What can we, as teachers, do to help build our students’ self-esteem, increase their motivation, and instill them with confidence? Ideas from the previous chapters are a good start: respecting children’s feelings, and allowing them to make choices and solve problems on their own. When we think of praise as a teaching tool, words or phrases that evaluate, such as “good job,” or “fantastic!” may come to mind first. However, this type of praise can bring about unintended negative reactions. Chapter 5 teaches us how to praise more effectively and meaningfully.
Here are some of the potential negative effects praise can produce. Let’s put ourselves on the side of receiving praise, following a performance.
Praise can make you doubt the praiser.
Imagine you are asked to play for an event on short notice, and aren’t able to prepare as thoroughly as you would have liked. The performance is mediocre, at best. Afterwards, someone from the crowd tells you, “great job!” You might think, “either this person knows nothing about music, or he’s just saying that out of pity.”
Praise can be threatening.
An audience member says, “you always play so beautifully.” Certainly well-intended, and probably genuine, but also possibly experienced as a pressure to “always” play so beautifully.
Praise can force you to focus on your weaknesses.
A colleague comments, “you have great technique.” You might think, “technique is my biggest weakness, I had to work so hard on that!”
Praise can create anxiety and interfere with activity.
“You’re a great performer!” You might think, “well, this performance went well, but I’m not always this solid! I doubt I’ll be able to live up to this on the next recital.”
Praise can also be experienced as manipulation.
“What does this person want from me?”
All of these comments are general and almost stereotype the performer. The comments describe the person, rather than the performance, or the listener’s feelings. How could these same sentiments be conveyed in a way that puts the focus on a specific aspect of the performance? Perhaps thinking through some alternative responses could prepare us for those post-recital conversations with our students, or even improve our reactions to how pieces are played in a lesson.
Descriptive praise can help in lessons with regard to practicing and technique as well. When we use descriptive praise and acknowledge the details of students’ efforts, they start to notice and appreciate their own strengths. It certainly takes more effort and thought on our part, but it’s worth the result! Here are the quick reminders for effective praise:
1. Describe what you see.
“I see that you completed seven days of practice this week.”
“I see that you’ve written down your composition.”
“You kept a tall knuckle bridge and round fingertips all the way through your warm-up.”
2. Describe what you feel.
“I am so happy to see that you’ve increased your practice time this week!”
“Your performance makes me feel so much more excited, now that you’ve incorporated the dynamics!”
“Your slow, steady tempo made me feel so calm while you were playing.”
3. Sum up the child’s praiseworthy behavior with a word.
“You practiced seven days this week. Now that’s what I call dedication!”
“You observed articulation so carefully in this piece. Now that’s attention to detail!”
“Your performance really told the story of the piece. Now that’s artistry.“
The authors also offer some cautionary advice about praise:
Make sure your praise is appropriate to the child’s age and level of ability.
Avoid the kind of praise that hints at past weaknesses or past failures (also known as the “back-handed compliment.” (The authors even use several music-related examples here.) “Well, you finally played that piece of music the way it should be played!” This implies past failure. Instead, focus on the present and praise something specific: “I really like the way you kept a strong, rhythmic beat going in that piece.”
Be aware that excessive enthusiasm can interfere with a child’s desire to accomplish for herself. “You’re such a gifted pianist! You should be playing at Carnegie Hall.” The child may experience this as a pressure, and think, “They want it for me more than I want it for myself.”
Be prepared for a lot of repetition of the same activity when you describe what a child is doing appreciatively. “Praise invites repetition and a great outpouring of effort. It’s potent stuff. Use it selectively.” This can be especially true for very young students. “The glissandos in your composition were so smooth!” Soon, glissandos become the main feature of every subsequent composition . . .
I’d like to highlight one of the questions from the last part of the chapter, because I think it’s particularly relevant to the context of the piano studio, especially with assignment sheets and improving home practice being such a hot topic on pianopedagogy.org right now! “How do you praise a child for finally doing what he should have been doing all along?”
Our student finally practiced the expected amount. He finally completed his written work. We have to be careful about praising what is already expected or required, since this could hint at past weakness or failure, or could come across as excessive enthusiasm. The authors write, “You’re always on safe ground when you make a descriptive statement to a child about your own feelings. You can tell him, ‘I especially enjoyed our lesson today.’ He’ll know why.”
We might also make a descriptive statement about the lesson. “Today, we were able to breeze through the warm-ups because you had prepared them so well. Each piece demonstrated improvement. You’re much more comfortable writing triads and inversions after completing your workbook page. Our lesson flew by today and we accomplished so much because of your increased practice this week.” How motivating for students to recognize the results of their own hard work!
What are some ways we can use praise more meaningfully and effectively in our lessons? Can you think of any times when praise was not effective, and how you might respond differently now after reading this chapter?