How the Things You Say to Your Students Can Change the Positivity (Or Negativity) of Their Inner Voice

We all have a voice in our head.

Sometimes it just offers a running commentary on the events around us (“Gee, that’s a cute dog.”). Other times it tosses some random weird thoughts into our stream of consciousness for no apparent reason (“Hmmm…how would I escape an angry bear in the woods?”). And then there are moments when we engage in dialogue with it (“C’mon, you can do this… But what if I screw it up? Don’t be silly, you’ve played it dozens of times before… Yeah, but….”).

This voice is harmless enough most of the time – until it comes to something that is really important to us. Both in the practice room and on-stage, the voice can quickly turn to the dark side and become a real negative influence.

Where the voice is not just critical, but discouraging, blaming, and plain old mean. To the point where it can impact our emotional state and sabotage performances.

Of course it’s not like this for everyone. Some folks have voices that are more compassionate, supportive, and encouraging, which can help to facilitate motivation and performance.

So where does this voice come from anyway? Is it something we are born with? Or is it something that’s learned, and can be influenced by others around us?

Great teachers do more than teach?

When you think about it, great teachers aren’t just these walking, talking, wikipedias of knowledge, but effective change agents as well.

We know from experience that the right teacher can help create all sorts of behavioral changes, from the technical aspects of how we play our instruments to how we approach score study or structure our practice time.

But does their influence go deeper than this? Is it possible that teachers can have an impact on our cognitive processes as well?

Positive and negative coaching styles

Studies of coaches and athletes have indeed found that coaches’ actions can influence athletes’ self-esteem, confidence, and cognitive anxiety (i.e. worries, doubts, and fear of mistakes).

In a 2010 study of 112 regional, national, and international-level wrestlers (Zourbanos et al.), participants were asked to rate their coaches’ behaviors and their own self-talk during their latest competition.

Using a pair of questionnaires, the researchers measured the positivity/supportiveness and negativity of both the coaches’ behavior and the athletes’ inner dialogue.

And was there any relationship between the two?

A relationship?

Well, as you might expect, coaches’ supportiveness was associated with greater positive self-talk and less negative self-talk in the athletes. Especially in the areas of confidence (e.g. “I can do this”) and anxiety control (e.g. “It’s ok…keep calm”).

Similarly, coaches’ negative coaching behaviors – where they said or did things that demonstrated a lack of confidence in the athletes’ abilities – were related to more negative self-talk and less positive self-talk in the athletes. Particularly in the areas of disengagement (e.g. “I want to quit”) and fatigue (e.g. “I’m tired”).

Changing self-talk

The researchers then did a follow-up study of beginning tennis players to see if exposing them to either positive or negative coaching behaviors could change the positivity or negativity of an individuals’ inner dialogue.

And the results suggest that yes, what we say to our students can indeed change what they say to themselves.

When exposed to positive coaching behaviors (e.g. “Good shot, keep it up”) participants worried less about messing up.

When exposed to negative coaching behaviors (e.g. “That’s a bad shot” or “You don’t follow my instructions”), the participants’ self-talk began moving in the direction of this feedback and their use of positive confidence-building self-talk decreased.


Self-talk is not the only variable that influences performance, of course. And coaching/teaching behavior is not the only factor that affects the voice in our head. But how cool is it that the things we say to our students can impact the thoughts that go through their heads?

It’s often difficult to know just how much of an impact we’ve had on a student until many years later. But for me, this study was a nice reminder that beyond all of the knowledge and wisdom we share with our students, the way in which we offer feedback and advice, and the behaviors we exhibit in lessons, rehearsals, and performances can contribute more significantly to whom they grow to become as musicians, professionals, and people than we might realize.

How to help students with audition nerves, practice frustrations, and more?

For as long as I can remember, practicing was something I avoided and resisted. Likewise, I would use every excuse in the book to avoid recording and listening back. And nerves and inconsistent, hit-or-miss performances and auditions was just the norm.

My poor teachers! As frustrating as this was for me, I’m sure working with me caused a hair or two (or dozen) to turn gray over the years.

