How to Successfully Navigate Piano Teaching Taboos [Part One]

How to Successfully Navigate Piano Teaching Taboos [Part One]


Piano Teaching Taboos

Life is all about how you handle Plan B –  Suzy Toronto

Life happens, despite the best lesson plans, qualifications, and experience. At the end of the day we teachers are all human, and it should not surprise us when we find ourselves working on Plan B.

I am opening the discussion on what Plan B looks like in piano teaching with a list of eight piano teaching taboo subjects.  These describe situations which are likely to occur in EVERY studio at some point, and, which tend to crop up less in conversation due to focus being on best practice or ideal situations. 

Today, I am sharing with you the first four of these piano taboo topics. Keep an eye out for Part 2 of this blog post series with the final four taboos next week.  

Click here to read part two of this series on piano teaching taboos.

To see the greatest improvement, work on the weakest area

In discussing these taboo subjects, we can learn a few things:

  • Being prepared to deal with Plan B situations provides the opportunity to seize control and shape our teaching practice as we wish.

“Control your destiny or someone else will.”  – Jack Welch

  • Dealing with Plan B situations as they occur during lessons does not compromise outcomes, if anything, they offer rich teaching opportunities.
  • Everybody works in Plan B at some point.

Read on to find the taboo subjects and ways to get them working for you as you shape your professional environment and remain unflappable. 

Taboo 1 – Sometimes my demonstrations are lacklustre

This is going to be painful, but I am going to do it, (big breath).

Have you ever given a demonstration to one of your students that just wasn’t up to scratch?

Yes, I know I have given a demonstration that I was less than pleased with.

Let’s quickly move on to turning it around in three easy steps:  Acknowledge, Dissect, Empower:

1) Acknowledge – “oh that is more awkward than it appears.”  You will make your students day with this admission!

2) Dissect – Have a three-minute real-time practice of the section BUT explain your methods and observations as you go along. This gives the student the opportunity to see music being dissected, understood and learnt.

3) Empower – This is the fun bit, play it again, it will be better, next say: “oh look, just a couple of minutes and it is already easier. Let me help you work through what I have just done so it is easier for you too.

What a wonderful process for a student to observe!  If you want some kudos on standby for such situations I suggest performing to students and their families at end of term concerts.

Incidentally, there are lots of other examples of Plan B needing to be used in piano lessons, the most obvious being forgotten books or lack of practice. These don’t make it into the taboo list because in these cases it is the student who is unprepared. However, it is worth noting that such situations respond just as well to the Plan B mindset. 

Check out another one of Roberta’s blog posts right here: How to tackle piano performance anxiety

Taboo 2 – Sometimes I just don’t feel revved up and ready to start a lesson

In the real world, not every student and teacher pair are always revved up to go. This can be troubling, and more relevantly, draining, so it is worthwhile identifying the possible reasons for this.

  • An infrequent and irregular occasion most likely due to tiredness.
  • A student who has not practised or is finding their interest in music waning.
  • A teacher who is overworked.

Irregular Occasion

This presents a fun opportunity to action Plan B; you and your student will feel refreshed by a different musical activity.  You could try:

  • Sharing some of your favourite compositions, I like to do this with the score, helping the student follow music which is above their playing level. They will have lots of questions, but you can also make your own, a sort of music comprehension (though it is probably best not to call it that).
  • Get out the music games.
  • Switch roles, get some music and ask the student to teach you.
  • Play some duets.

A student who is regularly underprepared and may be considering stopping lessons

This can be an uncomfortable situation for many teachers. Our passion for music and teaching means we are not always in the mindset of moving students along. Add in a parent who wants these lessons for their child and there can be a lot of resistance. So, this situation has a taboo all of its own, Taboo 6.

An overworked teacher

This is a more common situation we might imagine and unfortunately, your students and your practice will only thrive when you are thriving. Check out next week’s blog post for more information on this. 

Why not start off your lessons with a quick hit of creativity? 20 creative ways to start a piano lesson

Taboo 3 – I find it hard not to run over time

This happens for several possible reasons…

  • Dedication to the pupil and to finishing work started.
  • Too much chatting, especially with adults.
  • Overambitious or vague lesson plans.
  • A student who is not prepared and hasn’t practised.

Either way, being in the habit of giving extra time is very hard to change so it is easier to avoid it in the first place.  

piano teaching lessons

Do you find it hard to keep to your allotted lesson times?

