Time-saving tips for teachers
Music teachers have always been busy people. Many of us juggle more than one job—teaching, performing, church work—in addition to the personal aspects of our lives. How do we maintain control of our schedules, environments, and commitments as we help bring the joy of learning music to our students? This article will explore both foundational principles and specific ideas for making your teaching and studio management more efficient.
It can be beneficial to periodically keep a log of how you spend your time. If you are busy, this may seem counter-intuitive, but the benefi ts gained may save time in the long run. This time inventory can help you determine where your time goes and reveal places where new organization might save signifi cant amounts of time.
These inventories may be done at a variety of levels. You might keep track of how long it takes you to complete the business aspects of your studio: scheduling, billing, purchasing music, etc. Time inventories of lessons can shed light on how you and your students spend the valuable lesson minutes. After keeping track of a few lessons you might discover an imbalance of time spent on one aspect to the detriment of other important areas. Another helpful inventory is for students to keep a log of their practice time and determine how much is spent (or not spent!) on various aspects of the assignment.
In the book, Inside Drucker's Brain, author Jeffrey Krames quotes Peter Drucker: "The first step in a growth policy is not to decide where and how to grow. It is to decide what to abandon."1 If you find yourself with not enough time to accomplish everything on your list, perhaps part of your list needs to be abandoned.
You may choose to abandon aspects of running your studio that you do not enjoy doing. Perhaps you should outsource billing to an accounting service, paying for the service by teaching another student or two. If you have a student whose family has difficulty paying for lessons, perhaps lessons or a discount could be exchanged for help with filing, music sorting, etc.
One of my most radical abandonments came ten years ago: I stopped entering my pre-college students in auditions and festivals. These activities can be useful for many students and teachers, but I wanted more freedom to explore music without the time and energy that was required to make these events happen. The resulting freedom from this choice energized my teaching and gave me more time to plan for lessons.
Some people seem to be born with an "organization gene," others of us are more challenged in this area. Two resources that have been helpful to many people are Getting Things Done by David Allen,2 and The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.3
Getting Things Done offers a comprehensive approach to organizing your schedule, work space, and files (electronic or paper). While I have not reached mastery with all of the techniques, Allen's concepts have changed my life for the better. His concept of setting aside time for a weekly review has helped me see the "bigger picture" of my life, keeping me focused on both details and long-range goals.4
Stephen Covey's concept of placing the "big rocks" in your schedule fi rst and adding other details as time allows has great ramifi cations for teachers' daily schedules and lesson planning. I have decided that a "big rock" for my students is sight-reading. I want my students to be independent musicians when they leave my studio, and being able to read a piece of music successfully, whether as amateurs or professionals, will be a crucial skill for the rest of their musical lives. Therefore, sight-reading is a "big rock" at, or near, the beginning of each lesson. I fi rmly believe this focus has saved time for the students, both during their practice time and lesson time, because they are able to learn other pieces more quickly due to their improved music reading skills.
Whether you use a published piano course, curriculum from a state or national organization, or your own plan of study, it is helpful to have resources at your fingertips to aid in long-range and lesson-by-lesson planning. These resources might include spreadsheets listing what page concepts are introduced, allowing you to see what needs to be prepared in the weeks before a student takes a concept home to practice. One of the most ineffi cient uses of lesson time is fixing mistakes that were caused by insufficient preparation of the concept the student has practiced incorrectly all week. Perhaps a notebook or database listing which supplementary repertoire students are now ready to play once they have reached a certain page in a published piano method could save you time and help you remember wonderful pieces you maybe haven't assigned recently because you've forgotten about them.
Below are some specific ways teachers across the country use their time, and their students' time, efficiently.
Katherine Tobey (Baton Rouge, LA) uses scheduling to make the most of her teaching hours:
I rely on team lessons, monthly group lessons, and overlap lessons to save teaching time. Beginner team lessons (two or three students), and monthly group lessons for all levels, motivate students in addition to saving teaching time. Whenever possible, I schedule students of the same level back-to-back and overlap their lesson times by fifteen minutes so I can teach them technique or theory together, fitting ninety minutes of teaching into seventy-five minutes.
Kathy Wilson (Tulsa, OK) has abandoned make-up lessons:
I have a lesson exchange program that the parents may use and they are responsible for notifying me of any lesson switches made. This idea, which I learned from Beth Gigante Klingenstein at a workshop, is probably the biggest time-saver I have in place!
