Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Positive or Negative Teaching?


This post is about the effectiveness of positive vs negative teaching.

What exactly do I want to get across to this student?  Where do I want to take him/her, and what’s going to be the most effective way to get there?   Any engaged teacher will regularly consider these questions.  And one way to sharpen our awareness of these questions is to think about positive vs negative communication.

The first thing I do on a positive note with a student is to listen to them play.  Even if they are playing badly, I like for them to play long enough for me to have time to catalog in my mind all the basics that are being done WELL.  For example, the music may sound awful because of being all out of tune, but their timing might be good, or the sequence of phrases correct, and hand position may be good.  I can start with this list as a foundation of good things to build upon.  It’s certainly preferable to build than to tear down.

Try an experiment:  Take note of each time you say “no” to a student.  Notice each time you tell them they did something wrong.

It’s easy to say “no, don’t do that.”  It’s easy to point out a mistake or problem.  Why?  Because teaching is all about getting a student from Point A to Point B, and identifying the obstacles is the first step to overcoming them.  The big question is whether we focus on the obstacles or on the solutions.

When I tried the “no” experiment, I found there were many times when I said “no” in order to stop a student from getting into the habit of playing the wrong thing or playing in the wrong way.  It was a way of calling their attention to an issue as it was happening.  In other words, I had the best of intentions.

I should say I’m not an advocate of routinely praising or coddling a student just for the sake of being positive.  That’s a mindless way of being positive, and students can tell that you don’t really mean it.  But finding a way to guide positively not only clarifies your own thinking but also gives the student something constructive to do and keep in mind.

When you think about it from the student’s point of view, being told “no,” or having a mistake pointed out as they’re playing, does not always give a clear message.  They often don’t immediately understand what you are referring to.  Of course, after some explanation and repetition, they should be able to understand and watch out for the problem.

But even though you may have intended to convey a good message, what first comes across when you point out an error is simply the fact that they did something wrong (again!) and the awareness or fear that a mistake or bad habit can crop up unexpectedly at any moment.  And even though the goal is to replace the wrong note or technique with the correct one, it’s the wrong one that is first to loom large in the student’s mind.  The mind says, “Here’s that bad thing, and now I have to remember not to do it!”  It’s like telling someone NOT to think about a pink elephant.

Surely the ideal is for the student to play correctly without even thinking about doing it wrong.  There are several ways to get there.

–One way is to ignore an error and see if it happens again.  This might be done by simply asking them to play again, without comment, or sometimes it can be helpful to move on to something else and come back later, fresh, to the problem passage, to see how it is.  If everything is okay, the error was a fluke, not a flaw, and therefore not deserving of attention.

–Another way, if a student keeps doing something wrong, is to stop them just before the bad habit kicks in, and slowly take them through how to do it right.  Through repetition, a new habit can be formed, doing it correctly without ever having to discuss what was done wrong.

–If it seems important for the student to understand the problem and work with it, try separating it from the moment of playing, so there is no panic or urgency.  Discuss it in the context of how to work on improving their playing.  For example, if you notice a student’s hand is in the wrong position while playing, let them finish playing.  Then take that issue up as a topic of discussion and explain why the correct hand position enables them to do things better and easier, and how the wrong position is awkward for the wrist, for example, or sends the fingers away from the fingerboard, making it harder for them to reach where they need to go.  This is far more effective than telling them one way is right and the other is wrong!  It does, however, require that you yourself understand why the correct way is beneficial and how that applies to this particular student.  This requires some observation and thought, and becomes easier the more experience you have in verbalizing the technique.

A discussion like that might also lead you to help the student in new ways.  You can refer back to it when solving related problems.  For example, if they play out of tune, you might remind them that the correct hand position will help their fingers reach the right note, rather than simply pointing out that they are playing out of tune.

If you’re creative, replacing criticism with constructive instruction can lead you to invent new exercises to solve student problems.  There are times when a student is playing out of tune, and instead of pointing this out, I will simply run them through a special exercise I created and then play the passage again.  Often this fixes the problem, at least for a time, and allows me to praise them for playing in tune, while pointing out how doing that exercise at home can help them teach their fingers where to go.

Since this issue is at the heart of many teachers’ work, I’m sure you have your own take or experiences with positive vs negative teaching, and we look forward to hearing examples or ideas from your teaching.

In the mean time, when you feel the urge to say “no” or to criticize, take a breath and refrain.  Take that moment to think through how to articulate a positive approach to solving the problem, one the student can keep in mind and use at home.

When students practice at home, they will imitate you.  Will they criticize themselves or solve problems?  That may be up to you.

About the Author

Ed Pearlman
Ed Pearlman has focused on performing, teaching, and judging fiddle music for over 30 years, offering performances and workshops throughout the USA and in Canada and Scotland. His original training was with members of the Chicago and Boston Symphonies, and he played with orchestras and chamber groups at Yale and in Boston. He currently teaches privately in Maine and at workshops around the countr... [Read more]


  1. Robin Steinweg

    Great article, Ed! I find my greatest challenge is to be silent and simply listen. I’ve been on a quest for some time to train myself to listen and watch, and then to make wise use of questions so they can perhaps identify a trouble spot before I mention it. Students often know when something wasn’t right.
    I like your idea of stopping them before the rough spot, and working things out from there.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.