Piano student motivation: How ‘Vacation Lessons’ work for summer and for kids who struggle

“Dear Rebekah, I was wondering if you could switch things up with Liam* for the next couple of lessons, and try your ‘Vacation Lesson’ idea? We’ve been trying to keep it fun for him for the past couple of days with special breakfasts and movie nights. I thought if we tried something different with piano, it might be good for him. Thanks!”

*Name has been changed

That email from a piano mom landed in my inbox one day. I had recently proposed the idea of Vacation Lessons to my studio parents, so I found it interesting that some were beginning to take me up on the idea.

Piano lessons are a looooong term commitment. Sometimes kids are on fire — and sometimes…they struggle.

The idea of Vacation Lessons came to me because I wondered if there might be times when kids are feeling rather low and unproductive, and that perhaps a break from the regular program might do them good. Isn’t there a saying, “A change is as good as a rest”?

It’s a popular saying, according to Google. There must be something to it.

A Google search for “A change is as good as a rest.”

Vacation Lessons fill the need for a break from piano lesson routines — whether you’re looking for summer fun or to help a teen, tween or child who is experiencing a breakdown in their world.

But a break from routine needn’t mean a break from lessons altogether. Perhaps the child just needs a break from practicing, and staying in lessons and keeping music positive is just the thing that would help them stick with music overall.

The letter from the mom above didn’t mean that she was abandoning everything she cared about with piano preparation and quality of work in favour of fun.

It was a plea. She loved her son so much and knew things weren’t good for him at that moment. She was trying to help him through. The mom saw me as an ally who could keep things positive and light for Liam until he regained his footing. When he was in a better place, he’d be able to go back to piano lessons with expectations.

But that’s not the only way Vacation Lessons can work. Here are some ideas:

  • If you keep teaching through the summer, either full or part time, maybe Vacation Lessons would keep it fresh and engaging for your students. At the same time you’d be giving them a small break from their usual practicing.
  • This idea may work for a student who has gotten very busy with school exams, or when their family is busy for another reason.
  • These lessons may work for a student who is going through a difficult time personally and regular practice might feel overwhelming to them.
  • Any situation in which your student is still coming to piano lessons but they aren’t able to commit to practicing.

1. How to set up Vacation Lessons

I’ve never made mid-year Vacation Lessons an official part of my policies. I simply send a group email just to parents and explain how it works (see more details on the actual lesson content below).

All parents need to do is email me and ask if their child could have a few Vacation Lessons. It’s an agreement just between them and me. It’s understood that there’s something personal going on. I don’t need to know the details. All I know is that I’m going to pivot to a different piano program for a few weeks and keep it light and very positive.

I don’t mention to the child that I know something is going on. I don’t mention that their parent contacted me. I simply do something different in their lesson and say, “You’re not expected to practice this week.”

For Summer Vacation Lessons it could be different. Parents could opt for Vacation Lessons, and in this case, kids could know. You’d simply pitch it to families that Vacation Lessons through the summer keep music “top of mind” so that there’s more retention by the time regular lessons start up again in the fall.

Think of it as a stone skipping over the water, making just enough contact to keep it going.

This summer I’ve given my studio families the option to have three Vacation Lessons, with no practice required. I’ll teach one day a week, advertise it the week before, and they can sign up (or not) any week they want to. I’m truly looking forward to it!

2. No (or little) home practice is required

When a student switches over to the Vacation Lesson program, regular practicing is no longer required.

It’s amazing how fun it is to have piano lessons when you aren’t checking on practice or asking the child to practice. I’ve tried this with several children in different families now.

There’s another option I’ve tried with some students in Vacation Lessons that has worked. It’s called “One and Done” practice. That means that they’re only expected to do each item in their book once a day, and then they’re done. This keeps the music they’ve already learned in their fingers, which might be important at the more advanced levels. There’s no progress, but there’s also less backtracking.

3. Music activities focus on experience

Normally in piano lessons a teacher’s focus is on progress with repertoire. This mindset of helping our students to advance doesn’t apply to Vacation Lessons. Instead, these super-relaxed lessons focus on enriching musical experiences.

