In recent conversations with piano teachers, several have expressed some discouragement in their teaching because students frequently come to lessons too exhausted to play, or even think, and have had little time to practice. After reflecting on this, I believe as piano teachers, we are music educators first. Being professional musicians, it is easy to lose sight of why many students are taking lessons. Few are going to make a career as a performing pianist, or even as a professional musician. Yet we often put all students in the same mold-teaching them as we were taught- with the major focus of lessons on teaching students to memorize and perform pieces. Some teachers spend much of a teaching year "perfecting" only one or two pieces for an end-of-year recital, festival, or contest.

If a student is coming to lessons, there is some interest in music and a desire to learn to play the piano. My goal is to help students better understand the great art of music through their piano studies. I also strive to give them the tools to make music themselves so they can experience the joy of creating music and expressing themselves in this way. I want them to attend concerts and enjoy playing the piano for the rest of their lives. To achieve this, a different emphasis may be needed in the lessons, including non-classical repertoire and other activities.

A few years ago E.L. Lancaster addressed this issue in a column for Clavier magazine. He stated that not all piano students need to be performers, and went on to describe "alternate curriculums" that could be devised for today's busy students. I asked him to write about this problem for Clavier Companion, since it is rapidly becoming a regular part of a piano teacher's life. Also weighing in on this topic is Sheila Vail, an experienced independent teacher with some practical solutions for helping students in this situation. I know you will find many of their ideas helpful to you. 

Busy students can progress

by Sheila Vail

The lives of today's students are so tightly scheduled and over-scheduled that they barely have time to breathe! Finding suitable repertoire that fits into their busy lives is more of a challenge now than ever.

Since each student is different, the first thing to do is assess the individual student and his or her overall situation. Since time is of the essence and precision matters, it is also helpful to know the individual's learning patterns and abilities. Some basic questions can help you categorize where they are and where they are headed.

1. How quickly do they learn? Knowing

their learning pace is essential to providing suitable material.

2. How is their retention? Do they remember what they practice, or easily forget and need a great deal of repetition to "install it" in their memory bank?

3. How committed are they to their goals?

4. What appeals to them? Inspiration can do wonders to magically create practice hours!

S. Determine the amount of possible time they have to practice in a week. Will there be several longer periods of time or many small sessions? 

Figure 1: Practice Guide Sheet

 Reduce and pre-teach

The first thing I consider is reducing the amount of material in the program. Moving to a program of "repertoire only" by reducing or eliminating technical and supporting work can ease the practice commitment and allow more lesson time for previewing and preparing the week's assignment. Even encouraging practice with one hand can ease the process and lessen the intimidation when they sit down at home to work through a piece. It is somewhat easier to deal with beginning level students, since short pieces can be taught within the context of the lesson; when repeated at home, they quickly become secure. 

A "tapas" approach to literature

Tapas are small appetizer-sized plates of food, often encompassing a wide range and variety of tastes and ingredients. For developing students, I find it helpful to choose repertoire that is clearly sectional with an appropriate amount of complexity and work on only one aspect weekly. Sets of variations, for example, offer small quantities of material of varying musical content that can stimulate a student's interest with an ever-changing variety of melodies, textures, and keyboard figures. Small repertoire collections and anthologies are a sort of "tapas" approach. They will not overwhelm the student who has limited time. For advanced students, larger repertoire can certainly be continued, but in smaller sections. The main challenge here is to maintain skill, strength, and agility with the limited practice time. Sometimes it simply cannot be done. Students (and you) will need to be satisfied with achievements appropriate for the circumstances.

Set goals

I have also found that a goal often provides the necessary stimulus to help a student find more practice time. Students will respond to a specific goal, especially one that will conclude or culminate their studies. Parents can often be motivated to continue their children's music studies if there is a specific goal-such as future college credits for Advanced Placement theory studies - that appears more concrete than goals like "personal enjoyment." One concrete goal might be the pursuit of a Merit Certificate from the National Music Certificate Program ( Another might be a recital performance, competition, or the "Senior recital."

