How comfortable are you teaching online piano lessons to very young children?
By now most piano teachers have taught online, but many of our students began with us in person. How challenging is it to begin piano lessons with a very young child?
There are so many challenges with teaching young students — even in person! Challenges like getting and holding their attention, the matter of a shorter attention span, and the fact that young students learn from experience rather than words.
When you’re a tiny little figure on their screen, will you be able to grab their attention or give them meaningful learning experiences? And if that’s tricky, will you find words they’ll understand?
Then there’s the biggest obstacle teachers face with online lessons — developing tension-free technique in our youngest beginners. In person, a quick wrist check, elbow or arm check is only an arm’s length away. Online, even with parent helpers, there’s no easy replacement for this guiding hands-on approach.
So what can we teach our youngest beginners online?
Rather than focus on and stress about what we can’t do, let’s shine a light on what we can teach our youngest students online!
Plan ahead for success
1. Build a music team
Before lessons begin, ask your student’s parent to be your on-site helper. The parent can do more than help set up the remote video connection for each lesson. They can also do the following:
- Write the lesson assignment in the dictation book
- Help find and turn pages during the lesson
- Put stickers and sticky notes on pages
- Point to music notes if it helps the child focus
- Help with counting aloud (in case a sound delay prevents you)
- Flash learning cards if your student has some to review at home
- Hold books up to the screen to show you completed theory
- If the parent plays a little piano, play the teacher duets
The parent helper is essential to help online lessons work with very young learners!
2. Have two camera views
Typically, a laptop on the side of the teacher’s piano provides the student with a clear side-view. This will allow them to see both the teacher and the length of the piano keyboard. However, having an overhead view is essential for younger students so they can see a close-up view of the teacher’s hands.
3. You need a copy of all music
This should go without saying, but music teachers are more effective when we own the books from which we teach. We need books for our own reference and planning between lessons and simply can’t function well without them in remote lessons.
For example, what if your youngest online students can’t find what you’re referring to on a page, even with specific verbal directions? With your matching music book in hand, you can point to something on your page to help them find it visually. This works really well if you have an overhead camera pointed to your piano keys as a closeup view. Simply hold your book beneath that camera so the image of your page can fill their screen. This helps the lesson progress move forward.
3. Wear a bright colour
Be visible. Wearing a bright colour makes you a captivating image to look at. I learned this lesson from Queen Elizabeth, who wears bright colours so she stands out! In a bright outfit, you’ll grab your young student’s attention, even though you are smaller on their screen.
1. Draw your main camera closer
If you have two camera views, use the overhead view as your piano view. You can use the overhead camera for demonstrating music and to teach hand shape and wrist development.
But if you also have a laptop to the side showing the side-view of your piano, draw it a bit closer than you would normally have it for older students. Chances are your very youngest students don’t need to see the entire piano. What you’ll lose in the piano view you’ll gain in making your face larger on your young student’s screen. This is important for holding their attention and helping them feel you are near.
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2. Speak with an engaging voice
Speak slowly with a captivating story-telling or optimistic sing-song-y voice. Engage your student with your language and inviting tone. Make it sound like very exciting things are happening, like the characters in the story (you and your student in their piano lesson) can’t wait to find out what’s going to happen next. Your young student will listen to you with better attention if you have a wonder-full speaking voice.
3. Say your student’s name
Nothing gets a person’s attention more effectively than saying their name. Whenever you’re going to teach something important or ask for your student’s undivided attention, preface it by saying their name.
4. Hear repertoire “concert style”
Because it’s typical (and expected) for you to get a bit less done in each online lesson, I’ve found it helpful to ask my student to play several pieces they’ve been practicing in a row.
Sometimes it’s fun to have a mini concert, one piece following the other. You can hear three or more pieces in short order and save your comments to the end. This allows your student to showcase what they’ve accomplished and saves a lot more time for new activities.
5. Weight time in favour of new pieces
If you’ve heard several pieces in a row and notice trends and things that need fixing, choose to fix up only one of the “concert” pieces and let the others go gently. It is more important to teach the next new piece with enough time in the lesson to build a good foundation and establish good practice habits than it is to backtrack and fix old habits in old pieces. Always let your student “practice” their new piece a little in the lesson before they fly on their own through the week. Use the new piece to fix up things your student needs to work on!
6. Teach new concepts early in the lesson
When I know there’s a big new concept coming up, we get to it as early as possible in the lesson (sometimes even before I hear music they’ve practiced), so I’m sure we have enough time to cover it. Sometimes I teach a new concept the week before we apply it to a new piece. That way, it’s already a review the following week when it’s taught in a piece.
