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Questions about Teacher Observation by Barbara Fast

February 4, 2016

What is your basic approach to teacher observation?


Over time I’ve come to view feedback to teachers, either in lessons or groups, to being similar to comments to students in a private lesson. The same principles frequently apply.


Below are several ideas to keep in mind when giving feedback to teachers.



  1. Best First. Begin feedback with what is already going well for the teacher, allowing this to be the foundation for improvement.

    New teachers can easily find teaching private lessons or a group to be overwhelming. Building from a positive base and utilizing skills already in hand, allows a teacher to focus on one or two items to address in their lesson or class. Again, this mirrors the practice of the best studio instructors. Emphasizing the positive first is the fastest avenue to building confidence in performers and teachers.


  2. Essential plus Easy. When initially giving feedback, one has to balance what is essential for the teacher to address immediately, along with what is easiest for the teacher to change.


    This is very similar to coaching a private student, keeping in mind the hierarchy and the balance of the most important along with the most easily fixed, and eventually working in finer details over time, depending on the student’s ability to absorb and create change.


  3. Easy to Difficult. It’s helpful to give a teacher very specific items to address over a period of time, from easiest to more complex. This fosters improvement of specific skills and builds expertise quickly.

    Again, this parallels private teaching. The best studio teachers are masters at scaffolding a students technique and pacing a pianists learning. The same principles hold true for the importance of incrementally building a teachers various skills.


  4. Less is More. Limit comments of elements to be improved to 1, 2, or 3 items, depending on how easily they can be addressed by the teacher.


    This aspect is also very similar to private teaching. Sometimes a student can absorb changing several items easily; sometimes one overarching suggestion needs to be worked on in great detail.


    As in a private lesson, it’s helpful to think carefully what really can create the most change in teaching, and then try to focus on a few items at a time.


  5. Personal “Voice.” Step Back, and allow a teacher to develop his or her own “voice” and style.


    This is the counter-balance of the detailed giving feedback described above. As an observer of teachers, it’s important to balance leaning in–giving specific and detailed feedback, with stepping back– observing the individual teacher’s own personality and style.


    When observing teachers I’m constantly reminded that the most successful teachers frequently have completely different teaching methods from one another. A very quiet personality can be as effective as the extroverted teacher and both need to be able to flourish and develop their own “voice.”


What do you consider the essential elements to address immediately when observing teachers?

  1. Atmosphere. The atmosphere of the private lesson or classroom, and relationship of the teacher to the student(s) is the first and most important element to observe.


    This usually is apparent rather quickly. Does the body language indicate students are alert or bored, at attention or apathetic? If there is a negative feeling in the room it’s difficult for learning to take place and the atmosphere quickly becomes uncomfortable for the teacher, even to the point of dreading the next meeting with students.


    Any predominant dissonance with a student or class is a major issue and must be addressed immediately. The reassuring news for a new teacher is that negativity can frequently be turned around with concerted teacher effort.


    Sometimes the fixes can be simple: looking students in the eye, speaking their name frequently, engaging students with questions about their day, or keeping track of their interests. Building a personal relationship can sometimes solve apathy issues quickly. In a classroom, talking to students personally as they walk in the room and making sure students sit near the front can create more excitement.


    It’s helpful to tell teachers that they must exaggerate their most desired changes of teaching style. Don’t just sort of smile, but really smile. They frequently will feel as if they are making elephantine changes that may seem almost silly, as if they are excessive. In almost all instances, they are never overdone. Again, this is similar to teachers who tell students in their performance — exaggerate the dynamics.


  2. Look Up, Not Down. It’s easy for beginning teachers to look down and get buried in their lesson plan or their music, both in a private lesson or group class. Remembering to look up, and then to look at the student or class, is the first step when teaching a concept. Not looking at students ensures a loss of energy in the room, and the teacher has inadvertently missed a connection with the students.


    Highlighting just a few key words to be glanced at in a lesson plan will allow the teacher to keep their eyes on students when teaching. In this instance, exaggerating a sense of reaching out to students can help teachers regain a connection with students.


What are the elements that you find yourself addressing the most frequently with beginning teachers?


