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  • Lynne Phillips

Take The Lead

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image credit: sammish

Student led teaching is the concept that, rather than a student coming to a lesson and a teacher having a pre-organised lesson plan and sticking to that plan, come what may, the teacher reacts to the student’s needs, wants, or spontaneous creative moments.

It is important for any student to be listened to, and I very much doubt any teacher would disagree with me here, but student-led teaching goes one step further, and suggests that the student has a far greater degree of control over the content and style of their lessons. In effect, they have ‘ownership’ over their lessons. This makes the relationship between teacher and student more evenly balanced in terms of the power structure.

Of course, this doesn’t mean us teachers shouldn’t have plans. And it certainly doesn’t mean our lessons are disorganised, chaotic, without clear goals, or leaves our students without clear progression paths and ourselves in a panic about what to teach next.

So what exactly is student led teaching? And what is it not?

Student led teaching is asking a student to choose their own repertoire from a selection of pieces a teacher offers. It is also teaching a student music they may bring themselves to the lessons, even if this isn’t something you would normally teach.

Student led teaching isn’t expecting a student to choose their own repertoire from the entire extensive repertoire in existence.

Student led teaching is picking up on a student’s enthusiasm for a new scale/arpeggio/transposition that they may have partially figured out by themselves, and helping with it, even if it this is not something you would normally teach at this point.

Student led teaching isn’t expecting a student to randomly choose their own scales and/or technical exercises.

Student led teaching is following through on a student’s creativity and/or distraction through other instrument/media (maybe you have percussion, or other scores lying around within easy reach) as long as this is within your boundaries of what is acceptable in your studio. For example, in my studio, any student is free to rummage through my percussion box, but they are not allowed to pick up my recorders and ukele, as these are my own personal instruments. They are also free to look through any scores they can easily get to, but they have to ask for any that are difficult to reach, to ensure their own safety.

Student led teaching isn’t allowing a student completely free rein over your teaching studio, your instruments, and your equipment.

Here’s an example of a teacher-led section of a lesson:

The teacher asks the student to play through the piece that has been practised all week. It is fairly new, so not terribly proficient, and hands together work is a struggle.

The student plays through hands separately, then tries hands together. It goes very wrong, because of the newness of the piece. They frustrated and then distracted by percussion toys by the piano, picks a few up and starts mucking about with them.

The teacher gently guides the student’s attention back to the piano, and guides through different techniques for putting hands together.

Student achieves some hands together playing and is able to go home and practise.

Note that none of this is poor teaching practice, and although the description is brief, the teacher is clearly being positive towards the student, not admonishing them for their frustration, simply guiding them back to the task in hand, and helping with whatever techniques they generally use in this situation, which has the end result of the student achieving hands together playing.

So how could this scenario be different in a more student-led lesson?

It might start off the same, remembering that the teacher still has some degree of structure and planning with the lesson, to give the both student and teacher security and a clear path of progression.

Therefore, the first part would be the same.

It is at the point where the student moves towards the percussion box, however, that the lesson would shift.

Understanding why the student has done this is important in helping to guide what to do next.

The student is frustrated and wants to stop what they are currently doing. But crucially, they have not got frustrated with making sounds, otherwise they would have stopped completely, perhaps expressing verbally an “I can’t do this” or “this is too hard”, or the old classic “how long before the lesson finishes?”. The student wants to continue, they just need a new medium, and in a simple non-verbal (probably sub-conscious) move, they have communicated how they wish to do this.

And so, the teacher, rather than guiding the student back to the planned task, joins the student at the percussion box, and asks them which is their favourite percussion sound.

The teacher then picks up some percussion themselves, and together they play with different sounds for a while.

The teacher then asks the student to use their instrument to sound out the rhythm of the right hand of the piece they are learning. Once they have done this, they teacher asks the student to do it again, while the teachers sounds out the rhythm of the left. Teacher and student then swap hands (and instruments too, if the student wishes).

Once the student has got the hang of this, the teacher asks the student if they can sound out the rhythm, hands together, using both percussion instruments. Teacher suggests different variations, and asks the student to suggest their own too: perhaps the teacher can play one hand on the piano while the student sounds out the other on percussion? Perhaps teacher and student try alternate lines, or bars?

Finally, the teacher asks the student if they are now ready to try playing hands together on the piano.

Interestingly, it as this point, that the student may say no, and it’s important to realise that this is fine. This might simply mean that their at home practise is to try and get the percussion hands together at home, which would mean that two elements, those of rhythm and of co-ordination, are well and truly practised in for the following week. This means that there may sometimes be less immediately obvious tangible ‘results’ from a student-led session than a teacher-led session. However, learning in this way empowers a student as they are always learning in the way that works best for them, at a pace that works best for them, in a medium that works best for them, in an environment that works best for them. And ultimately, this can only be beneficial for a young musician.

We're going to need a bigger boat...

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image credit: cinemablend

Student led teaching is a fascinating, and huge subject, one that is far too big for a single blog post. I have not mentioned the young student who loves playing scales and since transferring to me is learning every scale in every key, in multiple articulations, rather than just the exam syllabus, because that’s what he loves to do. Neither have I mentioned the advanced student who was struggling with a Mozart sonata, and in an attempt to vent his frustration and annoy me (it didn’t work…) transposed the first phrase into a new key. Of course, my immediate reaction was “Great! Can you transpose the rest into that key? And 4 other keys as well?”, which we spent the rest of the lesson doing, much to his surprising enjoyment.


And finally, my teaching studio has a very high proportion of neurodiverse piano students, which means those who are autistic, dyspraxic, dyslexic, dyscalculic, or who have ADHD. And I count myself amongst the neurodiverse tribe, too, which means I learn and retain information differently from the typical person (and undoubtedly teach differently from the typical teacher!).

As students, we are in particular need of lessons which reflect our musical, sensory, social, and emotional needs and wishes, however these shift during the course of a lesson. Student led teaching not only helps to respect this, but can be a practical and simple way of putting an intuitively supportive environment in place.

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