19 Things That Great Teachers Do: Insights from Three Renowned Artist-Teachers

My oldest kid is currently in a phase where he tries to avoid explaining things by saying “it’s complicated.”

To his credit, some of the things we experience in life really are difficult to articulate in words – despite being clear to us in a non-verbal sort of way.

Like a child trying to explain what love is1.

Or defining what it is that makes a great teacher great.

Have you ever wondered what exactly renowned teachers do during lessons that help their students make progress and sound better from week to week? Do they rely on the same key set of strategies? Or is it different from teacher to teacher? What’s the secret sauce?

Three artist-teachers

Researchers Robert Duke2 and Amy Simmons were curious to learn more about the pedagogical approaches of individuals who are highly regarded not just as teachers, but as performers as well, and videotaped three renowned artist-teachers as they worked with their students in regular weekly private lessons – violist Donald McInnes3, oboist Richard Killmer, and pianist Nelita True4.

Altogether, about 30 hours of lessons were recorded, with students ranging in age from high school to doctoral-level students.

The researchers then observed ~8-9 hours of video of each teacher, looking specifically for (a) teaching strategies that all three teachers used, and of these, narrowing in on (b) only those strategies that led directly to improvements in the students’ playing, and which (c) were used in almost every lesson (and again, by all three teachers).

Despite being very different people, teaching very different instruments, it turns out these teachers’ pedagogical approaches might fundamentally be more similar than different. The researchers identified 19 key elements that were common to each teacher’s approach, which fell into three broad areas – Goals and Expectations, Effecting Change, and Conveying Information.

Yikes. 19 is a lot to take in.

So…let’s take a deep breath. Ready? Here we go…

Goals and Expectations

#1: “The repertoire assigned students is well within their technical capabilities; no student is struggling with the notes of the piece.”

Lessons tended to be centered around issues of musical expression and interpretation. So students came to lessons with pieces already in their hands, and even with some musical ideas of their own.

Some students will of course need much more time and help with technical fundamentals, but this speaks to the kind of work that can be done when repertoire is not too far beyond a students’ current capacity. Compare this with how a lesson would look when a student tries to tackle a piece of music that they love, but is simply too demanding for them technically to be able to do much with beyond just (barely) getting the notes out5.

#2: “Teachers have a clear auditory image of the piece that guides their judgments about the music.”

Even when teachers haven’t come across a particular piece before, they are able to take what they know about the composer, style, etc. and apply what they do know in such a way that the lesson is just as helpful as if they did know the piece.6

#3: “The teachers demand a consistent standard of sound quality from their students.”

This is one of the two elements that seemed to trump everything else. No matter what they were working on at the moment, if the sound quality was anything less than beautiful, everything came to a screeching halt, and sound quality became the primary focus until it was raised to the teacher’s satisfaction.

#4: “The teachers select lesson targets that are technically or musical important.”

Interestingly, teachers didn’t stop to work on every single imperfection – just the areas that would lead to the most meaningful or impactful improvement.

#5: “Lesson targets are positioned at a level of difficulty that is close enough to the student’s current skill level that the targets are achievable in the short term and change is audible to the student in the moment.”

Rather than focusing on areas of the students’ playing that might still be over their heads, the teachers appeared to focus on adjustments that the student could make in the moment and experience immediate success with.

#6: “The teachers clearly remember students’ work in past lessons and frequently draw comparisons between present and past, pointing out both positive and negative differences.”

Sometimes it’s easy for us to focus so much on how much more we have to do, that it’s easy to forget how far we’ve come. Sometimes it’s nice to get some perspective and a pat on the back from someone whose ears and judgment we trust.

Effecting Change

#7: “Pieces are performed from beginning to end; in this sense, the lessons are like performances, with instantaneous transitions into performance character; nearly all playing is judged by a high standard, ‘as if we are performing.’ ”

John Wooden once said, “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over?” Similarly, if we don’t make it a habit to practice playing as we would for an audience/jury, the less-than-fully-committed, lackadaisical “meh” approach may follow us out on stage.

#8: “In general, the course of the music directs the lesson; errors in student performance elicit stops.” 

The students were usually stopped immediately upon making an error. The idea being, I think, to help the student hone their standards and gain a clearer understanding of what beautiful/accurate playing sounds like while the memory of the offending moment is still fresh in their ears and fingers.

#9: “The teachers are tenacious in working to accomplish lesson targets, having students repeat target passages until performance is accurate.”

The teachers carefully selected areas for improvement that were achievable, so even if a student was struggling in the moment to get things sounding just right, the teachers didn’t let the students off the hook by sending them home to practice; they continued to provide guidance, feedback, and model the desirable way to play the passage until the student finally got it right.

#10: “Any flaws in fundamental technique are immediately addressed; no performance trials with incorrect technique are allowed to continue.”

This was the other thing that seemed to trump all else7. If a student played something with incorrect technique, correcting this flaw became priority #1, and they didn’t move on until the mechanics were fixed.

#11: “Lessons proceed at an intense, rapid pace.”

