Gamify-ing Piano Lessons

Teaching a young neurodivergent taught me lots of things about patience, understanding and adapting. From the first lesson, there were all kinds of issues with focus – they loved playing the piano, but they loved talking about video games more. After playing a few bars, the shift back into talk of the latest sword we acquired, or boss we defeated would completely derail the lesson – with a battle (pardon the pun) to get the focus re-shifted back onto the lesson at hand. Flash forward to three years later, and this kid is now the absolute superstar of my studio. A real joy to teach and the highlight of my teaching week.
Here is how I did it:

1.Give them time to talk.
Yes, we have a lesson to start, but giving a few minutes at the top to just hear about their day at school, and what level they’re up to, and how many points the weapon in Zelda is worth, allows the student to ‘get all of that out in one hit’. I too, play some video games and they are SO THRILLED to ask me if I found this or that yet. Despite the fact I played some of these games so long ago that I barely remember anything about them, it still leads to some pretty fun chats. But once we hit the five minute mark (max), it’s time to dive into the lesson.

2. Each new piece is a new level
Any time this student tells me “no way, this look so hard” (which is basically every new piece) – I just bring it back to video games: “Remember two weeks ago when you told me that you were stuck on that super hard level where they just killed you almost instantly? And now you’re way past that level? Well, this is the same thing.”

3.Each SECTION is a new level
Breaking it down even further: Each section of the piece can be levelled. “Level one is these four bars. Once we conquer them, we advance to levelllll twooooo *sound effects*”. (Yes, there are sound effects. This lesson is seriously so fun to teach every week).

4. Once we can successfully play through the entire piece, we party
OK. “Party” is a strong word, but there is certainly some loud noises accompanied by some arm movements, and even possibly a high five.

Does the lesson still go like this after three years? Depends on the mood of the student. Sometimes they run in, sit down and say “I’ve practised so much” and before I can get a word in or even open my copy of the book (my eyesight is far too poor to read their book over there on the piano ledge), they are off and racing.That’s right, the ability to come in and show me the results of their hard work at home, now earns them bonus points – according to them.

What I have learned from here is that there is always time to let kids be themselves. Allowing 5 minutes of that lesson to go to talking about video games and what happened at lunchtime today means I get a pretty solid 25 minutes of teaching done. And now whenever we have to cancel a lesson because one of us is unwell or there’s a commitment clash, we are both equally sad.

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