Practice plan

Another 'helper' I employ is a "Practice Guide Sheet" (see Figure 1). Creating a table with specific daily assignments removes any mystery about a practice session and creates a specific focus that can be mentally comprehended and easily quantified in terms of time. When you approach something with specific tasks to achieve, the work is already half done. Practicing then becomes an exercise of what is already known.

Some of the most poignant conversations I have had with students involved facing the painful truth that life had come to a point where they had absolutely no time for personal development. However, even with academics as a clear priority, if students can carve out a few hours each week, they can progress musically. Creating a practice strategy for them is often an exercise in time management! Guiding them in this critical period of their lives is part of our commitment to both the student and the art of music. This is the time when we need to help them find a way to keep music in their lives; to show them how music can be a part of their life, even with limited time. Their skills and abilities will be logged safely in their minds and hands forever-available whenever they have time to visit them! And, of course, our professional relationship need never end. We are friends for life-no matter how much time they have to practice! 

The 21st-century student IS different!

by E. L. Lancaster

The key to assigning repertoire to the "overstretched" student is to truly know each student individually. When dealing with busy students, in my enrollment questionnaire, I like to know the answers to these questions:

1. What classes are you taking in school? If students are enrolled in many honors and Advanced Placement classes, I know they will have massive amounts of daily homework.

2. Do you participate in other extracurricular activities (including church activities) and if so, how often do they meet? When I know the extent of their daily activities, I can ascertain how much time is left for practice.

3. Are you involved in other music activities such as band, choir, and church music groups? If students are involved in music ensembles, I can plan things for the lesson that will support their other music activities.

4. When are the best times for you to practice each week? This question forces students to think about their daily schedule and determine times that are available for piano practice. I then make assignments based on the amount of available practice time.

5. What kind of music do you listen to in your spare time? The answer to this question can help me find appropriate recreational music.

6. Is there a specific piece or style of music you would like to play? This question helps me determine if the student really wants to play the same style of music that he/she listens to or if he/she is open to a variety of styles.

7. Do you want to participate in auditions, contests, and recitals? If the answer to this question is no, I have more flexibility in choosing repertoire.

The Mindset list

There is no doubt that students are different today. We are all different than we were a few years ago as the surrounding environment shapes our lives and attitudes. Each year Beloit College in Beloit, Wisconsin, releases their Mindset List.1 Its purpose is to give faculty members a look at the cultural influences on entering college students. By reading this list, piano teachers can also gain perspective on the thinking of today's students.

For example, 18-year-old students who are entering college today were born in 1990 or 1991. They have grown up with computers and rapid communication, expect most dorm rooms and public areas to be "wired" (and now even wireless), talk to others via cell phones, and communicate through texting. They share their personal thoughts with others via social networking communities such as Facebook and already know their college roommates through this venue.

During the lifetime of 2008 college freshmen, the Beloit College Mindset List says that:

1) Gas stations have never fixed flat tires, but most serve cappuccino. 

2) Clarence Thomas has always member of the Supreme Court.

3) IBM has never made typewriters. 

4) Caller ID has always been available on phones.

5) 98.6° F or otherwise has always been confirmed in the ear. 


In the book The Secret Lives ofDriven Kids,2 Alexandra Robbins profiles the lives of ten high school students for a complete year as they struggle with SAT exams, early admission decisions, and their goals of gaining admission to the university of their choice. The book is filled with statistics, opinions from college admissions officers, and the results of studies on students who try to do everything in the hopes of being a perfect college ca ndidate.

