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Lesson Planning: A Teaching Essential?

Road maps and detours

by Craig Sale

One of my worst nightmares is arriving at the school where I teach to realize I have left that day's lesson plans at home. 

On the rare occasions when this has happened, I have managed to conduct a reasonably structured lesson by following the student's last assignment in their notebook. Generally, I remember most of the things I had planned but, in the end, I still prefer my safety net—the lesson plan.

I often ask myself why I still need to plan each lesson of the week. Certainly, I know the materials well enough and have used my bag of pedagogical tricks often enough that I should not need to spend hours of each day preparing for lessons. However, I also know that these materials and teaching techniques are best used when I have taken the time in advance to consider each individual student and his or her progress. 

Many teachers feel that their hands are tied by a lesson plan, that they cannot be spontaneous or meet individual needs. I believe that lesson planning is the best way to meet these needs. Each morning I reflect upon the previous day's lessons and devise plans for the next week. Each plan takes the individual student into account, and I have time to weigh options and consider alternatives—none of which I would have the time to do in the lesson itself. By planning each lesson in advance I can objectively look at the structure of the coming lesson, making sure that there is variety and that priorities are clear. In this way, I can be sure that the materials I am using are presented in an organized and student-centered manner.

My plans are not set in stone. They are my "suggested road map" through the lesson's events and goals. Most certainly, there are times when my lesson plan is changed during the actual lesson—times when the student is not ready for portions of what I have planned; times when the student exceeds my expectations. Whatever the scenario, I find that I can make informed decisions in these circumstances because I have made a plan. I can alter my course to meet the situation presented by the student at the lesson, and I can feel confident that such decisions have been made with a view of the whole student rather than simply reacting to the moments of a lesson.

I realize that I may not be in the majority, but for me lesson planning remains essential. I asked two successful teachers, Stephen Hughes and Arlene Steffen, both of whom also value lesson planning, to share their thoughts on this topic. Their responses and helpful examples illustrate how they use lesson plans and give special emphasis to the importance of long-range planning.

Planning for short and long term success

by Arlene Steffen

"I don't plan lessons. You can never tell what the student has done during the week and I end up having to change everything."

"Planning lessons means I can't be 'in the moment' with the student."

"A lesson plan is too inflexible."

"I just don't have the time to plan."

These arguments were all present in a recent discussion among piano teachers. The discussion revealed a lack of awareness about how to plan lessons and how lesson plans can function flexibly. I find that a good plan prepares the student to be successful in both the short and long term and serves as a touch-point throughout the lesson. Without a plan, progress can be slow and short-sighted.

A plan for music-making

A lesson plan begins with a basic pedagogical philosophy. For me, music-making is the top priority. That means engaging students with expressive sound at every lesson. There must always be at least one moment where students immerse themselves in the wonder and excitement of music. That is, after all, why they start lessons. They don't sign up to learn about treble clefs and quarter notes. They want to play. My primary job is to make sure they experience enough of that at the lesson that they can't wait to get to the piano at home.

Once they are hooked on the sound, they need the tools to produce it. Ideally, lessons should include technique work, reading and rhythm, theory and ear training, repertoire, and improvisation. Through a process of preparation (hearing and feeling), presentation (seeing and naming), and reinforcement, we cover all elements. An example of how long-range planning might work can be found in the table of contents of most method books. In Example 1, the table of contents from The Music Tree, Part 2A (Alfred Publ. Co.) shows the new concepts and skills encountered in this level. 

I note the order of skills and concepts in the table of contents and see which things the student might find difficult. Next, I study the repertoire to see how these things are put into practice. The purpose of the book is to present material; the teacher must prepare the students before the presentation, giving them frames of reference for the ear and the hand before they have to process concepts visually and intellectually.

Next, I choose supplementary materials I think they will enjoy, will be relatively easy for them to learn, and will reinforce concepts and skills to ensure mastery. These should be placed in order as truly supplementary pieces, reinforcing concepts already learned, not introducing new ideas. This gives students adequate practice to solidify learning. Using a variety of supplementary materials gives the student multiple experiences in skill development and sound. Once the major plan is in place, you have only to make notes each week of activities you want to include.

The assignment sheet

Example 1: Table of Contents from The Music Tree, Part 2A, by Frances Clark, Louise Goss, and Sam Holland

Writing the assignment ahead of time is crucial. You can handwrite it and make a copy (carbon or photocopy), or type it and share it using e-mail or Dropbox. If you have an iPad, you can use Moosic Studio to create assignments. Initially, it may take time to set up each student's assignment, but once set up, it moves quite quickly and you will have a dated assignment record. During the lesson, the student gives you her printed copy to make notes on, and based on what you accomplish during the lesson, you can alter the assignment and print or email it to the student or the parent. 

