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How to start your lessons

It’s important to consider what we might face when our pupil arrives at our lesson.
So the first thing that I think is really important is considering what we might face when the student arrives at our lesson. They might be really excited to show what they’ve been working on, but a lot might have happened in the week between your lessons or longer. A student at school is likely to have had at least 25 lessons, between the time when they’ve last seen you and the time when they arrive for their lesson. And it’s likely that only one of those lessons, or a maximum of one of those lessons, might have been music. So there’s an awful lot going on outside of your music room in their classroom.
The students will have had lots of homework, they might have assessments and tests in school or they might have really important exams that really affect their future and those things can cause a lot of stress. They will have had lots of play times and lunch times and lots going on socially and that can really affect the way they’re feeling. There could be things happening at home with friends and family and those things can have a really big impact on a young person or an adult.
What’s really important I think is that you can’t necessarily tell by looking at the students or hearing what they have to say in the first moments of the lesson, you can’t necessarily tell how they’re feeling or what might have happened in between your lessons. I like to think of an analogy of two bottles of coke. One has been really carefully looked after and the other might have been dropped on the ground and kicked around, and to look at those two bottles you might not be able to tell the difference but how you open them would be very different. So what do we do about it, the state in which a student might arrive?
I think for me one of the most important things is having some stability, some expectations, some routines, so that the student knows exactly what they’re going to be expected to do when they arrive at your lesson. That’s really important to make a student feel safe. And that doesn’t necessarily mean doing exactly the same thing in the first two minutes of every lesson, but at least having some understood expectations, some routines that make a student feel really safe and comfortable. The other really important thing for me is listening and avoiding assumptions, and being careful how we respond if a student does express some anxiety or some things that have been troubling them in the week gone by.
So what’s really important for me at the start of any lesson is setting a student up for success. And that means us facilitating success, allowing a student to be successful, allowing them to show the best of themselves. And once we’ve done that and we’ve created a chance for the student to show off something they can do really well, it allows us to give them praise and that is so important for motivation, no matter how the student arrives to the lesson. So praising a student really early I find incredibly valuable and it means the student is feeling robust enough to take the criticisms that might follow later in the lesson. And those ultimately allow them to make really good progress.
So on the subject of language, we can make some really subtle changes to have a really big impact on the students progress and motivation and that’s really important at the start of a lesson, that motivation. I think of when a student feels they can’t do something and that’s something we all come across all the time, a student saying ‘I can’t do so-and-so’ and if we just add the word ‘yet’ at the end of it, that really changes the whole meaning and the atmosphere and that can be really motivating. ‘I can’t play this scale yet’.
If we’re thinking particularly about a student that might arrive feeling anxious, eavesdropping can be a really good way of assessing where that student is without the pressure. In other words, listening to that student perform when they think they’re not being assessed, when they don’t know that we’re listening and they don’t know that we’re necessarily assessing where they are. For me, it’s really important to remember, particularly at the start of a lesson, that progress doesn’t just go up steadily. It might be that a student’s made really good progress, but if they have, we’re likely to increase the level of challenge. We might ask the student to play that piece at a faster tempo for example.
And that can mean that the student suddenly could feel like they haven’t made progress at all the level of challenge has increased and their skills aren’t quite up to it. So it’s important to remember that progress does tend to go in a state of flux, it can go in a state of flow and the students might feel like they’re doing really well and then they might feel like they go backwards a bit, but that’s of just a really important element of getting better at something.
So when we’re starting a lesson and we’ve got an idea of what the student needs to achieve in that lesson, for me it’s really important to think about the skills that the student needs to gain, rather than what they need to do in the lesson. In other words, what do they need to be able to do by the end of the lesson, rather than what do they need to do in the lesson. What that does for me is, as a teacher, that just focuses my mind on how I’m going to get them there. If I think ‘I want the student to do this’, that will be the end of my thinking.
Whereas, if I think ‘I want the student to be able to’, and in other words, they’re able to replicate that outside of the lesson, they’re able to do that on their own, they’re able to do that in an exam. that really changes the way I plan the next steps of the lesson. I’m able to break down that skill, in order to be able to do that what are the steps that we might need to go through in order to get there? So in terms of what we might actually do in the first two minutes of the lesson, I always start with a starter, that means a short activity, possibly separate to what’s about to follow in the lesson.
and that wakes the student up might warm the student up. But for me the most important thing is that its musical. It means that we start the lesson as we mean to go on and we start it musically.

You are in control of setting the tone in your teaching environment. This can come from a strong beginning, finding variety in your opening exercises and listening to your pupil.
Do you always start with the same activity at the beginning of your lessons? What might you do differently going forward?

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