I sometimes wonder what my experience might have been if I’d been able to use the many tools that have emerged in performance science research over the last couple decades. From deliberate practice, self-regulated learning strategies, interleaved, and variable practice, to strategies for managing nerves based on a more nuanced, multidimensional understanding of performance anxiety, to attention control strategies for getting and staying in the zone in performance.

If adding a few new tools to your teaching toolbox, while connecting with a community of thoughtful, curious, like-minded educators to chat about how exactly to make these tools work for students at all ages and levels of ability sounds like it’d be a really helpful thing right about now, you may be interested in the upcoming series of workshops I’m running in Feb/March – specifically, Feb. 3, 10, 17, and March 3, 10.

I’ll show you how I present effective practice skills and strategies for managing nerves and getting into the zone to students in my own classes, and there will be worksheets and activities you can “steal” for your own studio, small and large group mastermind sessions, Q&A’s, and perhaps a few random cat videos – all spread out in a manageable sort of way, so it doesn’t get too overwhelming.

Teachers who’ve participated in this workshop series have reported seeing some really gratifying (and sometimes really moving) changes in students. So if you’re a tiny bit intrigued, you can see what they’re saying, and get all the details here: Performance Psychology Essentials for Educators

Just FYI, registration begins today (Sunday, Jan. 23, 2022) and runs through Sunday, Jan. 30!


Zourbanos, N., Hatzigeorgiadis, A., Tsiakaras, N., Chroni, S., & Theodorakis, Y. (2010). A Multimethod Examination of the Relationship Between Coaching Behavior and Athletes’ Inherent Self-Talk. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 32(6), 764–785.

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

For most of my life, I assumed that it was because I wasn’t practicing enough. And that eventually, if I performed enough, the nerves would just go away and everything would take care of itself.

But in the same way that “practice, practice, practice” wasn’t the answer, “perform, perform, perform” wasn’t the answer either. In fact, simply performing more, without the tools to facilitate more positive performance experiences, just led to more negative performance experiences!

Eventually, I discovered that elite athletes are successful in shrinking this gap between practice and performance, because their training looks fundamentally different. In that it includes specialized mental and physical practice strategies that are oriented around the retrieval of skills under pressure.

It was a very different approach to practice, that not only made performing a more positive experience, but practicing a more enjoyable experience too (which I certainly didn’t expect!).

If you’ve been wanting to perform more consistently and get more out of your daily practice, I’d love to share these research-based skills and strategies that can help you beat nerves and play more like yourself when it counts.

Click below to learn more about Beyond Practicing, and start enjoying more satisfying practice days that also transfer to the stage.

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Sign up anytime now through Sunday (Dec. 4) at 11:59pm Pacific, and you’ll receive a second bonus Beyond Practicing account – at no additional cost – that you can gift to a friend, colleague, family member, student, or teacher (i.e. a practice buddy to explore the course with 😁).

Click the red button below to learn more about the course and get the holiday buy-one-get-one-free offer.


38 Responses

  1. One of my favorite take-aways from a leadership seminar was, “You go to the grocery store with a list of things that you DO want, not a list of things that you DON’T want.” The point is, of course, that you should ask yourself – your students – to achieve the things that you want them to achieve rather than mentioning other possibilities. That’s a strategy that’s worked well for me in the practice room, and I constantly remind myself to use it with my students.

  2. I am an amateur clarinet player. I started the clarinet when I could no longer dance–at the age of 50! You are so right; even I used to dance my inner voice made or ruined the way I danced even in class. And now, at the ripe old age of 71, the same thing happens to me with my music. I am working on changing my inner voice. I’ll be working on this till the day I die.

  3. This topic is one of the reasons I became a music teacher. Teachers who meant well practically destoyed my self-esteem confidence and desire to even try. So when I am working with my sudents, both young and old, I am conscious of the words I use when guiding their lessoons. I try to separate the issues the person has playing, from the person, if that makes sense. Rather than saying to a student, “you have a problem with this passage”, I will say “This is what makes this passage difficult”, and explain how to play it more confidently. I also try to use a few powerful words, like “confident” or “you have good control” to help build self esteem. These words do come back to you. I am pretty sure this is a big reason why my students continue to study with me for years. I have always found that treating others the way you would like to be treated to be a successful practice. The key is to be very aware of your words like Noa says, they are powerful and lasting.

