House of Corrections by Natalie Gibson Grimes

Natalie Gibson Grimes








“We as teachers are not running a house of corrections.” – Frances Clark

I love this reminder from Frances Clark – a teacher’s work is more than fixing errors and pointing out mistakes.  We have the important job of preparing students to play independently as lifelong music lovers.


Despite our best efforts to prepare students for accuracy, mistakes still happen. How should we as teachers respond to inaccuracies in our students’ playing? In “A Piano Teacher’s Legacy,” Richard Chronister suggests the following:


“Sometimes, it is better to decide not to correct an error. Sometimes I will simply tell a student he’s been careless about the rhythm, the fingering, the notes, or whatever, have him mark the spot where it happened, and tell him that it is now his responsibility, and I will be happy to hear his piece when his carelessness has been overcome.”


Chronister’s advice calls the student to action while allowing the lesson to move forward efficiently. The student is compelled to address mistakes independently at home. Lesson time is preserved for the real fun of making and shaping music. Taking students on a long, winding journey to “discover” a mistake may not always be an effective or efficient approach. Mistakes are likely to be minimal when energy is focused on presenting new concepts well after ample preparation and reinforcement.  According to Chronister, corrections should be made quickly with their purpose kept in mind:


“Our goal, as with everything we do in a piano lesson, is to do something that will make next week’s home practice more effective than last week’s. In making a correction, our goal is to make it right as quickly as possible and then to mark something on the page to remind the student at home…That’s all a correction is – making sure the student does it right and making sure he will remember to do it at home. In all probability, all the other things we do will not contribute to next week’s accuracy.”


My adult student Patti inspires me to prioritize making music – not just corrections.  Patti has a specific goal of learning all the pieces in a book that belonged to her mother. Patti feels a connection to her mother through these pieces and is hungry to consume them. She prefers to work out mistakes later at home so she can dedicate lesson time to music making.


While mistakes should not be ignored, it seems wise to focus on what is favorable in our students’ playing. Building confidence, fostering love of music, and celebrating “purple moments” as Marvin Blickenstaff calls them – these actions make lasting impressions on the hearts and minds of our students. We may never know the full impact of our words, both positive and negative – some may stay with our students forever. I hope mine carry with them words of praise and encouragement.


I’d love to hear strategies from other teachers for handling mistakes. What works best in preventing them?  How do you respond when a student repeats an error that has already been addressed in a previous lesson?


Natalie Gibson Grimes serves as Advertising Coordinator for Clavier Companion Magazine and the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy. She has taught at the New School for Music Study, Kean University, and the Tucson Music and Dance Academy. Currently, she maintains her teaching studio called Seeds of Sound in Alexandria, Virginia.


2 thoughts on “House of Corrections by Natalie Gibson Grimes

  1. These collected ideas are invaluable for our constant education as teachers. I feel that students at different stages require different approaches, and having a “basketful” of ideas is the best way to proceed. Then we are free to teach the student, not the method or the “school” or the technique alone. I can give 2 constrasting examples that made this point salient for me. While studying in France with concert artist Cecile Ousset during her rigorous summer sessions in Puycelsi, she was teaching the Liszt Sonata to 2 college graduate students from the States and Canada. With one student she discussed how to create climax and relaxation to emphasize the musicality with larger musical gestures(=phrasing and voicing of various musical lines). The other student was not yet ready technically, so she began with what worked well, and then proceeded to help him figure why something wasn’t working and what could fix it for him and his hands and his current abilities. For the beginner piano student, I remember watching 2 lessons in consecutive weeks at a piano studio in Tallahassee as part of my graduate pedagogy classes there at FSU, and saw a young student asked more questions than being told what to do. The “errors” were 100% corrected the next week because the young musician “discovered them”, marked the page herself and was proud of her accomplishment. Today we call this “engaging the student” and it is more necessary than ever due to the constant interaction with technology these kids have on a daily basis. We have to make sure the students are paying attention in their lesson all of the time and we need to make sure they leave feeling they can accomplish what needs to be done. And if possible, they can text us when they reach a particular goal and we can tabulate it at the studio, so they will just have to wait until their lesson to see if they beat their class friends in accomplishing 10 tasks for the week! Us teachers can use technology to our advantage as well.

  2. I’m relatively new to piano teaching (3 years) but I’ve been playing for almost 30, and I have to say, we can’t prevent mistakes. Furthermore, we shouldn’t try to prevent mistakes. We should embrace failure as something we can learn from. Especially if the student is trying his or her best.

    I play jazz, and while we try to be as intentional as possible when playing and soloing (often extemporaneously), sometimes our fingers take us in new directions. Sometimes this is a mistake, but if we are open, we might see it as a possibility to explore a new idea, thought, or phrase in our musical conversation.

    That said, if a student comes to a lesson unprepared and is stumbling through a piece, that isn’t failure to play the piece, it’s failure to take it seriously. That needs to be addressed as Chronister describes: direct the student to work a bit harder and come back when he or she is prepared and ready. Regarding the question of repeated errors from previous lessons, there are a variety of sources that could cause this: the teacher forgetting to write it down, the student not paying attention or reading his or her notes, a physiological issue, distraction, nerves. Dealing with all of these issues is part of the reason I’m on this site and reading this blog! But how we approach this depends on the goals of the students and parents, in my opinion. Higher aspirations put more emphasis on perfection.

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