9 Essentials to Include in a First Piano Lesson

Whether you’re teaching a first piano lesson, a trial piano lesson with a prospective student, or a meet & greet, you’ll need a solid plan to teach the student and interview the student and parents effectively and efficiently. Here’s my own lesson plan for a first piano lesson with a brand new student who comes into my studio for the first time for what I call a meet & greet mini lesson (definitely a low pressure and friendly name for our first meeting!).

Little boy at his first piano lesson

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After our initial contact and before the family comes to my studio, I provide them with a “What to Expect at the First Lesson” handout so they can get an idea of how things will go, and so I can start teaching them what I expect of them when they are in my home studio. It’s never too early to provide the expectations!

This came about when I started noticing that new families were arriving 15-20 minutes early, and were hanging out very loudly in my waiting area, which wasn’t a good thing for the student I was teaching at that moment. So I put together this brief handout to give to all prospective students’ parents before they come to my home studio for the first time.   

Download the handout

The big day has arrived, and they are pulling into my driveway. What do I do when they come to my home studio for the very first time? What are the best concepts, activities, and games to include on the first day? I always take young beginners through the following 9 items at their first lesson. Ready to see what they are? Keep reading!  

1. Following directions

Often an overlooked part of the first piano lesson, assessing whether a child can follow directions or is willing to follow directions/instruction is a valuable aspect of getting to know the student and envisioning what lessons with the child will be like. Even from the first moment the student walks into my studio, I’m quietly assessing the student’s ability or willingness to engage with me and whether the student can follow directions. Here’s a quick breakdown of the entire lesson:

  • I welcome the family into my studio and ask everyone to remove shoes at the assigned location
  • I show them where the restroom is and ask the student to wash hands with soap, and then dry with the clean towel
  • I tell the student taking off shoes and washing hands will always be what she does first every week
  • I invite the student and family into the piano room and ask them to sit on the sofa
  • I sit in a chair and we chat
  • I ask the student questions (see the next section below)
  • I ask the student to come over to the piano
  • Then I continue with the lesson, asking questions and giving directions

Over the years I’ve learned that children who follow directions and who engage with me and with the piano are a great fit for my studio and teaching style. Children who are unwilling to follow directions after multiple attempts to engage them, or who choose to do things incorrectly on purpose, are not a good fit for my studio. Because we have such a short meet & greet session, I need to make a quick decision on this. I use the information I’ve gathered in the mini lesson and go with my intuition, my gut feeling. I will say that I’ve ignored my intuition a few times in the past, and after a few weeks I wished I had listened! So please listen to your gut on this, and you’ll be glad you did. 

2. Help the student feel at ease

Engage in friendly small talk with student and parent to help them feel at ease – they’re in a new environment with a new adult (you!) and may feel a little timid or nervous. Ask lots of questions, and tell a few small stories along the way to relate to the student and let him know you are a regular person too, just like he is.

  • Do you have a pet? What’s his name?
  • What’s your favorite sport?
  • What’s your favorite food?
  • Who is your favorite band/musician/singer?
  • Why do you want to learn to play the piano?
  • Do you know how to play any songs already?
  • What songs can you play?
  • Which one is your favorite?
  • I’d love to hear you play that one! Let’s go to the piano so you can play that song.

3. Rhythm activities

  • We use classroom percussion instruments to work on steady beat and rhythm.
  • Clap-backs (I clap a rhythm pattern, the student echoes)
  • Play-backs (I play a very short pattern on a single piano key or percussion instrument, the student echoes)

4. Groups of 2 & 3 black keys 

  • I ask the student to locate the 2 black keys, then the 3 black keys on the piano, then on the vinyl floor keyboard 
  • Find them in a variety of ways: Hop, jump, play on piano, loud, soft, etc.

5. Music Alphabet & White keys, Higher & Lower

The first white piano key I teach is D. I ask the student to review the 2 black keys, then say:

  • “Hey diddle diddle, the D is in the middle!” (of the 2 black keys). The student plays every D.

Then I ask the student to review the 3 black keys, and say:

  • “F is the front door!” (of the 3 black keys). The student plays every F.
  • Then “B is the back door!” (of the 3 black keys). The student plays every B.

After introducing these 3 keys, we treat it like a race, and the kids love it! I say “Play all the D’s as fast as you can!” and choose low to high, high to low, right hand, or left hand. 

Here’s a free workshop on how I teach the piano keys to beginners.

