As teachers, we all have certain ways of doing things.
We’ll teach certain pieces, we’ll put emphasis on certain aspects of teaching: technique, posture, reading, singing. We may be “exam” or “festival” teachers who always enter students for performance events. Perhaps your focus is on helping students play the music they want to or teaching sight reading.
Our ways of teaching – the things we prioritise and emphasise in lessons – are an outward reflection of our piano teaching philosophy.
But have you ever really stopped to consider your philosophy of music education? Have considered what’s most important for your students to learn? Have you asked yourself why you teach the things that you do in the ways that you do?
How do you teach?
Do you teach how you were taught or have you thought about the outcomes you’re trying to achieve in your studio and developed your teaching to match these goals?
I’d hope for many readers, these are questions that you’ve thought about and set aside time to answer, keeping in mind that your direction and philosophy is likely to change over time as you learn and grow as a teacher and respond to the impact of technology, new research and the changing dynamic of children and families.
One of the most important questions every teacher should ask themselves is:
“What am I trying to achieve?”
If you haven’t considered this, then now is the time. Your students deserve a teacher who knows why they’re teaching.
If you’ve never done this before, don’t worry. Everyone needs a place to start and we can do it right now.
Let’s call it Philosophy Zero.
Finding your Piano Teaching Philosophy Zero
To get to the bottom of this whole question of philosophy, one of the best questions to ask yourself is:
“What does a musical student look/sound like at the end of their time with me?”
If you teach in a classroom, the outcomes you are aiming for are obvious: they are set for you by school districts, governments and national curricula and generally involve successful completion of a test (whether that’s good teaching or not can be the subject of a future article).
When you’re teaching in your own studio (even if you’re teaching individual lessons in a school or college context), student outcomes are far less obvious. In fact, they’re generally non-existent until you set them yourself.
Having taught in both the classroom and instrumental context, I feel incredibly lucky that I am completely able to set the agenda for my students. The only thing is that this can also be hard. When no one is prescribing what you have to do, you’ve got to work it out yourself!
So I want you to stop what you’re doing now and ask yourself:
“What does a ‘Musical Student’ look like in my studio?”
What is a Musical Student?
We all have different views of what a musical student sounds like, looks like, what they can do and how they approach music.
It’s important to know your answer to this question before you develop your philosophy as it will likely dictate how and what you teach.
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You might like to consider these categories as you define your musical student. What is your ‘musical student’ be able to do under each of these categories?
We had a studio recital this week at school and I was particularly proud of a number of my students who performed their own compositions. These were significant works that they’d been developing over the course of the year as they developed their progressions, motifs, melodies, styles and grooves.
It was magic to hear them play and I know that the definition of a “musical student of Tim Topham” was on display in these students, as it was, in a different way, in students who were performing notated works. I was, of course, proud of all of them and hope that the audience could glimpse a little of my philosophy from the pieces chosen, the way they were played and the improvements the students had shown since their last concert.
Let’s take a look at two contrasting examples of a “Musical Student”.
For example, if being musical to you is about:
- students performing the classical repertoire:
- from memory
- with stylistic interpretation
- beautiful phrasing and melodic contour and
- a confident stage presence,
…then you’ll likely teach with a focus on reading, performance, interpretation and perhaps exams or festivals.
However, if your idea of a musical student is one who can:
- confidently play music in any situation
- play something on the spot for their friends
- understand music and play music of any genre
- accompany a singer or play in a band
- play while everyone sings “Happy Birthday”
- improvise something without music
- sight read for their next church service when the organist is away,
…then your philosophy and teaching focus will likely be completely different.
While Teacher One will likely spend lots of time teaching reading, setting students performing tasks, correcting reading and playing mistakes and working to refine students’ technique, Teacher Two will likely include more improvising, teaching about chords and progressions, accompanying, playing along with backing tracks, duets and learning pieces by rote.
Is there a Right and Wrong?
Is one “the right” approach?
It all depends on your philosophy. What are you trying to achieve?
If you like the sound of the outcomes of Teacher Two, but are teaching like Teacher One, then your methods might be in conflict with your Philosophy.
Of course, there is a sense to me that the students of both Teacher One and Two are musical in their own way and each method has it’s benefits.
My goal is to encourage you to find out what “being musical” means to you so that you may consciously and proactively direct your teaching content and style.
The worst thing you can do is simply teach how you were taught.
What do you want your students to be able to do?
If you want your students to be able to sit down and play something that their friends and family will recognise without music and without fear, then you need to teach them how to do this.
If you want them to win competitions and festivals and get the best exam grades, then you will need to focus on interpretation, performance and reading.
If you want them to be able to pick out a tune by ear and play what they hear, then you’ll need to spend time listening, singing and experimenting.
If you want your students to noodle around at the keyboard and come up with their own ideas to build into compositions, then you need to demonstrate this, encourage experimentation and devote some time to it.
