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Putting it all together: Creating a great lesson

I've recently been inspired to think about the essential elements of a successful lesson, prompted in part by Pete Jutras's column "Quality Ingredients" (Clavier Companion, July/August 2015) and a superb 2012 workshop that Marvin Blickenstaff presented at Nazareth College, just outside of Rochester, NY.

Jutras's points—that every lesson should have consideration of beauty, the encouragement of success, open lines of communication, moments of humor, and a means to test learning, are worth aspiring to. Blickenstaff presented a summary for what a good lesson would include (one of several excellent lectures) by listing the core components he calls TERRAC (Technique-Expression-Reading-Rhythm-Aural training-Creative activities). These two approaches offer a content-rich model for what should be in a successful lesson.

In this article I would like to give my brief take on these lesson essentials. In addition, I'd like to suggest what I believe is necessary to implement these pedagogical models:

1) teaching effective practice

2) encouraging expression and musicality

3) monitoring the student-teacher interaction 

Quality ingredients

We need to find beauty in the music each lesson and make it a habit in our teaching. By consistently discussing what makes something beautiful, we are prioritizing the communicative and expressive aspects of music. It is also important to realize that praising students when there is success is essential to building confidence. Praise enhances our relationships, as both teacher and student share in the pride of student accomplishment. In terms of communication, I like what is said in a twelve-step program: "If we don't share we don't care, and if we don't care we don't share." Open lines of communication are clearly worthwhile. Humor is so important because it makes the lesson feel like fun, and it shows that we are all equal in the pursuit of music and in life. Finally, I think it's a great idea to test students about their learning to see if connections have been made. Their answers inform us about what is sinking in and what needs more attention. 


One of the things I really like about keeping TERRAC in mind is that it improves my ability to pace the lesson. It serves the dual purpose of maintaining the student's interest with momentum and covering the important areas that develop musicianship. By observing technique, we get to watch our students' habits in terms of hand position, wrist, arm and shoulder involvement, and the skills needed to achieve different sounds. A focus on expression—what is the music saying, or what does it mean to the student—involves students in the music-making process. We need to ask students their opinions about the expressive aspects of the music they are playing. When students have solid reading and rhythm skills, their willingness to tackle new music is increased. While it takes consistent drilling and a balanced approach among reading notes, intervals, and patterns, these skills must be at the forefront of what we are teaching in the first few years. Aural work helps to assure that students are hearing what they are playing. Finally, creative activities, through improvisation and composition, allow students to feel that music is an immediate, spontaneous experience, and one which they can compose themselves.

I realize that a chapter or a book could be easily written about each area mentioned above. In what follows, I would like to add my own thoughts about how to implement these ideas. 

Implementing lesson content and TERRAC

So how do we ensure that our teaching covers these elements and reaches these goals? Every one of us is different in terms of training, talent, approach, and experience. We all bring what made us who we are into the teaching space. We can have a nice personal style with good communication, sensitivity, and humor, and all of this is important. But how do we teach beauty along with consistent learning and success? We can teach TERRAC, but how is it taught? Here are some of my ideas on how to implement these concepts. 


One of the very most important things we do at every lesson is teach our students how to practice. This often involves teaching the ability to focus, which is most effectively and easily achieved with slow practice. Ask yourself (or your student) this question when things are either sloppy or out of control: "Can the student slow down and play the measure, passage, or section slowly and accurately, with a certain comfort level and with good technique?" If the answer is "no," then slow practice is often a good first step. It is by no means the only way to practice, but it does cover a lot of territory. If our fingers get ahead of our minds, then learning is compromised. Slowing down helps students learn solidly.

The next question might be: "can the student do multiple successive correct repetitions of the passage?" This shows a higher level of mastery and consistency. Sometimes, it is necessary to work up a tempo gradually, from slow to moderate to fast speeds. Metronomes are useful in this regard, although it may be possible to reach the goal without using the metronome. Sometimes, as pianists, we need to separate the hands, even though the ultimate passage might demand a high degree of coordination between the hands. Still, one hand can be much harder than the other, and isolating this hand can be an important tool in our teaching "toolbox."

If students still have trouble getting passages accurate for multiple repetitions or building up tempo, and if hands separate work isn't doing the trick, then I encourage students to play a measure or two and pause. These "impulse groups" provide a greater measure of security and confidence. You can add a beat or two at the end of the group (half-measure, measure, or two measure groups work best) so students can collect themselves and then refocus.

