How would you teach the same piece of music to students with different learning styles?

Nancy Bachus

Nancy Bachus is a graduate of the Eastman School of Music and has taught for 27 years at the college and university level. She is the author of Alfred Publishing’s “Spirit” series: the Baroque, Classical, Romantic, and Beyond the Romantic Spirit piano anthologies. Certified as a Master Teacher by MTNA, she currently maintains an independent piano studio in Hudson, OH.


Repertoire & Performance Editor, Nancy Bachus
Spring 2008, Vol. 19 #1


Musical Senses

I have found it interesting to read articles about the varied learning styles of our students. I now realize I am a visual learner. I learn information best by reading, writing, and looking at images. I did well in school and have always been able to sight read easily at the piano. I remember things best by writing them down, and I have difficulty remembering names until I have seen them written. At the same time, I recognize that some of my students are more kinesthetic learners. They like to play the same thing over and over, never tiring of it. They often fidget at the bench and find it difficult to resist playing or “noodling” while I am talking. I also have students who are more aural learners. These students play by ear and, rather than reading accurately, they often change notes or rhythms from what the composer wrote.

Recognizing that students learn differently, I now realize I tend to teach, and am most comfortable teaching, in the way I learn. Unfortunately, that is only best for other visual learners. I need more different approaches to better help students with different learning styles—concrete ideas that I can use in my daily teaching.

Dr. Suzanne Torkelson recently told me about a presentation she had made on different ways of presenting the same piece to students according to their individual learning styles. Finding it very helpful myself, I asked her to put it in writing to share with other teachers. Also, please visit our website,, to view videos of the author working with students who demonstrate each of the three learning styles.

Teaching Heller’s “The Avalanche”

by Suzanne Torkelson

Dr. Suzanne Torkelson is professor of piano at Wartburg College in Waverly, IA, and holds a D.M.A. degree in piano performance from the University of Iowa. As past president of the Iowa Music Teachers Association (IMTA), repertoire chairperson for the state, and Iowa’s Certified Teacher of the Year in 2002, she is in demand as a speaker in the areas of piano performance and pedagogy. She is currently serving as the MTNA West Central National Certification Commissioner.Her numerous performances as soloist and collaborative pianist include accompanying the West Central Division MTNA Competitions, and appearances at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, Carnegie Hall, Orchestra Hall in Chicago and Minneapolis, and Avery Fisher Hall.

How often have we found as teachers that what we think should be simple for students is a breeze for some, a challenge for others, and seemingly impossible for the rest? Is it that some of our students are naturally “talented,” some are “marginal,” and some are hopeless? When they don’t get it, is it because they can’t learn, or could it be that we haven’t found a way to teach it that focuses on their strengths? When we are tempted to teach something a second time the same way, or say the same thing just a little louder, perhaps we need to step back and ask ourselves if we need a different approach.

We all have learning preferences, and most of us tend to teach the way we learn best. If all our students had the same preferences we do, teaching would be a natural extension of our own learning, and we could simply convey to students that they should do exactly what we do. One of the challenges to us as teachers is the variety of students we meet, all of whom have their own special mix of learning preferences, personality types, and level of commitment. While it is possible that the students we teach will respond well to our type of learning, it is also very likely that they could learn much more if we approached teaching in their favored learning mode.

Three learning modes

Example 1
Map for Visual Learner

Let’s imagine you have three students, all of whom are going to learn Heller’s The Avalanche, Op. 45, No. 2 . From your work with each student, you have observed that Iris is a visual learner who follows written directions and visual cues easily; Erin is an aural learner who remembers verbal directions and easily repeats back what you play; and Tasha is a kinesthetic (or tactile) learner who can copy physical motions and hands-on activities with ease. Iris dislikes playing by ear, Erin can’t seem to get enough of it and tends to have trouble reading the score, and Tasha will mimic your movements, repeating passages many times to “get it in the fingers.”

By observing each student’s actions, you can tell that each one has a decided preference for one learning mode. If you are a visual learner and your teaching is primarily visual, Iris will most likely be your most “talented” student, as she will have little difficulty gaining skills from your visual teaching style. Erin and Tasha might struggle with mastering the same skills, simply because their learning modes are not being properly utilized. Although each student needs to recognize visual patterns, produce colorful sounds, and gain physical ease, as a teacher you could move a student more quickly to the point of mastery by the activities you choose. The focus for these activities could be structured as games aimed at the student’s favored modality, as well as reinforcement in the other learning modes.

Teaching Activities

For Iris, the activities in learning The Avalanche could focus on visual recognition and mapping. In reading the triplets of mm. 1-12, I would have her circle the patterns of scales between hands and “visualize” the white and black note shapes in her head. Erin’s aural style would benefit from teaching these patterns in a “rote” style, focusing on the sounds of steps as well as the tonic-dominant of alternating measures. Tasha would do well with “silent blocking” of the patterns, feeling how the hands are next to each other—and then later cross over—on the downward patterns.

