Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Do not…or do? Advice to Music Teachers

Something I’ve been working on in studio lately is how to make sure the students really understand what to do and how to practice.  To that end, I’ve been re-evaluating how I’m telling students information.  The realization I came up with is simple:

Don’t do… = MANY options to replace the undesired behavior.

Do… = ONE option for the student to accomplish.

How much more efficient would our lessons be, and how much more productive would our students’ practice be, if we focused on this one small aspect of our teaching language: always tell your students what to do and how to accomplish it, rather than what not to do?

Especially as a voice teacher, I find that this little instruction helps to clarify (along with my recent posting on asking students “What does it mean to you when I say that?”) information for the students.

I then write this information into the student notes that I take on my computer as I teach.  At the end of the lesson, I copy the notes from the student’s computer file and paste them into the “Reconcile lesson” function in Music Teachers Helper.  Voila! The student has a reminder, I have a reminder of the language that worked for the student, so I can use it next week, and the student has a clear understanding of what to practice doing, rather than what to avoid.

What kinds of language do you use in your music teaching?  Have you changed any approaches recently?  Why or why not?

Happy music making!

About the Author

Rachel Velarde
I began my music career in Bloomington, Indiana. After receiving my B.A. in Music from Smith College, Northampton, Massachusetts, I earned two Master of Music degrees at Arizona State University, Tempe, Arizona. Luminaries I have worked with include Vernon Hartman, James Caraher, Lorenzo Malfatti, Shirlee Emmons, Mary Sue Hyatt, John Sikora, David Jones, David Britton, and Carol Smith.

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  1. Dan Callaway

    Great advice, Rachel…focusing on the positive actions I find makes for the most solid progress.

    I tell my clients that as they focus on what works, what does not work will usually just dissolve…no need in spending precious energy trying to eradicate a bad habit. The more useful habit will simply move in over time.

    Good rule for musicianship and life I find.

  2. Leila Viss

    I like that phrase “What does it mean to you when I say that?” I catch my self saying “make sense?” which just means a student needs to answer with a “yes” or “no”. It does not give them a chance to explain in their own words.
    Thanks for the tips!

  3. Catherine

    So true! I’ve seen so many teachers and conductors fall into this trap–with the result of “playing scared” and lackluster performances. Telling a student to “caress the end of the phrase,” inspires creativity, as the student immediately begins thinking about how exactly s/he is going to execute the caress. If you tell a student to “not whack the end of the phrase,” all the student is thinking about is how not to screw it up the second time around.

    As much as I am aware of this, I still catch myself phrasing my comments in the negative sometimes. It’s something you really have to be vigilant about!

  4. Amanda Furbeck

    That’s great advice! You’re right, it helps the student know specifically what you want them to accomplish. I also like that its a positive phrase, instead of a negative one. It seems like a small thing, but I think rephrasing in the positive helps build confidence in our students, especially the younger ones.

    Thanks for sharing!

  5. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks Catherine for your comment! It has also really helped the students to take ownership of the process–I ask each student how they want the note phrased in the lesson notes I email them.

  6. Rachel Velarde

    I’ve read recently that brain scans indicate the exact same activity when someone is told to do something and when they are told to *not* do the exact same thing. So, the brain ignores the negative. Besides old habits, WHY should we as teachers continue to do something that has been proven to have no result? I’ve written several times on this blog about positive speech, but it’s not just to be a positive person, it’s because there’s scientific proof it works better! 🙂

  7. Rachel Velarde

    It really helps the students to hone their thinking about music, as well as give them a specific phrase that *they* understand. So much of teaching is finding a way to same something (often something that is basic to our musical understanding) in a way that resonates with the student. This is a great way to get the students thinking, as well as to make sure that they’re understanding the concepts we’re delving into. If I get a blank look in response to this question, it’s time to try another tactic until I can get a great answer from the students. Then, in the lesson notes, I write down what the *student* says. This does two things: reminds the student of what they were thinking and it also reminds *me* of how we phrased it in the last lesson, so we don’t have to figure it out again.

  8. Rachel Velarde

    Thanks Dan! Yes, I’m also trying to use this idea in my parenting skills, but somehow it’s much harder to apply to life than the studio…

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