For more information concerning web tools to assist in scheduling lessons see this issue's Technology department. Donna Toney (Baton Rouge, LA) stresses the importance of communicating clearly what she expects the student to accomplish during the week:
For me, saving time in lessons means routine and clear assignments. Technique is always first, and I hear it all. Students are assigned short-, mid-, and longrange pieces, and I hear all the short assignment, but may only hear sections of the more complex repertoire. Theory is checked when attention wavers, and I've learned to "fi x" only some of the problems. Without a magic wand, I have to know students are using the tools from lessons to apply corrections to all their work.
Nan Baker Richerson (Lexington, KY) uses practice guides to ensure effective home practice.
Each week, I send students home with a practice guide. If the student is young, I often write the practice guide geared toward the parent. While it initially takes time to write a practice guide, I keep templates in my computer for all of the methods and levels that I use most frequently. I can easily pull up a template and quickly tailor it to a specifi c student (see Example 1).
For students who have difficulty paying attention to their assignment sheet, I often tape the assignment for a specific piece to the edge of the music with removable tape. This tape, made by 3M and sold in office supply stores, functions like a sticky note. The student has no excuse for not seeing the items in a specific piece that need attention. This saves not only time, but frustration as well.
Services like Dropbox or Google Docs can simplify your communication with parents, students, and your own multiple devices or computers. Courtney Crappell (University of Texas at San Antonio) uses Dropbox for a variety of purposes:
Stay in sync with students and parents by sharing studio documents, assignment sheets, and recordings using free Dropbox folders (www.dropbox.com). Create or modify files on your computer, tablet, or smartphone during lessons and then save the time you would spend printing or emailing attachments and links by storing them in shared folders. Dropbox magically updates you students' folders with the latest versions.
Cataloging music and documents
Sometimes an investment of time can yield many dividends. Melody Payne (Marion, VA) has completed two projects that have made her planning more efficient:
A few months ago I entered the contents of my music library into a spreadsheet, searchable by type of item (collections, duets, seasonal, etc.,), composer, publisher, date, and level. When I need to find a specifi c piece or collection, a quick search in the spreadsheet saves me from having to search my entire bookshelf. It takes seconds to update the spreadsheet when I purchase new items, and the list is invaluable for insurance purposes.
Scanning my paper documents (lecture notes, graduate school projects and handouts, recital programs, etc.) and saving them in clearly-labeled folders on my laptop has enabled me to find them much more quickly by doing a keyword search instead of turning page after page in a binder to find just the right document. This has increased the efficiency of my piano lesson planning time each day and created tons of space on my bookshelf.
Spotify is a commercial music streaming service with free and subscription options. Bryan Powell (Oklahoma City, OK) uses Spotify to help his students find quality recordings:
Spotify music service has been a great time saver for my students and myself in finding quality recordings of piano repertoire. In the past, my students would search YouTube for quality interpretations among the many amateur renditions. With Spotify, I can build playlists of excellent recordings and share them with students directly through Spotify, or through Facebook, Twitter, or a weblink. Go to www.spotify.com for more information.
Time may be the most precious element we have. It deserves our attention and utmost stewardship. Let the most important priorities for your life and your students' development thrive as you use both old and new technologies to make the most of every moment. Teach well.
Steve Betts is Associate Dean and Professor at the California Baptist University School of Music and a Managing Editor of Clavier Companion.
Courtney Crappell is Assistant Professor of Piano Pedagogy and Coordinator of Class Piano at the University of Texas at San Antonio.
Katherine Tobey has taught piano independently for twenty-nine years. She is LMTA.org webmaster and MTNA South Central Division Certifi cation Commissioner.
Donna Toney is an independent piano teacher in Baton Rouge, Louisiana.
Kathy Wilson lives in Tulsa and graduated from the University of Oklahoma with a Bachelor's in Piano Performance, studying with Celia Mae Bryant and Dr. David Kaiserman. She has taught private and group lessons independently for over thirty years.
Melody Hanberry Payne, Ph.D., NCTM, holds degrees from William Carey University and Louisiana State University. She is president of the Blue Ridge Music Teachers Association and offers private and online lessons in Marion, VA. Read her blog: The Plucky Pianista.
Bryan Powell is an adjunct instructor of piano at the University of Oklahoma, where he is a candidate for the Ph.D. in Music Education with an emphasis in Piano Pedagogy. He holds an M.M. from the University of Colorado and has studied with Barbara Fast, Jane Magrath, and Robert Spillman.
Nan Baker Richerson, Ph.D, NCTM, is on the piano faculty at the Gist Piano Academy in Lexington, KY, where she teaches group piano classes for adults and maintains a private studio.
1 Krames, Jeffrey A. (2008). Inside Drucker's Brain. New York: Penguin, p. 101.
2 Allen, David. (2001). Getting Things Done. New York: Viking.
3 Covey, Stephen R. (1989). The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. New York: Simon & Schuster.
4 Allen, Ibid.