There was a pretty rapid cycling between the teacher’s instruction and students’ playing attempts. As opposed to a teacher droning on for minutes while the student sits and gets cold and starts to forget what they were doing.

#12: “The pace of the lessons is interrupted from time to time with what seem to be ‘intuitively timed’ breaks, during which the teachers give an extended demonstration or tell a story.”

That being said, teachers also seemed to know when it was time to sit back a bit and take a short breather from the intense back and forth of instruction/playing. And who doesn’t love stories? Plus, it really does seem that occasional breaks in the flow of a lesson/lecture/presentation/etc. help us stay more engaged8.

#13: “The teachers permit students to make interpretive choices in the performance of repertoire, but only among a limited range of options that are circumscribed by the teacher; students are permitted no choices regarding technique.”

While there seemed to be appropriate flexibility in the musical aspect of how a phrase was played, the mechanics were not up for discussion. I found this to be really interesting. Because it seems like there are a range of approaches to the mechanics of playing as well.

Conveying Information

#14: “Teachers make very fine discriminations about student performances; these are consistently articulated to the student, so that the student learns to make the same discriminations independently.”

Much of the teachers’ feedback seemed to be geared towards honing the students’ ears. Helping them appreciate more of the subtle nuances and details that the teachers hear, so that they could continue to raise their standards and eventually, the level of their playing. After all, if they can’t hear it, they can’t work on it in the week between lessons.

#15: “Performance technique is described in terms of the effect that physical motion creates in the sound produced.”

Remember #39 and #1010? Teachers didn’t talk about these in isolation, but always addressed technique as a means to the end of sound production, and…wait for it…

#16: “Technical feedback is given in terms of creating an interpretive effect.”

…always toward the ultimate end goal of musical expression. As someone once said, “The only reason for mastering technique is to make sure the body does not prevent the soul from expressing itself.”

#17: “Negative feedback is clear, pointed, frequent, and directed at very specific aspects of students’ performances, especially the musical effects created.”

In this study, there were more instances of negative feedback than positive, which goes against findings in some other similar studies11. BUT, the feedback was very specific and clear, and seemed to be geared towards helping the students fine-tune their ability to discriminate between good playing and great playing.

#18: “There are infrequent, intermittent, unexpected instance of positive feedback, but these are most often of high magnitude and extended duration.”

Of course, when the students did something nice and their teacher was genuinely pleased, (which happened at least once in almost every lesson), the teachers didn’t hold back, and were very “emphatic and detailed” in the feedback they shared.

#19: “The teachers play examples from the students’ repertoire to demonstrate important points; the teachers’ modeling is exquisite in every respect.”

As you can imagine, these particular teachers were probably quite inspiring to listen to whenever they demonstrated what they were asking…but I think the bigger idea is that their demonstration (whether played on their instrument or simply sung or gestured), effectively and clearly illustrated the musical essence of what they wanted their student to aim for.

Take action

The authors admit that it’s unclear how generalizable these findings may be to all teachers and students, but I would imagine that many of the 19 are pretty universally applicable.

But what do you think? Do any of these strategies hold a special place in your own teaching approach?

If you have some time, it’s well worth checking out the complete results section of their paper12, which also includes multiple video examples of each teacher illustrating many of the 19 elements described above: The Nature of Expertise

 

Footnotes

  1. Love is smiling even when your teeth are missing
  2. Here’s an interesting talk he gave for the LA Phil in 2014
  3. who gives an interview here, discussing orchestral auditions and the importance of scales
  4. who talks a bit about how she warms up and shares other tidbits in this short interview here
  5. though I could see an argument being made for there being a time and place for both
  6. Great teachers’ abilities to generalize their knowledge to new pieces is impressive indeed. I remember once seeing Henry Meyer coach a quartet on a piece he wasn’t familiar with. He just asked for the score, and dove right in, revealing insights and nuances and asking deep probing questions that had all of us simply smiling and shaking our heads in awe.
  7. Along with #3
  8. The 10-minute rule, via John Medina
  9. The teachers demand a consistent standard of sound quality from their students.”
  10. “Any flaws in fundamental technique are immediately addressed; no performance trials with incorrect technique are allowed to continue.”
  11. Like here and here
  12. Download the complete study here

Ack! After Countless Hours of Practice...
Why Are Performances Still So Hit or Miss?

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Comments

18 Responses

  1. This article is one of my favourite, thank you, it has a lot of answers, I liked the passage “the student sits and gets cold and starts to forget what they were doing.”
    Rising my standards is important.
    I liked the tip #14.

  2. These are really great tips, and in my opinion they are actually highly applicable. As in learning technique as a player, it’s probably best to concentrate on one or two at a time, and give yourself well-defined “excercises” while teaching in real time.

    Thank you!

  3. Just great! Can’t count the times I’ve wished to see master teachers at work with ongoing students (as compared with the very limited, unrealistic “master class” approach.) We hear some of the world’s finest younger performers in international competitions of one instrument or the other, but rarely, if ever, know the teaching/learning experience they had – unless they lately worked with a well-known person in their field. ALSO, would appreciate more info & insights into the childhood / first / early teachers who get the ball rolling and inspiration established. They tend to be totally ignored when someone reaches a high level of achievement.
    Thanks ever so much. Planning to spend some quality time with the link to the study.

