Planning the First Lesson of the “New Year”

August… how is it August already?  We teachers gear up for September as if it were a new beginning.  We organize our studios, buy new office supplies, think about repertoire, and plan for our students. As we plan, we must ask ourselves three simple questions:

  • Where has the student been?
  • Where is the student now?
  • Where do we want the student to go in the future?

ASSESSMENT

“Where have we been and where are we now?”  This is all about reflecting, a process that ideally is ongoing.  After each lesson, we should ask ourselves if all areas of study are in balance:  musicianship, technique, and practice habits.  In our hectic lives, though, sometimes we fall short.  Frances Clark would say something like this: “We are always busy, therefore, we are not thinking.”  This might be a good time of year to recommit to “thinking.”  With each student, I will write a list of strengths and weaknesses, and specific goals for the coming year.  When planning repertoire, I will keep in mind these strengths, weaknesses, and students’ interests.

REPERTOIRE

As we think about “where we are going” with repertoire, I will mention that Frances Clark emphasized the importance of going from the general to the specific.  She would encourage her pedagogy students to project in June what students would perform in the spring recital for the following year!  (Of course, we might deviate from this plan, but we were often surprised to find the projected recital piece was actually the right choice!)  From the projected recital piece, we would plan repertoire for the winter Parents’ Class, first repertoire class, and, finally, the first private lesson.

THE FIRST LESSON One important short-term goal is planning for the first lesson of the year.  My job as the Educational Director of the New School is to plan first lessons for all new faculty members.  I endeavor to choose suitable repertoire and plan activities that will set the course for a successful year.  My work, planning for other teachers, is somewhat unusual and may not seem to directly relate to private teachers whose own students are returning. I do believe, however, that the strategies outlined below for planning a successful first lesson will be applicable for any situation.

Planning for the first lesson of the new academic year: Objectives:  To establish or re-establish rapport, choose and perfect at least one piece for a future performance opportunity, work out a new piece, teach a new warm-up, prepare a new concept, and end with success.  Above all, a positive atmosphere should pervade the lesson, and the student will ideally leave the lesson excited about going home to practice.

1. Review Repertoire piece #1:  Contact the student 2 – 3 weeks prior to the first lesson and ask him/her to prepare 2 -3 favorite pieces to play at the first lesson. See if you can get the titles prior to the first lesson, so these can appear on the first assignment sheet. COACHING:  If the piece has correct notes and rhythm, aim to make one or two main improvements that the student can remember, instead of too many small points.  Make a big deal about the change; lots of praise.  If you hold studio classes, consider the accurate performances of review repertoire (or performances with small note errors) for the first class.  Important:  If the piece has a rhythm error, do not try to fix this.  These errors have been strongly ingrained all summer, and not worth fixing.  Simply praise what the student has done well, state that you enjoyed hearing the piece, and move on.  The piece can disappear from the assignment the following week.   A final note:  Notice any hand position issues; these can be addressed in the warm-up section of the lesson.

2. New Repertoire:  The number of new pieces will vary depending upon the student’s level.  I believe that it is a good idea to work out a new piece fully during this first lesson of the year.  This means marking the form, tapping and counting the rhythm, practicing any moves, looking at intervals, etc.  The student will eventually play at least part of the piece during the lesson at a slow tempo, accurately.  This accurate first performance will set the stage for successful practice and confidence.  A second piece might be a partial-workout.  If a third piece is chosen, it might be one level of difficulty easier than the other repertoire, and assigned as on-own.  If just one piece is assigned, this might be a nice time to perform for the student a few other pieces that might be assigned in the future.  Make note of  which pieces excite the student the most for future assignments and planning of concepts.

3.  Warm-Up:  Warm-up routines vary from teacher to teacher.  This might be a good opportunity to preview a technical requirement of a future piece.  For example, the student might have a piece using legato 3rds coming up in the next few weeks and this might be a good opportunity to introduce a simple by-rote warm-up using legato 3rds.

4.  Review Piece #2:  See notes from above regarding coaching  

5. Written Work/Rhythm:  Preview an activity from the student’s written activities book.  Be certain to have student complete one example in the lesson.  During this part of the lesson, the teacher might choose an ear-training activity, composing, etc.

6.  Prepare Future Concept:  A good example of a new concept is a new rhythm.  As you look through the student’s method book, you may see that a new rhythm is coming up in in the next couple of month.  In this case, a quick preparation is needed in the form of a movement activity, clapbacks, playbacks, etc.  If a student will be learning a new theory concept, such as triads and inversions, a quick introduction can occur using pennies on the keyboard, vs. using actual correct fingering.

7.  Review Piece #3  (or review Piece #1 or 2 again with the improvements that you have made in the lesson).  End the piece with a specific compliment about the performance.  A final phrase such as:  “It is so good to see you again and I am excited about the year ahead” is worth so much!  We can get very preoccupied the first week of the new session and forget how much an enthusiastic comment such as this can mean to a student. 

The second week or third week might be a good time to reassess sight-playing and to begin a plan to strengthen important reading skills.  Improvisation and/or composing activities, as well as a brief ear-training exercise should be introduced in week 2. This six-week planning chart might be useful in getting started for the fall semester: 6-Week Planning Chart These guidelines for the first lesson are not meant to be rigid and the activities do not necessarily have to be done in this order.  The teacher must use the plan as a guide and then respond to the situation accordingly. Do other teachers have special strategies for beginning the new school year?  We’d love to hear from you.

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