  4. My most fond memory of lessons with a particular teacher is when she said, “My favorite part was when you……” It made me feel like not only did she REALLY like something but it was only her favorite part. Meaning, there must have been other things she really liked too. That comment kept me on a “high” for the next sentence which was always something like, “Let’s talk about that D# or measure 15.” I scarcely realized we were about to talk about a “trouble” spot because I was still so happy she had a “favorite” part.

    I use this strategy with my students every day. The interesting part is that some students have a hard time listening to the compliment because they are so consumed with what THEY know went wrong. I make them listen to me and even repeat my favorite part so we both can enjoy it again.

  5. Thanks for sharing your insights on why positive coaching is so much more effective than negative coaching. I use my training and experience as a professional career and executive coach in my own teaching at the Yale School of Music where,I encourage my students to tap into the best part of themselves to discover their gifts and to use these positive elements when they hit a challenge. This helps them to take risks and to work hard mastering the many skills that today’s music entrepreneurs need in order to create sustainable careers as artists. Now that I am in the midst of grading their final papers, I see the benefits of this approach and am gratified that the positive coaching modality can help these talented young people to feel more confident and empowered to share their gifts.

  6. After a disillusioning first year of music school, and a summer break during which I didn’t practice, I had to audition to get into an ensemble. After hearing me hack my way through some excerpts, the conductor said, “You’re not very good.” Needless to say, I didn’t get into the ensemble that year. That was nearly 40 years ago.

  7. I think a lot of it is not necessarily the exact words but the attitude behind them. Teachers who do not treat all of their students with equal respect, including respecting the fact that everyone is different, can do a great amount of damage. OTOH, teachers who say nice things without meaning them don’t help much either. But it’s better to err on the side of being too nice rather than too mean. First do no harm …

  8. As a very senior teacher – having taught mainly piano (years ago) and classical guitar – I can vouch for the changes in much private teaching over the last 40 years or so. – generally toward a more positive interaction, “coaching” rather than “teaching” in some respects. However, (to throw a monkey wrench into the discussion), what about situations where a teacher was plain ugly and demanding, even derisive, and thus INSPIRED students to work to their potential? This recent book – reviewed in the Wall Street Journal – describes such a teacher, who came to be so revered that dozens of his students in their adulthood showed up to participate in a tribute “orchestra” at his memorial. They deeply appreciated the tough skin, discipline, and challenge this training brought to their lives as a whole. The review was so inspiring that I purchased the book and am reading the whole story.
    – My interest is in “how do we do this” in a way that generates more inspired work by students, and not in a way that might destroy a burgeoning talent. The other side of the coin: If everything is “wonderful,” where’s the incentive to discover that deeper initiative and discipline?

    1. Hi Mary Jo,

      Thanks for the book reference. Indeed, it’s a fine line. In one of the other studies by the same authors, they found that negative coaching behaviors was associated with more positive self-talk. Their theory was that in the domain of wrestling, negative coaching behaviors (tough, “old-school” coaches) might be the norm, so the effect on and internal response by the athletes was different.

      There are certainly a number of individual differences in how we respond, so a one-size-fits-all approach is often not going to be so effective. I imagine part of what makes the great teachers so great, is their ability to gauge and adapt to the needs of the particular individual.

      1. Dr. Kageyama – I agree completely. It has also occurred to me that the book relates (mostly) to coaxing more from a student orchestra rather than in individual in a private studio setting. One must sense the student’s responses and not just adopt either a “get touch” or “go easy” approach as a policy. I try to create a “we’re in this together – let’s work it out” approach. Example, I call “wrong notes,” either “different notes” or “typos” in the earlier stages. Intermediate and advanced students definitely need heavier demands, however.

