Q. I think I had a pretty good college pedagogy class, but I am still unsure about what to include in my student's lesson assignments. Could you offer some guidance on this subject?

A. Planning the student's lesson assignment is one of the piano teacher's most important responsibilities. A carefully thought-out and well-balanced assignment takes much time and thought, and includes continual restudy as the lessons proceed. 

Broadly speaking, everything we teach falls into one of three categories: musicianship, technique, and practice habits. The first question we need to ask ourselves is whether or not every assignment includes all three areas. The second question is whether or not we keep all three areas in balance from week to week and month to month. 

If a student's musicianship exceeds his technique, he becomes frustrated by not being able to play the music the way he wants it to sound. If technique gets ahead of musicianship, the result is a "pianistic typist" whose playing lacks musical beauty and understanding. If practice habits lag behind the other two areas, the student grows discouraged because it takes too long to learn new repertoire. Ideal progress results from balanced assignments in which musicianship, technique, and practice habits develop handin- hand. 

The only sure-fire way I know to keep assignments in good balance is to begin by making a long-range lesson plan from September to June, and then to break the long-range plan into shorter segments, perhaps ten-week plans, before planning individual weeks. The shorter-range planning is a matter of continually adjusting and refining the longer-range goals.

Q. Is it true that every assignment should include both new and review materials? 

A. Yes. I believe that ideally every assignment should include both new activities and review material. Keeping those two aspects in balance is essential to making steady, solid progress at the piano. 

In balancing new and review materials, we need to remember that every assignment in itself is a new experience and for this reason does not always need to include new music. For some lessons the new can be new ways to practice or new ways to improve music the student is already studying. New pieces need to be added in some sensible ratio to pieces being discontinued. 

The review assignment could include new ways to work repertoire and technique, as well as follow through in areas such as reading, rhythm, theory, and practice skills. 

Finally, at regular intervals, we need to restudy our student's last few assignments, to see how well we are balancing all of these considerations.We can learn much about our teaching, and about or student's progress (or lack of it) by regularly reviewing and analyzing our assignments. 

Q. I understand that the teachers in your school are required to spend a full morning each week on lesson planning.This seems unrealistic to me, and I, for one, would find it impossible to devote this amount of time to lesson planning. Perhaps I misunderstand your intention. For example, is the lesson plan also used as the student's assignment?

A. While we consider lesson planning a significant part of the teaching-learning process, our teachers are certainly not required to set aside any specific amount of time for lesson planning. However, we have found that making the plan for the student's next lesson can best be done on the morning following the lesson, when it is still fresh in our minds. 

We make both a written plan for the teacher to use at the next lesson and an assignment for the student to take home in his notebook. We prepare the assignment with a carbon copy and leave the carbon in the student's notebook during the lesson, so that changes, additions, and notes written on the student's assignment during the lesson are automatically recorded on our copy. Then when we plan the following lesson we work from the copy of the assignment and the previous week's plan. 

The most important aspect of lesson planning, both for classes and for private students, is an overview of the year and a detailed ten-week plan, both of which are made before the first lesson is given. As we near the end of the tenth week, we review our plans and assignments for the preceding weeks and make a new tenweek plan. 

This overview is a general statement of our goals for this class or student in repertoire, theory, technique, and skills such as sight-reading, transposing, accompanying, and memorizing. The ten-week plan lists specific music, technical etudes and exercises, and theoretical concepts and materials, with books and page numbers for everything we expect to assign. 

Also included are notes about when to order new music. The ten-week plan is detailed and time consuming, but it saves hours of time in planning weekly lessons. It is treated as a flexible program, subject to change and modification as the lessons proceed.

A final thought

In general, I believe that planning a lesson consumes about as much time as giving it, a fact that ought to be taken into consideration when teachers determine their fees!

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