Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Do you have a student who can’t take correction?

Oh my God!

© Olga Vasilkova | Dreamstime Stock Photos

As you glance over at Kyle, you are surprised to see tears brimming over. Where did those come from? He is just so sensitive! Some students seem to take corrective comments in stride, but others melt with the slightest suggestion for improvement. Kyle melts…

There can be multiple reasons for a student to not respond well to correction. Each of these reasons would suggest a different approach for resolution.

  • fear of failure
  • low self-esteem
  • perfectionist attitude
  • frustration with themselves
  • not meeting their own expectations
  • lack of understanding of the problem
  • have a hard time trying new things
  • feel they are not able to please you
  • bad day at school
  • hit their emotional limit for the day
  • low stress tolerance
  • fight with parent or sibling in the car on the way to the lesson
  • feel out of control
  • not doing music lessons for themselves, but out of coercion
  • not used to being corrected
  • not used to working hard for something
  • do not respect you as a teacher
  • loyalty to a previous teacher

Questions you might ask yourself as the teacher:

  • Have I properly prepared the student to play this piece?
  • Is this piece too challenging for this student’s emotional reserves?
  • Does the student know what I am asking for and how to achieve it?
  • Does the student have the technical skills to do what I am asking?
  • Was I clear in my instructions?
  • Have I broken the skill down into small enough pieces?
  • Is the tempo too fast?
  • Is the fingering wrong?
  • Have I already pushed too hard for this session and it’s time to back off?
  • Have I given enough positive feedback to balance the negative?
  • Is it time for a break or time for a new piece?
  • What is my best guess as to what is behind this melt-down? (see list above)

Many times we can slip into a pattern of ‘the student plays and then the teacher makes corrections.’ This can be an uninspired approach if it is not a process of joint discovery and stretching for the next level. There are many creative ways to involve the student mentally and emotionally to get past a road block. One approach is to praise what you honestly can, and then, instead of immediate correction, try one or more of the following:

  • Isolate (in your own mind) the skill or element that needs improvement and create an exercise “off the bench” that will develop or reinforce the skill that is needed.
  • Create a fun, repetitive exercise “on the bench” that develops the needed skill apart from the piece. Maybe even put words to the movements or rhythm to help seal it in the student’s memory.
  • Play the passage two ways and have the student discuss the differences and what she likes better. Have her play it two ways for you and ask you which one you like better.
  • Video tape the student and have him critique the performance as if he was his own teacher—which, in many senses, he must be.
  • Ask questions that will help the student discover her own improvements, such as, “Can you count that section out loud while you play it?”

There is never enough time, of course, but it is so important to prepare a young student for a new piece before they take it home. Make sure he understands the rhythm apart from the melody. Work out fingerings as needed. Talk through various considerations, such as the mood, history, composer style, dynamic range, key, tempo, pulse, structure, patterns, and effective practice strategies. Make a check list for home practice. Do everything you can to set the student up for success. A student is much more open to suggestions before he has invested a whole week of practice in doing it his own way.

If you can incorporate lots of great improvisation time it can help the student to let go of the idea that everything is “right” or “wrong” in music. This can be very hard for the perfectionistic student, but well worth the time and effort. I also tell these students, “You never have to be perfect here!” No one is perfect. Even if you think you should come close—no one is perfect. The number of mistakes you make in your piano lesson has absolutely no bearing on your value as a human being.

If a student is truly not motivated to improve, or does not respect you as a teacher, you may be at an impasse. If it is a phase, you may be able to work through it with good communication and patience. Reflect back to the student what they are telling you and ask for clarification. Sometimes the student is not mature enough to clearly verbalize their feelings, but it will help them to know that you are aware they are having a hard time.

Always confront disrespect. Set a clear boundary by telling the student that you are open to hear what they are thinking and feeling, but only when the message is delivered with a respectful tone and attitude. This is a two-way street of course! Students are much more responsive to a teacher that respects and cares for them as a person. You are in a unique position to influence a child’s thinking and character when you get one-on-one time with her every week.

Remind students that they are at your studio to improve, not just perform for you. You are just doing the job for which you were hired by helping them to get better. You can say, “Oh, good! I’m so glad that (mistake) happened, because I get to earn my keep today. I have a great way to help you with that section.”

Give plenty of compliments. It may take some work, but you can find something to compliment. “I love how you sat so tall while you played!” “I was impressed that you kept your tempo very slow while you were learning this piece.” “I could feel the emotional energy that you put in to that performance.” These are all honest statements. Anything less would be unproductive and disrespectful to your student.

You can also phrase a correction so that it doesn’t sound like they’ve made a mistake. For example, “Now that you have done such a great job learning the notes and fingering, you can add some really special elements, like these accents.” This acknowledges the hard work they have already done before adding a new layer.

Teaching super sensitive students can be a challenge, but it is such a joy when they grow in confidence and character! Be a “sensitive teacher,” and try to discover the root of the problem. Be alert for clues that a meltdown is approaching and keep trying to find the key to that child’s heart.

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  1. Robin Steinweg

    Sandy, I love how you suggest acknowledging their hard work as you add the next layer of technique or artistry to their pieces. We all want to be understood! 🙂

  2. Jacob Morrison

    I like your alternative approaches – some nice ideas! Thanks 🙂

  3. Anita E Kohli / Eliza

    Just dealing with this with a particular student right now and figuring out how to handle it. Thanks for the blog – it gave me some ideas

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