The Number One Mistake that Piano Teachers Make

The Number One Mistake that Piano Teachers Make


There are lots of questions that piano teachers ask me on a regular basis.

Things like, “How do I improvise?” or “What apps do I need” or “How do I keep my teens motivated?”.

However, there is one far more important question that all music educators should be asking and thinking about regularly and which doesn’t come up nearly enough.

In my opinion, it’s the biggest mistake that I see piano teachers make today and one that causes the most overwhelm.

If you’ve ever thought to yourself: “All these ideas from blogs and conferences are great, but I don’t have time to incorporate them in my lessons!”, then you might be making this mistake too.

So, what is it?

The Number One Mistake

The biggest mistake that I see teachers making is not having a clear idea about why they are teaching and what they are trying to achieve for their students. 

So I want you to stop now and ask yourself: What am I trying to achieve for my students?

In other words, what would you most like your students to be able to do when they’ve finished lessons with you?

Here are some suggestions to get you thinking:

  • Would you like them to be able to perform on the concert stage with confidence and flair?
  • Would you like them to be able to pick out a tune by ear and make a simple arrangement for their friends and family?
  • Would you like them to be able to write a song?
  • Would you like them to be able to accompany other instruments?

These are all vital questions that we simply don’t take the time to consider and ask ourselves.

Without knowing the answer to these questions, how will you ever know what to prioritise in lessons?

Creating Your Map

To avoid making this mistake in the future, you need to decide why you’re teaching. Let’s call this your teaching map.

  • Are you trying to help students pass exams, perform brilliantly or start a rock band?
  • Are you trying to help students develop a lifelong love of music or finish Grade 8?
  • Are you trying to help students develop the perfect technique or learn to play by ear?

What’s important to you?

Here’s what I said in a recent Podcast (6 Steps to Beating Overwhelm) regarding your teaching map:

So picture a student that you’ve got who’s maybe eight, maybe just starting to learn now. When they’re 18, they’ve been learning from you for 10 years and they’re going off to do whatever, college or whatever it is, what would you love for them to be able to do? And we can categorise that into a few different boxes. What kind of performing skills might they have? What about their listening? What about reading? What’s their theory skills like? What about their creativity? What about their approach to practice?

If you have a think, just for a moment, and try and come up with maybe three things that are really important, that you believe your students need and you would really love them to have when they finish with you, then this is starting to narrow your focus and get your philosophy sorted out.

What Should I Leave Out?

You can never fit everything into a lesson, so something has to give.

What gets left out is going to depend on one of two things:


  • You’ve consciously decided what’s important to teach students, or
  • You’re teaching in much the same way you were taught and haven’t thought much about why.

I’m sure you can guess the option that will provide you more success.

There is always going to be more ideas and techniques that you can possible try in a lesson. Even in 1 hour lessons I feel I could cover more ground if only there was more time.

So deciding what’s important is all the more vital.

Take Action

It’s time to answer these questions on paper:

  • Why are you teaching?
  • What’s important for your students?
  • What do they need to know to (want and be able to) play music for the rest of their life?

Go on, grab a coffee and brainstorm some ideas right now on a blank piece of paper.

Make a list of all the things you’d love to achieve and then start to refine them. You can’t do everything, so what’s most important to you.

Once you’ve done your brainstorm, I want you to pick your Top 3 most important things to teach and add them to the planning document, which you can download below.

Put your top three into the document, one in each row. Here’s an example:

how to plan your piano teaching

Getting Over Overwhelm

If you’ve been feeling overwhelmed recently, you’re not alone.

Lives are getting busier and the world is getting more and more saturated in content.

Perhaps it’s your overflowing, unread email inbox of great piano teaching ideas from bloggers around the world (like this one!) that’s causing you to feel overwhelmed.

Perhaps it’s just how busy you are with your teaching and personal life.

Whatever it is, the only solution to overwhelm is to set and achieve some clear goals.

My members do this as part of our 4 Week Challenges and online Growth Journals. The community is able to help keep them accountable and cheer them on when they need it.

If you’re not a member you can start setting out goals on paper using your teaching map above as a starting point.

When you start refining your goals and what activities you’re going to prioritise in your studio, you’re on the right path to feeling less overwhelmed.

As I said in my 6 Steps to Beating Overwhelm Podcast:

When you know what you’re trying to achieve , set very clear goals for yourself, and  hold yourself accountable for achieving them – you’re that much closer to beating overwhelm. You need to cut through the fluff and work out why you’re doing what you’re doing.

Want help planning your teaching map and setting and achieving your goals? Let me help you in the Inner Circle.

Marketing Outcomes of Your Teaching Map

Being clear about your own aspirations for your students is also important in your studio marketing.

Question: What’s the best way to stand out in a very busy marketplace?

Answer: Differentiate yourself from your competition.

By looking at the marketing materials and websites of other studios, you can start to estimate how they would have filled out their Teaching Map.

If your competition tends to teach 1-on-1, perhaps there’s an opportunity, if it aligns with your goals, to teach in groups.

If your competition is focussed on preparing students for exams, perhaps there is an opportunity for you to focus on creativity.

It’s about showing parents how your goals and dreams for music education align with your teaching and studio.

Use some of the goals and aspirations you created above in your own marketing and see what the response is like.


Is this a mistake that you’ve been making in your studio?

If you have, then I implore you to work out your Teaching Map by downloading the planning document above and refining your goals. If you’re an Inner Circle member, then you can start your own Growth Journal in our Community Forums.

I guarantee that as you refine why you’re teaching and what you’re trying to achieve for your students, you’ll start to feel less overwhelmed, more confident in what you’re teaching and you’ll be able to differentiate and grow a studio of which you can be 100% proud.

Got any questions?

Please leave your thoughts or any questions below.

Tim Topham

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular Integrated Music Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as integrated teaching, creativity, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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  1. I think maybe it’s something I need to ask my students’ parents about, too — we do discuss it occasionally, but I should be more intentional and specific about it.

    • Yes, you’re right Alice – we need parents on side with this too 🙂

  2. This is so important and timely. I was at an incredible “Band Directors Academy” event this morning with the great jazz pianist, Reggie Thomas. I attended the clinic not to learn more about jazz piano and improvisation but to be inspired by a great teacher and person. I left thinking I need to clarify my teaching priorities so my students and I have more time to THINK/EXPLORE. I primarily teach percussion. We have a million instruments to learn and all of the techniques, styles, etc. that come with those million instruments – then there are simply the basics of music, theory, etc. Ah! Overwhelm could be the subtitle of my studio. Thank you for presenting some steps to follow. Again, a timely and incredibly helpful post. Thank you!!

    • Thanks Cindy – great to hear! Funnily enough, I was a percussionist back in my school days, so I know what it’s like. Found that ever band/orchestra rehearsal it was like, “How do I play this thing?”!!! Glad to hear you’re trying to prepare your students better that I did.

      I hope you’re able to get some clarity in and work out how “Think/Explore” (which I LOVE by the way) looks and works in practice.

  3. This article really hit the nail on the head! Excellent!!!
    Thanks for giving us concrete steps to follow to clarify why we are teaching.

    • Cheers Barb – I hope it really helps this term 🙂

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