Back to school: Some tips for a happy and successful start to the new year

There is something that feels so positive about the start of a new school year. In the last two weeks of July and the majority of August, I curse the ‘great value’ school uniform adverts on bus stops and ‘Back to School!’ shop plinths piled high with pencil cases and geometry sets. But in the last week it almost feels appropriate and right (warm fuzzy feeling inside optional). This might just be me harking back to the days of feeling smug about my brand new set of smelly gel pens, but I like to think that fundamentally, it is about hope, renewal, and achievement.

My students will not have had any lessons for at least a month when we start back again next week. They will have been off school for six weeks. Many of them have been away from a piano for the majority of the holidays. As much as I believe that children really do need a long Summer break, this can lead to stress and feelings of disappointment in their first piano lesson (for both of us). We may not be able to just start from where we left off – we might have to go back. Things that were going really well before might have gone to pot. Even the most simple of concepts can be forgotten if they aren’t being regularly reinforced, and this can be disheartening – to say the least. I want to avoid any unnecessary stress in the coming weeks and that’s why I am going to do the following:

Have a load of brand new materials

Instead of opening the old dusty book where you left off, open a new one. I’m not suggesting you should abandon all last year’s work, but give your students something new to get excited about. Daniel McFarlane’s ‘Supersonics Piano’ is contemporary, fun, and will definitely get students of all levels inspired. I think they are pretty cool and I think lots of my students will too. There is even a roadmap on the website so you can see what level pieces correlate with various popular methods.

Identify what a student finds difficult, and prepare something to specifically ease that area of difficulty

Those areas that were patchy before the Summer will definitely need a lot of attention now. Most of my students have a set of their own flash cards to practice note reading with. I use Susan Paradis’s ledger line flash cards – which are really useful because they are on the grand staff and cover 4 octaves. I’m going to give those who struggle with note reading an extra set this year – these giant ones from her website. This should make differentiating between different notes on the staff a bit clearer and easier. With sight reading, I am going to use the iPad app Piano Maestro on the ‘journey’ setting, deliberately starting off a lot easier than the student’s current level.

Have a back up plan

Let’s face it. Those lesson plans for the first week back shouldn’t have even been written. That’s why I am going to have a generic back up lesson plan which can be adapted for each student. To get the students really involved, i’m thinking about exercises that require an amount of self sufficiency: a small composition, adding an improvised part to a piece, listening to a piece of music and then doing a listening exercise, memorising a small piece of music… the possibilities are pretty endless.

Make some long term goals

I know that I certainly lose momentum if I don’t have something big in the pipeline to work towards. Some of my students are definitely that way inclined as well, and I do notice a little dip in their performance and motivation if they feel like they haven’t got a clear goal. Goals should not just be assessment orientated. Thanks to the Australian teacher and composer Elissa Milne, the idea of setting a numbered challenge – usually 40 pieces, roughly a piece a week – is increasingly popular. And so it should be, because it’s an amazing idea which makes perfect sense.

But for now, stick to smart targets

The idea of a big challenge is to motivate and inspire. However, that might be a little daunting after the long break. Smart targets are specific, measurable, achievable, relevant and timely. I’m thinking of setting these smaller targets in the first few weeks back because they are achievable now rather than in the long run. Little tasks, like memorising or transposing a small piece of music, learning 5 new notes and making up a little piece with them, learning 2 bars of music perfectly… again, there are many, many possibilities here, but the idea is that the smaller the target, the easier it will be achieved which is going to grow confidence and make those long term goals feel less daunting.

Encourage, rather than praise

I used to give students little rewards at the end of each lesson. I stopped doing that when I realised that the lesson was just a means to that sweet little end. I’ve also always been a little wary of too much praise. Sure, most of the time it is due, but praise is not always a good thing. Praise can also be a little mindless and meaningless and can breed complacency. Encouragement, on the other hand, is none of those things. Encouragement recognises hard work in a way that gets the student to recognise it as well, because it forces the student to reflect on their behaviour and performance. It promotes independence and self sufficiency and fosters determination and perseverance. Think about the difference between uttering generic praise (‘well done’, ‘that was excellent’, ‘good job’) and saying something that recognises the achievement, briefly describes what the student has done to get there, and the effect it has had (‘well done, you played that bar perfectly that time – all that repetition paid off’). This is a lot more helpful in the long run.


2 thoughts on “Back to school: Some tips for a happy and successful start to the new year

  1. Pauline, I’m so happy I’ve discovered your blog – you write beautifully, and I’m looking forward to reading much more in weeks and months ahead!


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