I have been rather disturbed to learn from a couple of teaching colleagues, in discussions in response to “that” tweet from the ABRSM, that music examiners are actively discouraged from saying “well done” to a candidate after their exam performance or writing similarly positive comments on the exam mark sheet. Personally, I can’t see the harm in offering such praise; in fact, I see it as a force for good, something which can help students, especially young children or more anxious players, to find the exam experience more positive. And it’s far more friendly than a rather curt “thank you” from the examiner at the end of the session.

Exam mark sheets are problematic too. Not only does one have to decipher the examiner’s handwriting (which can be as impenetrable as a doctor’s!) but the language can be opaque, full of special “examiner-speak” which is not always easily comprehendible to students and their parents. The often rather brusque comments may seem negative even when intended to be positive. When I taught regularly, I would highlight the good comments for my students and would also go through the mark sheets with them to help them get the best out of the comments and to understand how the more negative feedback could be used to inform their practicing in future.

Within the teaching studio, we should always provide a supportive environment to encourage learning, motivation and confidence. Sadly, some of us will remember dragon-like piano teachers from our childhood who highlighted errors but rarely praised; a few even resorted to physical abuse such as rapping a student’s knuckles with a ruler. Fortunately such abusive practices are rare today and should always be called out.

Negative feedback, such as continually picking up a student over small slips and errors, or constantly asking them to play a section again to “get it right” rather than allowing the student to play through the whole piece before offering critique, will dent a student’s confidence and erode their ability to trust their ability and their musical self. It will also make them more dependent on a teacher’s feedback, anxious for praise and the “credentialisation” that comes from it. This approach is not conducive to encouraging self-critique and independent learning.

How to critique well

Be respectful and kind

Teaching is about respect, between teacher and student and vice versa, regardless of the age or ability of the student.

Be collaborative

Use language which focuses on the playing rather than the person and make the critique collaborative. For example:

DON’T SAY: “You played some wrong notes in Bar 12.”

DO SAY: “Let’s take a look at Bar 12 together and see if we can work out what happened there.”

By involving the student in a problem-solving exercise, we hand them greater autonomy and encourage them to find their own solutions.

Accentuate the positive

In my experience, most students, regardless of the level at which they play, are alert to errors and will be quick to point these out if asked to comment on their own performance. When I taught regularly, I always asked my students to self-critique after they had played and would preface this by asking them to “find three things you liked about your playing today”.  (It says something about our education system, and an undue focus on “getting it right”, that it took some coaxing to steer students away from highlighting mistakes first and to instead focus on “the good bits”.) These needn’t be complicated or expansive, especially for younger/less advanced students – good use of dynamics or articulation, a well-shaped phrase, observing expression marks etc. When it came to my turn to comment, I would also begin with some positive comments and praise. This sets up a supportive and encouraging atmosphere between teacher and student which leads to a better environment for learning and progress.

Be humble and open-minded

The teacher isn’t always right, and even the most junior students has something fresh and insightful to about the music they are learning. Be willing to listen to students’ ideas and help them put them into practice, if applicable, or guide them to understand why something may not be appropriate in the context of the music.

The best teachers want to become ‘redundant’ by giving their students the tools to become confident, independent learners. Giving critique and feedback in positive terms is an important part of this process.


Further reading:

The Perfect Wrong NoteWilliam Westney

The Inner Game of MusicBarry Green

The Art of PractisingMadeline Bruser

Following on from my earlier post about the notion of the “self-taught pianist”, I would like to explore further how teachers can – and should – enable their students to teach themselves.

The word “teach” comes from the Old English tǣcan which means “to show, present, point out”. This for me, (and having studied Old English at university), gives a big clue to how teachers should approach their teaching. We should not be telling our students how to learn, but showing and guiding them.

My personal stated aim as a piano teacher, in addition to encouraging a love of all things piano in my students, is to enable them to become independent learners – to show them how to teach themselves. Based on my own piano studies as a teenager and as an “adult returner”, there is nothing more satisfying than discovering that it is possible to explore, learn and enjoy music without constantly running back to teacher for support.

