Minute By Minute Piano Lesson


I’d like to describe the events of a normal piano lesson on a minute-by-minute basis. The child I’m describing has only just started reading music, as well as playing songs by number. The process described is not that of a first lesson, but rather a child who has been at it perhaps a few weeks.

It’s important to note that my manner is casual. I generally start by sitting down and playing something lively so there is not a silence in the room. It’s time for music and laughter! A child cannot resist someone sitting at a piano playing a happy tune.

I teach thirty-minute lessons unless the child is very small, or expresses a desire to stop playing for that day. When they say the lesson is over, it is over. The younger the child, the more this is true. You cannot push it.


More than anything else, I observe the child’s mood carefully. What are we likely to be able to do today? Let’s assume it’s a good day, and they are in a good mood.

We may play a game like FOURS, described earlier, just to “shake hands,” as it were, with the piano. Or we can play any piano game that does not involve reading music.

Many times the child is eager to play a song they have practiced, or to learn a song they have heard and want to learn.

If they are in a mood to offer a performance, support it in every possible way. Make your hands into a trumpet and pretend herald trumpets are playing. Announce them like a radio DJ. Make them feel important. Some kids don’t like the announcing game but most do.

If they are in a mood to learn a song, drop everything and teach them that song. It’s very important that they be able to play the music that they hear around them and want to play, no matter how much it may have to be simplified.

The real function of the first five minutes is to sweep them up and let them know that we will work, but it will be fun. If they think the mood is drudgery that day, you have lost them already, and getting them back will be difficult.


Once a mood of collegial amusement is set, I might suggest a new piece to play, or ask them to play the first piece they played again.

Somewhere in this second five minutes I touch on reading music, very, very briefly. At the beginning of lessons, this consists of no more than being able to find Middle C on any page I choose.

If you don’t know where Middle C is, here is a music reading tutorial you can view. Or try I CAN READ MUSIC, an excellent introduction to reading music for kids.

I use one of the Bastien books for them to start finding certain, specified notes, not at the piano, but purely on the page. The page and the keyboard, in terms of reading music, are two separate things and will be drawn together later.

If they are a little more advanced, I ask for the first four to six notes of a simple bit of sheet music, which they are allowed to play with any finger they choose.

I follow their struggles to decipher, saying quietly but happily, “Oh, look, it goes up there, and hey, that’s the same note again.”

After a minute or two, I praise them no matter how they did, and say, “Hey, let’s play a fun piano game!” And then we play a minute or two of a piano game, perhaps a game that is related to something they have had trouble with that day.

For example, if a child had trouble reading the brief sheet music excerpt above, we might play sheet music games, where I draw notes on a piece of paper and they can investigate.

Questions arise such as, “Is that note going up to the next one, or down?” You must get them to really observe the page and the nature and movement of the little notes and what they mean. Once again, see I CAN READ MUSIC.


We’re steaming along now, alternating three things: piano games, playing songs by number, and constantly but briefly attacking the basic ideas of reading music.

The forays into reading music should be brief so that the child is not exhausted, which reading music will do in about five minutes. But they must get used to the idea that the somewhat disagreeable side-dish of reading music is always whisked away, and the pain is brief, if any. It will keep coming back, so they begin to accept it.

I might go back now to the very first piece they offered, and let them try it several times, each time with some interesting addition, a left hand note or chord, a place where using your fingers in a row might help. Just friendly suggestions, dropping hints.

Praise every repetition of the song. Just as they get tired of repeating it, stop and announce that they must go in the CHAIR OF DOOM.

The CHAIR OF DOOM is a game where we switch places and I play music about which they must make observations. The name is meaningless except that the game acquires some of the qualities of a raucous game show.

The point is ear training disguised as a game show. Ear training is a part of a professional musician’s training wherein they must listen to music rather than play it, and be able to answer pertinent questions.

At first, the only questions I ask consist of a game called HAPPY OR SAD, where I play music and they try to determine the emotional quality. This might lead to a discussion of chords, and then to a discussion of music theory. For an explanation of chords, please see TEACH YOURSELF PIANO


We start to play coordination games. This involves simple musical formulae that involve the child in playing with both hands. Playing with both hands stimulates development of the corpus callosum, a massive network of ganglia in the brain that transmits all thought from one hemisphere to the other.

A coordination game can be as simple as having them play two notes on the piano, one with each index finger, and having them play it regularly like a clock, tick tock, left right, tick tock, left right. Try keys that are five white keys apart. That is a pleasing sound. Or try eight notes away. In Piano by Number, that would be 1, 5, 1, 5, etc. Or 1, 8, 1, 8.

And now it’s time to read music again, so briefly that it goes by without protest. Once again, if there is a basic music reading skill like up/down that they are not quite getting, play games that support learning that skill.

For example, point to groups of notes on a page and then ask if they are going up or down. Kids love glissandos, so play a glissando up the piano and ask which direction it is. (A glissando is when the pianist plays all the white keys of the piano rapidly from one end of the piano to another.) Discuss the nature of up and down and left and right.


I play keyboard recognition games. The main one is, “Where is Middle C, and for that matter, all the Cs on the piano?”

This really involves furthering their ability to observe the pattern of two and three black keys. This pattern is THE visual key to playing the piano, and almost every other keyboard skill is based on it.

I make them explain it to me in words. “Middle C is the white key to the left of the two black keys.” I play a game we call GORTOK in which I take on the role of a stupid extraterrestrial named Gortok.

Gortok has lost the key to his spaceship and needs to find Middle C to unlock the door. Sounds ridiculous, but it makes kids play-act and really have to explain VERBALLY to me where C is, and how you can find Middle C any time you want by looking for the two black keys. Once they verbalize the location, they generally remember it.

We might play one of the pieces that are part of the regular group. By this I mean that every child has at least a song or two they can play for you. We take that song and add to it, and refine it many times so they begin to understand what it is like to be inside of a piece of music.


The average attention span of school age kids is about 22 minutes, and we’re already three minutes over the limit! If they are really tired, let them go. Better to leave them wanting more, as the old show business adage goes.

I might ask for the piece they play best, or the new song they wanted to learn, just to refresh it in their minds before we go. For that matter, the last five minutes are a great time to ask them to run through all the songs they know, usually four or five.

I always ask, “Is your brain tired?” They know exactly what I mean and will give you an honest answer. Be wise and err on the side of less is more.

Another ruse in the last five minutes is to play Columbo, the TV detective who seems to be leaving, but always has one more nagging question he wants answered before he finally leaves. You can extend this almost indefinitely, like this:

“Where is Middle C? Play a C chord. Play the lowest key. Play the highest key. Where is Middle C?” Each question is peppered in between bits of songs and other musical tasks that they know are the last thing in the lesson.

We always jokingly go over familiar territory until it is second nature. Children actually like the security that comes from repetition. They just don’t like the repetition that gets them there.

And that is a typical lesson. I try to not give assignments yet, but rather find a song that really intrigues them, and that they want to play. Star Wars, Alladin, Twinkle, Twinkle: anything they know and can be taught to plunk out.

Young pianists who love to play come from these baby steps, repeated over and over until they are secure and can proceed further into musical complexity, all in the same pattern: fun, work, fun, work.

Copyright 2017 Walden Pond Press

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