Changing the Vocabulary

wordle-3The way we interact with students, and the language we use with which to communicate with them, can have a profound effect on how our students react to our teaching and their own attitude to music making. Young people in particular can be highly sensitive to the kind of words teachers use, and as teachers we are often afforded an esteemed position by our students. To enable our students to succeed, to feel encouraged and supported, we need to choose our words carefully or consider changing the words that we use.

Let’s start with the word “practising”. For many young piano students, “practising” has negative connotations, no matter how positive the teacher is in theirs. It suggests dreary hours at the piano, hacking through scales, exercises and dull pieces. It reeks of tedium, of effort without reward or achievement.

As teachers we know that regular practising equals noticeable progress, so what if we were to suggest “progressing” as an alternative to “practising”? By simply changing the vocabulary, we instantly explain the purpose of practising – progression. “Progression” suggests forward movement, advancement and achievement.

For younger students, the word “play” is even better: because “play” suggests “fun”. “Play” also suggests playing for enjoyment – and music should be pleasurable.

Another word which can cause major problems and is related to progression is “difficult”. In his book ‘The Virtuoso Teacher’ and accompanying lectures, acclaimed educator and inspiring communicator, Paul Harris debunks the “myth of difficult”. Again, the word can suggest something impossible, or at least very hard. Instead, try “challenging”. Instantly more positive, this word suggests something that can be attempted and that is achievable.

When a student grumbles that one of their peers is “better” (because they have reached a higher grade) I point out that they are not better, simply more “advanced” suggesting a point, not always that far away, which the less advanced student can aim towards.

Children and especially adults often come to the piano with the idea that their playing has to be perfect and that they must not play any wrong notes. I believe this is ingrained in children from the moment they enter primary school, where their school days are governed by ticks for good work and red crosses for incorrect answers, and where they are required to reach targets which are set by unseen forces higher up the education hierarchy. Perfection is unattainable – it’s an unrealistic artificial construct. Instead I encourage “excellence”: in this way, each and every student can find their own personal state of excellence.

Satie: Gymnopedie 1
The way we give feedback to our students is also crucial, and should always be couched in positive terms. When we give praise it should be appropriate and appreciative. Judgmental praise causes dependency and builds up an ego which can produce anxiety. We should praise what the student is doing or their effort, not their ego or talent. Praise followed by criticism is not helpful. Sincere praise goes a long way and creates a sense of trust.

Examples of appropriate and appreciative praise:

“I enjoyed that”
“that was really accurate/musical”
“That practising has really made a difference”

This allows pupils to draw their own conclusions about their playing.

When giving critical feedback, the correct vocabulary becomes even more important.

Examples of negative feedback:

“you played that chord wrong”
“your playing is inaccurate/unmusical/unexpressive”
“you are not working hard enough”

By personalising the criticism, we make it more harmful. Domineering or bullying teachers who feel frustrated by their students will often pile negative criticism onto their students to big up their own ego and to make the student feel even smaller. This is a form of transference and should be avoided at all costs, no matter how frustrated we may feel by a student’s lack of progress.

Instead, we should use a non-personal form of words – and actions – which involve both teacher and student in the solution to the issue:

“let’s see if we can work out why that chord wasn’t quite right”
“how do you think we could make the piece sound more expressive?”

We should also be mindful about our use of vocabulary when teaching adult students. Adults can be adept at “reading between the lines”, drawing inference from something the teacher may have intended as a throw-away comment. Many adult students lack confidence, often a hangover from an unpleasant experience with a domineering or overly negative teacher as a child, and this can make them highly sensitive.

Simple, positive changes to the kind of vocabulary we use when interacting with our students can have a transformative effect on their approach to their music making, their attitude to practising (“progress”), their confidence and above all their enjoyment of music.

Liszt – 12 Transcendental Etudes

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