Simultaneous Learning

Does it sometimes seem like there is not enough time to cover EVERYTHING in lessons?  Simultaneous learning helps students cover multiple concepts without overwhelm!

For years, I’ve been on a mission to give my students more choice in their repertoire & more opportunities to improvise & explore the concepts within that repertoire.  But, with more choice can come overwhelm … at least on the part of the teacher trying to plan lessons.

What is simultaneous learning?

Simultaneous learning is an approach to teaching from Paul Harris.  The idea is that we have students interact in multiple ways with their music.  Often even before seeing the actual score.

It’s an approach that focuses on exploring a concept from the music without the noise of all the other information on the score.  It’s also an approach that links all the different aspects of a piece into a learning web.

How it saves time

After reading both “Improve your teaching!” & “Improve your teaching! Teaching Beginners“, I was interested in how to best incorporate this into my studio teaching.  The interesting thing was it’s been quite easy.

It’s about using small amounts of time to focus on what a student needs at that moment.

Rarely does a student need help with everything in a new song.  So, using activities that allow students to learn, review & practice new concepts takes away the stress of putting it all together at the start.  And, it can be done in as little as 5 minutes.

Simultaneous learning in action

There are so many concepts to teach & review for each song a student plays.  And, the list of possible activities is long:

  •  Aural
  • Technique (including scales)
  • Intonation & character
  • Listening
  • Singing
  • Rhythm
  • Sight-Reading
  • Composing (including notation & improvisation)
  • Theory
  • Posture
  • Performing, memory, evaluation (self & others)

The key is to choose 1 – 2 new concepts to link up with other concepts your student already knows.

I still remember how exhausted I was when I first moved to Mexico. Even though I taught in English & my roommate spoke English, everywhere else in my life it was Spanish. And, believe me, my Spanish-English dictionary was right up there with my wallet & keys for “things to never forget at home”. Because it was an immersive experience there was so much to remember.

By year two, I was doing parent-teacher meetings in Spanish. But, it was a process to get there. One that at times was incredibly overwhelming.

By taking baby steps, your student has the freedom to explore & experiment without the pressure of trying to remember everything all at once.

This is something I have to remind myself of on a regular basis. Even looking back on that experience, I still forget at times that taking baby steps will be more beneficial for my students than an immersive, overwhelming experience. Especially since it’s all too easy to quit lessons.

Case Study: Improvising

I’m a huge fan of including improvisation in lessons & during the week.  Not only is it fun, but students get a chance to try out so many concepts in a low-pressure environment.  And, for stressed or overscheduled students, this often will save the lesson on those extra-busy weeks.

There are two ways that improvising & simultaneous learning can go hand in hand.

Pre-cursor to repertoire

Once a student chooses their favourite song (out of 3 choices), look at the score & pull out a couple of things that can be used for improvisation.  Maybe it’s a particular scale or rhythm.  Maybe it’s the articulation or accompaniment pattern.  By choosing two small concepts, students can experiment a little in each lesson.

To keep this process going during the week, have your student experiment for a week with those concepts.  By the time you see them in the next lesson, they have experimented many ways with those two concepts & it’s easy to add another layer to their learning without risking overwhelm. 

While this approach definitely takes longer during your admin/planning time, it’s well worth it for pieces that are a jump up in levelling.

Wouldn’t it be great if when your students see music, they are already familiar with different aspects of the score?


Each level has specific concepts students need to master in order to play the repertoire. And, it’s up to us as teachers to help our students develop that mastery.

To help students in my studio develop level-specific skills, I’ll pull together improv prompts that we use as warm-ups. These often include rhythms that my students will typically see in their music. And, we often will start with movement activities to feel the pulse & rhythm in our big muscle groups before moving to the piano.

Not only do we have the chance to get off the bench, but my students engage in simultaneous learning since we are covering aural, rhythm, improvising, & possibly even sight-reading or playing with backing tracks.

This approach can be done with very little admin/planning time. But, to really get the most out of it I would recommend building this out over months, rather than a lesson here or there.

Case Study: Repertoire

As much as I love to improvise, my students also want to play songs they know & have heard. I’m guessing it’s the same in your studio.

Listening + theory

One of the first things we do in my studio with new repertoire is to listen to it. Oftentimes this will involve me playing the piece. Since my students get a lot of choice in their programming, this is their first opportunity to decide if they want to learn the piece.

Next, they listen & tell me about character/mood, meter, mode, articulation & possibly even if the song seems more “chords” or “scales”. Anything that is level appropriate is part of these music theory conversations.

Rhythm + sight-reading

Here is one of my favourite ways to show students a song is easier than thought!

Depending on your student, have them pick out (or you can if they are new to this approach) a section of the song that has a tricky rhythm. Spend a little lesson time going through the rhythm both off & on the bench.

Once your student has the rhythm of any tricky sections, get them to sight-read just the rhythm of the entire section of a song. Or for shorter songs, sightread the entire song. This can be done standing, sitting, away or at the piano … you get the idea.

When students have small successes, they are eager to build on those with more! More small steps. More ‘challenges’. In fact, more of everything!

And, that excitement tends to transfer to practice during the week. More than once, I’ve had a student who was supposed to just work on the rhythm over the week. Next week, they are excited to share not only the rhythm … but, the section(s) of the song they learnt on their own!

Simultaneous learning 101

If, like me, you like to geek out. I have a few resources below to help you learn more about simultaneous learning & how it can be used in your studio.

Would you like your students to say, “What!?!  Lesson is over already?”  Read about what a lesson could look like using this approach.

To learn more about how our brains process information, read “How We Learn“.  (Geek alert.  This is a topic I can happily geek out to any time.)

This exploration of music doesn’t have to be cut into different lesson sections.  This is how I incorporate this approach in a seamless manner in my studio.

And to get copies of these great books, click below!

(I am not an affiliate with these books & don’t get anything out of you clicking … except knowing I helped you find a great resource!)

How do you use a Simultaneous Learning approach in your studio?

Let me know in the comments below!

NOTE: This article was originally published on November 2, 2018. It has been since updated with more ideas & tips on how to adapt this approach for your studio.

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