Just make sure you’re doing what you’re doing for a reason.
Going back to the question that I asked you to consider: “What does a ‘Musical Student’ look like in my studio?”, what was your answer?
Has the above discussion made you reconsider what you’re doing? Are you in conflict with your own philosophy?
Let’s share our versions of a “musical student” in the comments below.
Looking forward to reading your thoughts.
I want my teaching to encompass a blend of teacher 1 and teacher 2. My training growing up was very hodgepodge. One of my teachers played in an Elvis impersonator band and had long greasy hair. He worked in a small guitar shop down the street in the small town I lived in at the time. He would fall asleep during my lesson sometimes. I found him to be creepy. My best teacher came when I was in high school, Mr. Wilkinson. He took me from not knowing scales and playing intermediate pieces to earning a High School Diploma from the National Guild of Piano Teachers. Because of his influence on my life, I studied piano performance in college. I wish I had that kind of training from the start – and that’s what I aim to do. I find the Guild gives a syllabus for technical development. But I also want my students to be able to play from lead sheets and improvise. I can do some of that, I’m just learning. I also love the ensemble playing too – piano can be a lonely instruments. I don’t like to stick to a particular lesson book past the primer level, as I don’t want my students to develop a crutch in staying in the C or G or F positions. I thought to teaching music styles in seasons – classical season followed by a pop season. The possibilities are endless. I just joined Topmusicco and love it! There is a lot to learn. Thanks for sharing your experience and knowledge. I look forward to learning more.
Thank YOU for your lovely comments – great to read your story. Glad you found Mr Wilkinson!
Sure am glad I found this. I have been trying to come up with a philosophy for a long time now, and your insight helped me to pull it all together. My web site is not up yet… should be happening soon….. I’ll be on face book and maybe some other places. Would it be okay to use some of your information in my policy? I would be happy to credit you and your site in the right way, to make sure you get the recognized. Please let me know that this is okay with you ASAP, as my website will hopefully go up this Friday. I trust timtophom.com is the correct name for your site?
Hi Holly. You’re welcome to use my work as inspiration, but please don’t copy anything from my site or resources. You need to write in your own style and set your own policies – everyone is different.
I like both ideas of teacher 1&2. Would love to be more ofteacher two. I have no idea how to improvise, or play happy birthday on request, where would I learn this? Its kind of daunting to think about not having a page of music to look at while playing . Thanks for the article, I want to start teaching piano with in the next year
Hi carol – thanks for leaving your thoughts. Helping teachers gain confidence with improvising and playing “off the page” is exactly what I’m all about. You’ll find lots of help in this site and in my membership where we have step-by-step courses dedicated to chord playing, improvising and using lead sheets.
You can get a feel for the chord work here: https://dev.topmusic.co/chords
I was taught by Teacher 1 and that has been my style. But I’d love the outcome of Teacher 2. I have some things to learn. 🙂
You’re in the right place, Diana!!
I am completely teacher number 2 in what I desire for my students. However I was taught like teacher 1 and so that is the way I taught for years. I’m gradually changing my methods. That was the perfect illustration for me to see what I was doing! Thank you!
Wonderful – keep it up!!
I’ve been struggling with my own piano philosophy for quite some time as my teaching methods (Teacher #1 and how I was taught) don’t exactly reflect what I want out of my students (Teacher #2 and how I was at the piano before taking classical lessons). I am now creating a new philosophy in which I mesh the two teaching styles (because they’re both good) in order to create a well-rounded pianist: classically-trained abilities with creative expression and a life-long passion for playing the piano). I think I’m getting the hang of this! Thanks so much for the article.
Well done Jennifer – you’re right that a mesh of the two is the best! Good luck 🙂
I really enjoyed this article and it definitely made me question how I teach. My idea of a musical student definitely aligns with Teacher Two. However, I was taught very much as Teacher 1 would teach. My challenge has been to think outside the box and include things I was not taught myself such as composing, playing by ear, improvising. These are skills I have learnt as an adult, way after finishing my own piano lessons – in many ways I wish I had learnt them sooner, so I am determined that my own students are exposed to these skills as soon as possible. I try to include them in my lessons but still have a way to go as to learning the most effective ways of teaching these skills. I look forward to learning more!
Sounds great Louise – thanks for sharing 🙂 Sounds like our vision of teaching aligns well! We’ve got lots of articles, videos and courses to support you as you work out the best way to implement the teaching that you wish you got as a child.
Great article. Made me take an honest look at my style. I realize I can’t be all things to every student. My desire to grow my studio has led me to be somewhat dishonest with myself in terms of what I teach. I will try to go forward by unapologetically explaining my strengths and limitations.
Hey Aaron – thanks for the comment. I’m glad the article made you think 🙂 It’s always great to work to your strengths and keep in mind your goals for your students. You may need some extra support in building new competencies and confidence, which we can help you with 🙂
My brainstorming for a musical student lines up a lot with your example of Teacher 2.
