ perceptions.) The research was carried out for two years and, at the end of this time, the students labeled as the ones about to experience growth actually did. Not because there was anything intrinsically different about them, but because the teachers had different expectations. View every student as possessing great potential, and you will yield great results.
- Ensure success
To set your student on the right track following their first lesson, make sure she has something that is both (a) well within her reach and (b) sounds great. This will allow Sally to leave her first lesson feeling proud, because she is capable of playing something that sounds like “real” music. Share your ideas in comments below!
- Make practicing fun
Much like the other steps in this list, this step is all about creating positive associations. You want Sally to view practicing as exciting from her very first week. If you tell a 6 year old that he needs to sit still in front of a piano for 30 minutes every day, he is going to view it as a strange form of torture. But if you tell a 6 year old he gets to march and clap to his favorite songs, teach finger numbers and note names to his teddy bear, and hunt for different animal sounds on his instrument every day, he will have a very different perspective. And that perspective, whichever it is, will be a lasting one.
- Make it a life-long memory
You have 40 students, you start at least a few new students each semester, and first lessons are no longer an event for you. But this is the only first music lesson this student will ever get. When you think about it, it is a life event on the level of the first day of school. So whatever you do, do something to commemorate this moment in your student’s life. You could take Sally’s picture, give her a small welcome package, or simply give her the best first lesson she could ask for.
What do you do to make first lessons special? Share your ideas in the comments below.