Save time on lesson plans! 6 quick tricks to take piano lessons from Blah into TA-DA!

Have you ever created a perfect lesson plan for a student, only when they arrive you realize they haven’t practiced? Or maybe they didn’t open their theory book once? Or maybe they simply didn’t understand what you taught them last time?

How many times have you had to toss your carefully-laid piano lesson plans out the window?

This blog post explores how to plan ahead without a plan…if that’s possible (it is!).

Because you can’t predict whether your student will have practiced or finished their assigned work, the best lesson plans are actually un-planned lessons. Sometimes the best lessons happen without an extra written-out step-by-step outline. Plus, who has time for that?

Instead, this post offers steps that can be taken during your piano lessons, in real-time, that help set you up to have a flexible plan for the following week. We’ll also cover how to do a quick check-in on the day of the lesson before you begin teaching. These ideas work in person and online!

1. Studio-wide lesson warm-ups

Piano lesson warm-ups in rhythm, intervals, history and more!

Save time and energy by planning a flexible lesson opener that works for all of your students, regardless of level. This can be an enriching activity that develops the ear, sight skills, that teaches history, or a little game that can be adapted to different levels.

A lesson opener invites your students to enter your learning environment in a playful way and creates a connection between you. It also helps them develop valuable musical skills.

It’s fun to add a seasonal element to the warm-up! Winter / Christmas, spring / Easter, fall / Halloween and Valentine music activities are often a big hit!

Make a lesson opener a regular part of your lesson plan. It only takes about five minutes of the lesson and comes with the element of surprise. Because it’s studio-wide, it’s efficient use of your planning time. And it doesn’t always depend on your student’s at-home preparation.

2. Sticky notes track progress and help plan

Need a quick and flexible way to plan ahead for method students? Use sticky notes!

This step works only if you have studio copies of books. If you’re in the habit of lending out your print books, you may want to consider holding on to them to allow you to plan. If you teach with studio-licensed books or eSheets, always keep your own print on hand for reference.

Using sticky notes is possibly the single biggest step for saving you time creating flexible lesson plans. First, simply write student names on sticky notes. Create a sticky note for each book your student is using.

While the piano lesson is in progress, place one flag/note on the last page the student is currently working on. Or, if a new concept is coming up and you hope to cover it in the following lesson, place the sticky note with this student’s name on the next page you want to do.

The next week before you begin teaching each day, you’ll be able to take a quick look through the materials you’ll be using. You’ll be able to use your time efficiently because your student’s names will point you where to look in their books.

Simply opening your copies of books to the last pages you covered will trigger your memory of your students’ last lessons and give you an idea where the current lessons might go. This mental preparation is key.

Tips for success:

  • Color-code sticky notes, each student with their own colour.
  • Write on the top of the note, on the opposite end as the sticky part.
  • Write the student’s name on the front and back of the note, so you can read it whether you place the note on a right or left-side page in your book.
  • Place the note so it’s sticking above the book’s pages, so the student’s name is still visible when the book is closed.
  • Stagger the sticky notes in the books like tabs, newest student first, with the more advanced student last.
  • Sticky notes work for conservatory materials and other supplemental materials, too, like Wendy Stevens’s Rhythm Cups.
  • As you prepare for teaching, set your books out in order of students, one pile per student or open to the first pages you’ll need.

3. Teaching tools at the ready

Once you’ve refreshed your memory with books and materials, you’ll know what concepts you’ll be reviewing or introducing. Set out the cards or teaching manipulatives you’ll need within reach.

Setting out teaching tools helps prepare your mind for the teaching-learning flow and exchange. It also sets you up for a smooth transition to the activity in the lesson, saving valuable lesson time for the activity itself.

4. Practice instructions double as the next lesson plan

Most teachers of junior piano write practice instructions in a dictation book. This is not only the practice plan for your student to follow at home (fingers crossed!), but it can double as your next lesson plan!

For this reason, I try to set up the order of practice items according to a good flow for home practice or for the lesson.

Counter to this, lately in the first moment of the lesson I’ve asked my students, “What do you want to do first?” The activity they pick reveals a lot about them as a young, emerging musician.

But when it comes to writing things down, I do keep things neatly stacked in roughly this order:

  • Warm-up
  • Theory
  • YOYO (You’re on your own music reading project)
  • Technique
  • Repertoire

5. Plan a studio-wide element of fun

Keep lessons fresh by switching things up. In the photo above, my student spins the wheel of a Kinder Surprise snowman. The number he gets sets the number of times he’ll repeat a small section that needs some polish.

Instead of asking my student to repeat something three times (and always asking the same thing, which could get boring), I plan ahead for a fun element of surprise that makes repeating fun.

This kind of planning takes very little time and spices up lessons for your whole studio. Use items you have kicking around or keep your eyes open at the dollar store for potential studio “toys.” Then, rotate them to keep things fresh.

6. Flexibility is key

No matter what your plan is for a lesson, be willing to toss it all to the side and follow the child’s lead.

Does your student enter your studio and want to play music as soon as they sit at the piano? You can’t buy this kind of motivation. Run with it. Let go of the lesson warm-up. Return to it later in the lesson for a change of pace, or just let it go.

Has your student barely practiced? Let go of the progress you might have planned and circle back around to review and boost their next week at home.

The immediate needs of your student are more important than any plan.


Do you like this post and want more? In the side menu click “follow” to get notifications of my posts in your inbox.

I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching! ❤

Rebekah Maxner, composer, blogger, piano teacher. Follow my blog for great tips!

Video of the Week

North Star: Based on Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star, North Star (eSheet) features fifths, rhythmic patterns with sixteenth notes, legato pedal and lots of moments for developing long, expressive phrases. Intermediate piano, Level 4. North Star is available as an eSheet!

Listen to North Star on YouTube!
Listen to a sound clip of Icing on the Cake (Snow in the Winter)!

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