  9. I am seeing the opposite affect of being too encouraging and not honest enough. Many amateur musicians have no idea how good professional musicians are at the skills of playing their instruments. The conclusion that I have come to is it is because the teachers of the amateur musicians when they were at school and later on adult music education courses have not been honest. There is a difference between encouraging someone and telling them that they are good when they are not. If you tell a terrible player that they are good, as an adult they tend to think that there isn’t anything else that they need to learn. They also appear to think that they play like professional players and because of this never or very rarely attend concerts to listen to music.

    Here in the UK we have hundreds of community orchestras where the majority of players have no concept of actually how bad or low standard they are at playing. The worst ones in this respect are those who started an instrument when they were at school. The most realistic players are the ones who started as adults.

    I would like to see more realistic approach to teaching music where it is explained very carefully what a highly trained professional musician is capable of doing with examples given for each instrument. It is no good saying for example to a beginner oboist that the low notes are difficult to play quietly without explaining that it is quite possible to play them quietly if you have enough skill. Even better would be for the student to fail to be able to play them quietly enough. They have to understand where they are trying to get to otherwise there is no need for them to do any practice. What I see time and time again is amateur musicians who think that they “know it all” because they haven’t been told that they can’t do something, and so they then don’t practice and they don’t go to concerts, they just want to play in concerts because they mistakenly believe that they would pass a professional audition when in fact they are playing at an unskilled elementary level. Here in the UK the adult music education is just simply awful, so someone who misses out on getting the “whole picture” at school isn’t going to be able to get it as an adult. The standard of playing in the community orchestras is just terrible, most of them don’t sound as good as the average school orchestra, but the players don’t know. This has to be caused by terrible music teaching.

    1. Hi Liz,

      Good point – I also think failing to show someone what excellence and mastery really sounds like and requires kind of takes away the sense of accomplishment one gets from working really hard to achieve something great…

      1. This shows up in amateur chamber groups all the time. For placement in a group, participants are asked to “rate” themselves. By and large, the amateurs rate themselves much too highly, whereas the people who actually play well (teachers, semi-professionals) rate themselves lower. The better players know that there are others who play much better and have a sense of where they fit in the scheme of things. The real amateurs either don’t have a clue or have been overly encouraged, in order to keep them playing, by teachers, organizers etc.

  10. Fabulous blog! I’m currently researching teaching strategies for shifting mindsets in piano students and our language has such an impact on our students! That inner voice can interfere with the learning process so much, the last thing students need is negative reinforcement from their mentor. Guiding students into the present moment can really help to shift focus and awareness positively.

    1. Dear Leah,
      Where are you doing your study – it sounds fascinating and like it would be very useful for independent teachers – as a marketing tool of sorts, because the mindset applies to so many other areas of life (since most of us won’t be playing at Carnegie Hall……)

      I’d enjoy hearing more!


      1. Hi Tracey,
        thanks for your reply. I’m studying through the Queensland Conservatorium of Music in Australia. My study focuses on adult students, as they tend to come with so many unrealistic expectations and are renowned for being so hard on themselves. If you click on my name, it will take you to my website. I’ve written a few blogs relating to my PhD and there will be plenty more to come.

        I totally agree with you that it filters into day-to-day life in many ways. I love that piano teaching allows me to be a positive influence on their outlook to challenges and learning in general, not to mention boosting self-esteem and confidence 🙂

        And it’s lovely to connect with another teacher who is interested in the psychology aspect of learning. By the looks of your Facebook page, you find very interesting articles!

  11. There is also wide variation among so-called “negative” coaching styles. Kids — all of us really — readily perceive the difference between “critical” as a personality style (tearing people down), and “tough / demanding” (showing them the gap).

    High expectations are a higher compliment than low expectations; they communicate, “I think you’re capable of greatness.” Those of us who try to be supportive may fall into the opposite error of praising our students for meager or mediocre efforts. Students respect a teacher who pushes them past the boundaries of what’s reasonable … into the realm of the extraordinary.

