4 Essential Ingredients for Piano Teachers

I love cake! What’s more I love making cakes, especially cupcakes but I am not someone who just remembers recipes so when I have to make a special, celebratory tea with a menu made up of sandwiches, jelly, cupcakes, swiss roll etc. I go straight to my recipe books, usually Nigella where I know I will find out what the essential ingredients are!

I know that if I have all the necessary ingredients and follow the recipe carefully, my cakes will emerge from the oven fluffy and moist. These days I am becoming more confident in my skills and often add my own creative touch – cherry and almond for example.

Without the basic recipe though I am lost and more likely to end up with a collapsed and stodgy mess!


Last week we asked ‘what is Grade 1? You might have found it’s really quite a hard question to answer! We do know that Grade  is made up out of a number of sections: pieces, scales, sight-reading, aural, improvisation, viva voice etc. This doesn’t provide us with the detail or method of what should be taught  though, any more than a tea menu tells us the ingredients of the cupcakes and how they were made.

That’s because the graded instrumental exam boards produce a syllabus, a menu, of what is to be examined. What is not provided (nor is it the exam boards role to do so) are the details of what to teach, the ingredients, and how to teach them. That is up to us to provide in the form of a curriculum or framework.

A curriculum is a plan of activities or a programme of study and but the trouble is that as a profession we have never worked out exactly what this consists of.  I admit that as an individual it is a big job and rather daunting – similar to the task on Masterchef where contestants get to taste a finished dish and have to work out what it has in it and how to reproduce it!

So I want to share with you a few of my thoughts on this, based on my work on The Piano Framework, and the four essential ingredients that I think need to be considered when creating a piano curriculum; Musical Concepts, Technical Skills, Pianistic Skills and Stylistic Awareness.


The first set of ingredients to consider are the Musical Concepts that pupils should know. The sub-sections of this might be rhythm, melody and structure with each of these subsequently divided into different elements. For example, Rhythm consists of pulse, simple time rhythms, compound time rhythms, triplets and duplets, dots and ties, metre and time signature. Melody breaks down into pitch notation, intervals, keys and key signatures whilst Structure divides into phrases, devices and structural.


Then we need to move onto Technical Skills the subsections of which are Technique and Keyboard Geography. The elements of Technique might be posture and body awareness, fingering, co-ordination, tone quality, articulation, scales, arpeggios and broken chords. I would highly recommend looking that the Piano Curriculum first produced by the FMS in 2002 for further breakdown of these elements.


The third set of ingredients consists of musical concepts that are approached via the piano. The broad divisions are titled Expressive and Harmony. The Expressive elements might encompass pedal, texture, ornaments, dynamics as a starting point whilst Harmony should begin with triads.


The final ingredient is an awareness of different styles and genres of music. It would break down to include the different periods of Western Art music as well as encompassing jazz, pop and world music.


All this comes with a health warning! This is a long term project, especially if you are attempting it by yourself. To give you an idea of how to break each of the elements down even further and place them into a sequence, here is an example of what you might do with simple time rhythm, from a real beginner up to roughly just above Grade 1 (Late Elementary level).

Rhythm values | simple time*

Beginners | crotchets and quavers, minims, semibreves

Early Elementary | crotchet, minim, semibreve rests

Elementary | single quaver and rest, syncopation, upbeats

Late Elementary | semiquavers, quaver and semiquaver patterns


musically and pianistically quite advanced. It requires a fundamental understanding of musical concepts, a high degree of technical skill, a developing sense of being a pianist and an emerging awareness of musical style along with an ability to listen with understanding.

Grade 1 is musically and pianistically quite advanced. - Sally Cathcart
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The Grade 1 exam should happen a significant distance into a young pianist’s learning journey; in my experience (and I know that I am not along in this) the average 6 – 7 year old takes between 2 – 3 years.

Here’s the thing, children can and do pass Grade 1 within 18 months but many of them will stop having piano lessons a couple of years later (my own PhD research and ABRSM stats clearly show this dramatic dip).

Why do they stop? The reasons given are varied but underlying nearly all of them is the point that learners lose heart and motivation under the weight of their ‘mis’understanding. If you kept making cupcakes that kept collapsing and didn’t taste very good wouldn’t you stop making them?

The good news is that when piano teachers have a curriculum at the centre of the learning process pupils develop strong foundations ensuring that later learning remains a positive and progressive experience.

When all the ingredients are in place the exam system can take its rightful place as the cherry on top of the perfectly balanced cupcake!


* This is a suggested sequence only – feel free to change!


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

2 thoughts on “4 Essential Ingredients for Piano Teachers

  1. Ruth

    So agree – so many teachers see rushing to a grade by an early age as a badge of honour. I have picked up a student whose teacher was getting her to take grade 1 really quickly even though it transpired that the student couldn’t read the notes. The girl was so confused she was about to give up. Now after taking things at her pace we are taking grade 1 this term. Not only is she confident with notes and rhythms she is enjoying phrasing, dynamics, character etc!

    1. Marian Smales.

      Sometimes it is not the teacher: I have had a number of ‘pushy’ parents who bring almost-beginners, and want to know when I can put them in for Grade 1 ! This is especially true of Chinese parents, but not exclusively. And not only grade 1. One Chinese mother wanted her son to do Grade 8 before I felt he was fully ready. I’d have given him another term at least, and he’d probably have got a distinction. As it was, he got a respectable merit. Not bad, but there was no need to rush !!

      I always tell parents that it will take far longer to get from absolute beginner to Grade 1, than it will from Grade 1 to Grade 2. I also make much of how nothing is wasted. What you learn in music on Day 1 you will still need to know at Diploma level It’s worth taking time to get it right.


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