A pre-made assignment helps you focus on what you need to accomplish and gives you more time in the lesson to interact with the student because you are not writing down the entire assignment. Just a quick note is enough to remind you of any changes you need to make. It also serves as a lesson outline.

Consider eight-year-old Anna, a student of mine in The Music Tree, Part 2A. Anna reads well and has a solid sense of rhythm. With some rhythm games covered a few weeks in advance, eighth notes will be easy. She does well with theory concepts, so the pentascales or tonic/dominant work and new dynamic requirements are easy. New landmarks will expand her reading skill. Her greatest difficulty is coordination, so Anna will need extra preparation for hands together playing. Lessons and assignments should include rote exercises using excerpts from upcoming pieces two to three weeks ahead of assigning the piece. Example 2 shows an assignment for Anna created with Moosic Studio. 

Based on the assignment above, what might a lesson plan look like for Anna?

Example 2: Anna's assignment sheet.

Technique/Ear Training


Rote ex. from "Cherokee Brave" (MT2A, p. 45, m.5 + downbeat of m.6) to be assigned in three weeks.

Review assigned pentascales HT. Address technique/coordination as necessary. Playbacks with eighth notes in one of the pentascales.

Identify I and V in the pentascale. Play "Mary Had a Little Lamb," have Anna play I and V by ear. Trade. Have Anna play both voices. Look at Activities Unit 5 for I and V assignment.


Hear Anna's favorite piece from her assignment.  MAKE MUSIC!


Intro "Faraway Chimes" (MT2A p. 39):

Have Anna improvise sounds that fit the title. 

Play new piece for Anna.

Detective search for 5ths and 4ths. 

Practice finding the starting position and crossovers. 

Tap and count one practice section.

Anna introduces herself to another new piece (MT2A p. 38, "Lumberjack"). Same procedure.


Off the bench staff review for landmarks/intervals.


Play a review piece (MT p. 37, "Raindrops," or "Tortoise"). Add duet.

Plan practice for continuing pieces this week (MT p. 40, "Sweet Betsy," or Meanwhile, Back at the Castle p. 3, "Duke").

Must you write out this kind of plan every week?

If you are inexperienced at working with a lesson plan, yes. The process trains you, and the more you do it, the easier and more flexible you are to work the plan in the moment. After thirty-plus years of teaching, the thinking it represents does happen every week for me via the pre-written assignment. A sticky note on the front of the student file with pertinent reminders for activities serves as a good jog for the memory. 

Having the assignment pre-written, whether through Moosic Studio or another program, means alterations are simple and quick. You can make changes then or later and email them. Even if the student has forgotten to bring her assignment, you have it right there!

What happens when students don't practice well or have problems with something you didn't anticipate? Of course, you deal with it immediately. However, with a plan this happens less frequently. They have left the lesson with a thorough understanding of the assignments and are empowered to practice with confidence.

A lesson plan isn't something written in stone; it is a sign of forethought and a guide for efficient use of time in the lesson. It allows you to be thorough in guiding the student successfully and frees you to be spontaneous with music-making because you spend less time correcting. Benjamin Franklin's adage remains true: If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.

Keeping your goals within sight

by Stephen Hughes

It's Monday morning: A new day, new week, new semester, new year. It's been three weeks since my last full week of teaching: thirty-five students, thirty-five goals, thirty-five musical paths, thirty-five lesson plans. 

Student A: Retiree (new student) with a goal of playing in a church band. Student B: nine years old in her third year, with a goal of performing at talent show. Student C: Teenage boy starting seventh year continuing jazz studies as he prepares for university classical auditions. 

The chaos within my mind starts to organize itself as I visualize the upcoming week. Now at my desk, with coffee in hand, I'm ready to go and excited for the semester: Let the lesson planning commence.

Comments and considerations

When asked to write on this topic, I was excited to share my perspectives, along with the planning process I have developed...but I had some reservations. There seems to be a common theme in our profession: "Lesson Planning—Not That Important." Most teachers don't plan in detail for the long term because they feel that plans are restrictive and limiting. Here are the most common 'paraphrased' comments relating to the subject:

• Majority of students use the same method.

• Weekly assignments are used to track progress.

• Planning limits ability to be spontaneous.

• Planning lessons is time-consuming.

In response, I consider a few questions:

• Are students on identical learning paths? Are their goals the same?

• Do you remember, in detail, what all students are working on? 

• Can you visualize the progression of all concepts? 

• Do you skip around the curriculum? 

• How do you keep track of concepts and spontaneous activities?

