031 – Easing into the First Lesson

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Episode Summary

The week leading up to the first lesson of the school year can feel a bit frantic – like we have to have everything ready for all of us students on day one. In truth, the first lesson can be quite chill, and we don’t have to have everything in absolute order. Amy will share a few things we can do on the first lesson day to help us “ease in.”


Items Mentioned


August is one of those months that is the source of a bit of a love-hate relationship with the teaching community. On the one hand, it’s the peak of Summer – at least here in the midwest. It’s often hot and – if you live in a place like Indiana – Humid.

The peak of summer means that if you have any kind of a garden, produce is exploding and it’s time to finally enjoy the fruits of your labor. If you are one to do any kind of canning and preserving – it’s happening now, and can be quite a fair bit of work.

The tug of war comes – and you know where I’m going with this – is that we’re in the midst of what feels like this summer peak, and yet we have to return to a school routine whether it’s in our studios or just with your own kids.

I don’t know about you but every year I feel like I go through the same emotional cycle. It doesn’t matter if I start lessons in early August or after Labor Day. If you don’t have all your students in the summer, the week leading up the the first lesson of the school term can feel like a bit jolt.

All of a sudden it feels like you have to have everything ready for all your students. There’s always this bit of panic that happens. I always tend to feel like every single thing needs to be completely in order and ready to go. As dire as it feels, it’s take me years to realize that’s not necessarily the case.

Today let’s chat about how we can ease into our lessons without feeling like every item has to be checked and ready to go on week one.

Welcome to the Piano Pantry Podcast where together we live life as independent music teachers. I’m your host, Amy Chaplin. In this space we talk about all things teacher-life related from organizing our studios to getting dinner on the table and all that comes between. You’ll get loads of easily-actionable tips on organizing and managing your studio while balancing life and home.

Let’s use the first week of school as an example. Think about some of the things that go on in the first class of the school year? Are kids getting full lessons or quizzes or lectures? Unlikely, it’s about easing into things, getting students familiar with their surroundings, establishing expectations, and laying the groundwork for the weeks and months to come. They might be getting some kind of a syllabus or outline for the class, details on how to do online work, review things they know coming into the class and so forth

The mirror for us is that the first week back doesn’t have to be about diving into repertoire or going through a theory lesson or quizzing note names. It’s a time to re-acquaint yourself with your students, welcome them back into the space, warm them back up to the idea of lessons, the lesson routine, and practice.

Why don’t we actually just walk through some scenarios together. Let’s start with how you greet and welcome students. For this first week what about taking a few extra moments to greet each student individually at the door? Maybe wrap up each lesson a couple of minutes early so that you can greet the next student face to face.

Now that I teach from home, I tried to get myself outside on the front porch to welcome the student face to face before they even come in the door. This works even better if you start the year of with something like group classes where you can leave a 15 minute gap between each class.

Maybe, even if you’re doing private lessons, tell your current student in the last five minutes, “let’s go out so we can greet the next student.” Maybe this could be a good opportunity for you to introduce them so they meet the person who will be coming back to back with them!

When you first greet students, this is a good time to look the student in the eye and really catch up with them from the summer. Genuinely ask them something special they did or something new they learned and share something with them as well.

On years when I start with group classes, I literally sit on the porch and let the students accumulate on the porch as they arrive chit-chatting until everyone was there, then, we entered the studio together.

As you enter the space with students – whether it’s a home space or an office space, no matter how long they’ve been with you, remind them of the entry process It might be things like, here’s where you can hang up your coat, or here’s a jar of peppermints you’re welcome to take as you leave lessons but please don’t have during or here’s where the restroom is or whatever that may be.

Last year, inspired by a blog post by Joy Morin, I placed a little welcome sign in my entry way with a little checklist for students as they enter. Things like: push the door shot solidly, remove their shoes or use covers, wash their hands or use sanitizer, and to enter the studio space quietly. (I’ll link to her blog post in the show notes).

I’ll even walk with them down the stairway and show their student photos from last year. I remind younger students of the books they can check out in the lending library and the process for doing that then we take a picture right away for my student board. Otherwise, I am totally prone to forget. If you keep digital photos albums of your students it could be fun to quickly pull up their album and show them their student photos from the past few years.

