Even when students have limited practice time, I think there are benefits to continuing piano lessons. Playing a musical instrument can provide an important emotional and creative outlet for students during the stressful high school years. In addition to the life-long skills of self-discipline, problem-solving, and creative thinking that learning to play piano provide, the musical skills students learn at the piano can be enjoyed for years to come as well. For example, your students might wish to play for their church or community choir or to help their own children practice piano one day! Finally, participation in piano lessons looks great on those college applications your students are working so hard on.
So, how do we best help these students, who have a desire to play piano and want to continue lessons, but have a limited amount of practice time? Read on for my tips for teaching busy teens!
If you’ve read some of my previous articles on student motivation and setting goals (like HERE and HERE), you know that I am a big fan of “easy wins”--repertoire that is just beyond sight-reading level that serves to motivate students and introduce them to a wide variety of repertoire quickly.
I think these easy wins are especially important for busy teens, who want to get the most “bang for their buck” in piano lessons by working on music that can be learned quickly. So, with these students, I like to offer lots of easier repertoire from a wide variety of genres, so they get a chance to explore a range of musical styles. I also take into consideration students’ individual goals for piano and encourage them to keep a “wish list” of pieces they would like to learn.
Tip #2: Help students make the most of their limited practice time.
In addition to setting small, achievable goals, it is important to help students make the most of their limited practice time. Teach students how to practice efficiently by breaking pieces into sections and isolating tricky passages. Help students find a consistent practice time that works for their busy schedules--sometimes practicing in two shorter sessions each day works better than trying to practice in one long session. Encourage students to schedule their practice time like a daily appointment and set reminders for themselves on their phones or other devices.
Tip #3: Devote lesson time to building musicianship skills.
A question I often ask myself, especially when working with teens, is this: what skills can I teach these students that will benefit them the most ten years from now? There are several musicianship skills that I think are especially important for teens because they prepare students for a lifetime of music-making:
- Sight-reading/practice skills: does my student know how to play through and practice a new piece of music independently?
- Playing by ear and harmonizing simple melodies: can my student sit down at the piano and play a tune like “Happy Birthday” or “Deck the Halls” by ear, with simple harmony?
- Improvisation: can students sit down at the piano and play for their own enjoyment by improvising on a simple chord progression?
- Lead sheet/chord chart playing: can students read from a lead sheet or chord chart well enough to play along with their friends who play other instruments?
- Accompanying: can my student play a simple ensemble piece well enough to accompany a soloist or choir?
Tip #4: Encourage activities that promote music appreciation and don’t require practice time.
There are several activities that you can encourage your students to do that don’t require any outside practice time! A few of my favorites:
- Go to Spotify (or your streaming music service of choice) and listen to a playlist of piano or orchestral music while doing homework or studying. I often give my students composer names or piece suggestions as a starting point, and they enjoy discovering new music on these playlists.
- Learn about music history. Encourage your students to research a famous composer, learn the history behind one of their favorite pieces, or read about a specific period of music history. This is also a great activity to do together in lessons--for example, you might listen to a piece by Debussy, look at examples of Impressionist artwork, and discuss how art influenced the music that was written during that time period.
- Attend concerts or watch performances online. Before the current pandemic, there were often several free concerts a year in my area that I encouraged students to attend--either at local universities, through my local teaching association, or at our local arts center. Now that live concerts have been put on hold, encourage students to look for online concerts instead. Many professional musicians and arts organizations are streaming free, online concerts regularly. Do a Google search for “free streaming concerts” and you can find lots of options. There are also thousands of wonderful performances by well-known concert pianists available on YouTube--I often encourage my students to find two different performances of the same piece to compare and contrast.
What do you think? What are your top tips for working with busy teen students who have limited practice time? I’d love to hear your ideas in the comments!