Blocking, practicing moves, accenting weak notes, and alternating a couple of slow play-throughs with three faster ones are other practice techniques. There are certainly many ways to "crack the nut" of practice. What's important is teaching focus, accuracy, good technique, and control. Sometimes, we must stop and re-evaluate the technical approach. 

Teaching beauty

I've often been asked if musicality can be taught. Can a good teacher turn anyone into a musical player? If part of the definition of musicality is spontaneity in music making, that freedom can be greatly improved and encouraged. However, it is safe to say that not everyone has the same level of talent, but that, as teachers, we can be coaches who bring the most out of each student. This is done, generally, by promoting a sense of line through phrasing shapes (see Marvin Blickenstaff's wonderful article in the July/August 2012 issue of Clavier Companion for specific ideas), rounding ends of phrases, projecting melodies over accompaniment, and noting and bringing out the changes from one phrase to the next. By providing students with the specific tools to create beautiful melodies, we are, in a sense, handing them the keys to the car. With this experience, students can grasp the true nature of musical playing.

Teaching students to get louder with rising sequences and softer with falling sequences is a good place to start. Also, having students learn to project differing levels of melodic sound—from pp (misterioso, sotto voce), to p (semplice), to mp (dolce), to mf (cantabile), to f (espressivo)—really gives students the tools to experiment with sound. If students can phrase a melody, projecting it over the accompaniment, react to different levels of melodic projection, and follow the phrase contrast (growth, diminishment, or simply contrast in musical content) from one phrase to the next, this is certainly a good direction in allowing them to maximize their musical potential.

There are many facets to the development of musicality; I will discuss two more. One is harmonic awareness or sensitivity. That special chord, or that special moment in which the harmony is altered slightly from its previous statement, needs to be expressed. It can be done by accentuation, by broadening the tempo slightly (or accelerating when intensity is increased), by falling away (or by doing the opposite), by voicing a note differently, or by using the pedal to create different effects.

Another aspect we need to teach is a careful attention to tempo. This can be done by finding a tempo range that is acceptable, writing it in the score, and then finding (with the student's contribution) if one or more tempi feel the most compelling. Zeroing in on tempo in this way is an effective means of determining the "right" tempo for a piece. 

I've often been asked if musicality can be taught. Can a good teacher turn anyone into a musical player?

Putting it all together

So how do we maintain humor, communication, an attention to learning, success, and a focus on beauty while teaching well? How do we apply these ideas to TERRAC? Those remain the key questions if we are to aspire to what we need to see in a lesson: excellent delivery and content. Through understanding the importance of developing practice technique in our students, and by having the background to know how to teach the fundamentals, we can create the third side of our triangle: efficient and effective teaching. 


First, we need to think about the interaction we are having at each and every lesson. Is there some fun in the lesson? Are we communicating and sharing? Did we laugh a few times, at least? Rapport in the lesson is important for several reasons. It makes the experience more pleasant and enjoyable for everyone involved. It helps to develop trust in terms of the student-teacher interaction. And, most importantly, it makes a spiritual or emotional connection a top priority in our work; this is both satisfying and pedagogically edifying.  

Practice, but analyze

By teaching students how to practice efficiently, we are stating:

1) practice is a top priority

2) the way you practice matters

This focus on practice is at the heart of learning and success. When we teach students to understand what they are playing, analytically (harmonically and motivically), the chances of success are much greater. Yes, practice efficiency is critically important, but so is gaining a deeper musical awareness of the music we play. This is achieved by starting analysis early on, at the beginning levels. It might only include a discussion of intervals, patterns, and form at this stage, but it still puts the proper focus on understanding music, the score, and the structure. Tackling the question of "what is beauty," or "what brings the music to life" comes from the background of the teacher, but it is also part of watching students carefully to see if they are reacting to the printed page. Every lesson should have a musical discussion: students should always be questioning and examining the expression in their music.

We can aspire to worthwhile goals in terms of the lesson presentation and content, and cover broad areas of TERRAC, perhaps considering these as two sides of a triangle. The final part of the triangle includes practice, teaching beauty through levels of melodic projection, analysis, monitoring our interaction, and encouraging personal involvement and expression. 

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