A Lesson is a Happening: Affirmation

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The transforming aspect of musical study is highlighted in Sam Holland’s quote,

“A lesson is a happening. Something so special happens that the student ends the lesson different from what he was before.”


As we teach, we must ask ourselves two questions:  “How do I view the student as a musician?”  and the second, often related, question:  “How does the student view him/herself as a musician?”  If we are only seeing what needs to be corrected, our students will pick up on this “energy,” no matter how cheerful, animated, and kind we aim to be.  If a student views him/herself as less than capable, that student will not likely be motivated to practice.  Always being aware of as student’s strengths can subtly, but profoundly, shape our interactions.


Since most of us have gone into teaching because we love music and love working with others, the imbalance of praise and criticism can be puzzling.  Why do we tend to praise in general terms, easily forgotten by the student, and give suggestions in greater detail?  Why do we sometimes forget to find ways to end the lesson with success, so that the student is “walking on air” when they leave?  One might argue that the answers to this question are individual and plentiful.  Nonetheless, I shall attempt to give some common reasons:


1)  The whole structure of the lesson is to find what’s “wrong” and to make improvements.  This is the very nature of piano study.  When we hear a performance, we are naturally listening intently for what we can improve.


2) We are concerned that a student’s weaknesses might negatively reflect upon us.


3) Many of us have had at least one teacher that was very critical, and we carry those habits with us, along with the subconscious belief that all of our students are motivated by the same things that motivate us.  Music is the center of our lives; this is not always the case with our students.


I would like to further discuss the second item on my list:  we are concerned that a students’ weakness might reflect negatively on our teaching ability.  How often do we hear a performance and just praise it, without any suggestions?  It may be that some of us (myself included) worry that we’re “missing something.”  The imaginary observer (admit it; don’t you sometimes imagine your most respected mentor is observing the lesson?) might chime in:  “Didn’t you hear that the balance wasn’t good enough?” and so on.  The truth is, there is probably no such thing as a perfect performance.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t just occasionally take time to celebrate achievement.  If we do this, students might not be so programmed to “tune out” the praise, which they know is just the preamble for the criticism.


Recently, I asked Marvin Blickenstaff to record his lessons for the day.  I learned so much from these lessons.  As I watched the following clip, I was “programmed” to wait for the critique of the student’s performance.  Instead, the student was affirmed in such a special way:


Affirming a student’s accomplishment


Over and over again, Mr. Blickenstaff demonstrated enthusiastic affirmation for the students’ accomplishments and abilities.  How wonderful for these students…  they surely view themselves as accomplished musicians.  Mr. Blickenstaff also holds his students to the highest musical standards, always working to bring out the composer’s intentions.  This is every bit as affirming as the genuine praise.



I resolved to be very careful about monitoring both the way in which I provide feedback to my students, and how I view them as accomplished musicians.



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