6. Teach a piece by rote 

I teach students how to play “Billy Boy” by rote. “Billy Boy” is a brilliantly-composed black key piece from Finger Starters by Lynn Freeman Olson, and I use it to teach quarter and half notes, steady beat, form, ritardando, and Music Rule #1 (decrescendo), all during the first lesson. I don’t tell students the musical terms just yet – we simply talk about what the music wants to do.

I teach the piece by rote, then we play it as a duet. I’ve memorized the accompaniment so that I don’t need to play from the book, and that makes the moment feel so much more organic. We definitely make the most of this short piece of music!  

The parents LOVE that their child can play a piece (or even the first section) in less than 10 minutes, the child sounds amazing, and when we add Music Rule #1 to the end (a nice decrescendo) then go even further and add a ritardando, I’ve seen parents get emotional during the interview. It’s beautiful. Read the entire post about helping students play musically. 

7. Introduction to the lesson & writing books

8. Assess fine motor skills

It’s important to assess the small motor skills of your new beginner so you know where the child is, with regards to fine motor development, and what needs to be addressed or worked on in the future.

Recently, two of my new elementary-age students in two separate families have come into my studio not knowing how to hold a pencil correctly. They could write, but they were both gripping the pencil with all five fingertips (the static tripod grip, which emerges around age 3.5-4 years), and their handwriting and coloring skills were definitely falling behind.

I talked with their moms about this, and they both shook their heads and had no idea why their children weren’t holding pencils with a grip that would support their fine motor skills and improve their handwriting and coloring skills, so we got to work to help them take their pencil grip to the next level, with permission from the students’ moms.

I read some research about the importance of good pencil grip in the educational development of children, ordered these ergonomic grip trainers and started using them with these students. After several weeks and tons of reminders, the students are doing better. We still have work to do, but we celebrate small improvements each week.

I believe it is very important to know what kind of fine motor skills the children have already developed, and what kinds of things you will need to work on to further develop those very fine motor skills necessary not only for writing, coloring, and doing schoolwork and homework efficiently, but also for efficiency and ease in playing the piano. Read this informative article, written by an occupational therapist, to learn more. 

Here are some of the things we do:

  • Write their name or a sentence
  • Piano key worksheets
  • Coloring pages
  • White boards
  • Anything that requires them to write, draw, and/or color

9. Home practice instructions

It’s very important to help the parent and child understand that the lesson is just the beginning of what should happen throughout the week. I give very specific practice instructions to the student and parent,

I also email a typed practice sheet to the parents after the lesson, and after every lesson once the student is formally enrolled. It includes:

  • What to work on at home/how to practice/do exactly what we did in the lesson
  • How many minutes a day/how to know if the child is practicing enough or too much
  • What to accomplish throughout the week
  • What to expect from the child during practice
  • What is expected of the parent (helping the child practice daily)
  • Make practicing fun!

So now you know exactly what I do in a first piano lesson. Of course this varies quite a bit from student to student depending on the readiness of the child, and a variety of other factors. But this is my go-to plan for that very first lesson.

What do I do after the first lesson?

What do I use the next few weeks to review concepts and introduce a few more musical elements to my beginners, as we continue working through the Lesson and Writing books? The Beginning Piano Mega Bundle! It includes tons of worksheets, coloring pages, games, activities, and more. Give your youngest beginners a solid foundation from the very beginning of piano lessons. Here’s what others are saying about the bundle:

Customer reviews of the Beginning Piano Mega Bundle on TpT

Click here to view the The Beginning Piano Mega Bundle!

What do you do during a first piano lesson? Leave a comment below!

 

This Post Has 22 Comments

  1. Leeanne Innes

    Lot’s of great ideas here! I especially like how you immediately work out if children are a good fit for you by following directions.

    1. Melody Payne

      That’s why I always have a “meet-and-greet mini lesson” before we officially begin. What I learn from that 20 minute session really helps me to see right away if we would work together well. Thanks so much for your comment, Leeanne!

  2. Lisha

    Many thanks

    1. Melody Payne

      You’re welcome, Lisha! I hope it gives you some fun ideas to try in piano lessons.

  3. BernieA

    Thanks Melody. This is very helpful as you’ve laid it out well. I could always learn something new from others. Thank you.

    1. Melody Payne

      My pleasure, Bernie! I’m so glad you found it helpful. Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Jarom Linton

    My daughter wants to start playing more piano this year so we need to find a great teacher in the area. I’ll look around for someone that does a lot of these things so that I know they are a good teacher. It makes sense to engage in some small talk to get to know each other better so you’re both more comfortable.

