“What is the difference between a teacher and a coach?” I asked my husband, Robin.
“The wheels on the coach go round and round.” His typically silly initial answer preceded more sensible thoughts.

In simple terms, teaching involves the transfer of knowledge and skills. Coaching is helping someone to unlock their personal potential.

So how does this apply to learning a musical instrument? Maybe sorting out the difference will help me understand what I do a little better.

First thing that comes to mind is that I teach music, but I coach my pupils.
As an instrument tutor I am not standing in front of a class of listeners who take notes, but I work alongside an individual and look for ways for this learner to progress in particular skills.

With a knowledge base in music, the aim from there is to work with any pupil based on his or her particular learning style and personality. Knowing the theory helps, but, along with that, being able to draw from many years of practical experience is so valuable. This would be more of a coaching role.
I naturally think of the parallel here of a sports coach: someone who has played the game and has a wide range of experience that they bring in to develop potential, to strategise and to tackle current problems with goals in mind. If a coach merely knew the rules of the game, but didn’t know a range of potential outcomes, he or she would not be much of a coach.

So too when it comes to teaching music. Every pupil is different and one way of doing things does not work for everyone. So, over the years, a good teacher develops a range of tools to use in order to coach pupils through. They want to make sure the pupil understands underlying principles that can be applied in various situations. For example, I could play the music for pupils and show them quite quickly how it goes, but that is not helping them develop their potential. I want to be sure they have the decoding skills needed to read any piece of music for themselves. This includes solid counting skills for rhythm and quick individual note recognition, especially in the early years.

Maybe coaching could be called coaxing at times.
There is a certain amount of coaxing needed to help reluctant learners make those lateral connections that apply the principles taught. An example of this would be with transposing. A pupil who can transpose a piece of music from one key to another has understood how the piece works in the first key in order to apply the exact patterns in the second key. But they may need to be coaxed into thinking it through. Not everyone is keen on having to work it out. “Isn’t the teacher supposed to tell me how to do it?”

I have noticed that some learners just want to be taught exactly how the piece is to be played without having to understand how it holds together, maybe harmonically or rhythmically. If I go that route, it can mean they can learn quite quickly at first. But I have so often seen those pupils hit a brick wall when they don’t understand the important basics. Scales, for example, help with an understanding of key structures. Steady and accurate counting helps with complex rhythms. Those who are resistant to being coached take longer to understand how their music holds together. I strongly suspect they will not retain much in the long run either.

When I started as a piano teacher at the age of 15, I was under the careful tuition of my mother in the family music school. I had a knowledge base good enough to start teaching, but less understanding of what to do in a range of situations. Over the years I realise I am a better coach now than I was back then, because I have had more experience of the pitfalls my pupils will face if certain things are not in place. So it is probably fair to say that a teacher becomes more of a coach with cumulative experience.

In jotting this all down, I may have sorted out some differences and similarities in these two roles. Essentially though, I have come to see that I need to adjust the combination of the two roles for each pupil and be aware that my pupil may not always be ready to be coached in the way I know is good for them… yet. And I’ll connect with them best if I can be in the sweet spot between the two.

I would so value any thoughts you have on today’s subject. I have heard a bit about coaching in the on line space of late, so it seems to be a subject people are looking at. I know I have not covered it in any way comprehensively, merely musing on what could be observed as the differences between teaching and coaching. I’m sure there is plenty more I’ve yet to learn too.

I thought the most useful thing I could give you at the start of the year would be a few tips to inspire you as you encourage younger musicians in their learning at the piano.

Have a look at each of these imperatives. I hope you can find something that applies to your situation.



Make a note of which day the lesson is held so that you can ask your child(ren) what they did at piano lessons and have them play it through for you on the same day of the lesson. This is so important because they will still remember what was covered and the enthusiasm is still high. If you are excited to hear about it first your child will be excited to show you.


If it is ever appropriate, get them to show you what they learned—let them be the teacher if you are not a musician yourself. But don’t get ahead of them. This is a key way to show your children you value what they are learning. I have seen pupils make remarkable progress when they “teach” Mum or Dad what they have learned.


Sort out a routine you are both going to be happy with—including a time length that means they are still keen to come back to it the next day. You may need to remind them, though. Make sure they finish their practice on a high note. (Literally? Maybe 🙂 ), but the main aim is to keep things positive. This is setting up for the long haul of learning, not just the first day. Life will get busy. We need to make sure that piano practice doesn’t get neglected in the midst of all the other things that need to happen.


Decide on some kind of reward system. It might be when they have reached a certain piece and performed it. It may be that they complete a sticker chart each week with a sticker for every practice completed. A full chart entitles them to a special reward.  Attending a musical performance of some sort is a great reward when a reasonable milestone is reached. And if it is someone performing at the piano, it is going to be a great inspiration for your child and also for you to keep them at it.


Brag about how well they are doing to friends and family. I know this is not such a Kiwi thing, we have to work at it sometimes. In general it seems my American friends are better at speaking about achievements. Make sure the grandparents get special performances of new pieces often. These mini performances are so helpful when it comes to something a little more formal later. I remember my father was always bragging about what his children were up to and getting us to play our latest pieces for poor unsuspecting visitors. I may have rolled my eyes a few times, but when I look back now all I remember was how proud he was of me. It’s still a special memory.


Listen, learn, remind, reward and brag. Basically, if you are engaged with your child’s lessons, they will be too. It may be one of the best investments of time with them you will have.