Beginning teaching music lessons

First trumpet lesson for a beginner at JWA

The first lessons: what to do with a new student – advice for starting to teach

So you’ve got a new student. Great! Now what do you do? Where do you begin? In this article I give advice for music teachers on those crucial first lessons with a new student. Giving every student the best possible start is vital, and so is establishing your professional relationship with them (and their parents, if they are a child or teen). Remember, your student’s musical future could be at stake right there and then in those early lessons. Mess it up and you might be cutting short their musical life. Get it right and it can be the start of a great career, not to mention securing a long-term student for you.

This will be useful for new teachers, and maybe experienced ones too. We can always learn from each other.


In the first lesson with a new student

Saxophone student with teacher in his first lessonGreet your new student and, if they are a child or teenager, their parent warmly and professionally. Introduce yourself.  Shaking hands with the parent can be a good idea.

If a young student seems very nervous, you can ask them some un-threatening questions. Maybe what school are they at? How long have they had their instrument? But don’t obsess over this: some people are just not very talkative and that is fine, not everyone is chatty.

You should invite a parent to sit in and watch the first lesson, but later on it can be a good idea to discourage this. If you are teaching a child then teach in a space where you and they are visible from outside. Do not teach in a room with a closed door and no see-through windows.

What should your goals be in the very first lesson?

  1. To meet the student and make an initial assessment of their playing and their needs. Are they a complete beginner, or can they already play? If so, what can they do and what do they need to do next? What is their personality like? What kind of things are they likely to respond well to? Not all students are the same: some are outgoing and appear bright and chatty. Others are more reserved and come across as surly or less bright. Don’t make any assumptions; just adapt your teaching and your manner to suit the student.
  2. If they are NOT an absolute beginner you should assess their level of technique, expression/musicality, music reading ability, sense of pitch and time, understanding of style, their tone, their range, and so on. You need to do this so you can develop a program of work for them to help them with exactly the things they need to develop.
  3. If they ARE a complete beginner, then after a friendly introduction etc, you will obviously start showing them the basics of playing the instrument. Decide in advance what are the key steps involved in starting the instrument and in what order they should be presented. By the end of the lesson the student probably wants to be able to make a decent sound and be able to play some notes.
  4. EITHER WAY, do have a few things ready to give the student to do in the lesson and for homework that will help them progress and prepare them for whatever you will be teaching in the next lesson.

In subsequent lessons your goals should be

  1. To develop a sequence of related tasks for the student including repertoire, exercises, scales and other technical work, sight reading, rhythm, theory, ear training, tone development, improvisation skills, and so on. These should all be designed to develop and improve the students playing in a logical step by step order. You should have plans for the short term (e.g. 1 lesson, 3 weeks), the medium term (e.g. 7 weeks, 1 term, 2 terms), and long term (e.g. 1 year, 3 years).
  2. To establish a good and strong relationship between you and the student. Make sure you know their name, and find out a little bit about them and their interested (without being intrusive). You want to be friendly with them, but also firm and resolute. You are their teacher but not their friend –there is a big difference.
  3. Establish a routine in lessons and good practice habits between lessons. You should nearly always set homework and if you do, you MUST follow it up.
  4. If the student isn’t a complete beginner, then after a little while you could encourage them to participate in ensembles at their schools or elsewhere, if available. There are also extra opportunities outside of school to extend those that are keen. These things all help students to improve at a much faster rate. You could provide your own extra opportunities like groups and performances.


You, the teacher

Remember that you are a professional educator and that is the firm expectation our students and their families have. Here are some tips for maintaining professionalism:

  1. Be punctual and respect the student’s time. We insist that they respect ours, so we have to return that courtesy
  2. NEVER go into a lesson not knowing what you are going to do or how you will do it. Plan so that you have specific goals and activities in mind, even if you don’t get through all of them.
  3. Remember that you are the teacher and you are the one who is the expert in music and how you will teach it. What students and parents want is important and should be a consideration, but you have the final say in what a student plays and so on
  4. How you dress has a powerful influence over the way people perceive you. Generally teachers should aim for professional dress (trousers, shirt) or smart casual. Don’t try to dress like a kid, because it is embarrassing for everyone, including the student. Many kids even seem to feel contempt for adults who try to be like them and teachers who try too hard to be their friend.
  5. Many kids will mistake friendliness for weakness in an adult. Don’t be mean, but do be aware of this, especially in group teaching. Be nice, but be firm and resolute.
  6. Don’t take or make phone calls or texts during a lesson. Don’t stop to chat to other teachers or friends during a student’s time.
  7. Be very reluctant to call in sick or cancel a lesson.
  8. Avoid double booking yourself. If you have a student booked, then you should be there for their lesson. Sometimes, if you know a long way in advance that you will be away, then that is unavoidable. You must let the student and their parents know well ahead of time know so you and they can make other arrangements.
  9. Keep a record of what you do in each lesson and mark a roll. It can be useful for your financial record keeping as well as for resolving potential disputes about attendance.
  10. Even though you may be teaching jazz, that doesn’t mean that every lesson should be about improvisation or jamming. That should be part of the program, but so should learning pieces, doing technical work, studying theory, and so on. Be sure to present a balanced program.


Some teaching tips

  1. Easy 20% – Doable (ZPD) 70% – Too hard 10%

Have your students working on a few things that are easy for them and well within their reach. Things they can do well and that sound good.

Most of what you work on should be things they can do, but with help from you. Current projects at about the right level, just a bit challenging

Then, have just one or two things that are really beyond them, long-term projects.

The things that a student can do with help from you are known in educational psychology as the “Zone of Proximal Development” (ZPD). People learn and progress most effectively in the ZPD.

No idea what any of that means? Be a professional teacher, earn your pay, and go find out!

  1. Give honest and realistic feedback. Use praise when it is deserved or needed, but let the student know if there is a problem with something they are playing. Alert them, tell them what the problem is, maybe why it is happening, and give them a practical solution. Only say something is “good” or “great” or “beautiful” if it is.

If you give dishonest feedback (teachers tend to over-praise) then students either see through you as a fraud and stop believing what you say, or even worse they believe you and think they are “god’s gift” even when they aren’t!

  1. Vary the pace and format of lessons. Do things differently once in a while. If one activity moves slowly and is hard, then move next onto something that is fast and snappy. Often if a student’s concentration is waning, you can get it back by making things move a bit faster.
  2. Don’t expect perfection in less experienced students but don’t accept rubbish either.
  3. If teaching jazz, I’d suggest that Rhythm, Sound and Style are three extremely important aspects from the start. We often seem to neglect them.
  4. Assess a student’s progress while they are learning a tune or working through a task, and after they have finished. Ask: “can they do what I wanted of them?” If not, then why not and what do I need to do differently to help them to do it right? Assessment is for measuring the effectiveness of your teaching, not for ranking or punishing students (the abusive, erroneous, and useless way schools often use it).
  5. If you are teaching jazz, talk to your students about jazz and famous players and styles and the history of our music, and things that are going on now. Try to involve them in our world and become part of our tradition.
  6. If a parent wants to talk to you, they must do it during their child’s lesson time, not someone else’s. Or they could email you.

If you’ve got any comments or other teaching tips for new students, by all means share them below.

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