Able to play things they want to play. Will be able to sight read. Will be able to absorb patterns heard in music he/she is interested in and recreate those patterns when playing from lead sheets. Able to accompany soloists and play with an ensemble. Collaborative in nature. Is able to translate musical ideas into notation whether by paper or computer. Not afraid to take a risk. Has an excellent practice discipline. Approaches new and existing repertoire pieces with curiosity.
With this in mind I feel like I’m on the right path to teaching based on my philosophy. No one student is the same, they approach music differently and their desired outcomes are all different. It’s certainly easier to teach the student who wants to learn standard repertoire and prepare as a piano soloist, but I don’t think that’s the vast majority of students. I want to meet them where they are and provide for their needs and wants the best that I can.
Great comments Daniel – I’m sure you’re having a wonderful impact on your students with that philosophy!
I really resonated with this comment: “It’s certainly easier to teach the student who wants to learn standard repertoire and prepare as a piano soloist, but I don’t think that’s the vast majority of students.”
You’re totally right. Exam/performance teaching is, relatively, easy. It’s why so many teachers neglect to change their teaching style for new students. It’s also why many are now losing students.
Keep up the great work, Tim.
Great topic. I interview each prospective student (and parents), and ask, “Why are you here? What do you expect to gain from piano lessons?” Their answers are many and varied. I’ve never asked myself that question. Of course, each student comes to the piano with different strengths and weaknesses, and I try to tailor my lessons to each student individually. I’m going to have to think about this topic for a while. I believe my answer will depend upon the student.
Great to hear that you ask that question at interview. I can imagine the varied responses. Many probably are there just because they “feel they should”. Keep up the great work.
Great stuff. I want my students to have a great sense of rhythm, be able to play praise/ chord charts, sightread, improvise, know their scales/cadences/arpeggios, transpose, compose, and play old and modern repertoire.
I need to start planning my lessons around this.
Sounds great Priyantha!
I totally want to be teacher 2, and I’ve developed some principles I try to focus on to achieve that (I wrote about them here http://notsoapparent.blogspot.com/2016/12/teaching-your-kids-piano-which-books-to.html), but I’m still not sure how best to integrate more skills that will enable them to improvise any song or play for a band. Let me know if you have any ideas!
Wow – nice article Taylor. That’s an essay! Have you checked out the Take the Lead Course? GReat ideas there 🙂
I think I want to be Teacher Two, but I also want my students to be good at the usual classical repertoire. I want that through teaching the “usual” repertoire (I teach Suzuki piano), students will be able to sight read, play their own music, listen and play, compose, improvise!!!!
Sounds good Angelica – everyone has their own approach. This sounds like it suits you beautifully 🙂
I want to be Teacher Two, but I also want to be teacher One.
Great article, Tim!
In my early teaching years, I found my teaching style was initially very much dictated by what the student/family wanted, but I still wanted a musically literate student who could use their talent to relax and express themselves informally as well as the ‘performer’ for exams and recitals. I’ve been learning various ways of introducing this creative side. It’s nice to be reminded of the end goal of our musical students’ lives, especially as I begin with new students and help map out their learning journeys.
Awesome article. Going to reflect on this for a while as I am in the early stages of giving lessons! Thank you.
Perfect time to consider, Melissa!
Yes, it’s a good reminder to revisit one’s philosophy on a regular basis. I have created philosophies of education a number of times in my education classes at university, and did some of that more specifically to private piano teaching when I was starting out five years ago, and I still have a general idea of what I want my students to get out of lessons (a love of music, and the skills and confidence to try new music–either reading written music, or making up their own–independently), but it’s helpful to give some more thought to how I facilitate those goals by the activities I prioritize in my teaching. Lesson time is limited, and it can be easy to second-guess sometimes if I’m achieving the right balance of activities.
This was just the article I needed to read and mull over while I create my philosophy of music education.. Thank you for writing it!
I’ve never had to define what I want my students to be. This is pushing me to be more intentional!
That’s great to hear, Debbie!
When I started my business I had a lofty mission statement that I now see as just a bunch of good words put together. I’ve been reflecting on my teaching philosophy for a few years now, I find it needs frequent re-visiting and as I hone in on the core of it I become very excited at what I have and can accomplish in working with my students. I’ve shared “What I believe…” statements with my piano parents and I’ve developed a mantra: “All children need music.” It helps me keep the studio moving in the right direction!
Thanks for your comment, Jane. Sounds like you’re really getting to grips with your own philosophy which is great. No doubt it has an impact on the way you teach – keep it up!
This was a wonderfully written article. Loved the content, context and presentation. Bravo!
Thanks Nick – appreciated.
I think this is something I really need to think about, because I ‘ve made so many changes in my teaching this past year. Appreciate the reminder.
Great stuff, Anita. It’s always good to update your thinking and things will continue to change over time. It’s the teachers who never change who will be left behind.