    I think in general, students are capable of WAY more than we realize they are. The teachers who demand more are taking a crazy risk … we “like” the teachers who are nice, not always the teachers who push us. It takes courage to demand the extraordinary — that perfect combination of respect, love and anxiety — and finesse to do so without simply falling into being hard / harsh.

    My own negative self-talk comes much more from social situations with peers when I was young (feeling awkward, unpopular, saying the wrong thing) than from any harshness from my teachers. It is those early experiences of social humiliation / shame / inadequacy that get triggered when I stand in front of people … self-doubt that has only abated after discovering (in my thirties) that everyone had social anxieties in middle school!!

    Whether a student is motivated by harshness may depend on how intrinsically motivated they are to succeed. A demanding teacher will be empowering for a kid who cares a lot and is already determined to succeed. It will fall on barren ground for a kid who doesn’t care that much … or a fragile kid who is used to being handled with kid gloves … or a kid whose parents are not strong authority figures, and resents being told what to do.

    The book about Dorothy Delay, “Teaching Genius,” discusses her very motherly, positive approach (contrast to Galamian). These kids might be different, though … they’re already coming from families with incredible practice regimes, and are already playing concertos. Delay tells them in her motherly way to practice six hours a day, and they do it.

  12. I cannot bring myself to tell someone they are amazing when they are not because it is so harmful. I have seen so many people trying for years and years just hoping one day they will make it but are so far from a professional level that it is futile. I will happily help anyone who wants to learn and improve at any level and they can gain enjoyment out of making music at any level, but to give them a belief that right now they are amazing compared to everyone else in this extremely competitive and oversupplied/under demanded industry is just plain mean in my opinion. You can say they are doing well, improving quickly, nailed what we have been working on, got potential, etc. but any more is doing them a disservice.
    The other problem is that many teachers are not capable of demonstrating, explaining or requiring a good level from their students. Thus a new generation of students who never really had a chance are produced to teach the next generation of people who have no idea what is possible.
    Sorry….seeing students who can’t hold a violin after much practising and awful teaching is one of my pet peeves.
    With my limited experience of teaching so far I try to be very requiring but also show obvious enthusiasm when they get things right.

    1. Hi Jonathan,

      Indeed, I think the literature is on your side with regards to false praise. People are pretty attuned to what is “real” praise and what is insincere praise. And ike you say, focusing on improvement and effort are often more effective motivators anyhow.

  13. This is a slippery slope: being honest with a student vs. being encouraging. As a guitar teacher, I have been teaching for 13 years. I get too many kids who think the guitar is easy to play (it isn’t) and, once they realize this, begin to think twice. I see this as weeding out the people who really want to learn how to play from the ones who are looking for “shortcuts to being good quickly and being rock stars”.

    I am very honest about this upfront with anyone who is interested in the guitar; it may cost me more students but, I don’t really see that as a negative. I would rather have more good students than bad ones. The result of this approach: I have less students but better ones – in most cases.

    I see this approach as being realistic and often times relate it back to my first experience. I was 19 when I started, much later than most of my students; guitar was very hard for me: learning chords was my biggest hurdle (as it is for most beginners) but – and here is the big difference – I had a desire and drive to learn and played all the time – when I could. I taught myself to read music – very painstakingly too, I might add – and decided to go from being a guitar player to a musician, concentrating on jazz and improvising. This is a task that never ends as I am still at it 20 years on.

    I have had “the talk” with many students in the past to get them to understand that practicing the instrument is necessary. If they are in a lesson, hacking away at something that they should have been practicing during the week after our last lesson, I will let them know – but in a kind way. Some get it while others will quit early on.

    Because I am getting a BA in music therapy, I am required to have a teacher on my principal instrument. So, for the first time in years I have a guitar teacher. We are closer in age than some of my classmates (he is 52 and I will be 40 in a few months) and, I am more advanced than some of them too – only because I have been playing as long as some of them have been alive! He as been helping me learn the classical technique and repertoire this last year and, has been key in how I have changed my teaching style. This blog may have helped too.

