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First steps in piano playing: some ideas

4 years ago

Working with beginners is at once demanding and immensely rewarding. Piano teacher and author Karen Marshall shares some ideas on this vast subject. I’ve taught many beginners and, at times, nearly a whole practice of students at these early stages. It’s demanding, yes, but also some of the most rewarding teaching I’ve ever done. There’s something magical about any student moving from not being able to play a note to performing their first tune - even if it is Twinkle, twinkle little star or the familiar extract from Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. I remember my first piano lesson and how excited I was to take my tutor book home and explore what I’d learnt. So perhaps aim to make the first lesson a happy lifelong memory. Try to make it pupil-led and don’t have a fixed agenda. Also remember that students like to have something to take away with them – not necessarily a tutor book, but something – and be clear on what you expect them to prepare for the next lesson.  Moving on from the first lesson, teaching beginners is a complex business. No student is ever the same and a bespoke method meeting their individual needs can reap benefits. It’s a vast subject, but here are some areas to think about, with resources and ideas to explore. You’ll see that I’ve used the letters which make up the word MUSIC to guide my thinking here and as a reminder that making music is what it’s all about.


Have a range of materials available to keep lessons energetic and varied.

  • Rhythm cards: a set that gradually builds in complexity. You can also use these as a stimulus for improvisation. Start with the rhythm only, moving on to rhythms played on one note, then rhythms combined with note motifs.
  • Improvisation note motifs: try these as starters: C D E; D F G; C D E F G; D E F G A.
  • A practice notebook: you could also use this to keep a repertoire diary, writing down the tunes a student has enjoyed playing. This provides a record of their achievement which you can celebrate together – always a good idea!
  • Extra-large stave: you can make this on the floor using masking tape.
  • Coloured pencils: for colour coding any notes your students find tricky.
  • Post-it notes: to use as prompts on a tutor book. Students (even adults) can struggle to look at their practice diaries.
  • A range of tutor books: perhaps use one as your main book but have others to supplement it. As my own piano teacher, Christine Brown, said: ‘no one method’.
  • Note-reading cards: make a set of cards with a different note on each. Put a selection on the music stand for you or your pupils to move around to create tunes. Pupils can do this at home too!
  • Traditional folk tunes and rhymes: use these for singing in lessons. Most young children are happy to do this. You can also use them for playing by ear for teenagers and adults. The British Kodály Academy has a great selection at


As teachers – and without meaning to – we can sometimes presume knowledge or simply use language our students don’t understand. Take care with this. Other ways to maximise understanding could include:

  • Multi-sensory teaching: use a variety of activities with your students which include and combine seeing, hearing and doing. Here are some suggestions.
    • Ask pupils to ‘walk the pulse’ while listening to music, with footsteps matching the beat.
    • Draw heart shapes on a piece of card: three hearts for three beats in a bar, four for four beats in a bar etc. Then ask students to tap each heart in turn to mark the pulse while listening to music.
    • Get pupils to mark the pulse of a piece of music by tapping on a drum or using sounds like Ta Ta. Or tap the drum and make the sound at the same time.
  • Working with parents: parents can be a huge asset in the learning process if you define your different roles well. I tactfully advise parents that they are the child’s greatest fan and I am their teacher. However, there are some areas which parents can definitely help with. For things like posture – such as getting the stool at the right height and in the right position, and creating a good hand, arm and wrist position – parental support at home is invaluable. Or they could make a stave on the kitchen floor with masking tape for practising note reading – the child jumps on it. This is a brilliant way to reinforce note recognition.


Most beginners learn best when they are following a logical sequence and a ‘sound before symbol’ approach is always good practice. I often start with pulse, followed by rhythm, pitch, phrasing and expression. I also establish five-finger positions first, before moving out of hand position gradually.


Is your student enjoying what you are teaching? If they’re forgetting their books every week what are they trying to tell you? Perhaps they don’t like the material. Don’t be afraid to change things. If a tutor book simply isn’t working, try moving on. Also be aware that some students can say ‘yes I understand’ when really they don’t. Try introducing some ‘teach me’ activity. If students make mistakes try not to simply correct it, as this can damage confidence and prevent self-discovery. Instead, ask them to teach you what you’ve just taught them. This is a good way to assess what they have really learnt and absorbed.

Curriculum – the first term

We need to follow a curriculum for each student that is tailored for them. Talk to students about their interests (especially teenagers and adults) and always set your pace by their success. Avoid doing too much or making things too difficult, as this can be off-putting and affect their motivation negatively. Here’s one suggestion for a first term, for an eight-year-old with no learning difficulties. However, it is just a suggestion and should be adapted according to the needs of individual students.

  • How the piano works.
  • Maintaining a pulse.
  • Understanding the pattern of notes A to G and where they appear on the keyboard, and that they have a place on the stave (treble and bass).
  • Producing a good hand, wrist, arm and piano stool position.
  • Using and understanding finger numbers.
  • Understanding rhythm: crotchet, minim and semi-breve and their rests – explore quavers aurally.
  • Pitch: singing back a simple melody and singing the tonic, understanding high and low and their position on the keyboard.
  • Reading notation independently around middle C (A to E), and up to F or G with support.
  • Improvising a simple two-note melody using a minor 3rd and copying a rhythm.
  • Using simple dynamics, staccato and legato.
  • Establish effective practice routines and a reward system.
  • Establish a positive relationship with the pupil and parents.

It’s all about MUSIC

Avoid talking too much in the lesson and let your student play as much as possible – learning music through music. Try to provide plenty of performance opportunities. A small group of carefully chosen students can gain much from listening to one another and hearing repertoire they can strive to play in the near future: ‘I’ve five pieces before I can play Bingo like Layla’ (Elsie, aged seven years). Try to put music making at the heart of every lesson and visualise each student making the piano a lifelong friend.

The ultimate teaching workout

Teaching beginners may not be easy but it really is the ultimate teaching workout which can develop our creativity, musicality, knowledge and empathy. It’s our privilege to be part of any student’s first steps into music. Let’s enjoy!

This article was originally featured in the September 2016 edition of Libretto, ABRSM's magazine.

Karen Marshall is a piano and class music teacher. She co-authored Get Set! Piano with Heather Hammond and compiled ABRSM’s Encore books for pianists.

Take a look at ABRSM’s Piano Star series for beginners.

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