I’ve always been fascinated by the wide variance in lesson durations among various teachers. Many of my piano teacher colleagues hold lessons for preschoolers that last only 15 minutes, while some legendary pedagogues teach lessons that last six, seven, or even eight hours. I’ve even met some teachers who teach a student until the late hours, then give them a place to sleep, feed them breakfast, and resume the lesson for another multi-hour stretch!
Though I frequently pushed for hour-long lessons with all my students in my early days of teaching, seeking to maximize my profits, I quickly realized that a half-hour of instruction is (for my teaching style, at least) more than adequate for beginning and intermediate students. In fact, a half-hour can stretch the attention span of many elementary students (and even some middle school students!), and I have to really work to keep the student engaged and learning.
I usually organize beginner lessons into several short 5-minute fragments, creating several short activities with easily achievable goals and objectives for each segment.
These short segments usually include:
- one or two scales, often tied into the piece(s) the student is practicing, usually with some sort of question and answer component (how many sharps/flats, etc.)
- review of primary piece (if we’re done, I mark the piece off and we move on)
- work on secondary piece
- try to draw some larger technical and musical themes out of the work on these pieces (phrasing, posture, vibrato, intonation, etc.)
- a duet, improvisation, or other “fun/creative” activity
- finish with a verbal wrap-up and write down objectives for next week’s lesson
How I approach structure in lessons
I generally keep the structure of lessons for my younger students tight and then relax the structure (or not, according to the learning style of the particular student) for more advanced students. Some students are very self-directed and highly motivated, and I find that I can take the role of a musical and technical guide, filling in some knowledge gaps and providing possible solutions to various challenges.
With other students, I need to provide a very clear structure of goals and objectives and keep each lesson moving forward. These students may in fact be good players and sometimes develop their own internal motivation, but I need to light a fire under them and try to do so in an encouraging way, while maintaining expectations of improvement.
What about the non-practicer?
Ahhh, the lovely non-practicing student! Every private teacher has surely has his or her fair share of these kind of students, and each teacher develops individualized methods to dealing with these students.
Personally, I’ve used a wide variety of approaches when dealing with students that don’t practice, and honestly, a lot of my methodology is determined by what I think the student’s reasons are for not practicing. Are they just lazy? Are they insanely busy and trying to fit music in with fifty other extracurricular activities? Do they love music but not the act of practicing? Are their parents just forcing them to play?
I generally take one of three approaches when dealing with non-practicing students:
- Strict Disciplinarian – I decide that a particular student has the potential to be a diligently practicing student, and I make clear that they need to do a specific amount of work each week. I am very hard on these students and will either get them to work or make lessons so miserable that they will quit.
- Tyrant – I decide that a particular student is simply not going to do much (if any) of the work that I assign, and I get a lot of attitude radiating from them, either a “this is stupid” or “I don’t have to do this” vibe. I give these students about one or two lessons, then inform the parents that I can no longer teach them. My time’s too valuable for this kind of private student.
- Musical Guide – I realize that a particular student loves music and loves playing the instrument, but through lack of motivation or lack of available time, simply doesn’t progress. With these students, however, I see a genuine love for music and a person who will be likely to listen to music, play in an amateur orchestra, attend concerts, and enroll their children in musical programs in a decade or two. Over time I’ve learned to spot these kind of students, and with them, I teach them about music, with the double bass as a sonic conduit. I’d love it if they started practicing (and many do end up working hard at it), but I see a genuine interest in this art form, and I teach them about the fundamentals of music and give them some elementary training on the instrument.
Why a musical guide?
Some may wonder why I would even include this third category as a possible approach to private lessons. Shouldn’t a teacher always push their students and have high expectations? Well, perhaps… but I have found that this approach works for many students.
Look—we’re not all destined to become concert musicians. In fact, we don’t want everyone and their dog to be a concert musician. But what we do need are lovers of music, future patrons and enthusiasts. And if that “nice bass teacher” that a non-practicing student had back in high school helped to nurture that love, then I feel like I did a good job, “standards” or no.
When should a student switch to longer lessons?
The simple answer: When they’re ready to do so.
