12 Ways to Turn a Potentially Frustrating Lesson into a Musical Opportunity

Awhile back I wrote an article for Alfred Music Blog called Learning Music in a Quick-Fix Society: 7 Tips to Foster Music for LifeIn the article, I share seven ways we can help create an environment that fosters the mindset that learning music is more than just a short-term activity.

One of those seven items was that, as teachers, we shouldn’t feel frustrated when students come to lessons either without their books or having made little progress. (Of course, if it’s an ongoing issue, that another story.)

It can be very easy to get irritated at students and in turn, have the lesson take on a sour note and be a negative experience. On the other hand, if we keep in mind that life happens and music lessons are an ongoing commitment, we can look at it as an opportunity rather than a failure.

Here are 12 ways we can turn a potentially negative, frustrating lesson into a positive musical experience. You don’t even have to pick just one! Set a timer and tell the student every 5 minutes you’re going to switch activities!


#1 – Sight-Read…Anything!

One of the most obvious answers is to sightread. Of course, there are the individual-leveled sight-reading books or even supplementary books we can use, but sightreading can be made even more fun if you can do it together as teacher/student duets!

Teacher/Student Duets

Improve Your Sight-Reading! duets by Paul Harris (Grades 0-1 and Grades 2-3) published by Faber Music


Get Ready for Pentascale Duets! by Wynn-Anne Rossi and Victoria McArthur published by FJH Music.
Get Ready for Major Scale Duets!
Get Ready for Minor Scale Duets!
Get Ready for Chord and Arpeggio Duets (Book 1, 2)


Sight-Reading Books/Materials

Piano Safari Sight-Reading Cards



Improve Your Sight-Reading! by Paul Harris

With eight levels available (from what I can see), these sight-reading books can follow your students through years of progressive sight-reading!


Four-Star Sight Reading and Ear Tests by The Royal Conservatory



Piano Adventures Sight-Reading by Faber

These sight-reading books correspond with the levels of the Faber method, building from pieces students are learning in the books.


Supplementary Materials

While there are plenty of sight-reading dedicated materials available, there’s nothing wrong with simply pulling out some supplemental sheet music! Grab something a couple of levels below where the student’s ability is and use it as an opportunity to have them practice sight-reading with all elements involved!


#2 – Practice Reading Various Textures

Work on reading different textures of music with older students. Pull out a hymn book for 4-part homophonic reading. Hymn reading is a skill unto itself and would make for a wonderful sight-reading experience!

Ask your local choir teacher for some old choral scores. Try to keep a variety of scores on hand such as 2-part, 3-part (SAT and SSA), and 4-part (or more!) written both on the grand staff and on individual staves such as a madrigal score.


#3 – Improvise

Take some time to create music with no canvas! If you need a little help, one of my favorite ways is using the game Tonic: The Card and Dice Game for Musicians.

I’ve also used some of these materials in the past:

Discover Beginning Improvisation: An Improvisation Primer by Faber & Faber (Faber Piano Adventures) with Edwin McLean, published by Hal Leonard



Pattern Play: Inspiring Creativity at the Piano by Akiko & Forrest Kinney (Books 1-4) published by Frederick Harris Music



Create First!: Learning Music the Pattern Play Way (Solo or Duet 1) by Forrest Kinney


#4 – Play Games

There are way too many out there to list! I’ll make it easy on you though.

Here is a master list I’ve compiled of some of my favorite manipulatives, games, and resources from all over the internet for teaching certain concepts.



#5 – Flashcards

While perhaps not as exciting as games, you can spice-up your flashcard activities – just get creative!

Here’s one idea: Pull out music money or stickers and challenge the student to pass X amount of flashcards in a certain amount of time. Better yet, ask the student to set their own goal/challenge!


#6- Be a Practice Coach

If it’s a matter of them not getting enough practice to make progress, then simply practice with them! Students can’t be expected to magically know how to practice.

Tell the student that together you’re going to work through what a good practice session could look like and coach them through!

This will give them a good head-start on their practice for the upcoming week.


#7- Play music for them

Switch spots! My students love getting to sit in my teacher roller/swivel chair (they’re limited to one full swivel when they first sit down).

  • Show them a piece you’re working on, play a little for them and show them how you’ve been practicing.
  • Play simple little tunes for them such as Itsy Bitsy Spider, For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow, etc. Have the student tell you the name of the song, what the tonality is (Major/Minor), and the meter (duple/triple). It wouldn’t even necessarily have to be simple folk tunes!
  • Grab a stack of music and play a variety of music in a variety of styles. Tell the student you want them to move to the music however they think they should from the sound. If they’re self-conscious tell them they can do it directly behind your back as long as they promise to move! When the song is over, ask them to describe how the song sounded and how that influenced the way they moved.


#8 – Harmonize Tunes

Harmonize simple melodies using tonic and dominant.

My free download of 147 Tunes to Harmonize has lots of songs to choose from!


#9 – Have Musical “Conversations”

Work on rhythm and/or tonal pattern. I like to tell my students we’re simply having a musical conversation.

In Music Learning Theory, these are called Learning Sequence Activities or LSA’s. It could as simple as having students echo rhythm patterns using just big and little beats (such as quarters and eights or half’s and quarters if we’re talking enrhythmically).  You can then ask the student to create their own pattern for you to echo. Then, as able, go back and forth, talking to each other in rhythm patterns.


#10 – Playback patterns

Give the student a verbal rhythm pattern on a neutral syllable such as “bum”. Have the student echo that pattern verbally then play it on one key of the piano. Then, have them create on the piano using that rhythm pattern only


#11 – Where’s Waldo – Music Score Style

Have students search a score:

  • “How many accidentals are there?”
  • “Find a single eighth rest on beat number 4.”
  • “How many times does it change keys?”
  • “How many different dynamic markings are there?”


#12 – Transpose patterns

Take short-sightreading exercises and practice transposing!


Whatever activity you choose, remember that our main goal is a successful and joyful musical experience!



Leave a Reply

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