Dedication to the pupil and to finishing work started.

Giving extra time quickly becomes the norm and students/parents feel short-changed when it doesn’t happen. Get used to suggesting work be continued at home or plan less for each lesson. This becomes easier with experience and as you get to know the student.

Too much chatting, especially with adults.

I have noticed that adults particularly like to start with a chat, continue talking while playing, (rarely successful), and chat a bit more after the lesson has ended. Sometimes having another student booked into the following lesson slot is the simplest way to combat this. You could also aim to finish 5 minutes earlier, ask if there are any questions, schedule their next lesson and then say, “right I better get on, this is my practice slot for the day.

It is also worth considering that if you maintain a friendly but professional manner you will keep the conversation light. With your adult students, this is rarely the case, they will share all their stresses of the week. It is unhealthy for us to be their agony aunt. 

Overambitious or vague lesson plans

Lesson planning and fluid lesson planning are skills which develop. Some lessons need to take a different path to the one planned, this is a privilege of 1-2-1 teaching and should be embraced without guilt.

A student who is not prepared and hasn’t practised.

In this case, you may need to ignore your lesson plan or revisit last week’s lesson plan. You could make a point of mentioning to the student and parent that you were not able to teach this week’s plan as the student was unprepared and rather you repeated parts of last week’s plan.  This normally does the trick for the following lesson.

I had a wonderful catch up with an old friend over Christmas. Discussing her experience of piano lessons, her words were…

Well, I learnt something from my piano lessons, the gift of the gab, I kept the teacher talking as long as I could to put off actually playing anything.

My response?…

I bet your teacher was more than happy to humour you so as not to have to listen to last week’s mistakes!

I am not sure this would work within the culture of teaching and achievement today. I recall largely irrelevant chats during my piano lessons (for completely different reasons of course!). However, I would not feel right talking as much during the lessons I teach. 

Taboo 4 – I am being pressurized by parents to teach music I feel is unsuitable for the student

This made it onto the taboo list because parents can be very persuasive when it comes to their children. 

How do you tactfully approach telling a student you don’t agree with a choice to take an exam or play a certain piece? How do you explain to a pushy parent exactly how big the step to the next grade is? How do you bridge the potential gap between the music the teacher, parent and student want? 

Related: Tim’s Open Letter to Parents of Piano Students [Free Download and Infographic] 

In all cases compromise is the answer.  Here is a process to follow to make sure you are not the one doing all the compromising!  Therein lies the taboo.

piano teaching taboos

At some point, you might need to have a chat to your piano parents about what direction your lessons should take.

It comes down to three steps:  Advise, Strategize, and Direct:

Advise – Make sure there is a clear, open discussion. Do this by inviting the parent to talk before or during lesson time. Share your experiences and be very clear by stating this is my “professional advice”. At this point, you will also need to listen to the opinions of your student and parent.

Strategize – Now you need to agree a plan going forward. The important thing here is not to let the parent get away with demanding miracles of either you or your student. If your student needs more practice time, everyone must agree to it. You might want to keep the parent involved by requesting two guided practice sessions a week. There is nothing worse than a parent who makes demands but remains oblivious to what is actually involved. Asking for guided practice is a brilliant way of involving parents, so they can observe the full process. To enhance parental commitment, (so they are not allowed to dictate while teacher and student scramble) you could also ask for longer or more frequent lessons and for more resources to be bought to support the process.

Direct – Once a game plan is agreed on, retake control. Confirm the plan, reinstate your views honestly, and make it clear that the final decision lies with you.  For example…

You know my views, I think you are taking the harder path, but you seem eager and willing to put in the work, so I will agree to help you. However, if I feel that this becomes anything less than a positive experience, I will do what you are paying me to do and direct you professionally to a more enjoyable and productive path.


Thanks for joining us for Part 1 of this blog series on piano teaching taboos.

In Part 2 I will cover the thorny issue of ending lessons, along with another three taboos. For now, enjoy embracing Plan B.

What do you find are some difficult issues to discuss as piano teachers? Leave your thoughts in the comments section below.

You can get in touch with me at  

Roberta Wolff

I am a piano teacher, mentor and writer based in Surrey, UK. I am also author of the "highly recommended" Music, Me, Piano Practice Resources. My students cover a wide range of ages and abilities; there is something new to be learnt from each of them. I love finding unique ways of inspiring each musician I meet and sharing ideas with others. You can visit me at my website by clicking here.

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