Over the summer break I have been doing quite a bit of thinking about how we teach and how our pupils learn. As we know, each individual pupil has strengths or weaknesses and a pupil can sometimes make huge leaps in his/her understanding, whilst at other times their learning appears to plateau.

Research shows that learning rarely happens in a straight line. So, as teachers, we have to be able to respond to all situations.


Over the past 12 months I have been privileged to watch between 40-50 piano lessons (all previously recorded) given by a whole variety of teachers. I have loved seeing all the care and enthusiasm that theses teachers have demonstrated in their teaching. Yet it has confirmed my earlier suspicions that most of us (and I include myself in this number) do far too much of the work during lessons! Typical examples of this include:

  • talking lots!
  • giving detailed instructions
  • taking a nod of the head and ‘yes’ as proof of pupil understanding
  • asking a question and, without waiting for an answer, rushing straight on or answering for the pupil!

These are often all very subtle but have the effect of preventing the development of pupil independence.


In the book Inspirational Teachers, Inspirational Learners the authors Gilbert and Ryan point out that:

‘Spoon feeding in the long run teaches us nothing but the shape of the spoon’! (p. 76).

What’s more they say that:

‘Inspirational teachers have always recognised that effective learning requires deep thinking. In short they recognise that children have to think hard to really learn’. (p. 75).

So, let’s all aspire to be inspirational. What steps should we take to stop spoon-feeding our pupils and instead get them to develop a more independent approach by thinking and working harder?

Maybe it is time to get ‘messy’!


Back in 2011 I devised the concept of ‘Messy Piano’, helped by members of The Oxford Piano Group. It is a way of teaching that is designed to nuture independent learning in pupils whilst encouraging piano teachers to think differently about how they teach.

Messy Piano encourages a creative and imaginative approach to lessons and supports the exploration of new, engaging ways to teach and learn the piano. Significantly, all the ‘messy’ learning takes place within a structured and carefully planned curriculum.

The eight main principles that lie at the heart of a ‘messy piano’ approach are:

  1. Making music should be at the heart of all lessons
  2. Every pupil is unique and needs an individual and tailor-made approach
  3. All learning should be framed within a structured and progressive curriculum
  4. Experiential learning should precede and support the introduction of notation
  5. Pupils should be encouraged to learn through a process of exploration and discovery
  6. Lessons and learning should have a sense of energy moving between pupil, teacher and piano
  7. Lessons should engage the imagination and creativity of pupils and teachers
  8. Pupil independence should be encouraged in all learning through pupil self-reflection

The eight messy principles guide teachers towards a different way of teaching. Let’s have a look at what a ‘messy lesson’ might consist of.


Of course, a Messy Lesson is actually anything but messy! For maximum impact and learning a messy lesson is carefully crafted, right down to the kind of questions that are asked. Messy lessons need lesson planning.

Those of us who have worked in schools know that lesson planning is an ongoing part of the job. Class teachers plan the learning journeys of their students with learning outcomes, activities and opportunities for independent learning.

Is this situation also found in piano lessons? On the whole I think not. Whilst many of the teachers I have worked with have monthly or termly plans in place for students, planning for each lesson is far less common.

Here are some first thoughts about what I think the pros and cons are of planning individual piano lessons.

The pros…

  1. Learning an instrument, especially in the early stages, is about gaining a specific set of skills and concepts. Planning lessons helps to pass these on in a sequential and ordered way
  2. Pupil learning is put at the centre of the lesson
  3. Progress can be planned and monitored from lesson to lesson
  4. Teaching new concepts and skills becomes a deliberate act rather than an accidental occurrence
  5. Pupil motivation will remain higher because they will be involved in the learning process
  6. In the long run progress will be faster

The cons…

  1. Every lesson with every pupil is different
  2. It takes a lot of time to plan properly
  3. You have to work out what has to be learnt and how to teach it
  4. The artistry needed to become a pianist is difficult to pin down in a lesson plan

For me the advantages of planning far outweigh the disadvantages. Planning for piano lessons is absolutely central for me even I don’t always stick to them!

I want all my pupils to be musicians first and pianists second – the piano is just the instrument of musical expression. (This harks back to what Dame Evelyn Glennie said at the ISME Conference in Glasgow earlier this summer). In addition I want my pupils to be curious and adventurous learners who embrace their musical challenges.

I am curious though to explore just how to plan lessons as efficiently and swiftly as possible. Join me in next week’s blog when I will be doing just that!

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart | Director & Co-Founder The Curious Piano Teachers


  1. Blackiekitty

    I like the concept of no.6, can you explain more about it? Some students come in lesson act like an almost dying fish, how can I encourage them?

    1. Sally

      Hi there, here’s three ideas for you to try. First of all offer your students a glass of water when they arrive as they might be de-hydrated. I often have a jug of water ready, complete with some fruit floating around in it! Second, start with some slightly different and curious activity than you normally do. For example (and this is dependent on age) ask who their favourite super-hero is then ask them to play a scale in that style! Finally, aim to move the student away from the piano keyboard at some point either to listen to you model or play a game (e.g. rhythm flashcards). Reading music and playing the piano is intense mental work and some students get easily fatigued and overwhelmed. Hope those ideas help.

    1. Sally

      Hi Martina,
      I’m sorry if it isn’t clear yet. I am returning to the topic in the next blog post so let’s see if I can clarify the situation for you then!

  2. Ben Foo

    Main problem is to improve a students discipline towards practicing on their own. In fact some students just don’t practice at all so the need for severe spoon feeding, just like playing a game of golf with them then dragging them through the course!

    I like the idea of students being musicians, loving the learning process, exploring music themselves etc, but the reality is that many are just not this keen on piano studies compared to say something like Pokemon! Those rare few who are especially interested in learning piano and maintain this excitement for the long run, well they are a dream to teach but far and few inbetween.

    1. Jordan Daniels

      I agree with Ben Foo. Sometimes spoon feeding is just needed. When a student is hard working and has the love for piano and starts figuring things out on their own, a teacher can be more open to asking thought provoking questions and challenging the student to discover new things. I also believe it’s pretty rare to find a student that no longer needs “spoon feeding.”

  3. Lynda Cowell

    As a new teacher, I can see how easy and boring it would be to get into the trap of just relying on the beginners tutor books for every beginner ,but after completing the EPTC have learnt that there is so much more to teaching the piano .l spend hours now planning my lessons thinking about their guiding principles ,ensuring that my teaching is individually tailored ,has music making at the centre,allows the pupil to be creative and use their imagination and also give them time to answer a question which I never use to do .And when the pupils start saying ,that was fun ! Then I know I am almost there …still lots to learn ….

    1. Sally

      Hi Tim,

      I shall be continuing the topic for the next few weeks so during that time you will get some examples of what ‘messy’ lessons might contain.
      I hope you will find them useful.


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