Sadly, it strikes me that due to the way children are taught in primary and secondary school in the UK, they are being robbed of the ability to think and work independently, instead relying on teachers to spoon-feed them information to enable them to pass tests and exams, and to meet targets set higher up the educational hierarchy. I have observed this unwillingness to think and act independently in a number of my students, and I try to encourage them to instead take a leap of faith and rely on their musical knowledge and experience gained during their lessons with me.

There is a lot of mystique surrounding music teachers, particularly those who teach at a high level in conservatoire and specialist music school. Students may compete to be assigned to a “top” or “famous” teacher, and there can be huge advantages, real or imagined, in studying with these teachers, for they have been taught by the great teacher-pianists of an earlier generation and can pass down “secrets” from these teachers to their own students. This heritage can be very important – I have studied with high-level teachers/concert pianists who in turn have studied with such pianistic luminaries as Peter Feuchtwanger, Maria Curcio, Guido Agosti, Phyllis Sellick, Peter Wallfisch, Nina Svetlanova and Andras Schiff – but I think it is also important for students not to be too much in awe of these teachers, and to learn how to take from their current teacher what they need to enable them to play and progress to their best of their ability.

To quote from Leon Whitesell, a US pianist and teacher, At best, we as teachers, must become like a wonderful cafeteria, where the pupil chooses and takes, as well as applies, whatever he/ she desires. We really can’t ” teach” anything, but pupils may take from our offerings that which they choose!”

In order for our students to select from our teacherly “cafeteria”, we first need to equip them with the necessary tools to learn independently. This may include:

  • notation
  • rhythm
  • sight-reading
  • technique and an understanding of how it serves the music
  • structure
  • an understanding of keys and key relationships
  • musical terms and signs
  • historical context
  • performance practice and stagecraft

In addition, the teacher’s role is to build self-esteem to enable the student to play with poise, expression and musicality. A good teacher supports the student to find their own musical voice and personality, will guide the student to find an appropriate and tasteful interpretation of their music, and encourages the student to be a musical explorer, to discover music outside of the repertoire under study for regular lessons. A sympathetic teacher tailors lessons to suit each student individually, is adaptable and flexible, and is able to identify what the student needs at that moment. In fact, the best teacher to teach students to teach themselves is one who is also engaged in ongoing study, who remains open and receptive to new ideas, and who is also willing to learn from their own students.

In contrast, an egotistical and/or possessive teacher wants to produce students in their own image whose sound reproduces that of the teacher, and whose students feel enthralled to their teacher. This approach does little more than boost the teacher’s ego, and makes students anxious

Adult students can present different challenges for the teacher as they often self-teach before seeking regular lessons, or enjoy exploring and studying outside of their lessons and may bite off more than they can chew and then become discouraged. I find that some adults, while being voracious learners, can lack confidence when it comes to trusting the musical instinct which enables them to work independently, and much of my work with adults, both as private students and via my piano group, is building self-esteem, encouraging them to let go of negative experiences with previous teachers (as both child and adult), learning to be wary of comparing themselves to others, and understanding how to practise effectively and intelligently in order to prepare music properly.

Adults also often like to seek feedback and advice from others aside from their regular teacher, through workshops, masterclasses and piano courses. I have met adult students who have attended so many courses and masterclasses they they have become confused by the myriad suggestions and signals given by different teachers. From my own experience attending courses and masterclasses, I would stress that it is important to take from these sessions only what you feel you need at the time (that notion of the “cafeteria” again!).

I encourage all my students to be questioning, to challenge me, and to set off on a path of musical self-discovery. I regard my teaching style as flexible, open-minded and sympathetic, and I tend to teach by asking questions of my students, or making suggestions, rather than saying “this is how to do it!” or “do it my way”. My own study currently involves two teachers/mentors who hold me to account for what I am attempting and who set the bar for my technical preparation through detailed study and knowledge of the score (Schubert Sonata D959). They do not impose their interpretation but allow the music-making to be my business, thus encouraging me to develop my own musical voice and to take ownership of the music.

One of the best aspects of my job is when a student arrives having resolved an issue which was proving problematic in an earlier lesson. Or the student who has selected a piece to learn on their own initiative and who simply needs some guidance from me to enable them to progress. Hearing my students perform in their end of term concert, as I did last weekend, was a wonderful indication of how much they are developing as young musicians, each with their own individual sound and style.