Consider even small little things like where the kleenex is or that there are little cups int he bathroom they can run and get a drink of water if they need. Make them feel completely comfortable with the space and know where the boundaries and expectations are.

Once housekeeping details are over and you’ve had your little verbal catch-up, spend some time making easy music. Maybe you invite them to the piano and have a little improvisation activity ready, or maybe it’s asking them to play something for you they learned on their own over the Summer. Don’t be surprised if some still have their recital peice memorized.

If you’re doing group classes, maybe ask them to come prepared to perform their favorite song from last year or something they learned new on their own. This is an idea that came from Christina Whitlock in episode 38 of The Beyond Measure podcast – Cheers to a less conventional august

I like to play lots of games and review. Melody Payne has a lot of fun “I Have Who Has” games that my students absolutely LOVE playing in group classes the first week back. We use the music terms and symbols one the most – it’s a great way for them to review the names of things and they always ask to play it more than once.

After you’ve made some music, maybe it’s time to have a little look back at the books they finished last year and describe some of the things they learned then share some new material with them and talk through some of the new things that are to come. Maybe its that they’re ready to play scales this year or that their pieces will use more pedal or they’re going to learn to play with big octaves or chords.

It can be fun to welcome students into the knowledge that there is a progression of skills in piano and that “they’re ready” for this next step.

One thing that I used to think I had to have completely compiled was my students binders. While I still gather them at the end of the school year and clean them out, I no longer make a huge assembly line and have everything put in it. I have a stack of calendars, the repertoire list where we keep track of pieces they learn, a fresh copy of our Happy Birthday music we do every year – which we’ll talk about more on another episode, and a stack of the RCM technical level sheets.

I just grab a sheet off the stack and make a quick statement of “oh, here’s your calendar you guys can easily see so you know when we have lessons” – walk through it with them briefly and then here’s your next level technique sheet – I’m so excited you’re going to start playing yours scales hands together this year or we’re going to learn scales with 4 sharps and flats! and so forth. You can do these things very quickly and casually while celebrating with the student and informing them of what’s to come.

Maybe you have one book you know for sure you want the student to start in – maybe it’s a method lesson book but you want them to pick out a supplemental book. Give them 2 or 3 options and spend time playing a few measures of pieces from each to see what sparks their fancy.

Lastly, I mentioned earlier that I always have a fresh sheet for our Happy Birthday music. This is a great activity for the very first week of lessons as its a song I know we all as music teachers want our students to be able to play. Having consistency knowing it’s something you cover with every single student at whatever level they are capable the first lesson of the year means that it never gets overlooked. It has a regular consistent space in your teaching plan and is a fun way to kick things off.

Yes, we want to start our first week off feeling prepared but remember it’s OK to ease into the school year. If you don’t have every single piece of repertoire picked out, or theory books ordered, or binders lined up and completely reset, it’s OK!

I love the comparison to the first days of school because we’ve all been through that, just put yourself in your students shoes. What kinds of things would you like to do if you hadn’t had a piano lesson all summer or even for a few weeks.

Re-acquint yourselves,

Do a little housekeeping,

Look back and look forward,

Use games to do some fun review,

and as always and most importantly, make a little music.

Good luck in the coming weeks, friends as you start back. It will be OK. Just remember you don’t have to have it all perfectly lined up and ready to go. Considering you’re hearing this from me, the lady who loves organization you know it’s ok, right?

Today I thought I would share with you two fun facts that have to do with my smile. One, I have this natural hereditary frown that if I am just sitting normal and not even really frowning, it can look like I have a frown as the edges of my mouth are downturned. Totally hereditary – I promise I’m not mad. Second, I have a crooked smile. One side of my smile is bigger than the other. I’m self conscious of it so I sometimes try to intentionally correct it but if I go full out without thinking of it, my right lower lip dips much further down than my left…and now I feel like I have to show you on social media this week. Hmmm…I’m going to have to think about that. That’s me and now that I’ve told you you will probably notice even if you didn’t before – that’s how it goes.