For the step-skip pattern of m. 41 and m. 57, marking the skip would help Iris see how the pattern varies from all steps, although visual learners are usually good readers and she may already be noticing this subconsciously. An aural learner would love playing a sequence game, extending the same pattern from the top to the bottom of the keyboard by ear. And, the tactile learner might enjoy playing the pattern of skip and step on every white key in an octave, feeling how the same fingers of 4-2-1 are played each time.

The chords at mm. 13-14 would also be most easily approached in different ways for the three students. Iris would learn best by closing her eyes to visualize where the right hand thumb moves and where the notes of the left hand change. Then we would draw a “map” of the changes, a simple notation that shows the movement in arrows or shapes (see Example 1). Erin would find it helpful to sing the changes of the bottom and top parts, comparing those sounds to the direction shown in the parts. This would help to “teach” her ear the correct notes and aid her listening. Tasha might learn this passage quickly by holding the thumb on the note and feeling the distance to the outside notes in both hands. As she feels the close position changes, she would gain the security of playing the chords with clear physical understanding.

The Staccato Chord

To teach the staccato thrust of m. 2, I might ask Iris to first teach me by showing how to incorporate the movements we have practiced in technical drills, while I observe the hands to ensure they lift off together. As a visual learner, Iris might have the greatest difficulty with the physical ease needed to play the piano. Once she has learned the technique to play crisp staccato chords in the right hand, a game of watch and match movements would be a fun way to use her visual skills. I would ask Erin to listen for the short thrust and crisp release of both hands in an activity I call “stop practice.” Rather than working for continuity of tempo, I ask the student to stop at the moment that she needs to check if something is played correctly. Only when she hears the short detached note and no sound would she be ready to move to the next measure. For the tactile learner, placing my hands on the student’s and “playing” the thrust that pushes off from the key-bed would help her quickly learn the physical motion needed for a crisp sound.

Visual Staccato (Iris) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 1.5MB.
Aural Staccato (Erin) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 5.7MB.
Tactile Staccato (Tasha) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 2.5MB.

Mirror Patterns

Suzanne Torkelson working with students
Suzanne Torkelson working with students.

The mirror patterns of mm. 34-36 and 38-40 would be much easier for each student to learn if the activities began in her learning modality. I would ask the visual learner to look at the black/white combination of keys and map the changes with a simple shorthand notation. The aural learner could listen for the top and bottom notes, play them without the inner notes, compare them for direction, and later add the inner notes. A kinesthetic learner would quickly grasp the chords by feeling which fingers play, matching the outside notes as in a mirror.

Two-Note Slur

The two-note slurs of m. 36 would be an opportunity to practice “painting,” with the hand following the wrist up and down like the motion of a paintbrush. Iris would be interested in seeing how her hand moves, learning the correct motion by watching for the free flexibility of the wrist. Erin would benefit from listening for the loud/soft of the dropped arm weight followed by the roll up out of the keys, but she should be encouraged to watch the movement as well. (Many of my aural learners find it difficult to keep from looking away as they practice a movement. Until they gain the skill, looking at their hands seems to distract them.) Tasha would learn best by feeling the movement made by the teacher. Here is where I ask the student to put her hand over mine as I do the correct motion. For the tactile learner, this activity can save hours of verbal or written instruction.

Visual Two-Note Slur (Iris) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.5MB.
Aural Two-Note Slur (Erin) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.1MB.
Tactile Two-Note Slur (Tasha) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 2.8MB.

Chord Sequence

A visual learner such as Iris could learn the chords at mm. 44, 60, 64, and 69 by mapping the changes of notes and directions. For Erin’s learning modality, playing cadences of i-iv-V-I in the keys of A minor and C Major would set up her ear for the harmonies. Then finding the inversions of the chords would involve listening for the changes of right hand notes. For Tasha, I would ask her to hold each chord and any repeated (common) notes, and then feel where the next notes would be played.

Two Parts in One Hand

When learning two-part playing such as that found in m. 72, all three learning modes would benefit from “stop practice,” where the student stops at the end of the measure to check whether the correct notes are still held. Visual learners find it easiest to see whether the right hand three notes of B-D-G# are down. The aural learner could be asked to listen for the correct chord before moving to the next A minor chord. The tactile learner would be quite aware of what three fingers are holding if she stops and checks before moving to the next chord.

“Timing” the Rolled Chord

The timing and quick position shifts of the rolled chord in m. 75 often present a problem as students learn this piece. Iris would find that looking for the E under finger 5 and replacing it with finger 3 for the next chord would help her visualize the shapes. She would also be the student who might notice that the gap of a fourth for both hands is the top interval of the chords. Erin would have played many V-I chords by ear, and may need only to try the inversions a few times to learn that the top notes of the chords are also V-I. Tasha’s tactile preference would make feeling the finger substitution on the E an easy way for her to find both chords. All three would need to try the roll many times—Iris seeing how the notes pile up from bottom to top, Erin hearing the gradual filling out of the chord, and Tasha feeling the weight of the hand roll from thumb to finger 5.

