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Piano Lessons: What to Expect

You’ve probably heard of the Mozart effect: Music lessons correlate with confidence and success in a variety of areas, from social skills to teamwork to math performance — even to acceptance rates in medical school! Who knew that “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” was the first step in a road to success in a variety of endeavors.

And of course, there is the personal satisfaction: Of people able to express oneself through music. Accompany a friend singing. Play in a rock band. Or just noodle around.

So you’re thinking of piano lessons for your child, and wondering what to expect. This is a brief summary of what you’ll encounter in my studio. Each teacher has her (or his) own way of doing things, but I think it’s safe to say that we all share the goal of providing a supportive environment for learning an art that can sustain our students for the rest of their lives.

A Practice Instrument

A practice instrument. Students in my studio are expected to have a practice instrument at home. While I prefer that it be an acoustic piano in good shape (not to mention in tune), a keyboard is acceptable for the first year or two of study (depending on how quickly the student progresses.) The better the instrument, the better: You wouldn’t send your kid to learn tennis carrying a badminton racket, and you wouldn’t give them a bicycle helmet to play football. It’s the same with piano. For digital pianos, I prefer that you have 88 keys with weighted hammer action (I’ll give you more info when we meet), but a basic 61 key keyboard is okay for the start — as long as you understand that you’ll have to upgrade if your child sticks with piano. The damage to technique and finger development from practice on a substandard instrument cannot be overstated.

Regular Practice

I do expect regular practice. In my fantasy world (and in the world I grew up in), a beginner would practice 1/2 hour a day 6 days a week. That’s what I did, but I know, I know, things were different back then. Kids didn’t have as many choices, moms didn’t work outside the home, there wasn’t as much homework, and people’s schedules weren’t as busy. Nonetheless, if you can make practice a regular part of your family’s schedule, the progress you see will be remarkable. And it’s a virtuous cycle. As one nine-year old student told me “The more I practice, the better I get, and the funner the songs are.”

If you can manage to get a young beginner to practice 15 – 20 minutes 5 times a week, I promise you’ll see progress. For older students, I like to see 1/2 hour to 45 minutes a day 5 or 6 times a week…. although I rarely get that. I do have some dedicated students who want to be music majors who are practicing 2 – 3 hours a day in high school, but they have made that decision for themselves in order to meet their personal goals.

I work with what I get… but I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t tell you what I think optimal practice times are for various levels.

Parental Encouragement

Parental encouragement during daily practice is helpful if you and your child have a relationship where that works. Not everyone does: Sometimes children assert their independence at the piano, and refuse the help. You are welcome to sit in during lessons so you know what I am assigning students to do. Even if you don’t know a thing about music, there are ways you can help… if it works for you.

All kids need to be reminded to practice. I needed to be reminded until I was in high school. Some parents say “as long as she wants to do it, it’s fine, but I don’t want to be the bad guy.” We need to stop framing practice in terms of “being the bad guy”! Practice should be fun. It is solving problems. Even so — you have to remind kids to brush their teeth and you probably get pushback from that once in a while! So expect pushback regarding the piano. Like any good habit, practice takes a while to set in.

I only accept children younger than 6 if parents agree to assist with supervising practice at home. Children that young simply cannot (in my experience) be expected to manage their own practice.

Studio Policy

Like many professional piano teachers, I have a studio policy that tells you how many lessons you are getting in a school year, what that will cost, when payments are due, and how and under what circumstances I handle make-ups. Piano teachers can only teach during a limited number of after school hours,. In order for your child to make progress, regular attendance is required. Please try to pick a time you won’t have to constantly change. I try to be as accommodating as possible, but unlike Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter books, I don’t have a time turner.


Please talk to me! I have taught hundreds of students. Some have gone on to be music majors. Many have stayed with me for many years. Parents recommend me to other parents … and perhaps even more important, students recommend me to their friends. I can help you work through problems your child may be having. Most of all, I want my students to both enjoy their lessons (which is the easy part) AND enjoy their practice time (which can be more of a challenge). I personalize lessons and repertoire taught to adjust to different student personalities and preferences. Open conversations help me understand your child better — and they help you understand why I teach certain skills and pieces of music to your child at different times.

Learning piano is a long-term, deep-end-of-the-ocean type of activity. That it is worth it seems obvious to me (of course it does — I’m a piano teacher!) — but also to my students, who often stay with me for 6, 8, 10, or even more years. Perhaps the greatest evidence I can offer is that frequently, my graduating high-school seniors ask if they can come back for more lessons during their vacations! For me, this is the greatest honor I can imagine — that piano lessons and their playing now mean so much to them that they independently want to continue — with me — whenever possible. (And what a kick it is to see a kid I knew as a 6-year old driving up my driveway in their own car for lessons!)

I look forward to seeings you in lessons — or hearing your child at a recital one day!

How to Choose a Piano (or Music) Teacher

If you’re like most parents, you’re probably wondering where the summer went. back-to-school specials are in full swing, and you’ve probably got a mile-long list relating to soccer schedules and PTA meetings. And music lessons.

Don’t wait to look for a piano teacher: Many already have their fall schedules booked. But if you are at the beginning of the process, here’s a brief road map to finding the right teacher for your child.

Finding Potential Teachers

Many music teachers rarely advertise. Most of us find students from word of mouth, and of course, the better the teacher is, the less her or she needs to advertise. So you generally won’t find your town’s most popular teacher in the yellow pages.