    1. PS – Just a thought, though not sure of relevance in this post: A few lessons ago, a long-term adult student (serious hobbyist) played a Bach piece (guitar transcription, portion of one of the unaccompanied cello suites). She was focused, played at the best level I’d heard in awhile. After working through some details, she played again, but not quite as well. I asked her what the difference was:

      Before the first time, we had listened to a recording of the piece by a master cellist. Then she played with no work or comments “in between.” She said that playing after hearing the piece, she was completely absorbed in the music. The second & “second best” time was after we had talked & done the detail work. Very instructive. In her case, I’m planning to add more such listening, even though I’m fully aware that she searches out performances on her own.

      1. Interesting observation – and consistent with two different phenomena. One, listening (or watching) others, does seem to have the effect of momentarily improving performance in some cases. But probably more to the point, trying to perform convincingly while engaging in a lot of inner chatter and thinking about mechanics and details tends to disrupt performance, which is perhaps what happened after she had all these interesting new thoughts in her head to think about, before they had a chance to be internalized and made to be more automatic. Very cool, thanks for sharing.

    2. Great question. One of my early formative teachers (Marya Giesy – an uncommonly thoughtful and interesting teacher) was hugely impactful and really laid the foundation for everything that would come next. I’ll have to look into this and see what I can find.

  4. What an interesting article! Many things to keep in mind as I begin teaching. And it makes me appreciate my own wonderful teacher, who does every single one of these things. 🙂

  5. Great article. My takeaway was that to be a great teacher you have to be a fine musician with a great memory, ear, and lots of empathy. Completely refutes the adage “Those who can’t do, teach”.

    Thanks for writing this.

    1. Thanks, Laura! I think debating grammar is sort of fun (though I hated it in school) – mostly, because the fact that we have all these crazy rules about which letters should be put into which words, which then change their meaning, with all these exceptions and unusual cases, is kind of an odd thing when you think about it.

      Anyhow, I’m thinking the “effecting” word probably falls under the “rare uses” case described here and am going to go with my gut on this, for better or worse…

  6. Thank you for this interesting and thought-provoking article. It’s encouraged me to reflect on my teaching. I have found, though, that teaching advanced players–when guidance is about interpretation and particular, fine points of playing technique–is a far more intuitive and, frankly, easy process than teaching, for instance, a 7-year-old too shy to speak; or a 17-year-old who longs to play and works hard every week but has no innate sense of pulse. It’s also problematic to talk about avoiding pieces outside people’s range of abilities. One of my adult pupils has been learning the first movement of the Moonlight Sonata and yes, it probably is beyond her in some ways. She’ll never pass any exams or auditions playing it. But she absolutely loves it, loves tackling its difficulties, finds it therapeutic break from her stressful job and large family. Should I dissuade her from giving it a go? I don’t think so. And by making this ambitious choice she has achieved more than I might ever have believed possible. Teaching is about much, much more than producing great performers. I’d be interested to see a similar study done with those who aren’t ‘artist-teachers’ but who make teaching their main living. I only have a few pupils, but I know I would have an immense amount to learn from those who are skilled and practised at the craft.

    1. Indeed, the right sort of motivation counts for a lot!

      And regarding the teaching behaviors of those who are primarily engaged in teaching (vs. artist-teachers), there’s a recent study that actually gets into this a bit. I’ll take a closer look and see if it might make a good follow-up post…

  7. My takeaway of this website before leaving, because I have to know where I go if I write I leave, is that *travelling* is the way of succeeding.
    I thought of that for a while, and you can’t actually get the things you want—the real scores, the lessons, the discussions with the musicians, the exams, if you don’t travel a minimum. Internet won’t change that, even if a lot of performances and scores are available today on the web. It’s true that “if money goes before, all ways do lie open”, but you can’t do this alone, even if you pay via paypal. First, even if you pay, you will have to travel one day or an other because the competition is somewhere where you will have to go. And even to go to the conservatory with your car, you need money.
    What would have been bad to believe is that it’s because I can’t pay my trip to a great conservatory where very good musicians are right now, that I can’t be successful.
    In reality, It’s travelling to places around that must be done with the car to get the scores, recordings (CDs of musicians that you pay for in a shop!), to talk to the musicians after a concert, the people.
    It’s all that kind of travel, so I am not going to send things that I musically did to someone to succeed. It’s not like that. (cf. the fantasy of the guy who leaves a recording on the web and who gets a record deal with a music house).

    Success is the capacity (sustainability [see sustainable development] in your monetary capacity) to travel. Success is that. I’m convinced that success is not here (where I am sitting right now, and where I am leaving the comment right now), although this website is resourceful.

    I believe that this website is a sort of invitation to travel. Because travel would be what remain if Internet was no more there.
    Travelling is expensive, yeah. It’s the secret.

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