The Coda

The new pattern of notes in mm. 77-82 would be fun for Iris if she notices through mapping that the scales divide between the hands, and that she only needs to watch for the notes A and E with the E pattern having white-black-black notes. Erin would find the pattern easy if she listens for the tonic and dominant alternation of the first note of the measure and plays scales based on those chords. Tasha’s mode of learning would be best served by silent blocking of the placement on the keyboard, getting the white scale and white-black-black scale groups in her fingers, and feeling the overlap of patterns when starting on the dominant.

The final pattern of shifting the repeated fingers in mm. 83-84 needs a smooth sound when repeating the notes in order to remain in tempo and move fluently to the last note. The visual learner needs to see that the repeated keys do not rise completely to the top before being played by a replacement finger. The aural learner will enjoy the sound of smooth movement that she hears when she shifts quickly to the next finger. The tactile learner would be able to feel the shift and the replacement of the finger before the key rises to the top. All three would find this pattern more challenging than the others in the piece, but all would find that they could master it quickly by using their own modality of learning.

Visual Repeated Notes (Iris) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.5MB.
Aural Repeated Notes (Erin) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.2MB.
Tactile Repeated Notes (Tasha) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.6MB.


The dynamics of the piece add significantly to the musical effect and would be grasped differently by varying modes as well. Iris would find the visual cues in the score easy to remember and play consistently if she highlighted or circled the markings. However, she may be less imaginative in her choices of color and may need to be encouraged to explore a wider range of colors and dynamics than her fellow students. Erin’s approach would be to listen for the inventive color changes brought about by the quick surges in volume or contrasts in loud and soft. The aural learner is often very musically intuitive, careful to listen for expression and nuance. For Tasha, I would focus on the energetic feel of big chords and dynamics, contrasted with the leggiero feel of soft and fast playing.


Anyone who has taught syncopated pedaling knows that students with varying learning styles learn this differently. The visual learner likes to say “up-down” as she plays the chords, seeing how the fingers and feet align and play together. In contrast, the aural learner is usually keenly aware of any gap in sound caused by incorrect timing of the feet and hands. The tactile learner understands and masters pedaling easily if she can feel the timing by “riding” the teacher’s foot on the pedal and hands on the keyboard.


Finally, the form of the piece would be learned and memorized by Iris most easily as a map of visual cues. She would enjoy creating her own notation, indicating where the music consists of familiar patterns, where those patterns are changing, and where repetitions of sections make learning the piece quick and easy. Erin would enjoy a teacher-student game of aural lead-ins, in which the teacher plays the last few measures of a section at a second piano and she comes in with the next notes. Planning the physical motions leading from section to section would best help Tasha’s mode of learning. A kinesthetic learner usually memorizes easily but tactually. Sections in which the hands remain in one place on the keyboard will be in her hands quickly. By developing awareness of the relationships between the ends of one section and the beginning of the next, she would feel confident and successful when playing from memory.

Aural Memory (Erin) Movie Icon
Flash Video, 3.3MB.

Strengthen Other Modalities

Even though each of these three students has a preferred way of learning new material, as their teacher I also want to strengthen the other modalities. Various activities dealing with the same concept heighten interest during the lessons through quick alternation of visual, aural, and physical activities, while ensuring that the student truly understands what is being taught.

Although Iris learns best by seeing notation, maps, and movements, I also want her to become more aware of sound and physical feelings. Once she has learned the notes and rhythms in the score, I would work with matching sounds and developing phrase shapes and colors. Many of our activities would focus on physical gestures used to create sound and promote freedom of technique and expression.

For Erin, beginning activities that use her well-developed aural skills could be followed with finding those sounds in the notation, visualizing patterns and forms with maps. This student would enjoy games where she can use her aural skills to recognize notation patterns. In addition, we would experiment with recognizing the look and physical feeling of a well-developed technique.

Tasha’s preference for hands-on learning could be reinforced with activities intended to develop her skill in reading notation and producing colorful sounds. Once she has the necessary physical gestures to play comfortably, I would ask her to find the notation that represents those gestures, and listen carefully to the sounds they produce.

Music study is a unique activity that requires well-developed skill in all three modalities. Although it is possible to learn using only one of the three, musicians who have developed one area to the exclusion of the other two may be limited in their abilities to read and interpret music, to improvise and create music, and to build a coordinated and reliable physical technique. Teachers who vary activities by starting with the student’s preferred modality and then moving to the other two often find that students not only “get it” much faster, but they also enjoy the variety of experiences used in teaching each concept. Lessons become energized and fast-paced, with students fully engaged in the exciting challenge of learning to perform artistically!


In the next issue: Who was Albert Pieczonka?


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