Not Your Grandma’s Piano Lessons

When I first started teaching piano in the 80s, there were no blogs, webinars, or facebook groups for piano teachers. No downloadable teaching tools, no youtube videos. I started out armed with a notebook full of ideas from my pedagogy professor, a survey of the various methods on the market, and the 2-volume set of books by Denes Agay, Teaching Piano:  A Comprehensive Guide and Reference Book for the Instructor

Over the last 10 years, I have accumulated little board games or printable teaching tools for most of the concepts that I cover in the first 3 years of piano lessons. I have new ways of communicating concepts and technique, thanks to blogs, music teacher conferences, webinars, and facebook groups. I have  manipulatives like a stuffed sloth to remind students to practice slowly and a large staff for my floor. I have several ipad apps that do things I could have never imagined in the late 80s. 

And yet, the delivery method for piano instruction was still pretty much the same as it had been for centuries – a student and a piano teacher sitting at the keys together. Then, March of 2020 hit, and it all changed. 

Yesterday was Tuesday. I usually teach one online student and 3 in-person students on Tuesday, but because my 3 in-person students all had colds, I taught all of my students on the Rock Out Loud Live platform with options to use both a front camera and an overhead camera on my keys, Classroom Maestro software, and a digital piano. I now upload assignments and pdfs into the Tonara app, and play games with For some reason, the connection with one of my students was sketchy. So, after my day finished, I put my favorite frozen pizza in the oven, and while it cooked for 15 minutes, I created 2 videos for her using my Blue Yeti mic, an overhead Logitech c920 webcamOpen Broadcaster Software with a split screen showing my hands on the keys on one side and Classroom Maestro demonstrating what I was playing on both a staff and a keyboard graphic. It was all already plugged up and ready, so creating the videos was a short affair. I uploaded both videos into Tonara so she could view them later, and just as I finished, the oven timer buzzed, and I took out my supper.

It has become clear to me that we’re never going fully back to the old fashioned method of piano lesson delivery. Younger teachers than I were already embracing techy approaches, and now that even old fogeys like me are doing it, the techy piano lesson is here to stay. 

And you know what? I’m happy about it. For the first few weeks of online lessons last March, I was exhausted as I tired to figure out how to offer quality instruction with only a laptop and a sketchy wifi connection. I knew I could make lessons better with the right tools, but it seemed so overwhelming to figure out what I needed and how to use it. My plan was to ride out what I thought would be a short lockdown and get back to what I knew how to do – sit side by side on a piano bench. But, over the summer, I realized that I didn’t want to just make do. I wanted my studio to grow with the times and to grow in the sense of what I could offer. So, here I am now, with my webcams, fancy microphone, overhead booms, and new software. 

The truth is, it was inevitable. I taught high school English in 1983-84 with nothing more than a textbook, my college notes, and my own imagination. I taught middle school English as a long-term sub in 2015-16 with tons of online resources for interesting lessons, online resources connected to the textbook, a classroom smartboard, an app for communicating assignments and uploading resources for students, a digital gradebook that made it possible for parents to know their child’s grades in real time, and lesson plans that included having students create their own documentary videos. None of these things were new for classroom teaching in 2015. So, those of us who were still teaching old-fashioned piano lessons were already behind the times in educational delivery 6 years ago. Much less now.

I’ve never been one to indulge in sad nostalgia, to look back at the conditions of the past and say, “Oh, how I wish we could go back to…” whatever. It feels negative and pointless. Especially when the conditions of the present offer so much that is positive. I’m feeling quite positive about video instruction – asynchronous instruction with video exchange. I think that a video can deliver focused instruction as well as in-person instruction, especially when there’s an option for individual feedback via video. 

Distractions? No problem. A video can be viewed multiple times and at a time of the student’s optimal condition for learning. I teach several young students late in the day because that’s when our schedules align, but it’s not the best time for young students to focus. A video does not require our schedules to align. A teacher’s time and scheduling limitations are less restrictive when we can deliver instruction efficiently by video and then engage in shorter episodes of personal feedback via video exchange. I can only fit 4-5 students in an afternoon when I’m teaching 45-minute lessons. I can reach 3 times as many students with a video and video exchange model. 

With video instruction, I can offer lessons to students in locations where there are no degreed piano teachers, but plenty of computers, smart phones, and ipads – places like my hometown and other rural areas where the only people with masters degrees in music are the school music teachers whose schedules are already full. If there are, in fact, school music teachers. Technology is an equalizer – your location does not have to determine the quality of the instruction available to you. I don’t need to pay rent on a storefront location or worry about liability insurance. Want to travel? Technology allows me to teach from any location.

Want to specialize as a teacher and teach only beginners or only advanced students? I love teaching beginning and intermediate students and have been happy to have only 2-3 more advanced students over the years. Not that I don’t like teaching the advanced ones, but I want to practice their music and do some research to be more prepared to teach their literature. It takes time. I’ve thought many times that I wish we had a system in place where students could study elementary level music with one teacher, graduate to the middle school level teacher, then move on to the high school level teacher. This becomes so much more possible with digital delivery systems because your options for teachers are not limited to your geographic area. 

I have more thoughts about things like screen fatigue and quality concerns, but this blog post is already long. In short, I’m excited for the future of private music instruction. The pandemic that got us here might be awful, but I see these new developments in instructional delivery as silver linings. Let’s embrace it!