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How to know your student is ready for harder repertoire

Is your student ready for harder repertoire?

How do you know your student is ready for harder repertoire?  When you teach exclusively from one method book, the answer is easy.  They completed the book.  When you pull options from many books (including ones that do not belong to a method book series) this line becomes a little more grey.

This was one of the hardest transitions for me as a teacher. 

Have method book.  Will teach.

When I started teaching piano, I did what many of us do at the beginning.  My student began at the start of the method book & played every-single-song.  Perhaps the not most interesting approach.  But, it was easy & worked at the time.

As time went on, I realized I was losing students when the repertoire no longer interest them.  Granted this was not the reason typically given. 

Have you heard these phrases from clients?

“We are pursuing other things this next year.” 

“My child has lost interest in practicing at all.  Thank you for all your efforts to bring my child back to piano, but we are going to leave things for now.”

“My child isn’t feeling challenged enough by the material.”  or “My child is feeling overwhelmed & lost the love of music.”

As I write these, my heart breaks a little to think of what these students could have accomplished if the teaching approach was different for them.

Does it break your heart as well?

Repertoire for everyone!

As I write this, thinking of Oprah’s famous phrase brings a smile to my face.  If you will forgive me a little paraphrase …

“Repertoire for you!  Repertoire for you!  Repertoire for everyone!”

We are so fortunate to have access to repertoire that can reach each and every student in our studios.

When we step away from a “Have method book.  Will teach.” approach the safety net of knowing that a student is ready for the “Next Level” is taken away.

So, what is a teacher to do?

Especially since you deserve to have a life outside of your studio.  And, that means an efficient way of knowing when a student is ready.

Student growth plans to the rescue

Years ago, I implemented annual student growth plans for each of my students.  These spreadsheets allow me to:

  • Concepts each student should master for the level they are playing at
  • Repertoire that matches up with each concept

These growth plans have undergone a lot of changes of the years as I have fine-tuned the way I track student learning.

Knowing your student is ready for harder repertoire is a whole lot easier when there is a framework in place.

When that framework means you can pull repertoire from any source & know your student is practicing the concepts they need … well, that is true freedom as a teacher.

Individualize for Each Student Without a Lot of Prep Time

Going beyond a growth plan

In order to truly know if a student is ready for harder repertoire, the student should be able to play successfully at the current level.

I know this seems very “Thank you, Captain Obvious.”

But have you ever asked a student to play a piece & wondered why it was an unmitigated failure?

Even though everything on paper shows your student should be able to play the piece without any issues.

If you are raising your hand, you are not alone.  I’ve done this as well.

Teacher-directed learning

When I realized that my students were relying on me for their learning, I knew something needed to change.

Do you have students who are unable to:

  • Determine the form of a piece?
  • Find basic repeating motifs?
  • Find & name basic chords within the music … even when they are blocked chords or chord bridges?
  • Remember to play an accidental from the key signature?
  • Recognize & play basic accompaniment patterns?

You know you taught them the song & went through each of these concepts.

And, yet the moment the student has to do this for themselves in a new song it all seems to fall apart.

How frustrating!  For both the student & teacher.

Building in self-learning

What if you had students playing pieces at a variety of levels?

This isn’t a new idea, but it goes counter to much of the pacing of traditional learning.

For my more advanced students, new concepts are introduced through repertoire that is at least TWO levels below their current level.

This ensures my students are able to focus on just that concept.

And, I am able to determine whether a student is ready for harder repertoire all along the way.

5 Tips for introducing new concepts

You want your students to become independent musicians by the time they finish lessons with you.

So, you need a way of introducing new concepts that builds in self-learning for your students.

  1. Introduce a new concept during lesson with lots of practice in a variety of ways. Reading music can be visually distracting.
    • Include exploration & improvisation for the student to deeply understand the concept.
  2. Have the student practice only this concept during the week using music at least two levels below their current level.Give the student a book marked with tabs.  These are “LOYO” songs (learn on your own).
    • Each song is a chance for the student to practice the concept.
  3. Next lesson, guide the student as you both check how well the student is playing.
    • Ask questions, rather than telling the student.
    • Record video or audio if the student did not listen as he or she played.  Then, have the student listen.
    • The goal is whether the student is able to play the new concept.  Not a perfect piece.
  4. If the student is easily able to play pieces at this level, move up a level up with a focus on the same concept.
  5. If the student is NOT able to easily play pieces at this level, check:
    • Did you chose pieces that heavily focus on the concept?
    • Does the student know all the other concepts in the piece already?  Or, do they need to be taught?
    • Is the student waiting for you to save them rather than taking control of their learning?  Encourage him or her!

Repeat steps 3 – 5 until the student is successfully playing repertoire at their current level.

Keep in mind that while a student should be able to learn some songs on their own. At some point they will need a teacher to step in for more guidance.

But, that’s exactly what it should be … guidance.

Instead of jumping in to save the day (also known as white knight syndrome), ask your student questions & encourage him or her to explore different ways of doing things.

I promise the discoveries your student makes on their own will stick much longer than the answers you provide right away.

The advantage of scaffolding

Scaffolding is not just for building or major renovations.

It gives your student support each week while building in the skill of analyzing music & determining best practice strategies.

For more advanced students, this approach has special advantages.

Rather than going through just a few pieces all year, they can play many pieces.

If you have teens, chances are they have very little time to practice.  Between increased homework & extra-curricular activities taking up more & more student’s time, teens can feel the pull.

Having pieces that can be mastered in 1 – 3 weeks brings back the excitement of when lessons first began.

It also makes it easy to practice those efficient practice techniques we keep telling them about.

And, they still get to be independent at a time when this is so important to their personal identity.

Is your student ready for harder repertoire?

Choosing to scaffold your repertoire is fabulous for students, but can take more time for you during prep.

Unless you have your very own “Method Book Cheat” sheet!

For help when finding the right repertoire, click below for the method book comparison PDF.

Get your FREE Method Book Cheat Sheet!

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