  1. Too much teacher talk, not enough student playing. This applies to both teaching private lessons and groups.


    It’s helpful for teachers to introduce a repertoire piece or a new concept with a series of questions. This can quickly eliminate long teacher explanations. Teachers also need to be encouraged to ask students to play immediately when addressing a technical issue or new concept. This can include playing along with a student to help demonstrate a concept.


  2. Pacing: taking too long to work on a single concept or piece. It’s helpful to write down projected teaching times within a lesson plan, usually 5 minutes or 10 minutes, including the start and stop time. While the plan may not always be followed due to student needs, it does ensure making educated decisions about what to truncate or leave out. Otherwise teaching can easily meander along and goals never get accomplished.


    Taking too long on an activity can deaden the energy level in an elementary level lesson or class. If an activity takes 20 minutes, it possibly ran too long. Most group class activities can be accomplished in 5 or 10 minutes. Occasionally, a complex topic can take 15 minutes.


    It’s essential that skill-drill (scales/triads and inversions, etc.) be limited to 5-10 minute work periods. If a drill needs to be extended, it can be interspersed with repertoire work, allowing students to refocus more productively.


    Pacing within a lesson or group class determines the flow, excitement, and specific focus of time spent together. All students find their quick improvement of a variety of skills to be personally motivating.


  3. Turn-the-page teaching: an easy default. Teachers revert to turn-the-page teaching when they haven’t lesson planned carefully. Students are told to practice the next page with no presentation of new concepts or repertoire. Typically mistakes are practiced or students don’t know how to learn difficult passages more easily.


    All elements in a lesson must be introduced: this includes repertoire, reading pieces, technique. The introduction of new repertoire and technique is the most critical part of teaching. If an introduction is presented carefully, the teacher will have to do little correcting in future lessons or classes.


    How to introduce a concept or piece concisely takes a great deal of thought and is the aspect that frequently takes the most preparation time for beginning teachers. It’s also where teachers will gain real skill over time, as their sequencing ability gains clarity and precision.


Any summary comments?


One of the greatest privileges of my life has been working with teachers, helping them develop their own style and facilitating their personal growth. As they gain more confidence in their abilities, their own enthusiasm and love for teaching inevitably grows. It’s inspiring to observe their expertise being immediately passed on to their students through greater skill, enthusiasm, and love of music. It’s the ability to affect two generations at one time, and that’s exciting!


Dr. Barbara Fast, Frieda Derdeyn Professor of Piano and Piano Area Chair, coordinates the group piano program as well as teaches graduate and undergraduate piano pedagogy at the University of Oklahoma. She has received numerous awards honoring her teaching, including: 2014 University of Oklahoma Regents Award for Superior Teaching; 2013 OMTA Teacher of the Year; MTNA Collegiate Chapter Advisor of the Year 2009 and 2007; 2008 Irene and Julian Rothbaum Presidential Professor of Excellence in the Arts at the University of Oklahoma. Dr. Fast is being featured at the 2016 MTNA National Conference in an Intermediate Piano Master Class presentation. Additionally, she has presented numerous workshops on practicing, technology, sight reading, historical keyboard pedagogy, ensemble music, and newly published music, at Music Teachers National Conferences (MTNA), International and National College Music Society Conferences (CMS), The Classical Music Festival (Austria), The Hawaii International Conference on Arts and Humanities, the National Conference on Keyboard Pedagogy (NCKP), World Piano Pedagogy Conferences (WPPC), and the European Piano Teachers Conference (EPTA). Dr. Fast co-founded the National Group Piano/Piano Pedagogy Forum held for the first time in 2000, with the ninth GP3 forum scheduled for 2016. She has served on the Editorial Board of the MTNA E-Journal, and as Associate Editor of Piano Pedagogy Forum, the first keyboard journal on the WEB. She has served on numerous national and state MTNA and NCKP piano pedagogy related positions. Currently Dr. Fast serves as President of the Oklahoma Music Teachers Association (OMTA). Additionally she has performed in chamber settings in England, Russia, and Japan as well as presented lecture recitals and master classes throughout the United States.

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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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