    1. Melody Payne

      Hi Jarom, if you’re looking for a local teacher in your area, this website can help you find someone: https://www.mtna.org
      Click the blue “Find A Teacher” link at the top of the website, and you can enter your zip code and search for teachers who live nearby who are members of the Music Teachers National Association. If their name has NCTM beside it, you’ll know that they are a nationally certified teacher of music (I have this certification, and it holds teachers to high standards!).
      Hope this helps, and best wishes to your daughter as she begins piano lessons!

  5. Rochelle

    I love that you set up expectations from the beginning. That and get the student playing lovely music from the beginning! Those are things I do at my first lesson as well. Great article! I am also going to look up Billy Boy. I loved singing that song in elementary music class as a child!

    1. Melody Payne

      Thanks, Rochelle! I have found over the years that the more quickly I set up expectations, the better our piano-student-parent relationship goes. Then there are no surprises!

  6. Ivy Baker

    My niece really wants to learn how to play the piano this upcoming year. I liked that you pointed out that my sister should find her a teacher that makes her feel at ease. Stress seems like it would make it harder for my niece to learn and have fun.

    1. Melody Payne

      Absolutely! The first piano teacher that a child has is THE most important piano teacher for that child. That teacher can help the child love music and love learning, or that teacher could do the opposite. There are so many ways that we can make our prospective students feel at ease, and that always builds trust and helps the lessons go much more smoothly. Best wishes to your sister and niece in finding the perfect teacher, Ivy!

  7. Sophie Fredericks

    So helpful, as always Melody.
    I am not familiar with Billy Boy so am going to look into it now.
    I always include ‘how the piano works’. The kids love standing up and looking into the piano and seeing how it works before they play.
    I would love to hear tips on how to say no when a student isn’t the right fit for your studio.

    1. Melody Payne

      Thanks so much, Sophie! My kids love the “how the piano works” lesson too. I had a little one yesterday who was jumping up and down she was so excited about it 🙂 I probably need to write an entire blog post about how to say no when a student isn’t a good fit! That’s such a great topic. If you’ll message me through my contact form, I’ll be glad to chat with you more through email.

  8. Saundra

    Do you have an assignment sheet form that is used for your email after the lesson? I can’t seem to find one.

      1. Saundra

        I need to use more of the features in My Music Staff! Thanks

        1. Melody Payne

          MMS has been a game-changer for me! I definitely recommend it 🙂

  9. Cindy

    I was thrilled to read this post. I have been teaching piano for many years and for my beginners have drawn from a lot of teaching resources. I was so amazed reading that I do so many of the same things. I teaching the Grandma’s House white key concept, so do the Front Door, Back Door, I have used the Sing and Play course a lot, so use Hey Diddle Diddle for D, teach the 2 and 3 black keys, and ALWAYS at the first lesson we learn Billy Boy! The best piece ever and instantly they love playing the piano! Have used it for over 35 years! I even have a Rote Song book that I use from all the methods that have great Rote Songs (Lynn Freeman Olson has the best ones; Engine No, 9,Bouncy Rhythm, Perfect Day) I just have compiled the songs for me so I can remember them all and teach them by rote. I really enjoyed the article, made me feel like I am doing things right! I have 3 daughters who also teach and they have adopted my first lesson as well, had to share with them. Thanks! I also have many of your theory and game resources and enjoy them.

    1. Melody Payne

      Thank you so much for your comments, Cindy! Sounds like we’re on the exact same wavelength 🙂 I love that our first lessons are so similar, and Perfect Day is my 2nd favorite rote piece of all time, right after Billy Boy. LFO definitely was a genius at writing those perfect teaching pieces. Thank you again for your kind words, and happy teaching to you and your daughters!

  10. Rebecca Phelps

    I’ve been teaching piano for eight years andI’ve been following your blog for a couple of years now. I always find something helpful and encouraging. Thank you for sharing your expertise with your fellow teachers!

    1. Melody Payne

      Thanks so much for reading, Rebecca! You just made my day. Have a wonderful week of lessons, and happy teaching!

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Welcome!

Hi! I’m Melody Payne, a pianist and piano teacher, educational resource author, a fun-loving wife to the most wonderful and talented hubby I could ask for, and a lifelong learner who loves to share. I want to make your life as a music teacher easier by writing and sharing helpful and relevant music teaching articles, and by creating educational resources with your very own students in mind. If you are a parent who wants to enroll your child in piano lessons, I’d love for us to get started building those skills that can give your child a lifetime of musical enjoyment!

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