How to Give Student Choices With Boundaries

Does the idea of giving up control in your studio make you nervous?  Giving students choice, with boundaries, doesn’t have to be hard. It means they play the music they love while you teach what needs to be taught.

While it may seem like an all or nothing situation, giving students choice in your studio can be as small or big of a change as you want.  And, chances are you already give your students some choices.

Choices, choices

For many teachers moving from a teacher-directed approach to more of a student-centered approach can feel overwhelming.

It’s one thing to give students choice in their recital song.  But, during lessons each week?  That can feel like we are asking a little too much.

What if the student hijacks lessons!?!

Why You Should Give Students Choice

This is where giving students choice with boundaries comes in.

You can give students options when it comes to:

  • The order of activities within lesson
  • Repertoire
  • Practice strategies
  • Music lab

You are still in control.

And, you become a better teacher as you think through what options to give your student.

Within lesson

There has become a prescribed ‘preferred’ order to lessons.  Warm-up with technique, go through repertoire, fit in games or the ‘extras’ at the end if there is time.

In my studio, we tend to have different ‘sections’ to lessons:

  • Warm-up: focused on a particular studio unit, often includes improvisation or the ‘extras’ that get missed
  • Technique: scales, chords, arpeggios … you know the drill
  • Repertoire: review & new
  • Music lab

And yet these ‘sections’ often get mixed up or even blurred in my studio.

Mixing up the order

Let’s say your student is really excited to show you something they accomplished during the week.  Or, conversely starts by telling you they need help with something.

Why wouldn’t you start there?

Because you & I both know a student with an idea in their head will find it harder to switch focus.

Giving students choice in this way can still ‘count’ as a warm-up.  Depending on what they show you, you can do rhythm, note-reading, ear training, improvisation … the skies the limit!

Giving Students Choice in Their Repertoire

Muddling sections

For date night, sometimes I make cocktails for my husband & I.  Or, mocktails for family holiday get-togethers.

One of my favourite ways of making cocktails is to muddle different ingredients with a pestle.  Each ingredient tastes good on its own, but when muddled (mixed together) they create a delicious drink.

It’s the same for music.

For example, let’s say a student explored strophic variation in their lesson warm-up. 

  1. The student is given a simple bass line & melody line. 
  2. The student improvises new melodies as he/she plays the original bass line.

You can muddle ‘sections’ of the lesson by:

  1. Using a segment from a current song as the original bass line
  2. Play a scale with the bass line (pentascale or pentatonic)
  3. Play the written melody that corresponds with the original bass line from the music
  4. Make up other strophic variations
  5. Find the strophic variations in the written music
  6. Listened to a recording of the song & discussed how the performer brought out the different variations to make them unique

You will have covered:

  • Review of a current piece
  • Technique
  • Improvisation
  • Theory & analysis
  • Ear training
  • Developing artistry

All while focusing on one song & all while reviewing what was done in the warm-up.  And, probably using a non-Baroque piece while exploring the concept.

This idea is based on the Simultaneous Learning Approach by Paul Harris.

If you give your students choice (with boundaries) during music lab, the same principal applies.  Consistently show your students how what they did in one part of lesson fits in with the music they are currently playing.

Giving students choice in music labs

Practice Strategies

Tell me if this sounds familiar.

One my student was rushing through a song & made a mistake.  He stopped.  Went back & hurriedly tried to fix the mistake.  Made the same mistake again.  Then proceeded to rinse & repeat more rapidly as he got more & more frustrated.

It would have been easy for me to tell him how to fix the problem.

But, experience (both as a teacher & parent) has told me that I may as well save my breath.

Instead, I asked him if playing quickly was helping him fix the mistake.


“Hmm. Well, what do you think might help you instead?”

“I don’t know!”

“Okay.  Would you say that the reason the mistake is happening is because you don’t have time to get your fingers into place in time?”


“How could you give yourself enough time to get your fingers in place in time?”

“Slow down?”

“Let’s test it out to see if it works!”

And wouldn’t you know.  Slowing down did the trick!

Point A to Point B

I could have told this student to play slower right from the start.  But, it wouldn’t have helped in the long run.

Students need to problem solve on their own during the week.  So, we need to practice this during lesson time.  Otherwise they are left to flounder on their own during the week.

Ironically, it turns out this student’s mom had told him to slow down during the week.  Many times.  And, he ignored her each & every time.  She was rather frustrated.

As I told her, over the years my children have routinely told me that I don’t know how to do [fill in the blank].  Even though I have more than more one degree in teaching.  And at times it was even in subjects I had taught!

Sometimes the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B isn’t a straight line.

Guiding our students to their own discoveries leads to longer memories. 

Versus going in one ear & right out the other.

How to Give Students Choice

Giving students choice is about providing boundaries or options.

Options let students see we have a plan, but they get a say in how we go through the plan.

And, isn’t that what we all want?  A say in how we spend our time & flexibility in how we learn?

In the comments below, let us know one way your will give your students more choice in the coming week!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.