What Makes A Lesson Well Planned?

Version 3Lesson planning is among the most important things teachers do. Without a soundly planned lesson, teaching will inevitably suffer. Planning for classes of 20 or more students, many with varying needs and skill levels, can be challenging, but successfully teaching such a class is virtually impossible if lessons are not properly planned. In this article, I will discuss the components of a well planned lesson. I will be referencing a video of a teacher giving a one-on-one piano lesson, because that lesson illustrates the most important points in delivering a good lesson. Please open the video in a separate window, and place it next to this text, so you can refer to it while you continue to read in this window. Here is the link to the video: Example Lesson

After the opening, Nahre first states the objective of the lesson. She wants to play a piano duet with her student, who is her Mom, for Mother’s Day. She is not only a teacher, but a composer as well, so she wrote the piece with this objective in mind. So right away, we have the first point of a well planned lesson. Select repertoire with a specific objective in mind. Nahre is not wanting to teach her student any new concepts or techniques; instead, she wants to use what her student already knows and can do to create a performance opportunity, which is to play a duet.

At 0:30, Nahre tells us about her student’s prior experience and knowledge with playing piano. She has just asked her student if she remembers how to read music, and her Mom says that she does. But Nahre doesn’t take her word for it. She wants to assure success, so she goes ahead and reviews the notes anyway. Nahre knows that her Mom has not played in a long time, and assumes she will need to brush up. This is confirmed when, at 0:45, her Mom asks “Why is this so complicated?” This illustrates the second point of a well planned lesson. Know what your student already knows and can do, and design your lesson to be a logical next step from where they are toward where you want them to go.

It turns out that what looks complicated isn’t the notes, but the 5 sharps; she is intimidated by the key signature. Nahre tells her, “don’t worry about that” knowing that the piece is a five-finger pattern, and will be easy once she realizes what is there. Once Nahre demonstrates that there are only five notes, her Mom responds, “Oh, it’ll be pretty simple.” When she realizes this, we can see a smile, and see that she becomes relaxed and begins to enjoy the venture. Point 3 is, Break the complex into simple steps or sub-steps, and demonstrate each step to engage aural and visual learning. The student will avoid much learning if they are worried or put off by you asking them to do something that they perceive is too difficult. Notice I said “they perceive.” You, the teacher, may think what you’re asking is easy, but, like Nahre’s Mom, your student may think it is difficult, and be too overwhelmed to want to continue. If the student thinks it’s difficult, break it down, and demonstrate, until the mask of difficulty is removed to reveal the simplicity.

At 1:50, notice the how Nahre has prepared the sheet music with highlighting, and how she explains how to use the highlighting to clarify the beat that will be kept while playing. Nahre has chosen the half note time span for the highlighted beats, and establishes that Julie should nod her head and sway forward and back to that half-note pulse. Notice that previously, they have established a quarter note beat (ictus) but that the beat that will keep things together is the half note beat. This is an important rhythmic structure concept. There are always more than one beat present in music, and keying in on one other than the ictus is often very helpful. Point 4 is, Prepare visual aids in advance, and show your student how to use them. One thing I might do differently from Nahre here is to demonstrate the half note pulse while playing, have the student do the body motions to it, and then add in the highlights with the student watching. That way, the student can see the visual representation of what they just experienced physically.

At this point, the student has a good idea of what kind of learning they are about to embark with. She will be learning different ways of playing those five notes. But she hasn’t played those five notes yet. Next, at 1:58, Nahre has her Mom do a series of exercises to build proficiency at playing those five notes in different rhythm patterns. These exercises are really more examples of breaking the difficult into easier steps and sub-steps. Nahre wants to make sure that when Julie makes that first attempt to actually play the piece, she is as sure of success as possible. She continues with these exercises, even though she realizes her Mom is bored with them, and finds them too easy. But Nahre persists a little longer because she realizes that, “once you start playing, if you are a little rusty, it’s easy to get thrown off.” So she stays with the preparatory exercises as long as she can without losing her Mom’s interest, and coming to the end of her patience. Nahre is not in a hurry to get to the piece. She is dedicated to thorough preparation first. Design every learning activity to be an application of prior or new learning. (Do not ask a student to do something new before they have the learning they need to do it.)

At 2:44 the lesson shifts to executive skills. She is no longer teaching about tones or rhythms, but now about hand position, curved wrist and fingers, how to raise and lower the arm. Many adudicators will tell you that the most common deficiency they see in ensembles is that students do not hold their bodies or their instruments properly, and that causes deficiencies in their performance. Addressing the instrument (including the voice) properly is an important aspect of teaching music that must not be overlooked. Teach executive skills along side of music elemental ones. 

At 3:02, Nahre says, “I could really sense my Mom’s impatience at this point, so we went ahead and started sight reading the whole piece.” Notice how Nahre is tuned in to her student’s attitude and demeanor. She has taken the preparatory exercises to the limit of what Julie is willing to do, and soon Nahre will loose her student’s interest. The student wants to get to playing the piece, because she believes she is ready. Nahre has taken her from being intimidated by this new experience to now feeling, “Okay, I’m ready, lets go!” Be attentive to what the non-verbal language of your student is telling you. Often, students will direct the pace of their learning, and sometimes that means you need to interrupt what you are doing to accomodate what they are ready and wanting to do.

The sight reading begins, and goes well for a while. When it breaks down, Nahre doesn’t go right to the mistake, she asks Julie what she things of the music. Even if Nahre hadn’t written the music, (and even if Nahre isn’t fishing for a compliment), this is a great strategy. Draw attention to the emotional enjoyment that playing up to the mistake provided, and then correct the mistake. This puts the correction in the positive position of the way to restore the enjoyment. She also takes the opportunity to discuss structure a bit, and reassures at the second error, that transitions are usually difficult for everyone, and practicing them now would be helpful. This is more preparatory work, but it is not boring now because it is in the context once again of a road back to successfully continuing an enjoyable experience. Rehearse with the desired outcome in mind.

When at 5:15 they come upon a figure that really seems too difficult, Nahre changes the music, so Julie’s part becomes simplified. Nahre knows that at this point, Julie has been working harder, the challenges she has met have been greater than at first, and insisting on working on another challenge would be pushing too far. Instead, she simplifies, and they are quickly able to continue on. Monitor the difficulty of the music and modify figures when learning the original will only result in negative returns. Nahre collaborates with her student on another change, until at 5:36, Julie says, “it’s exactly at my level.” Now they are ready for the performance.

This video is an excellent model lesson for teaching music performance. Everything I have discussed here can be applied to ensembles as well. It just involves developing and maintaining a mutually respectful relationship with students in which you respond positively to their feedback and input into the process, so that wherever possible it is a collaboration. The best situation is where your expertise is combined with their input, as we saw with Julie and Nahre, so that a better outcome is achieved than could be with no student input, or no teacher intervention. My last point, Music education at it’s best is a creative and artistic collaboration between teacher and student. 

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