How Storytelling Makes For Better Teaching During Piano Lessons

Storytelling has been used for millennia to teach children & adults alike. But, how can we relate this to teaching a multitude of different songs? Once I added stories to my teaching, my students were much more engaged.

Social studies & music

I used to hate studying history in school. All those dates, places & dead people. I just didn’t care.

Until I had a senior high teacher use stories to teach history. Suddenly things got a whole lot more interesting & I found I actually … cared.

Years later, when I taught world history at a private school I took the same approach. I was the crazy teacher that agreed with my students that knowing the date the Magna Carta was signed was not going to be anything more than a trivia fact later in life. But, I pointed out, knowing that this document gave us many of the rights & freedoms we enjoy now … that was something worth remembering.

When I moved into teaching piano, I’ll admit that I really struggled with this. How was I going to link method book songs to interesting stories? Especially at the earlier levels (which I specialize in). Have you wondered the same thing?

Get curious

There is a time & place for students to play a song without any initial auditory input. Sight-reading. Pre-analysis of a song.

The majority of time though, playing a song for a student (whether your playing or listening to a recording) has some very real benefits.

  • Students can listen to a few songs to choose the one they like best,
  • A high level music conversation can happen,
  • A story can be told or created.

Play first & get curious. What is the mood? What might be happening?

These are two of the main questions I ask when mood or storytelling is going to be a big part of the learning process. This gets a student’s imagination going so they can start making those connections between mind, body & theory.

A memory

Thinking back to my childhood, while there are moments that stand out it’s often the feeling those memories have that is the strongest.

Winter At The Cabin” was composed when one of my students told me how his family goes to a cabin each winter. His face lit up as he told me about the different activities him & his family would do. As we were talking I told him it sounded like he was making lifelong memories there. He agreed. Then laughed when I said we have half the year covered since my cabin memories are from summertime.

Winter At The Cabin (Piano Solo)

This song is less about a specific memory or storytelling. It’s highly adaptable to any students’ experience because it’s about the mood. And, it’s perfect for the piano player to create their own story … something we can never underestimate the power of.

A story

Another piece that focuses heavily on mood, but has a storytelling element is “Tracks In The Snow“. The loose storyline gives structure, but once again allow students to create their own story as they learn.

One of my adult students was telling me about cross-country skiing in a mountain forest. It was a gorgeous day & the conditions were perfect! On the way back though, he discovered fresh wolf tracks crossing his path from earlier. The mood became “otherworldly” & “eerie”. He knew the wolf pack was probably in the trees surrounding him. He also knew they probably wouldn’t attack. But, that didn’t mean he wasn’t relieved to get back to the cabin & close the door behind him!

Tracks In The Snow (piano solo)

Some students come up with stories at the drop of a hat. Others do better with a bit more structure like this piece. When the form of the song makes very clear distinctions between moods, it can be easier for students to build a story from there.

Choose favourite topics

Over the years, I’ve learnt a lot from my students as they share what they are really passionate about. It might be spending time outdoors (like the songs above) or it might be a topic you probably hear a lot about as well.

Family pets.

Spending time with students’ pets is the one thing I miss about travel teaching. Especially after seeing a student’s new cockapoo. Oh. My. Goodness. SO cute! Though he was teething so he was trying to nibble on my student’s leg while playing. Then, knocked over the guitar beside the piano. In other words, acted very much like a young puppy. It brought back memories of holding puppies or cats while teaching, dogs resting under my legs while I petted them & all the wonderful parts of being around animals.

Dog lovers

Jake has become quite popular in our studio. He isn’t even my dog! Yet, he has appeared at online group lessons & recitals. He even has multiple songs written in his honour! (More of those will come to the story

In “Jake’s Fishing Adventure“, he joins the family on an ice fishing trip. Now, Jake wants to make friends with everyone. Including the fish as he dunked his head in the icy water. Which, of course, led to needing some inside time to warm up. We end with Jake giving a very smelly doggy kiss. Turns out he got into the smelt used for bait. Eww!

Storytelling is perfect for this song because the motives are set up to mimic Jake running from place to place to say hi to the fish. The chord at the end is all about the jarring sensation of a doggy kiss that is meant well but oh-so-smelly.

Cat lovers

My students have heard about Sam, my family’s cat when I was growing up. While people tend not to believe me that he might be the smartest cat that ever lived, the stories from his life (I think) prove me right.

While my other examples have focused on students combining storytelling with the written notation, “Sam’s Life” is a bit different. It’s a collection of rote + playing pieces that include both elementary & late elementary versions of each song. And, each song uses musical motives to share what is happening in that moment.

Sam's Life Rote Piano Solos Collection

“Sam, Elite Mouse Hunter” has a spy movie feel & is one I’ve taught all three of my guys (even though none play piano). “Sam’s Walk” has been a studio favourite as students hear Sam look both ways twice before crossing the street. (One of many reasons I think he was so smart.)

In each case, musical motives made it easy for students to link the storytelling aspect, music theory & what they heard. It also made it pretty fun for parents to listen to practice time since they knew what Sam was up to.

Storytelling as a teaching approach

It can be easy to forget that we teach more than notes on a page. We teach students how to express themselves through music. It might be emotions, memories (specific or vague) or stories.

Storytelling makes learning more memorable. As my Social Studies teacher demonstrated.

Storytelling create moments of laughter. Just as my students & I have laughed about Jake’s antics over the years.

You can use a storytelling approach with nearly any song. Some make that approach a bit easier than others.

For some of the pieces I talked about here, click below:

Bonus Idea

If your students are interested, look up the composer. Go beyond the basic facts of who, what, where, when to delve into questions that get your students excited. What might they have in common? Maybe they both like playing video games or going for walks with their dog or snuggling on the couch with a book or … you get the idea.

If that composer is alive, get in contact with them! The composers I’ve spoken with are amazing individuals who are glad that their music is making a difference in this world. Even if it’s bringing a smile to a student’s face.

What are your favourite storytelling approaches to teaching songs?

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