Last week I presented the general principles behind messy piano. This week I am going to look at a messy lesson in more depth.

As one-to-one instrumental teachers we have a potentially exciting and unique opportunity to explore how pupils can learn in new and deep ways. We are free to teach exactly how we like and, if we get this even half-right, the results can be very powerful indeed.  The secret, I believe, is to plan lessons more, with the attention focussed on how and what pupils learn.

piano teaching resources

Digital tablet computer

‘Get them to love learning and then you have a chance of getting them to love your subject’. [1]


Let’s try an experiment – print off a copy of the downloadable Lesson Plan, choose a pupil (ideally one that you already have some long term plans for) and use the 5 Step Formula outlined below to help you plan the next lesson.

DOWNLOAD Lesson Plan Guidelines

DOWNLOAD Lesson Plan Template


Conversely, the place to start is at the end. Ask yourself how the pupil is going to move from where s/he is currently to where you want them to be by the end of the lesson. The critical question is:

Where will the pupil be by the end of the lesson?

The more specific you are the more likely this is to be successful.

Framing some well defined Learning Targets is very helpful with this. I don’t think that I am still particularly great at framing these, yet what really helps me is to use the name of the student and an action verb (listen, imitate, sing, play, describe, explain, improvise, transfer, create, compose, write).

Here are two possible Learning Targets: which one do you think is more likely to have a positive outcome?

  • Danny will be able to play his piece rhythmically
  • Danny will be able to count, clap and play a 4 bar rhythm that uses crotchets, quavers and semiquavers whilst maintaining a steady pulse

For a positive 30 minute lesson only one or two Learning Targets should be created.

For more information about starting with THE DESTINATION I recommend Teaching Backwards. You could also investigate Bloom’s Taxonomy of Learning.


Once THE DESTINATION has been decided the next stage is to move onto THE PLAN. With this you can start planning the route.

How will I guide the pupil through the lesson so that the Learning Targets are achieved?

One suggestion is to break the route up into small stages. For each one make brief notes on: teaching ideas, resources, method of delivery and timings:

  • starter
  • stage 1
  • stage 2
  • stage 3
  • Review
  • Call-to-action (CTA)

Of course, each stage will probably have different content such as technique, reading skill development, musicianship, known repertoire and new repertoire yet, and this is where the crafting comes in, with the Learning Targets weaving their way through them all.

If I know what the Learning Targets are, I look for every opportunity to include it throughout the lesson.


With THE PLAN in place THE LESSON itself can be considered. Think back to some of the best lessons you have given. They will share certain qualities.

How will the lesson be delivered and what activities might it contain?

  • Making Music – an emphasis on making music should be paramount and central to the lesson. This might be the pupil playing, you playing to the pupil (and I don’t mean just demonstrating at the top or bottom of the keyboard), playing together or one pupil playing to another. Whatever its form music should be the dominant form of communication throughout.
  • Teaching Hats – consider what Teaching Hats you will need to wear. Will you be teaching something directly or through coaching, mentoring or collaborating with your student? Ideally you should find yourself wearing at least a couple of hats at some point during the lesson.
  • Lesson Pace – the Lesson should have a crisp and decisive pace to it. If you and the pupil get stuck on something it’s time to move onto to a fresh activity.
  • Dialogue – with making music the primary form of communication there shouldn’t be the need for lots of talking and explanations. What there is should be a two-way dialogue between the two of you simulated by carefully phrased questions.
  • Spirit – finally, it is vital to keep the spirit of the lesson in mind. Playful and creative at all times – get too serious and the learning usually disappears. Share your own passion for music and the piano openly with pupils – just by being enthusiastic you can inspire and motivate.


At some point you will need to carry out THE REVIEW. This will tell you whether or not the planned pupil learning has happened:
Has the pupil reached The Destination?
To find this out the pupil will need to demonstrate his/her understanding in some way or other. Success Criteria work hand in hand with the Learning Targets.
Let’s go back to Danny and his rhythm for some examples:
  • Danny can correctly count simple time rhythms from notation up to and including semiquavers
  • He can clap a simple time rhythm accurately holding a steady pulse
  • He can play a simple time rhythm accurately on one note holding a steady pulse with the other hand
And an extension success criteria might be:
  • He might be able to play a simple time rhythm accurately within a simple melody line
As ‘experts’  we are tempted to overlook the level of detail needed! Although this approach might seem long-winded, it leads to secure understanding in the long-run which will provide a stronger base for future development and growth.
THE REVIEW also feeds back into your planning for the next lesson. Depending on what the pupil has learnt you can choose to review, consolidate, develop, move on or re-think.


Towards the end of the lesson you and the student need to spend a few minutes pinpointing exactly what his/her job is before the next lesson.
Specifically, what is the pupil going to work on during their home practice?
Ideally, this is in the pupils own words, even if you have to write it for younger pupils. If THE DESTINATION has been reached this should be quite easy for them to do as they will be completely clear on what they have covered.
The call-to-action should be clear and direct. (maybe have a look at SMART )
Research shows that pupils lose motivation when they don’t understand what they are being asked to practise and when they feel overwhelmed or intimidated. Asking them to frame their own practice helps them to take ownership of their learning and feel in control.
So that’s it – an easy to use 5 step formula for planning piano lessons! To help you get started we have put together a one-sheet planning template for easy reference.
Over the next few posts I will continue to explore the subject of messy piano and lesson planning with some concrete examples. Join me next week when I ‘mess around’ with some of the Grades 1-2 ABRSM 17-18 syllabus.
My deepest thanks to all of you (you know who you are) whose lessons I have watched, whether in the last 12 months or previously. Everyone of you has contributed in some way to this blog and to my thinking.
[1] p. 45. Jim Smith, The Lazy Teacher’s Handbook (2010). Crown House Publishing Ltd.
This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Co-Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers





  1. Naomi

    I found this blog post very informative. Why? I was a piano teacher for 30 years. I learned that piano students excel, even if they do not continue to play, especially if they have learned to practiced, and the value of practicing something to get it right.

  2. Sandie M

    Using this to plan tomorrow’s lessons as we speak…. Finally my ‘planning head’ is going in the right direction. I’ve always known I try to cram too much in and not in an entirely logical fashion. I’ve found it so hard to break old habits, Thank you!

  3. Alice

    Thanks for reinforcing good lesson planning. Having retired from being a primary school music teacher I was included in all good teaching practices and now appreciate that I’m not alone in applying them. There is always so much to cover in a 30 minute lesson and am happy when my pupils are disappointed/surprised when the time is up. It’s all about making progress and loving it!


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