Teaching New Pieces: Beginners

There are so many things we could discuss in the topic of teaching new pieces! I think this is an important topic and I hope to get lots of input from you! I think today I will focus on how to teach new pieces to beginners. Since beginning pieces are rather short and very simple, I think it is a good place to start :)

Four Elements of a Piece

Basically, there are four elements which need to be learned in any piece. Each element is important and should be learned right from the beginning. A good way to remember these elements is by the acronym FERN:

F - fingering
E - expression
R - rhythm
N - notes

(I actually sometimes like to use the acronym NERF instead - especially for students who may be familiar with or into Nerf toys!)

I think it is a big mistake for our students to learn the notes and the rhythm, and then only after they are learned to add in dynamics and expression. We need to teach our students to play musically right from the beginning, to make it a habit to play slurs, staccatos, and dynamics as they are learning new pieces.

Teaching New Pieces to Beginners

Here are some techniques to teaching new pieces that I have used in my studio. I'd love to hear what you do in yours!

Look the Piece Over

Before a student begins a new piece, it is important to look it over with them (just like the first step of sight reading) and help point out all of the important elements of the piece, including key signature, time signature, accidentals, dynamics, etc.

Hands Alone Practice

Practicing hands alone is an important way of practicing a new piece, no matter what level the student is! Students should become comfortable with playing hands alone before putting hands together. For beginners, many pieces are not hands together anyway, so you won't have to worry about this. When students first learn how to put two hands together, it can take some coordination and getting used to! Hands alone practice will make this a lot easier.

SLOW Practice

Pianist Rudolf Firkusny says this about slow practice: "I do advise practicing in a slower tempo. I think it's a good idea because...you can overcome bad habits which can creep into your playing." (The Well-Tempered Keyboard Teacher, p. 356) This is true at any level! Let's help our students develop good habits in their practicing and playing.

Show Them How to Practice: FERN

In order to help our students learn the four elements of their new piece, it is helpful to give them specific practicing instructions. Here are some ideas:
Polishing Up a Piece

Whether or not a piece is going to be a future recital piece, the end goal should be for the student to be able to play it with correct notes, rhythm and fingering, with good expression and musicality, with no stopping and at a comfortable tempo...right? What are some ways you help your students achieve this?

If the student has learned the piece well, focusing on each of the four elements, and has practiced it efficiently, there should be no problem polishing it up! 

If the piece needs some polishing, try breaking it into shorter sections (one line at a time) and challenge the student to play that line three times in a row, perfectly.

Teach the student to evaluate their own playing and to identify spots where they have problems. When my students play a piece for me, I like to ask them to evaluate their own playing. If they learn to be aware of when they mess up in a piece, they will be able to better fix it in their practicing.

Using the metronome is something that needs to be learned by young students, and can be very helpful in keeping a steady tempo. I try to pick a good tempo for them that is not too fast, one that they will be able to play the entire piece at comfortably. Once they are able to do that, we may raise the tempo a bit, depending on the piece.

I hope these ideas were helpful. I would love to hear ideas of how you teach beginning pieces in your studio!

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