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Natalie Gibson Grimes: House of Corrections

September 9, 2014


“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.

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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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