Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Piano Lab 101: Scheduling, Structure, Assignments and Progress

There are several different elements to consider when setting up a piano lab.

When I incorporated piano lab into my private lessons, I had just relocated to a new area so I advertised the piano lab as one of the benefits of regular lessons and included lab fees with tuition. I charged a bit more than I would have without the lab to cover the additional expenses and planning time involved. Because of the lab feature in my piano instruction, I only accept students who are of age or maturity to be able to focus and work independently for 30 minutes (generally age 8 and above) unless the parents are willing to accompany them during the entire hour of lessons.

Initially I staggered lesson times (ex:4:00, 4:30, 5:00, etc.) so that each student first had private instruction with me and their piano lab activities reinforced the concepts introduced during their lesson.

But when I started having several students from the same family, I switched to having 2 students come on the hour (2 at 4:00, 2 at 5:00, etc.) They take turns either doing their lab first or having their private lesson first. I actually prefer this setup because I can do both preparatory listening/analysis assignments that apply directly to the music the student will be working on (when lab is first), or I can assign reinforcement activities to gauge how well the student grasped the concept introduced in private instruction.

Ideally, I would love to have an enclosed piano lab room with a large window adjacent to my piano so I could occasionally glance at the screen to monitor the lab student's progress without hearing any noise interference. But for now, my computer is fairly close to my piano - but not in the same room. The piano is at the top of the stairs and the computer at the bottom, so my students in the lab can quickly access me if they have a question (and I can faintly hear the lessons they are doing). I considered putting them in the same room as the piano with headphones, but my daughter went to a teacher with this setup and it was very hard for her to hear and focus on the computer lab games even with the volume turned up while another student was playing the piano for the teacher in the same room.

Organizing lab content and progress can pose an enormous task initially. I hope to make a separate post detailing the specific resources I use for lab time including:
  • Software (Music Ace, Midisaurus, PBJ, Alfred Music Games, Ear Training Expedition, Happy Note)
  • Online Games/Sites (Staff Wars, Theta, Music Learning Community, Tonic Tutor, Theoria, Big Ears, Music Tech Teacher, Classics for Kids, Pedaplus, DSO & SFS Orchestra)
  • Leveled Binders with Online Printable worksheets in sheet protectors (Susan Paradis, Pianimation, ComposeCreate, Making Music Fun, ColorinMyPiano)
  • Theory Books (w/ movable contact paper page protectors and dry erase markers)
  • CD w/ Lesson Book Analysis/Rhythm Assignments (specific to each song in the book)
  • Misc. (YouTube Video assignments, composition, Doodle Pad, etc.)
Individualized Approach
  • Each student has a progress spreadsheet in their lab folder outlining all of the concepts & activities correlating with their lesson book level arranged in the order they are introduced in the lesson book. Following is a small sample from Level 1 (Hal Leonard) including columns for Concept, Activity, Date(s), Score(s), and Done
  • Concept






    Theory Book page 5

    Finger Numbers

    SP Colorful Fingers worksheet

    Honey Pot Listen and Tapworksheet


    Midisaurus Sounds Around Us

    Midisaurus High and Low

    Ear Training Exped.P1 Level 1-Unit 1

    Music Ace Lesson 2 Intro to Keyboard

    Music Ace Game 2

    Same/Diff. Melodies

    MLC Smiley & Friends play 2x

  • I mark student's weekly assignments with colored opaque post-it tabs and check them off when completed. With this approach I can cater the assignments to the pace of the learner. If a student masters a concept quickly, I have them skip some of the activities and move to the next concept. The spreadsheet also allows me the flexibility of using different method books and changing up the order of assignments to more closely match the order they are introduced for that particular method.
  • Occasionally I create listening, composition, music history or artistry assignments to correlate with seasonal or group lesson topics like the Playing with Feeling Lab Assignment, Festival Music Lab Assignment or Piano Theory Posters
  • I introduce concepts of form and analysis very early during private instruction and "Hand over the Pencil" often to have students color patterns, chords, intervals, etc. By the time they reach late elementary music, I incorporate analysis and listening prep activities during lab time that are specific to the upcoming songs in their lesson book with tasks that apply to that piece. A few sample tasks follow:

Listen to the CD and tap the rhythm while counting aloud.

