3 top tips for first piano lessons – #1 Tuning in


It’s the very first piano lesson. The piano stand is bare – not a bit of paper is in sight.

Together with my pupil we will make some music, exploring the different sounds the piano makes.

We are going to ‘play’ on and with the piano.

piano teaching resources

This week I have been at the Music and Drama Education Expo at Olympia, London along with many other teachers. To be honest this week I was going to tell you all about it but then I did a pop-up slot on the Piano Teachers’ Course stand and my plans changed! My topic was 3 top tips for first piano lessons and it occurred to me that you would all find this far more useful than hearing all about a show you weren’t at!

So today here is the first of my top tips – the others will follow over the next two weeks.


I am going to lead the way and set the example by creating some sounds on the piano linking them to something that is relevant at that time, in that place. This might be the fact that it is pouring with rain or the sun could be shining, maybe the pupil has a particularly eye-catching item of clothing, has come in their wellies or is just as quiet as a mouse!

As teachers we need to tune ourselves into that pupil and create something that reflects where s/he is in that moment.

Whatever the story my ‘music’ will have some or all of the following features:

  • It will move up and down the piano, using the whole range
  • A large range of dynamics will be evident
  • The sustaining pedal will be used for added colour
  • Rhythmically it will be ‘free’ time!
  • Melodically it might use black or white note clusters, individual notes or short patterns/motives
  • It will engage the imagination of the pupil

After I have started it all off it’s the pupil’s turn. I’m going to encourage him/her to join in by asking a series of questions. For example:

  • ‘Which part of the story would you like to play on the piano?’
  • ‘Which part of the piano is going to be best for that; the high notes or the low notes?‘
  • ‘How might you make that sound more like a mouse, a lion, a bear, a cat?’
  • ‘What would happen if you played that louder/quieter/faster/slower/higher/lower?’ etc.

As we play together I watch and listen, gathering as much information about how the pupil responds as I can.

  • Does s/he have a sense for the pulse of the music?
  • Does s/he respond to what I play – e.g. play quietly when I play quietly?
  • How comfortable or uncomfortable does s/he appear to be at the piano?

For me this is very much a fact-finding mission and, without the pupil feeling any sense of abandonment, I see how much I can withdraw from the situation.


Before long though it is time to move onto a new activity. Young children’s attention and energy tends to dip after a while but can be easily restored by just changing activities.

So join me next week when I look at what can happen away from the piano bench.

But before then grab a coffee, and sit down with a piece of paper jotting down as many of the things that you can think of that you do with your young beginners in their first lessons.

This blog post was written by Dr. Sally Cathcart, co-founder and Director of The Curious Piano Teachers.


15 thoughts on “3 top tips for first piano lessons – #1 Tuning in

  1. Leeanne Innes

    The first piano lesson can be very daunting for a child, especially young ones! They are still getting to know you and can be quite nervous. Having some toys to help create a story can relax the child and get their creative juices flowing. Of course, the teacher needs to be just as creative and join in the fun.

  2. Duncan Lance

    These are some fantastic tips; after all, it can be challenging to teach kids piano. I particularly like that the article reminds teachers to change up activities. That way you can make sure the child’s attention span sticks with learning the piano.

  3. Jordan

    Very good tips. I believe as teachers, we inspire students to make music an intrinsic part of their lives by giving them opportunities to shine musically. These tips are truly a big help especially for newbies. Every performance, whether recital, church, school or just friends and family are another step toward their goal. Let us encourage our students to involve in a piano lessons regularly.

  4. Monique Michaelides

    Yes yes yes! I am a super new teacher and want to embrace this type of teaching. It sounds like I’m not the only one that has to let go of my insecurities and get creative with improvisation. Thank you for this post and the above comments.

  5. Julie

    Hello, sorry I’m late at catching up on this post but improvisation is something I need to learn more about as a beginner piano teacher and also for myself as a pianist. I have booked myself on a course in Manchester next month to learn a bit more about it too, so any advice most welcome.