Value of long-term planning

We all agree that short-term planning, week-to-week, is vital to the learning-teaching path of the student-teacher relationship. Measuring progress weekly helps to keep the student on the right track; however, there should always be a bigger picture in mind: Long-Term Goals. There needs to be a clear, flexible road-map for us to follow regarding each student's musical journey. All students have different (sometimes drastic) paths, which means their ultimate goals are distinct. With proper long-term planning, we gain a clear picture of the path needed to achieve these goals. Teaching organization and how to accomplish goals is an integral part of piano education and life, right? If the student/parent can see and feel the big picture on a weekly basis, he will be more likely to achieve his goals. Ultimately, the value of long-term planning comes down to this: You always have your goals within sight.

Building a roadmap

Example 3: Student's Goals and Objectives diagram.

After establishing general goals based on a student's assessment, split the goals down into "Defined Objectives" (see Example 3). For example: Late Beginner (Student) needs to broaden range of technique (Goal). Based on the assessment, it could hypothetically break down into these three defined objectives:

1) Major scales—one octave—separate hands; 

2) I – IV – I - V7 - I in major keys—separate hands;

3) Hand-over-hand arpeggios for all twelve major/minor triads.

Each objective is broken down into "Concept Cycles" (see Example 4). You can choose which concept areas to focus on based on your philosophy. My core five are Technique, Tempo, Theory, Artistry, and Ear-Training.

Each cycle has its own unique path and is the foundation of the learning process. Every week, we are presenting, evaluating, and reviewing concepts as the students are practicing and applying the concepts until the objective is met and, finally, the goal is achieved.

Example 4: Concept Cycles for Objectives

Planning process

Example 5: Integration of Lesson Plan Roadmap with Spreadsheet System

We have unlimited resources available to create and maintain a thorough lesson plan. The key is to develop a process which is efficient, customizable, and well-organized. Over the years, I have designed a comprehensive system which integrates the Lesson Plan Roadmap with a Spreadsheet System (see Example 5). Notice how the roadmap ties in directly to the organizational process. This Spreadsheet System records and tracks all data relating to each student's lesson plan: 

• Curriculum (Method Outline/Repertoire)

• Weekly Planning (Assignments/Student Records)

• Reports (Assessments/Summary)

All of this information is accessible from one master file which allows for maximum efficiency. To simplify and streamline these tasks, I make use of Microsoft Excel (a spreadsheet program that stores and organizes data), hyperlinks (to connect directly to other documents or webpages), Dropbox (an electronic file-sharing service), and PDFs, which allow me to capture all the elements of a printed document as an electronic image.

Example 6: Spreadsheet for lesson book concepts.
Example 7: Spreadsheet for additional repertoire.

Using technological resources

For curriculum

Method Outline: For every method book I use, I have constructed a spreadsheet that tracks the concepts taught. Creating these sheets allows me to customize and alter the order of concepts to my preference, to skip around as needed, and, for transfer students, to assess skills and knowledge adequately. After each concept is introduced, practiced, and reviewed, I will grade the student and continue to review until it has been learned (see Example 6). 

Repertoire: Additional repertoire (not in method) is tracked and planned for the entire year. I can easily plan and adjust the order of pieces, depending upon the student's performance goals. Other details that are tracked include length of study, mastery of piece, and recording (see Example 7).

For weekly planning

Example 8: Assignment sheet.
Example 9: Student record sheet.

Assignment Sheets: Every week, students receive a detailed, customized PDF that covers every area of their curriculum. It includes a section for track-ing practice minutes and a practice goals section. A hyperlink section allows the student or parent to connect directly to his or her Dropbox, YouTube Playlist, and anything else you can imagine. This virtual PDF concept has been an amazing addition to my planning process (see Example 8).

Student Records: This tracks all student-parent info and what we work on, week-to-week. After each lesson, I write specific notes to myself regarding assignments and progress. If we are unable to cover everything in the lesson, it is documented for the following week. Before each lesson, I review last week's Student Record & Assignment Sheet, giving me com-plete peace of mind (see Example 9)

For reports

Assessment: Each student who has completed a full semester will receive this progress report. It is saved as a PDF in their Dropbox folder and emailed to the student/parent. These assessments provide feedback on specific areas of piano instruction. At the end, I provide a list of short- and long-term goals for the student to focus on. This will help shape the lesson plan and curriculum for the next semester (see Example 10).

Summary: An abbreviated version of the Assessment, Curriculum, & Goals is emailed to the student/parent and saved in their Dropbox folder. This document serves as a succinct summary of the lesson plan.

Example 10: Student assessment report.


Is the planning process time consuming? A little, yes. However, most of the work is done in the beginning stages, just as with any new process. I never ask the question, "WHAT are we doing today?" Instead, "What SHALL we do today?" It enables me to be myself and give my students the best I have to offer.

Is lesson planning a teaching essential? Regardless of your philosophy or experience, I firmly believe that, to a great degree, it is. I hope this perspective will allow you to build your own lesson plans, giving you total control over your curriculum and always keeping your students' goals within sight.

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