If we run out of time for everything, I simply ask the parent helper to write down that the student should keep practicing the things we couldn’t get to and we’ll cover them next time. Then, I plan a “concert” for the following week so we can catch up!
7. Watch short teaching videos with screen share
When introducing a new concept or piece, you can screen share online resources to soften the introduction and create interest.
For example, here’s a song that can teach very young beginners their left and right hands with a song. They can even watch the video as they practice and sing along with it at home!
I’ve also made two videos that help teach finger numbers in a creative, memorable way with a rainbow! Both can be shared in online lessons and watched at home during practice. The first video can also help parents at home understand so they can assist with colouring the rainbow and practicing.
The student may watch and sing along with the next video as they practice their finger numbers.
Many composers have YouTube channels featuring videos of them teaching their own pieces. For complete beginners, it’s effective to screen share one of these short composer demos. Then as step two, you can take a turn teaching the piece, yourself.
Here’s Sally with some truly interesting ideas on how to keep students engaged online. She even offers a key resource for sharing videos. Worth the watch!
8. Teach the parent helper first
In this situation, the student will first watch their parent learn to play the new piece. The child will see your demonstration online, their parent putting it into action in person, and then take a turn trying it, themselves. Even if the child doesn’t master the ideas in the lesson, since the parent has a head start, the parent-child team will be able to work together throughout the week to apply what you’ve taught them.
The reason this approach is so efficient in online lessons is because adults are better at learning from verbal instruction. With online lessons, we lean heavily on words and explanations. It is therefore much quicker to teach the adult first. By the time the child tries it, they’ll have learned a lot simply because they’ve already seen it done.
9. Use a whiteboard
If you’re a techie, try the Classroom Maestro app, which interfaces with your MIDI keyboard. For your very youngest beginners, this might help with early staff note identification and grand staff fluency.
But you can keep it simple with a physical whiteboard and markers, which can be held up to your screen. I have two Ultimate Music Theory whiteboards, one hand-held and the other a classroom size. I use both in online teaching.
If you need to write notes on the staff, simply write on the front. It’s a blank staff, circle and keyboard. It’s versatile for any purpose, and useful with your tiniest students for quick lessons on rhythm and notation.
What I like about these whiteboards is that you can also use the back, which is a complete white space. You can either write in pre-staff, for example, or tape on rhythm cards or other game cards to help display them (I use painter’s tape as it peels easily).
The hand-held one is easier to handle, write on and display. I hold it beneath my overhead camera, which is a close-up view for the student.
10. Be prepared to adjust posture and technique every week
Because you’re not sitting next to your young student, they will likely develop habits that will be more difficult for you to detect. Can you really see how close they’ve pulled the bench up to their piano? Does their camera angle truly show whether their wrist is too low, or that their arm is rigid and full of tension, can you see the posture of their back, or whether their feet are resting on a foot booster and not just dangling mid-air?
Even with a parent helper in the room, developing good posture and technique online is a huge challenge. Without a good view (and sometimes with poor sound), it’s especially important to keep an eye on your student’s entire physical approach to the piano. Each time I do a bench check I’ll work with the student and parent to pull it back (which gives their arms more room and freedom to move and usually corrects their wrist angle). Remember, adults learn more effectively from facts and knowledge, so I’ll also take time to explain to the parent all the benefits of moving the bench back. Then we get on with the fun!
Looking for ideas that help with tension-free playing? Sometimes it’s helpful to change the pace of the lesson. Ask your student to stop playing, take a deep breath and re-set their hands.
If you notice tension in your young student’s shoulders and wrists, sometimes it helps to get them off the bench, take a deep breath and do some gentle body exercises that will help them feel more natural at the piano.
Relax and let it go slow
Adjust your expectations of what can be accomplished in a lesson, in a week of practice and overall in a year of online lessons. They’re getting more music online with you than they would otherwise, so try to see the bright side. In weekly 30 minute lessons, I’ve accepted that it’s enough for us to do a bit of review and to teach only one new piece a week. Do you have any additional ideas? Let us know in the comments!
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Video of the Week
Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep (Early Elementary, Prep A), set to the traditional nighttime children’s prayer with original music by Rebekah Maxner. From the print and eBook Johnny Appleseed, 12 Joyful Songs and Prayers for Children, Early Elementary piano works with optional teacher duets. Or, Check out the Studio Licensed Lullabies eSheet solo bundle!