  6. Mary Beth Akers

    I, too, am very lacking in the area of improvisation. I think I teach it better than I do it myself, probably because of lack of confidence. I would be very interested to hear of courses, books, blogs, or anything else. I have very limited internet access, so an online course is not an option for me.

  7. Philippa Rose. ARCM. ATCL Musicianship.

    hello again. You have my email address because I always get your posting: prosety@ googlemail.com
    Look forward to your comments.
    Regards Philippa

    1. Jeannie Marcoux

      Hi, I am a piano teacher who has never had this approach to teaching or learning myself. I am eager to learn this improvisation skill. Please include me in any webinar or personal teaching possible. Thank you. Jeannie

      1. Sally

        Hi Jeannie,

        We can certainly add you to our mailing list and you will get an update when we are going to have a webinar on this subject. We are planning something later on in the spring.

        Thanks for reading the blog


  8. Philippa Rose. ARCM. ATCL Musicianship.

    This is very good for all lessons to begin with. It is the start of the little pianist making their own music. In the 1980’s Trinity ran a Diploma Course for two years part time led by Lettice Stuart, Philip Coleman and Robert Plowright. They taught us that this was the way into young musicians training, not just books used for reading. But, you have to be trained because many teachers do not feel comfortable improvising and that is where the problem always pop up. My pupils alway take the option of composing their own compositions on the Trinity syllabus. I have been head of music in many schools and I have begun from the very first lesson with improvisation. By the time a child is 16 and taking Grade 8 they compose their own piece and get very very high marks for it. They are quite at home with composing as they had started at the first lesson dreaming up starry nights/ waterfalls/ bear/ caves and all kinds of copying from myself. In this country, still children who come to me from other teachers are afraid to touch anything on the keyboard that is not in a book. They cannot memorise either because they are afraid of the keyboard.

    What you suggest above is very good and young teachers should take courses in improvisation. Andrew Quatermain from Pro Corda is a wonderful teacher and can teach teachers to learn how to do this. There are very few of us around who can start at child at 5 years old I’m afraid.

    If you would like to know more about how I teach improvisation/composition please contact me, I would love to help – perhaps put all my experience in a book – all 22 years of it. It was a wonderful diploma with 8 on the course. My latest Grade 8 only lost one mark on her composition at grade 8 level this Christmas and is only 14 years old. Some in the past have won 1st prizes for composing in the Festivals around Richmond/Kingston.
    Hope this gives you some confidence to carry on with your ideas. I look forward to your reply.

    Best wishes.

    1. Peter Newman

      Thank you for your post. As a fairly new teacher, advice from experienced teachers is very welcome. I have already been doing the storytelling play with my young students and they enjoy it very much – it’s reassuring to hear that I am doing the right thing! When I was learning, improvisation wasn’t part of what I did so found it hard to start (I did eventually at age 19) – I agree that it would have helped me to be more comfortable at the piano so will continue to use it in my teaching.
      Best wishes,

      1. Sally

        Hi Peter,
        It sounds as though you are on the right tracks with what you are doing. Have you come across Piano by Ear by Lucinda Mackworth-Young that might give you even more material?

    2. Sally

      I do agree Philippa that all teachers should learn to improvise.

      Two of our curious experts, Lucinda Mackworth-Young and Andrew Higgins both have books published on the subject but there is always room for more books on the subject!

    3. Deborah DoCarmo

      I was inspired and challenged by your post. I have been teaching piano for the last 26 years with excellent results. But unfortunately I feel my students could use a lot more creativity and spontaneity. I reay would like to hear, learn or have access to this methodology.
      Please contact me.
      Thank you

      1. Sally

        Hi Deborah,
        Thanks for your comments and delighted that our post has inspired you! Creativity is so important and as teachers we have to lead the way. Make sure you have signed up to our mailing list and that way you will get updates on everything that we publish.

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