Here are some ideas to get you started on activities that don’t require home practice:

Rhythm Cups by Wendy Stevens. With the backing tracks and the different tempos, it’s a here-and-now music challenge. Develops steady beat, eye-hand coordination and understanding time signatures and rhythms.

Rhythm Cup activity – Wendy Stevens

Copycat rhythms with drums or other percussion instruments. You’d create rhythms and play them on one drum and the student would play them back on theirs. Boomwhackers are also very fun! Develops the ear and focus.

Pattern Play by Forrest Kinney. If you want amazing-sounding music without prior or expected practice, Pattern Play is the best spontaneous music-making piano series. Teacher duets are provided with room for you to embellish and improvise a little. The suggested key patterns get your student improvising without any prior experience. Develops trust in one’s ability to create in real time.

Pattern Play by Forrest Kinney gets music flowing.

Keyboard exploration. Do you have a keyboard instrument other than a piano? Or a digital piano with other keyboard sounds, like organ, clavichord or harpsichord? Each week you could focus on a different instrument and explore the sounds with pieces your student can already play. Teaches knowledge of music history, timbre and maybe even performance practice (playing a historically accurate sound for the style of music).

Listen to historical recordings. In addition to exploring different keyboards, you could explore performances of famous repertoire in the classical music canon. For this reason, I love YouTube Premium because I’m able to show my students uninterrupted performances, ad-free. I claim the fee as a business expense. Offers students insight into phrasing, beautiful tone and intonation and exposure to great music.

Listen to performances by great pianists.

Chance composition — Aleatory music. “Alea” is Latin for dice. With aleatorical music, the throw of a dice or the colour of a Smartie determines the notes of a melody. It’s really fun to do in a lesson and doesn’t require home preparation or followup. Explores creativity and curiosity.

Superhero Comic Strip Music Composition by Jennifer Foxx. This summer one of the activities I have planned for my Vacation Lesson students is Jennifer Foxx’s Comic Strip Composition activity. I can’t wait to try it! Develops creativity and musical storytelling.

Duets. For young students who are strong readers, try sight reading a few duets together. These are always good for a laugh because some mistakes are so silly.

Duets don’t only have to be with two people side-by-side at a piano. You could try accompanying with piano, then a drum, then with strings on your digital piano. After a few readings of a piece done different ways, the child will have played it a bunch of times. Without telling them what’s happening, they’re practicing. Shh — I didn’t say that. 😉

Lead Sheets, 12 Bar Blues, or learning how to use Garage Band, all available from TopMusicCo. Sometimes we have time for these topics in piano lessons (I often do cover them) and sometimes we don’t. Vacation Lessons are the perfect time to dive in with a student who just needs a change.

Courses and materials available from TopMusicPro.

If you feel you can’t afford to pay for memberships and courses, I’d like to challenge that and suggest that you can’t afford not to. Imagine your student getting so overwhelmed that they quit. Now imagine having all of these resources available to keep them coming back. Your earning power is directly related to the content you offer.

Remember, you can claim your membership fees to lower your income tax. Instead of paying higher tax, invest in yourself and your students.

Vacation Lessons Move the Needle Forward

You might look at the activities above and think — woah! That’s a lot of great content! That doesn’t sound like a break!

You’re right! While Vacation Lessons give the student a break from practicing at home, the child or teen will still be immersed in a learning environment that will equip them with valuable musical skills, knowledge and experiences that will empower them once they get back to practicing.

Or just maybe, Vacation Lessons will help you and your student open new doors and pathways and you’ll never completely go back to just traditional piano lessons. Who knows? If you’re open to being the piano teacher they need, the possibilities are endless.

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

Jack and Jill went up the Beach (Late Elementary, Level 2). Here’s a surf-inspired version of Jack and Jill went up the Hill! Explores the F Major key signature, optional swing, syncopations and tied notes, and intervals up to a sixth. From the print and eBook Old MacDonald had the Blues, or check out the Jack and Jill went up the Beach eSheet!

Listen to a sound clip of Jack and Jill went up the Beach!

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