4. Your most important decision as a piano teacher

Why don't you sit down and play us something?Music is only songs. To learn music, you learn songs.

I mean “song” in the colloquial sense, which includes any piece of music even though not all musical pieces are sung.

This is a pretty simple idea, but it took me years to figure out. I thought I had to learn exercises, warmups, scales, riffs, chords, improvisation, ear training, history, and theory as separate, discrete subjects.

No - these musical elements only exist in songs, in service to songs, the way the organs of the body can only live and survive when they are performing the function for which they were created within that organism.

If music is songs, then “you are what you eat” - a student’s musicianship is demonstrated through the breadth and volume of the pieces they can play well.

Thus, your most important decision as a piano teacher is repertoire: what song to give a student, and when.

Whenever possible, use repertoire that has stood the test of time. Folk songs and classical themes (or classical pieces in their original form) are always good. Classic show tunes and jazz can also work. Plenty of blues, boogie-woogie, pop, and rock songs have been around long enough to prove themselves.

The level of difficulty is critical. For students who do not yet have an established practice habit, you'll want to choose pieces that your student can play 90% to 100% of on the first try.

As students build confidence, this percentage can drop, but there is no drawback to assigning a piece that a student can learn, polish, and memorize quickly. If it is a quality piece, it is worth playing.

Once students are confident and highly motivated, you can mutually decide on “reach” pieces that will offer a significant level of challenge. However, you will also want to assign on-level pieces for them to work on concurrently.

Because I tend to assign pieces that are inside the student’s zone of proximal development (pieces that they can do without guidance), I assign a higher volume of pieces.

While asking the student to focus more energy and attention on just one piece sounds like a good idea, the math doesn’t work. With only one piece, a student will just spend less total time with his butt on the piano bench.

On the other hand, if you assign several easier pieces, a student will spend more time playing since he has more material to cover. In addition, he will likely benefit from seeing similar harmonic, rhythmic, and melodic ideas in various contexts. Playing many easy pieces well is the key to building confidence and fluency.

Keep an updated list of memorized pieces and songs that the student can have handy at all times. As a warmup (either in the lesson or at home), the student can zip through the list of several memorized pieces, Suzuki-style, and then continue to the new material. 

Choosing the right repertoire simplifies a student's home practice and makes the path forward obvious. At the end of the lesson, even as the student is tugging on the parent’s hand, running in circles, bothering a sibling, or rolling on the floor, she should be able to tell me what they intend to play (not practice) at home. She will have her own goals.

“Rain Rain Go Away and Closet Key. Plus Hot Cross Buns with both hands,” she’ll say, her feet in her mom’s lap and her head hanging halfway off of the couch.

I’ll write that down. Such discrete, knowable practice tasks, the result of playing the right songs at the right time, are a recipe for success.


In the spirit of connecting with your fellow teachers, I invite you to share your thoughts on this post in the comments. Consider the following: 

  • What, in this post, felt new to you?
  • What action might you take in relation to the ideas in this post?
  • What follow-up questions or suggestions do you have?