Many piano teachers do have websites, which you can usually finding by searching for “piano teacher” and “your town, state.”  Websites may give a little bit of information about the studio, its location, and the teacher’s credentials and philosophy, along with contact information.

You can also ask for recommendations at the local music stores, piano shops, sheet music stores, and the like. Note, however, that some music stores offer in-store music lessons, so they may steer you to their teachers.

Public school music teachers are another resource. They tend to know the private music teachers in the area, and can give you some names of teachers who have good reputations.

Also check to see if your area has a community music school. These schools generally vet the teachers. Many require college music degrees, or significant performance experience.

Questions to Ask a Music Teacher

The following issues are some that you’ll want to cover in your interview with a music teacher. Some are purely practical. Others address issues of compatibility and teaching philosophy.  There’s not right answer to any of these questions: An excellent teacher may or may not have a music degree, and may or may not have performing experience. But the questions will get you talking to each other, and will help you feel out your compatibility.

  • What qualifications and experience do you have?
  • How long have you been teaching?
  • What ages do you typically teach?
  • Do you teach one style of music or many, and how do you decide?
  • Do you do studio recitals?
  • Do you participate in any out-of-studio programs (such as state contests or Piano Guild competitions)
  • How long are lesson times?
  • What is the cost?
  • What is your payment policy?
  • What is your make-up and cancellation policy?
  • Where are you located (or do you teach in students’ homes)?
  • What is your availability?
  • Is there anywhere I can hear you play? (Answers might include local gigs, the Internet, or a CD)
  • Do you have any experience dealing with a child who…. (has ADD, Aspergers, is four years old, has a learning delay issue, etc.)?
  • What is your philosophy about teaching music?
  • What kind of instrument is required?
  • How much practice do you require?
  • What can I as a parent do to help?

Having an open conversation with a teacher and being sure all your questions are answered is the first step in establishing the foundation of a relationship that lasts for many years.

Beethoven, Viral Marketing, and Fur Elise

Viral marketing is supposedly the new kid on the marketing block, what with social networking and computers and Blackberries and Tweets. Only, it turns out that there’s nothing new about viral marketing.

To the contrary, consider Ludwig van Beethoven and a simple piece of classical music.

When a Song Goes Viral

For two hundred years, students have been coming into piano teachers’ studios begging to play it. They live in homes without a single recording of classical music. They think Beethoven is the name of a big cartoon dog. They can barely play three correct notes in a row. They don’t know the name of the song they want to play. Neither do their parents. They can’t remember where they heard it. They don’t even like to practice piano, but they will, they promise, if they get to play this one song.


These nine notes pass from one student to another like swine flu, the newest rumor about the principal, or a bad knock-knock joke. What is it about Fur Elise? Certainly, piano teachers don’t know the answer. There are other pieces kids love, but many of them are short and easy, like Heart and Soul or Chopsticks. Fur Elise is hard. It takes weeks to learn (sometimes months, if a student prematurely attempts the unabridged version).

“You can’t play it yet,” the teacher says. “It’s too hard.”

Usually, students recoil from the words “it’s hard” like a vampire recoils from daylight. But not this time.

“Pleeeeaze,” the student pleads. “I’ll practice every day. I promise.”

Be honest, wouldn’t every company like its products to be received with such desperate enthusiasm? And consider this: This is happening 200 years after the product was created.

Ten Things Beethoven Must Have Known About Selling His Songs

So what is it about this piece of music, or anything, really, that makes it so immediately appealing, so catchy, so viral? What did Beethoven know?

  1. It’s all about the hook. Keep it short. Keep it simple. Keep it strong. Make it memorable. Nine notes, and everyone recognizes it.
  2. Don’t be afraid of saying things twice. The main motif in Fur Elise comes back at least a dozen times. Put the message out there, then say it again.
  3. Get the kids hooked. Let a producer of kid shows do a children’s biographical film. Get it in the schools. If the kids love it, maybe they’ll love something else later on. The Moonlight Sonata, perhaps. Maybe they’ll shell out for the Symphony. Or want to learn to play the Hammerklavier.
  4. Don’t be afraid of new media, and don’t be stuffy. Sell the rights to a Peanuts cartoon. Let the theme go on a cell phone ringer program. If the audience hears it in a commercial, they’ll recognize it in a concert. Maybe they’ll check out what else this guy wrote.
  5. Bury the complicated stuff. Make the opening ring, draw them in. Then hit them with more. Not everyone will buy into the more complex ideas, but some will.
  6. Use a ringer. That most successful and talented student who is up to every challenge and can’t wait to play for a group of people? Teach it to her.
  7. Don’t underestimate word-of-mouth. Not even piano teachers can name a prominent artist who has recorded Fur Elise. It’s never played in “real” piano concerts. The big boys ignore it, but it’s all over Youtube and piano recitals.
  8. Have a mysterious love story in there somewhere. Who was this Elise anyway? After 200 years, scholars only think they know. Keep them guessing.
  9. Being temperamental, tragic, and having a dodgy personal life help sell stuff. They always did.
  10. Don’t ride on the laurels: Keep creating good work. The audience will come back for more.

Case studies are used in business schools to learn from other people’s failures and successes. Beethoven is not usually cited as a mastermind of the business world. But perhaps he should be.