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Teaching Guide

Teaching The Piano Lesson

Teach in the key of Shmoop.


You don't have to learn "Chopsticks" or "Heart and Soul" to teach The Piano Lesson. This play is filled with classic mainstays of the Great American Literary Themebook: race, music, and the past, just to name a few. Shmoop is here to help you zero in on this play's greatest hits.

In this guide you will find

  • an activity that will have students singing the blues (in a good way).
  • essay questions exploring ghosts, spirituality, and religion.
  • historical resources on the Civil Rights movement and the Jim Crow era.

And much more.

You + this teaching guide = a fabulous duet for teaching The Piano Lesson.

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Inside each guide you'll find quizzes, activity ideas, discussion questions, and more—all written by experts and designed to save you time. Here are the deets on what you get with your teaching guide:

  • 13-18 Common Core-aligned activities to complete in class with your students, including detailed instructions for you and your students. 
  • Discussion and essay questions for all levels of students.
  • Reading quizzes for every chapter, act, or part of the text.
  • Resources to help make the book feel more relevant to your 21st-century students.
  • A note from Shmoop's teachers to you, telling you what to expect from teaching the text and how you can overcome the hurdles.

Instructions for You

Objective: Singing the blues? Don't mind if we do! In this activity, students will have the opportunity to analyze character traits and conflicts in The Piano Lesson. Then they'll express the findings of their analysis by writing a blues song from a specific character's perspective. Who knew character analyses could be so much fun? (We did.)

This assignment will take about one class period, but you'll need to allow the students a week to complete their songs.

Materials Needed:

  • An example of a Blues song
  • Computer with speaker

Step 1: To make sure everyone's on the same page, take some time to discuss the importance of the blues to August Wilson's plays. For a nice look into this connection, check out this NPR piece, "August Wilson, Writing to the Blues."

Step 2: Believe it or not, not all your students will know what the blues sound like. Let's change that, pronto. Play an example of a blues song for the students: you can do this through Pandora or YouTube, and we suggest something by Bessie Smith. For other ideas, check out Shmoop's Best of the Web.

Step 3: This ain't no passive listening. After you've played the song once, divide the students into pairs and ask them to come up with a list of character traits for the singer: what is this person really like? Play the song again as students brainstorm.

After the song has played another time, have each pair share their character descriptions with the class so that everyone can see the singer from multiple perspectives.

Step 4: Now it's time to introduce the assignment. Students will pick a character from The Piano Lesson from whose perspective they'll write a blues song. Yes, it's as cool as it sounds. Give students one night to pick a character and to write a bulleted character analysis, kind of like the one they worked on in class.

Students should list their character's major traits and conflicts, providing a specific quote to support each point. For help with this, direct them to Shmoop's handy Quotes page.

Step 5: Let the students get in their groove and give them one week to compose their song. You should also ask students to write a brief introduction, explaining who their character is and why (oh why) they're singing the blues.

Step 6: And of course, students will get a chance to present their songs to the class (they can read the lyrics or sing them, but they have to do it with feeling – give it some umph!). Shmoop suggests doing this activity yourself, too—then you get to be the first to present so your students aren't as self-conscious. You know you want to.

(California English Language Arts Standards Met: 9th and 10th grade Literary Response & Analysis 3.3, 3.4, 3.7, 3.11; Writing: 2.2. 11th and 12th grade Literary Response & Analysis 3.2. 3.3, 3.4; Writing: 2.2.)

Instructions for Your Students

Student intro:

Singing the blues? Don't mind if we do! August Wilson, the playwright of The Piano Lesson, considered the blues to be an important form of American literature. In fact, many of his characters and plays are inspired by blues songs. In the chords, rhythms, and lyrics of these songs, he heard the history of the African American culture. Understanding this form of music is an important part of understanding Wilson's play. We're going to do you one better: it's time to write your own blues song.

Step 1: After listening to a blues song, you're going to divide into pairs and brainstorm a bit about the singer you've just heard. Here are some questions to think about:

  • What can you tell about this person from their voice and the content of the song?
  • What is the singer's attitude toward the world?
  • Most importantly, what is their conflict? Why is this person singing the blues?

Once you're done brainstorming, you'll get a chance to reconvene and hear what everyone else came up with. We bet you all had some pretty different ideas about things.

Step 2: Now we're clear—a single song can express a lot about a person, right? When somebody sings the blues, they share an important part of themselves. So, for your next assignment, you'll get into the mind of your favorite character from The Piano Lesson and write a blues song from that character's perspective. (Yes, it's as cool as it sounds).

Step 3: For homework, you should pick your character and create a bulleted list of the character's major traits and conflicts. Think about those same questions from Step 1 while you're preparing your list. Also, each item on your list should be accompanied by a quote from the text to support it. If you're at a loss, feel free to check out Shmoop's handy Quotes page.

Step 4: Now, it's time to get your hands dirty (not really). Write your character's blues in song, and also prepare a brief introduction to the song, explaining how it expresses your character's major traits and conflicts.

In one week, you will transform your classroom into a blues club as each of you shares the songs of your characters. If you choose, you can accompany yourself on an instrument or sing the song a cappella. And if you're not musically inclined, it's just as good to read the lyrics—but do it with feeling. This is the blues, after all.


Check out all the different parts of our corresponding learning guide.

Intro    Summary    Themes    Quotes    Characters    Analysis    Questions    Quizzes    Flashcards    Best of the Web    Write Essay    
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