I am so pleased to introduce the author of this guest post, Janelle Scott. She is a piano and voice teacher who believes that both enjoyment and excellence should be emphasized from the very first music lesson, and I agree with her 100%! When the goals include both enjoyment and excellence, keeping students engaged at a high level during online lessons can be challenging, especially when they’re young. Please enjoy Janelle’s article on five tips for helping young students stay engaged during online lessons.
5 Tips for Engaging Young Piano Students During Online Lessons
During this global crisis, piano teachers everywhere have been challenged to pivot and adjust to teaching music lessons online. The COVID-19 pandemic has truly been an unprecedented time for embracing technology to the fullest! Although I’ve taught long-distance lessons via Skype in the past, these past six months have been my first opportunity to teach a full studio (45 students) online each week.
With only a few days to switch from in-person lessons to Zoom lessons, the first week of classes felt like plunging into the deep end of a pool with no knowledge of how to swim. Thankfully, experience makes for a fantastic teacher!
I found the adjustment to be draining and difficult. It was only when I was able to shift my expectations and embrace the unique advantages of virtual lessons that my students and I began acknowledging the positives of online piano lessons. This required flexibility and a change in mindset.
At first, I tried to replicate the traditional in-studio experience online, but quickly realized that this wasn’t an ideal way to structure lessons.
Young students were struggling to stay focused and engaged, and would quickly lose interest during lessons without the colorful teaching aides, rhythm instruments, and musical games and activities I usually have on hand to keep lessons balanced and interesting.
Teaching a five-year-old to play piano and read music takes energy and resourcefulness at the best of times, let alone when communicating over a small screen!
With trial and error, my little pianists and I have found some creative ways to keep piano lessons fun while online. I hope you’ll enjoy trying these ideas with your students!
(As an aside, I’ve personally been teaching via Zoom, but the ideas I’m about to mention will work on any virtual platform with a screen share function.)
TIP 1: Draw (and keep!) attention with cute, colorful visuals!
Teaching a technical exercise with staccato bunny hops? Throw up an adorable bunny photo before launching into your demonstration.
Reviewing dynamics? Share a PowerPoint with each dynamic symbol and include coordinating animals! (Example: a lion can accompany forte, a kitten can accompany piano, etc.)
Looking to add some expressive elements to a new piece? Assign an emotion to a specific section of music using emoji cards or emoji dice! For an added twist, ask your student to draw their favorite emojis within the music they’ll be practicing that week.
TIP 2: Use screen-friendly music games to provide some variety to the lesson flow, or as an incentive to stay focused.
Tic-tac-toe is a big hit with my students! I like to use this generic game board with either flashcards, rhythm reading and clap-backs, or the following activities:
- Can You Name It? I ask students music related questions, like “how many beats are in a half note?” or “what does mezzo forte tell us to do?”.
- What’s My Name? I ask questions like “I am a note that’s the color black, and I’m worth one beat. What is my name?”
- Simon Says Within a piece of music, I’ll assign the student a specific bar(s) of music with special instructions, such as “Simon says play the left hand of line 1 with counting out loud.”
Click the game board to download a copy to use with your students.
TIP 3: Remember it’s important to move during the lesson! Use off-the-bench breaks as an opportunity to develop musicianship skills.
I’ll use quick and fun ear-training activities during my young students’ wiggle time.
A few popular choices are identifying major/minor tonalities with thumbs up/thumbs down, students stretching high to identify ascending musical patterns and crouching low for descending musical patterns, and tapping rhythms on their heads/shoulders/knees/whatever they feel like for clap-backs.
Anything even the least bit silly is guaranteed to be a hit!
TIP 4: Continue to diversify how you approach a piece of music, especially a new piece.
Taking time to sing through the note names, clap the rhythms, and engage in musical scavenger hunts for articulations, dynamics, and special features or patterns in the music is entirely possible during a virtual lesson!
I’ll affirm students’ answers and guide them through any especially difficult passages by holding my copy of the music up to the camera and pointing to different sections as we go.
If students are struggling to connect to the piece or it’s not piquing their interest, we’ll add our own storyline and expressive elements.
This includes drawing a few illustrations (emojis, characters, etc.), including a few extra dynamics, and discussing a storyline (often very dramatic in nature!). Once the student connects to the narrative of the piece, they’ll try it again with feeling!
TIP 5: Throw in some small surprises and delight your students with the unexpected!
Some weeks this will be a new game, picture, or special piece of music. Other times it will be a fun prop. One of my students learned a piece about a cactus, so I had a small prickly cactus to show her.
My studio mascot, Amos (a miniature horse who helps form proper hand position), will often make an appearance. A couple of my students brought stuffed animals to each lesson and we’d exchange a mutual moment of show-and-tell at the beginning of each lesson. Great fun!
Although my students and I still prefer to work together in-person, I’m so thankful that we’ve had this opportunity to continue making music despite the circumstances surrounding us.
Many of my young pianists have thrived with the extra time to practice, and their parents have expressed gratitude for the stability and emotional support that music has provided in their children’s lives during the weeks of social isolation.
The process of transitioning to virtual lessons hasn’t been easy, but it’s been worth the effort!
What are some of your favorite approaches for engaging your young piano students online? Leave a comment below!