In many cases, piano can serve as a retreat from the pressures of daily living for students. The Aug. 8, 2005, issue of Time magazine included a special report on "Being 13." This report dealt with B -year olds' push to achieve, and the pull of the pop culture. Katherine Rack, from Oak Park, IL, said, "In a way, I guess you can call my life stressful, chaotic, and filled with hard work... Another love that I have is music. I play clarinet in my school's highest band, the wind ensemble. Last summer I took piano lessons for my own pleasure. I caught on to this instrument quickly, and I play it as much as possible - often to soothe myself after a stressful day."3

Beginning and emerging students

My long-range goal for "overstretched" students is to help them become musicians, using the piano as the medium for achieving this goal. After truly getting to know the student and assessing outside influences on the lifestyle, I work with him or her to jointly determine some short-term goals. This includes choosing the repertoire to be learned.

In Noteby Note: A Celebration at thPiano Lesson, Tricia Tunstall discusses the difference between beginning students and emerging students.4 All beginning students study the basics of piano-learning keyboard layout, basic rhythms, and the musical staff. They leave each lesson with more knowledge than when they came. After a couple of years, progress becomes slower and more complicated. At this point, she defines "emerging" students. A big part of this definition is finding music that appeals to them -pop, jazz, familiar classics. While some students pursue music seriously at this point and follow a strenuous curriculum, others need a curriculum that combines slower-paced musical knowledge with music that interests them. Repertoire selection

With most "overstretched" students, I only assign two repertoire pieces. The first is chosen in conjunction with the student. I play at least three pieces that are appropriate for the student's current level and musical development. All have similar technical and musical requirements. The student then chooses a favorite from the three. When selecting the pieces, I try to find patterned pieces that promote quick learning, short but interesting pieces, and pieces that sound harder than they really are. I want to make sure the student would enjoy playing any of these pieces for friends. Consequently, I try to avoid sophisticated-sounding pieces that would only appeal to educated musicians.

The second piece that I assign is one suggested by the student. It may be something he or she has heard another student perform on a recital, a piece in pop or jazz style that has appeal, or an arrangement of a classical theme heard in a movie or TV commercial. Many students request classical piano pieces they have heard other students perform such as a Bach minuet, a Clementi sonatina, a Chopin prelude, a Joplin rag, Ellmenreich's Spinning Song or the Burgmuller Ballade.

Lesson activities

In the actual lesson, I do not spend the entire time working on the two pieces. A short segment of each lesson is spent on theory- this can include written work, computer work, ear training, and work on basic keyboard patterns. In addition, I plan a whole series of activities for the student where we can periodically sight-read duets or accompaniments, play by ear, study famous music and musicians (including listening to CDs and talking about the performances). I don't do these activities in every lesson, but use them throughout the year when the student has had little or no practice time, or so that lessons do not become predictable.

At the end of each lesson, I always give the student an "overload practice plan." This is usually one or two small things that I would like the student to accomplish during the week on the piece, even if there is only 5-10 minutes of available practice time a day. Such a plan might include working on only eight difficult measures hands separately to master the notes and rhythms, playing a short section to listen to the balance, or playing two different sections to point out a contrast in dynamics. If the student only completes the "overload practice plan," he or she still has a sense of accomplishment for the week. Once in awhile, when the student has had no time to practice during the week, I will make the entire lesson a practice lesson. I always ask the students' permission to practice with them, knowing that "practice lessons" can become tedious.


The most important consideration in working with "overstretched" students is to be flexible in all aspects of teaching. Change the repertoire if it is becoming stale. Students can learn a lot from studying a piece, even if it never reaches a performance level. If needed, alter the lesson plan to meet the musical and psychological needs of the student. If necessary, change your expectations about what the student should accomplish during the year. Remember that the most successful teacher is the one who instills a love of music in the student that lasts for a lifetime. 

1 The Beloit College Mindset List can be accessed at Retrieved on June 1, 2009.

2 Robbins, Alexandra (2006). The Overachievers: The Secret Lives ojDriven Kids. New York: Hyperion.

3 Rack, Katherine (2005, August 8). Not a Minute to Spare. Time, 166 (6), 59.

Turnstall, Tricia (2008).  Note by Note: A Celebration of the Piano Lesson.  New York: Simon & Schuster. 

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