Changing the Vocabulary

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The way we interact with our 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.

This article is inspired by a recent discussion on the Piano Network UK Group on Facebook, to which I belong. A member posted the following:

I suppose we’ve all had that student who no matter what we do our say just will not practice. Here’s something that seems to have worked: change the word. Don’t ask them to aim at “practising”, ask them to aim at “progressing”.

For many young piano students, the word “practising” has negative connotations, no matter how positive the teacher is in their approach to practising. 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, but our students don’t always see it that way. 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”. And I want all my students to gain pleasure from playing the piano. “Play” also suggests playing for enjoyment, and I often point out to my students that they don’t have to be practising (sorry, that word again!) their assigned pieces and exercises to be doing useful and, more importantly, enjoyable work at the piano.

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 I might add a fantastic 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” (and I also point out that playing simple repertoire really well is actually highly skilled).

Children 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. Instead I encourage “excellence”: in this way, each and every student can find their own personal state of excellence.

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. Adult students often 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.

We should use positive vocabulary in all of our teaching, and also allow students to challenge us if we make sweeping statements which cannot be backed up by solid evidence, in the score or elsewhere.

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 enjoyment of music and, above all, their confidence.

Related articles:

The Virtuoso Teacher with Paul Harris

The Heart of Teaching: What it Means to be a Great Teacher


One thought on “Changing the Vocabulary

  1. I think this blog is very useful and it applies to all subjects, not just to music.
    Being afraid to make mistakes can. be extremely debilitating and counterproductive. It can make people stop learning or trying anything new. It is important for teachers and learners alike to realise that mistakes can be useful. They direct our attention to problems that need to be solved in order to progress. In some situations it is a bad idea to cover up our mistakes because by doing so we block our progress.

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