"This more ‘organic’ and natural flowing lesson automatically gives pupils a very holistic form of music education."

With the dramatic changes that music lessons have had to adapt to over the past months, it’s important now more than ever to focus on what works and what doesn’t for your students. Teachers have undoubtedly been spending much more time recently thinking about the format of lessons and how to make them work in an online setting. In this extract from The Virtuoso Teacher, music educator Paul Harris sets out the essential elements for planning a lesson – important regardless of whether they are in person or remote.


by Paul Harris

“Lessons really do come in all shapes and sizes. They may take the form of a voyage of musical discovery and encounter, as pupil and teacher make one connection after another through seamless and varied activities in a boundless creative world. Or they may concentrate solely (but imaginatively) on a very precise technical issue. They might be full of instructions and highly structured, or they might simply be two (or more) people working together exploring and developing their shared enthusiasms.

Lesson planning: friend or foe?

Lesson planning, in individual and smaller group lessons, became very popular around the turn of the century. It was felt too many teachers were following too narrow a curriculum, just teaching the instrument and a small number of pieces, with many of the ‘other’ areas of music education simply not being addressed. Teachers were not developing the ‘whole musician’. But sticking to the plan had a down side – teachers became so concerned with staying on course (their bosses required it) that when the flow of a lesson seemed to be moving in a different direction, they found themselves uncertain in which direction to go. The natural flow of the lesson and the plan were often at odds.

Forming a lesson plan

Most good stories, films, TV programmes and, of course, pieces of music have a simple structure: they have a beginning, a middle and an end. So too do effective lessons. And it’s important to remember that children like (and respond well to) a certain amount of routine. These three sections (which flow and overlap with unbroken continuity) don’t need to be particularly detailed or prescriptive.

1. Warm-ups

We begin the lesson without any music books. It’s a bit of a nuisance really that we use the word ‘music’ (‘get out your music’) to denote all those various written materials – from tutors and technical manuals to pieces of all shapes and sizes. For although we’re going to begin without books of music, we’re certainly not going to begin without lots of music! So we start with some physical and mental warm-ups. These must be purposeful, not just time fillers. Removing as much tension as possible, in both mind and body, is the main aim. We’ll all have our favourite exercises. Make a habit of always beginning lessons this way. Perhaps, for younger pupils, we might move on to some pulse games and then some sequential aural-based musicianship activities. The important factor is that the warm-ups are connected both to practised work and to new material to be introduced later. Explore ingredients. Be musical. Most importantly, make every activity one that pupils will achieve with reasonable ease.

Here’s a Simultaneous Learning style warm-up:

The piece we’re about to work on is a Minuet in F major, in time, with particular rhythmic patterns and technical issues, and includes staccato, f and p.

We set up a pulse and play some pulse games.

We work at F major (scale, arpeggio, micro-scale: whichever is appropriate) and the technical issues in time (imaginatively and creatively) adding, as the pupil becomes confident, the rhythmic patterns and other ingredients – dynamics and staccatos. We do some improvising, in a minuet style, using these ingredients. This seamlessly flows into…

2. The development section

Here, taking these ingredients, we explore the piece further, experimenting, developing specific skills and musicianship, and imparting appropriate knowledge and values, sometimes with, sometimes without the notation. We can use the Simultaneous Learning process at either end of its sliding scale: simply moving organically from one related musical area to another or working in more detail. This again flows seamlessly into…

3. The recapitulation

Here we ensure that what we have been teaching has been understood – through gentle questioning and applying what we’ve been working at in different contexts – but not through explicit testing! We also make sure pupils know what they are to do in their practice (the coda), though ideally this is alluded to continually throughout the lesson. This more ‘organic’ and natural flowing lesson is rooted in the concept of Simultaneous Learning, which automatically gives pupils a very holistic form of music education. Any further detailed planning is virtually unnecessary as Simultaneous Learning generates its own lesson plan as you go along.


Find out more about Simultaneous Learning style of teaching… I have discussed lesson planning in detail in Improve Your Teaching! and in Group Music Teaching in Practice.