Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Beginning a Lesson

How do you like to begin teaching a lesson?  What happens when the student enters the studio?  Have you considered how you like to move from greeting to teaching?

Since no two students are exactly the same, it’s hard to be formulaic about how you work with them.  Yet the teacher remains the same person, and has — or develops — a style that’s his or her own.

Before the lesson begins, do you have a routine for how students enter your studio?  Both studios where I teach have waiting areas shared with other teachers, but at one studio, not all the students use it.  Some feel more comfortable waiting in the hall.  Others patiently wait in the waiting area for me to come out and invite them in for their lesson.  I can tell students about the waiting area, but I can’t make them use it.  There’s a certain respect involved in a student waiting for you to come get them for their lesson; on the other hand, there are times when I’m glad to notice out the studio window that the next student is there and waiting.

Once the student enters your teaching room, do you usually chat about events, their practicing, music, or about general conversation:  the weather, your day, the student’s schoolday or job?  Have you noticed whether you tend to talk about certain topics–or avoid certain topics?  Sometimes I avoid the usual taboos of religion and politics, though it is also nice to know where a student stands, so that you can be sensitive to it and not get off track with a careless comment.

I think a bit of chatting is helpful because it’s important for students at the start of their lesson to get comfortable and begin to tune into the studio.  However, I think it’s important not to speak of other students.  This may seem obvious, but I remember one time when the shoe was on the other foot:  I sent my daughter to a music teacher for some lessons, and the teacher spoke more than once about other students in a disparaging way, sometimes complaining about them or their parents, and this was very disconcerting.  It makes you wonder what such a teacher says about you to other students.

In general, I’m wary of speaking to students about teaching music as if it’s a business and they’re my customer, even if at some level it’s true.  Music Teacher’s Helper helps keep the business end of it clear and accessible, reducing the need to spend a lot of time emphasizing administrative details during the lessons.  After all, working with a student, teaching, coaxing, helping them overcome obstacles, is all very personal, and while you want students to respect your time and policies, I don’t want them to feel they’re part of an assembly line.

For the same reason, I shy away from speaking much about my day if I’ve been teaching all day.  A student doesn’t need to hear about a teacher’s professional concerns.  I’ve seen other teachers chat with each other about students or parents, even while some students are within earshot, and I don’t think that’s comfortable for the students who hear it.  Again, such students can only wonder what the teachers say about them when the students are not there.

Some students study music precisely to get away from work or personal matters.  When you discover this about a student, it can be good to actually avoid talking about what’s going on at their workplace or at home.

Chatting with students at the beginning of the lesson is a good way to take their “temperature” and see how they’re feeling that day, particularly about their music.  If they’ve practiced a good deal and have things they’re anxious to work on, or the opposite, having hardly touched their music all week, it’s nice to let them say so if they wish.  But I take care not to get into a protracted discussion of this week’s pitfalls or triumphs–I’d rather hear it than talk about it!

How many times have we all heard “I didn’t get to practice as much as I’d like”?   I like to point out that I can’t remember anyone telling me they did practice enough!   I once saw buttons that said “I played it better at home” and wish I could find some to hand out or put on my wall for all the times I’ve heard that one!  If a student does come in mournfully with the confession that they haven’t practiced, I simply point out that it’s lucky we have a lesson now so they can touch base again and get back into the flow of playing.

Do you have a routine pattern to get started with the music?  I have certain warmup exercises which are undemanding, but are physically important.  I find this makes it easy for a student to begin making sound and get involved in the music, without worrying about feeling tested on specific music or skills.  Once they’ve started playing, it’s easier for a student to continue playing than it is to dive into their current musical puzzles right off the bat.

Although I find warmup exercises are great to start with, I also like to change things up and sometimes let a student jump into what they’ve worked on most that week, or to play their favorite thing.  If they hesitate, trying to gauge which is their favorite, I’ll ask them to play their “second favorite.”  This little joke takes away any pressure they feel to make a big judgement about which is, or should be, their favorite music, and just gets them playing.

Jumping right into playing can be a good example to them to show that it’s okay to just take their instrument out and enjoy it sometimes, without always navigating a prescribed series of warmups first.  If we start without warming up at a lesson, I’ll often get back to the warmups a little later in the lesson.  Sometimes it becomes clear, after starting this way, that they could have benefitted from some warming up, and this is a good lesson to learn as well.

I’m certain you have your own habits and opinions on all of this!  Please share, and add your comments below.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]

4 Comments

  1. Ruth Brons

    Great thoughts on beginning and ending lessons, over you last two blog posts!
    While I like to reserve the right to occasionally mix it up a bit in course of the lesson, to keep the experience fresh, establishing a comfortable framework of expected routine is so important.
    After all, our most important lesson is how to establish a practice routine at home, isn’t it?
    My students can bank on a cheerful greeting and just as much light conversation as it takes to get the instrument out of its case and their practice book and music up onto the music stand. I like to start by engaging the student in such a way as to reinforce the student’s ownership over their learning, such as asking “What do you need me to go over today?”
    Then it’s down to business!

    Best Wishes,

    Ruth Brons
    Things 4 Strings[tm] bow accessories for beginners

  2. Justine Milburn

    Hey
    thanks for your article, it really lays it out. once my students are unpacked and tuned, my opening line is “what when really well this week”. It invites the student both to start with something easy, and to tell me about their practice. If it was a tricky week, then we usually play something easy, or review an old piece before jumping in. Other times they are so distraught over a particular problem that we address that first.

  3. […] Pearlman recently touched on some interesting aspects of the student-teacher relationship concerning healthy boundaries. Another very important aspect of […]

  4. […] Pearlman recently touched on some interesting aspects of the student-teacher relationship concerning healthy boundaries. Another very important aspect of […]

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.