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The Private Studio: Ideas for a Productive First Lesson by Carlos Ibarra

Jun 29, 2022, 08:00 AM by Rhythm Scene Staff

This article is specifically geared toward first-time teachers preparing for their first beginning percussion lesson. The goal is to set a foundation for both teacher and student, while providing a structure for the first lesson. I hope to help identify general student needs, the focus of a first lesson, general tips that can help motivate the student, and provide a brief lesson outline. Whether you are a teacher who is starting to teach beginning percussionists, or a collegiate student looking for some guidance, I hope this resource can provide valuable insights.

One of the most important things we can do as educators is assess our students’ needs and create a plan to address these needs in a positive manner. There are several ways to do this, but one of the most common ways is to set up a time to meet or have a quick phone call with the student’s parents. In this conversation, it is important to ask the right questions. Some of the questions to ask the parents include: How is Sarah and is she excited about percussion? In what ways can you see Sarah struggling and/or succeeding with music? In what ways have you seen Sarah learn more effectively? Does Sarah have any instruments at home?

Some of these questions might seem simple and straightforward, but they can be great conversation starters that can lead to some insight into your student’s attitude and experience. It can also be valuable to have a similar conversation with the student’s director or school music teacher, as they have been around your student longer and have experienced them in a classroom setting.

Lastly, set some time aside at the beginning of the lesson (included in the outline provided) to get a feel for how the student feels about music and how committed he or she is. Using the first few minutes of a lesson to truly build a connection with your students can help develop trust and honesty and can lead to motivating them in the long run. Doing just one of these things: talking with parents, teachers, and the student offers insight you wouldn’t have prior, but a combination of all three is highly recommended! 

This will vary depending on the student’s skill level which you would assess prior to the first lesson, but assuming the student is a beginner with very little experience, the focus should start with the setup of their practice pad. Making sure that students are aware of how their stand/practice pad correlates with their body is very important because it can help eliminate bad practice habits. During the students’ turn of teaching the concept back to you, try to incorporate as much positive feedback as you can to keep the students’ interest and motivation high during a seemingly mundane task.

After the setup is complete, we can move on to the next step, which is to go into detail of how to hold the sticks. It is within this step that we are around the halfway point of the lesson. This might be the point where the student starts to lose interest because of the fundamental aspects of the lesson. To help keep the students’ attention, make many obvious mistakes when they are teaching a concept back to you. This will not only help keep the students’ attention but will allow them to have a different role in the lesson for a while. 

Try to keep playing a priority in the lesson. Make sure your students are playing a lot in their lessons once the logistics of setting up is completed. Although in the very first lesson there might be more conversation about setup, grip, and technique, make it a priority to have the students playing as much as possible. This will help especially if the students are not necessarily practicing much outside of their lesson time.

Play for your students from time to time. Although this might not sound productive, you never know what inspiration you can create for your students once they see firsthand what is possible with consistent practice. This, in the long run, will motivate and drive your students to practice or play more.

Whatever attitude you bring is the same attitude you will receive. We all have bad days from time to time, so take a few minutes before each lesson to make sure you know what attitude you’re bringing. If you’ve ever had a lesson with a teacher who just wasn’t in it or just seemed apathetic at times, that probably affected how you acted to some extent. Try to be the motivation and excitement that you want from your student that day.

The last item that will be included will be the outline to your first lesson with a beginning student. I suggest you use this outline as a rough draft that you can adjust to each student’s needs. It is important to note that this is just a guide, and the times for each of these individual activities will vary!

Get to know your students and their goals with some quick questions at the beginning of the lesson (5 min). “What do you like about percussion so far and what don’t you like?” This will give you the opportunity to gear the lessons in a positive direction. If there’s a specific area your student doesn’t enjoy, focus on making that the fun part! “How much time can you practice each day, and do you know how to practice?” This is a very important aspect of the lesson because rarely do you see young students practicing efficiently. Setting some time aside after or during the lesson to talk about practice strategies will be very beneficial.

Teach the appropriate way to set up a practice pad and stand (5 min). Make sure your studenta know how their posture, body, and hands relate to their stand and pad. One thing that’ll help with solidifying their understanding is to have them teach it back to you! Do this 2–3 times and then move on.

Provide direction on holding the sticks with proper technique and how to strike the practice pad/drum (15 min). Try to start away from the practice pad or drum so the student doesn’t “accidentally” start playing! This will also be a great time to have them teach it back to you and to discuss the anatomy of the stick. When introducing the actual stroke, make sure to emphasize relaxation of the grip and what areas in the arm are moving. After the first few strikes, and once you see that the student is comfortable with the concept, introduce the metronome. Require that whenever they’re playing, they have to have a metronome on. From here I suggest introducing simple exercises such as “8-on-a-hand” or “Countdown” so they can have something to practice.

End the lesson by incorporating games that you can both play together (5 min). This can function as a reward for all their hard work in their first lesson. One game I suggest is having a cup with small pieces of paper with RH (right hand) or LH (left hand), then shaking the cup to see what combinations you end up with. Whatever combination you get, make them play it with the metronome to see if they can do it without messing up! 

I hope these ideas will help you structure your own first lessons. Whether you use these specific ideas or alter them for your own needs, remember that the first lesson sets the tone for private study and a little planning goes a long way.

Carlos IbarraCarlos Ibarra is pursuing his MM degree at the University of Oklahoma, where he studies with Dr. Andrew Richardson and Professor Emily Salgado. Ibarra holds the band GA position at OU, where his responsibilities include arranging and composing music for the drumline and pit while overseeing their rehearsals. Ibarra also has a private studio based in Chickasha, Oklahoma focusing on beginning and intermediate students. Ibarra has spent extensive time in the North Texas and Southeastern Oklahoma, area where he has taught private lessons, masterclasses in percussion, and various high school drumlines and percussion ensembles. Ibarra earned his bachelor’s degree in Percussion Performance from Southeastern Oklahoma State University, where he studied under Dr. Marc White. He plans to pursue his DMA in the near future. 

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