Listen to the CD again while practicing the pedal motions with your foot. Be sure to change the pedal immediately after the first beat in each measure.

Which measure has a different rhythm then the rest?______________

Mark the Intervals of a 7th in your music (Hint: they should go from a line to a line or from a space to a space)

Define a tempo______________________

Define loco _________________________________

Listen to the Cd. Where does the melody switch to the left hand?_______________

Write the beats in the first line.

Draw rainbows where your right hand “glides” over your left hand

Listen to the CD and think of another name for this piece. ____________________
Identify the chord in each measure by letter name, tonality (Major or minor), and inversion (6/3=1st inversion, 6/4= 2nd inversion). Hint: The note above the gap’s the root, it just has rearranged. Example: In measure two, notes d-f-a = d minor 6/4 chord

  • When I discover or acquire new resources I just add them to the list under the appropriate concept so my lab activities are constantly evolving.

Pro: Students assignments are catered to their learning pace and style.

Con: Selecting specific lesson tasks each week can be a bit time consuming for teachers with large studios.

Leveled/Topical Approach
For teachers with a large number of students, making an individualized lab lesson plan each week can be a bit time consuming. One helpful suggestion I heard at a local music club mtg was to have all students focus on a different element each week of the month and make up a master plan for concepts covered in each level. For example:
Week 1: Theory/Analysis
Week 2: Ear Training
Week 3: Music History
Week 4: Composition/Artistry
Students who are near the same level all receive the same assignment outline. They work on the weekly assignment in their level and move on to the next assignment the following week regardless of their scores/completion/attendance at lessons. The master lesson plans include spiraling/repetition of concepts to avoid gaps in the learning process.
Pro: Less time planning involved, easier lab setup and transition between students
Con: Students typically work at different paces and may need more review on certain concepts than their peers.

I would love to hear any suggestions or comments from other teachers regarding piano lab.
How do you structure lab time?
What are some of your favorite activities or resources to use in piano lab?
How do you track your students progress?


  1. These ideas are wonderful.

    I'm curious, do most parents drop their kids off during lessons/lab time - or how do you handle those that wait inside/observe their child's lesson (particularly for younger students)?

  2. At this point all of my students are dropped off by their parents for lessons and lab time. Fortunately all of my current students have either a parent or sibling with some musical background so they can supervise and help them during their home practice with elementary concepts.
    But when I took lessons as a child, because of the distance of my piano teacher from our home, my mom (who had no musical background) attended every lesson with me and just sat quietly on a couch in the same room either observing my lessons or reading.
    If I were to have younger students with parents attending at lessons that could open up a lot more interactive possibilities for both lesson and lab time. I might have parents play some interactive games (like note bingo or term memory) with their children during labtime, and of course it would be helpful for the younger ones to have a parent cheering them on or helping them stay focused with computer game activities. I think the more parent involvement, the better! But as a parent of 5 (soon to be 6) children I also realize that it isn't feasible for every parent to stay the duration of their child's lesson.

  3. I did not have piano lab when I was offering private piano lessons few years ago, but I think it is a great idea.

    The things that prevented me from having a computer lab are

    1. Not able to supervise the students during the lab time.

    2. Not having helpful lab resources (computer software, online tools etc).

    But I think nowadays, there are also other concerns with so many things online, it would be necessary to make sure students are indeed spending quality lab time.

    Do you monitor students' progress with the lab?

    P.S. Great post by the way!

  4. Thanks for this post! I'm in the process of implementing a piano lab into my studio and am very much appreciating reading tips and ideas from other teachers. I would love to hear more about how you organize the lab assignments, your go-to resources, and how you track students' progress.

    Thanks again!!

  5. I'm glad you found this helpful. I'm hoping to post about my
    Piano Lab Binders
    Piano Lab Assignment Sheets and
    Lab Lesson Book Assignments
    soon :)
    I love the wealth of free online resources that I can utilize for lab time!

  6. That would be awesome! I'm currently working on a "Get Inspired" lab unit for all of my students...basically a YouTube treasure trove of awesome pianists combined with short worksheets that encourage the students to think a bit more deeply about what they're hearing/watching. Looking forward to sharing ideas!