This point occurs for different students at different times. I even teach half-hour lessons to some high school students, though this is pretty rare and is usually reserved for the aforementioned “musical guide” lessons. I usually move students from half-hour to hour lessons right around the end of middle school (8th grade, around 14 years of age). In my experience, most students have the maturity to take a full hour of instruction at this point, and getting them acclimated to longer lessons prior to high school helps to ease the transition.
Many teachers switch students to 45 minute lessons before moving them to a full hour. This makes sense, but for whatever reason I don’t do this—it’s either a half-hour or a full hour in my studio. I’ve got no rational reason for this, but it just seems to be the way my studio has panned out.
45 minute lessons are great for the teacher, giving them a break between students to get up, walk around, go to the bathroom, and get a cup of coffee. Teachers are generally more refreshed (and probably teach better) with these small breaks. Hmmm… maybe I should start doing this….
When should a lesson go beyond an hour?
Though I have done 1 1/2 hour or 2 hour makeup lessons (and have always regretted it, by the way!) so some students, I rarely teach a student more than an hour in a school setting. For home lessons, I will sometimes let the clock run and let lessons go over an hour (on rare occasions approaching 1 1/2 hours in length), but for the vast majority of my students I keep lessons capped at an hour.
Personally, I’ve found that I just end up teaching less efficiently if I let lessons drag on. My students and I get on tangents, and we end up gabbing more than playing. When there’s a time limit, things end up being more focused, and I think that more actual learning gets done.
In higher-level private lessons situations, however, there can be can be a lot of benefit to letting a lesson go on “as long as it needs to go,” and time can vanish as the student/mentor relationship takes over. This is a very “old school” way of teaching, but there can be a lot of benefit as well. Removing the barriers of time allows a teacher to really probe into the inner workings of a piece and get a student to truly understand what’s happening musically and how they can develop their technique for the best possible musical results.
Benefits of very long lessons
I think that, especially if a student is not meeting with a specific teacher on a weekly basis, this long format can produce the best results. Lessons become like going to see a musical master on a secluded mountaintop, gleaning wisdom and honing skills which are then worked on after the marathon session.
Students must be highly self-motivated to benefit fully from this approach, which is why I think it is most
appropriate for graduate students or professionals looking for some continuing education (or for disciplined undergraduates). Having regular (but shorter) sessions works best for many students, creating an opportunity for a weekly musical check-up.
Occasional (but longer) lessons are sometimes the only way to go with busy professionals who can’t spare a regular time slot for students. When these professionals do make time, they often want to really make it count and will make these lessons longer than usual to provide maximum benefit for students.
Practically speaking, teachers with a lot of students don’t usually have the time to give marathon lessons, so don’t be
disappointed if your big-name university teacher caps it at an hour. Remember, you’re probably getting a very focused hour from this instructor, and this is more than enough weekly lesson time for most people to make progress and achieve your musical goals.
Survival tips for long lessons
A little preparation will help to ensure that the student gets the most benefit possible from these longer-form lessons:
- Bring a recording device – You’re only human, after all, and you can only fit so much knowledge into your brain from one session before things start to fall by the wayside. A professional giving a longer lesson may be filled with thoughts and tips for music that would be lost without a recording device. You can get an MP3 recorder (like an iRiver or Zoom H2) for only a couple hundred dollars, and you’ll thank yourself for making the purchase.
- Don’t be afraid to ask for a break – We all have to go to the bathroom, right? Don’t be shy—ask for a break in a longer lesson. You’ll be able to focus better and your kidneys will thank you.
- Eat a good meal beforehand – You probably don’t want to pound down a huge pile of greasy food just before a lesson, but make sure that you have the energy to sustain yourself for an extended period of time.
- Don’t be afraid to end the lesson if you’re exhausted – After a prolonged period of intense one-on-one instruction, you may find that you’ve simply fried your synapses. If, after a few hours of a lesson, you’re so brain-dead that you can’t tell an upbow from a downbow, don’t be shy about throwing up you hands and declaring musical surrender. There’s always another day!
There can be a lot of benefits to a longer lesson format, and it may be the best possible format for many teachers. Generations of musicians have been instructed in this longer-form approach, and you should feel honored if your teacher wants to expand the length of the lesson and give you a generous chunk of their time.
Hopefully, the tips listed above will make surviving the longer form lesson more bearable!
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