1. ASSESS EACH STUDENTS LEVEL CAREFULLY: No matter what parents or other teachers have told you about a new student, work out for yourself exactly where they are at. Check all the basics:

  • Can they name all the notes of the staff?
  • Count and clap a basic rhythm?
  • Sight-read at what level?
  • Play what scales?

I have had students come to me who are meant to be at a grade 4 level (and their pieces probably are), that can’t play any scales and have trouble with basic note naming and rhythm reading. The first time a student meets you they will play their best piece, keep in mind they may have been working on this for 5 months and be able to play little else. Don’t assess level from this piece! Always start with something a level easier than where you think they may be at. It only takes one week for them to master a piece and prove it to be too easy, but may take 5 weeks to find out a piece is too difficult. Check everything – assume nothing!

2. BE FIRM WITH PARENTS: Once you have worked out what level your student is at and therefore what you will be working on, be firm with the parents. Don’t ever let yourself be talked into entering a student for an exam you are not 100% sure they are ready for. Remember that you are the one with the experience and the qualifications and these people are paying you to teach which includes designing the programme, choosing books and deciding when the students are ready for recitals or exams. Pick up as much useful information from parents as you can but don’t be overcome by pushy parent syndrome, be firm and diplomatic, these parents above all else want their children to succeed, so tell them how this can be done and stick to it. I have a set policy of not entering any students for exams until I have been teaching them for at least 6 months and really know where they are at.

3. DESIGNING AN INDIVIDUAL PROGRAMME: Once you have assessed where the student is at make a list of what needs work to bring all areas of their playing to the same level. Make a further list of goals for the term, the new topics you want to cover. To design an individual programme for each student you need to find a method book or combination of pieces that covers the things on these lists. Keep in mind when chooseing books the age of the student, reading level, speed at which they are likely to progress, and the kind of music they have indicated an interest in. Always have your own copy of each students book so that you can prepare properly before each lesson and add supplimentary material where necessary to keep things interesting. I use a large variety of different method books from many different publishers and authors. This keeps my interest level up and also means that I have a large library of extra pieces to add to any book a student is working from. When a student finishes one book don’t automatically go on to the next one in the same series. Assess the goals and requirements again and keep in mind that each author has their own strengths, weaknesses & style. By varying what the student learns from you expose them to the best of each author and make sure they don’t get stuck into being able to play one style only.

4. SCALES, TECHNICAL WORK & THEORY: These need to be included in any programme of study. I have often had parents come to me with such phrases as “Johnny just wants to play some fun pieces” or “I just want him to be able to busk as quickly as possible”. You need to explain to the parents that scales, arpeggio’s, chords and technical work are the building blocks that the pieces are made up of. Without these no student will progress, that is why they are included in all exams. Even if they aren’t wanting to play classical music they need these building blocks to be able to improvise, make up a new song and to help them learn the pieces that will be “fun” or “for busking”. Likewise I insist that all my students do music theory with every lesson. The writing and understanding of music reinforces everything that I teach and is of use to any student if they switch instruments, take music as a subject at school, join a band, etc. I try to give students a general music education not just teach them an instrument as I know many of them may not keep playing for more than a few years and so the skills they learn need to be transferable.

5. LAST BUT NOT LEAST – PRACTICE: I Can’t stress practice enough! There is nothing more frustrating than a student who comes to lesson after lesson with pieces not learnt and you have to teach the same lesson again. Firstly, talk to the parents the very first time you meet them about practice, how much the student should be doing and discuss with them what time in their routine might suit. I also stress to them that if a student doesn’t practice they won’t really progress and will probably get bored and quit. Secondly, I always use a practice record book with a space for me to write down what the student is to practice and a place for them to record how long they practice for each day and for their parents to sign at the end of the week. If a student doesn’t seem to be practicing and isn’t progressing don’t leave it a week or two hopeing it will get better, talk to the student, if the next week isn’t better talk to the parents without delay. Watch out for students who have natural talent and progress quickly without much progress, they are the most likely to not get into good practice habits and quit when they hit the point where they can’t go any further without some work. This is really frustrating as you often lose your most promising students. Here also the practice record book will give you a good idea is they are covering the work with little practice.


Students who learn easily by ear often don’t develop note reading. Don’t always play new pieces to your students first, let them work it out. Do regular sight-reading exercises to keep a check on this.

Students learning the new pieces by the finger numbers or following up a step, down a step. Make them read the letter names of the notes outloud. Students who do this can often play a piece perfectly well once you tell them what “position” its in but are unsure where to put their hands to begin. Give exercises or pieces that involve using a variety of different fingers on different notes. Ask them “What letter name is it?” and “which finger does it say to play that letter with?”

The Student can play a piece well but only at a very slow pace and no amount of effort seems to speed it up. This piece is probably to hard for their technical development. Go back a step, make up scale and technique exercises out of the piece.