When I am wearing my hat as an ABRSM examiner it is not uncommon to get a whole group of pupils from the same teacher, all taking the same practical grade exam, all playing the same pieces.


I wonder why this is the case? Whilst it might make preparation easier for the teacher, each of these pupils is distinctly different in personality. One eight year old might bound in with all the confidence of a seasoned performer, whilst another shyly creeps in and the next one is visibly shaking in his shoes.

One of the Guiding Principles behind Messy Piano is that ‘every pupil is unique and requires an individual and tailor made approach’. I want to look at this from two perspectives: pupil traits and pupil states.


Here in the U.K. we are often teased about our obsession with the weather! That’s because every day something different happens and we can have all four seasons in the space of 24 hours. This is due to the fact that we live in a temperate maritime climate.

Pupil traits are just like our climate, they are relatively stable and unlikely to change much. Pupil states however can fluctuate just as much as our weather according to circumstances both inside and outside of the piano studio.


As teachers we should be aware and work with the character traits of our pupil. As these are relatively fixed there is little we can do to alter them. If you want to explore this area further have a look at the personality types outlined by the Myers & Briggs Foundation.

The 16 different personality types identified can give us quite a fresh perspective on our pupils. Click here to take the Free Personality Test now!


The state that a pupil arrives at a lesson in can, as we all know, be very variable! All sorts of things can have a factor on their mood and mental state including many external influences. Within the confines of the piano studio there are a number of things that we can do to make sure that our pupil gets an individual and tailor made approach. As our Curious Expert Paul Harris says in his book The Virtuoso Teacher: ‘we shouldn’t have similar expectations from one pupil to another’. (p24)


In order to have the motivation to continue learning a pupil has to know ‘What’s In It For Me’ or why should I bother learning this piece? According to Ian Gilbert the learner needs to understand ‘how they will benefit from learning what you are trying to teach them’ (Essential Motivation, p8).


Professor Carol Dweck‘s groundbreaking research into mindset is being increasingly adopted in many parts of the educational world. Behind the concept is the theory that intelligence is something that can be developed. However, effort is required. Her research (Mindset, p17) showed that:

For children with the growth mindset, success is all about stretching themselves - Carol Dweck
Tweet quote

This where teachers have a considerable part of play. In lessons we should aim to use language that gives specific feedback around effort, strategies and tactics used rather than praising in a more personal way. So, for example, instead of saying vaguely, ‘that was lovely’ tell them ‘that was at a steady tempo all the way through’ or ‘that phrase wasn’t really shapely’.

Click here to read an article, published earlier this year in The Guardian, entitled: ‘New test for ‘growth mindset’, the theory that anyone who tries can succeed’.


A few years ago I had three pupils, all of the same age, one after the other. They were all beginners but they were all SO different from each other. The first one really struggled to get her fingers to do anything but look like flat sausages whilst the second one plodded along in a happy but occasionally quite detached way. The last pupil of the day however was able to respond swiftly and accurately to suggestions and right from the start he was able to play with a real sense of musical integrity.

For each of these pupils I had a different set of expectations. Within the individual expectations each one was encouraged work to the highest standard possible. I believed, and let them know that I believed, that they were capable of achieving whatever goal was currently set for them as pianists.

‘Great teachers set high expectations for all their students, not just the ones that are already achieving’. Mindset (p196).


So, a one piece fits all approach, is rarely a successful formula for happy and motivated pupils. As teachers we need to consider the piece, the pupil and match up the learning opportunities.

Here are recordings  of four pieces (all from ABRSM Grade 4 2017-18 syllabus). As you listen to each one consider the following questions:

  1. What are the main pianistic skills and/or musical concepts that can be taught through the piece?
  2. What are the main challenges in the piece?
  3. What pupil (or type of pupil) might this be suitable for?

Let’s start a discussion about this idea: that ‘we learn through sharing’. We’d love you to leave your comments about one or more of the pieces below. Also, let us know if you are interested in a blog series about growth mindsets.

P.S. Just yesterday I visited a primary school who has adopted the idea of a growth mindset and whose SATS results have recently seen a massive increase. On a wall was a display of growth mindset statements. So instead of saying ‘this is too hard’ the children are encouraged to say ‘this may take some time and effort’.


Dweck, C. (2012) Mindset: How you can fulfil your potential. Ballantine Books, New York

Gilbert, I. (2002) Essential Motivation in the Classroom. Rutledge & Falmer, London & New York

Harris, P. (2012) The Virtuoso Teacher: The inspired guide for instrumental and singing teachers. Faber Music, London


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



  1. Alison

    Hi Sally,
    I saw you speak at AOTOS and you had some great and interesting ideas there on notation ( and what I can remember, I’m using). So I agree with the comment above: more on notation would be great.
    P.S. Is there anything like a ” Curious Piano Teachers teachers list? I would love to send my son to someone who teaches in the way you advocate.

  2. John H

    All pieces felt quite long and sounded harder than those my recent candidates (all 3 of them over last 2 years) have played
    Foreign Correspondent: I thought the RH 4ths could take some practise to get them sounding together, a lot of chromatic chords to read, learn and remember and the steadier the pulse the better.
    Dark eyes: Real scope for characterisation of the melody including rubato, balancing textures ‘cos the tune went to the LH and the last few bars did not go as I expected so how to communicate that ‘surprise’

    1. Sally

      Thanks for these thoughts John. I agree that Dark Eyes is full of character and needs quite a sophisticated interpretation to pull it off.

  3. Cecilia Izzett

    Very interesting set of pieces. Rhythmically challenging and I feel a pupil would need to feel an affinity with the ‘jazzy’ genre and that often requires some maturity…. lots of listening and experience with improvisation?

    I would really appreciate some discussion on teaching children to read notation, some seem to gain fluency relatively quickly while others seem to take a long time to master fairly simple reading skills particularly decoding the bass clef! I try many different methods, games, flash cards, duets, lots of simple sight reading.

    1. Sally

      Hi Cecilia, yes, they are all rhythmically quite challenging!Thank you for letting us know that you would like a discussion on teaching children notation – we will keep it mind for future blogs!


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