The first private music lesson is a big moment for both the student and teacher. It’s your chance to assess whether or not they are ready for lessons, as well as if they will be able to commit to at least two years of learning.
So how do you know what questions you should ask during this first lesson? What do you need to look out for? How can you make sure that students understand how important it is that they practice on their own time? And most importantly, how can you tell if someone has the drive and commitment needed to learn a musical instrument?
We’ve put together an overview of some things we think are worth paying attention to when meeting new students! This article gives tips on what questions may help determine whether or not your student will be successful in music lessons. These pointers will also help ensure that your student understands the importance of practicing outside of class on their own time!
What Level Is The Student?
Before planning your first lesson with any student, you need to know whether or not the student has any prior musical experience. The manner in which you will approach the first lesson will generally depend on the answer to this question. If they are completely new to music, it may be best to start with an introduction lesson before beginning any sort of formal training.
If they have prior musical experience either on the instrument you are teaching them or another instrument, the first lesson should include some form of assessment.
First Lesson With An Experienced Student
If the student has prior experience, the first lesson should be an informative “get to know you” type of lesson. During this lesson, you will meet the student and assess their current playing level, as well as let them know your expectations.
Make the student feel at ease
Any student walking into the first lesson with a new instructor is going to be nervous. It is important to make the student feel at ease and as though they are a part of the lesson, not just a spectator. Find out as much as you can about your student before meeting them. If you have direct contact with the student already, this should be easy to do over email or phone. If you don’t, ask their parent(s).
Be sure the teaching environment is welcoming. You should have a comfortable space where the student can put their instrument and parents feel at ease to sit in for this meeting.
Introduce yourself. I think everyone knows this one, but it is important to have the student formally introduce themselves at their first lesson. This gives them a chance to share their name and why they want to study your instrument! Make sure that you introduce yourself as well. It is easy to assume the student knows who you are, but a simple introduction will make you seem more human.
Complete a “no pressure” assessment
The moment a student hears the word ‘assessment’ they instantly associate it with testing. In other words, something not very fun.
Make sure the student understands that it is a ‘no pressure’ assessment and it is ok if they make mistakes.
You want to get a general idea of where the student is in their playing. This has many benefits; it builds rapport with students, shows them that you care about how they do, and motivates them by making them feel like they are meeting expectations.
Give them plenty of verbal praise throughout the assessment and if they seem nervous, let them know it’s ok to make mistakes. I personally like to use the phrase “try this…and I give you permission to fail spectacularly!”
Some students come to their first lesson with a professional instrument in great playing shape, while others come in with a basic beginner instrument. The most important of the equipment evaluation is that the instrument is in good playing condition.
Check the instrument’s tuning and whether or not it is clean. What does it look like? Do you see rust, damaged pads or strings, a chip in the mouthpiece, etc?
Does the student have equipment with them? Tuner, metronome, music stand…does their bag smell like garlic bread from lunch break? Make sure to take note of this so you are not surprised next week.
You can also make a note of any equipment that you want the student to upgrade in the future.
I am a firm believer in ‘student set goals.‘ If a student sets their own goals, they are likely to reach them faster than any goals you set for them.
Ask the student what their goals are. Is this just a hobby? Do they want to make first chair, honor band, or do they want to be performing at Carnegie Hall in two years?
If you know what kind of playing level your student is looking for, use that as your starting point. If you don’t, just be sure to let them know that you will help them meet their goals whatever they may be. If they don’t have any yet, let them know that you will work on selecting goals together.
It is very important that the student knows what is expected of them upfront.
Let them know how often and when they should be practicing. If this is a younger student, let them know that you expect to see improvement every week! If they are an advanced student, make sure they understand the time commitment for their instrument.
Does your studio have a ‘practice policy’ or any other rules about practice behavior? Make sure the student knows this information as well. If the student seems overwhelmed, discuss how they can fit your practice expectations into their already full schedule.
This is a great opportunity to bring up your studio’s ‘practice etiquette’ and explain why it is important. For example, the importance of noise level in a family environment or making sure instruments are always in cases when not practicing/playing.
First Lesson With A Beginner
The first lesson with a beginner is a pretty relative term. If you teach clarinet or tuba, your ‘beginner’ is probably 11 or 12 years old. If you teach piano or violin, you could be working with ages 4 to 5.
Regardless of the student’s age, a few basic assessments and expectations should be covered in the first lesson.
Following instructions is crucial when it comes to learning a musical instrument. Children mature at many different rates so whether your student is 4 or 14 you should check to see how well they can follow instructions.
Some students can be given very basic instructions and do fine, while others need very detailed instructions broken down into small steps.
Help the student feel at ease
Just like teaching advanced players, you need to make sure the student feels at ease.
Young children often approach lessons with excitement and enthusiasm, but many children can be shy and a bit nervous around new people.
Take a moment to chat with the student and make them feel at ease. Tell them about yourself, ask their name and point out something about your studio that they might like. If you have younger students, you can also talk about school or just casual conversation about their favorite toy or tv show.
Assess their musical interest
This is a great time to assess your student’s interest in music. If it is their first lesson, you can still get an idea of what type of music they like by asking them about the songs they know or if they have any favorite musicians or composers. You could also show them a few different types of music to see what style(s) might interest them most (I like to put on a song and ask them if they like it and why.)
Rhythm games are fun and a great way to assess beginners. Simple ‘copy cat’ clapping exercises can assess the student’s sense of pulse, and combining clapping and stomping can give you an idea of their coordination.
Introduction to the lesson materials
Show the student what materials you will be using in lessons if any. If you use the Suzuki method, show them your violin or viola and talk about why it is important to take care of their instrument. Or if you use a piano method with little hand positions, make sure they know what each position means/represents.
If the student is learning a wind instrument, be sure to go over how to properly assemble the instrument at the very beginning. Making sure they know how to assemble their instrument correctly will prevent unnecessary damage to the instrument. Also, make sure the student knows how the instrument should be stored when not in use.
Disassembly and cleaning
Just like assembly, disassembly and cleaning is an important topic for wind instrument students. Be sure they know how to take apart their instrument correctly, which could mean different things depending on the type of student (i.e. single or double reed). You should also make sure they know how to clean their instrument properly so it doesn’t accumulate mold/mildew or damage their reeds.
It is important to learn a song by the end of the lesson
The most important thing to do in the first lesson with a beginner is to learn to play a song. Learning a simple melody like Hot Cross Buns gives them an instant win, and something to practice on throughout the week.
Home practice instructions
Finally, the first lesson with a beginner should include instructions on what, how and how often to practice. If you have a younger student, be sure to make these expectations know to the parent as well.
What do I do after the first lesson?
Once the first lesson is over, you should follow up with your student to see how they enjoyed the lesson, and if there are any concerns. This is also a good time to ask what songs they would like to learn in upcoming lessons (you will want to include this information before each subsequent lesson, so you can listen for these cues when your student arrives).
Other Things To Remember
Remember, each student is different. What worked with one student might not work with another, so always be prepared to adapt your lesson plan to the individual. For example, if you have a student who loves rhythm activities but can’t stay on beat when learning melodies, try playing Hot Cross Buns first without singing it and then follow up by having them clap while they sing. This way they will be more likely to stay in the rhythm when playing the song on their own.
Although it may seem overwhelming at first to teach beginners, it can also be very rewarding. With so much enthusiasm and excitement for their lessons, it can be a wonderful experience to show beginners the basics of music. So take the time to get to know your new student and don’t forget to have fun!
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