    By this I mean that he is extremely encouraging and always seems to see the positive vs. the negative. We as musicians should be our own worst critic ( I am anyway). When I have been working on something for a while and it is just not happening the way I want it to – perhaps because of something I didn’t think about technique-wise – he will help me and see the problem in a different light. This may not sound like much but, little things like this have really made a difference for me. We also talk a lot about the philosophy of playing.

    I take this approach with my students now: getting to the root of the problem and trying to see them through it. If I have a student who practices but is still having trouble with a specific thing or, can play something but, it doesn’t sound great, I may say something “that was pretty good but, I think you can play it better” – I got this directly from my teacher.

    It is apparent when a kid is not practicing and just spinning their wheels in their lesson. I attribute this to what they may be having to learn (basic note reading can be pretty boring at first ) but, you have to start somewhere. When they see me play something pretty elementary (to me) but extraordinary to them and ask me “how….”. I just tell them one word “practice”.

    I know not everyone that comes to me for guitar lessons wants to be professional musician and may just want to do it as a hobby. The ones who will become “players” I can see early on because they challenge me as a teacher and take initiative outside of the lesson to seek out and learn things one their own. Some of my best students have asked a lot of questions! Still guitar and music, like anything that requires a certain level of skill, takes practice. What you put into it you get out of it.

    My inner voice can throw me for a loop and has many times. While I may nail something perfectly in the practice room, I can get on a gig and still fudge a few things. This is a constant problem and one that I work hard on to fix; a lot of it is nerves: while I enjoy playing in live situations, I have a little bit of stage fright. I have found that a lot of this comes down to being mentally prepared for a gig: having a set list and knowing what I am going to play can help to eliminate some of this anxiety. It is still not perfect but, is getting better.

    I just want to say how much I enjoy this blog; I have been following it now for the last year and have found it to be very helpful; you have covered several areas dealing with playing music that I have been able to apply to my own experience and have helped me improve (a lot of it has been the more psychological aspects).


    1. Chris,

      Lots of interesting things here in your comment – the thing I like most is the bit where you tell your students they can do better. I think the message “you are capable of more (and must work harder)” is more empowering than “that sounds bad/that’s not good enough”.

  14. What a great blog. I am glad that I found you. I always tried to not be negative to a student. Through the years I observed that freshman students who lacked a level of inate vocal ability that would lead to a senior recital usually made a decision to not continue on their own. Hearing one’s student peers week after week in a varity of recitals makes self comparison difficult to ignor. When the student brings it up, then I would tactfully suggest they take music as a minor. This usually resulted in a good sulution for both of us. On rare occasions the need for complete honesty required the “slippery slope” approach mentioned above.

    It is also my obligation to encourage a life long love of music and participation at whatever level is available. A negative teacher attitude seems to be at odds with these goals.

  15. Interesting blog and comments. This has been a subject covered by the director of a mixed A Cappella chorus comprised of amateurs between the ages of 24 to 70+. Her proposition is not to indicate that anyone is great but that everyone has something to add to the sound/flow/enjoyability of the number. Her comments are related to what pleased her the most about the song, being a passage or the handling of an intricate syncopated series of steps. It could have been that we had stayed on key, all small things but always positive. Quite often she will pick one of the singers to step out and listen and then provide feedback about what they most liked about what they heard. All of this would also work well with an individual student. It must be understood however that basic notes and words must be known and do not fall under this approach.
    Merry Christmas to all.

  16. Fantastic blog! I am classically trained and have been teaching piano for over 30 years.
    I am always looking for more and better ways to connect with students.
    I find it helpful to say “Be patient with yourself” to those who are so hard on themselves they get in their own way.
    In my personal practicing life I’ve hit a snag (“willpower burnout”?) and am still looking for ways to get back on track.

  17. Most students need to know what they’re doing right (so they keep doing it) and what needs to be improved – and how to fix it (which is an important part of our jobs). I think that the problem with the “old school” teaching was that “practice more” didn’t help if one was practicing the wrong things the wrong way.

    Even the youngest students can learn to “analyze their playing” (using a checklist) after they play a piece and share thoughts (or a grade) about each item on the list. Then, we compare ideas, discuss how to fix things and make up a practice plan. It also teaches students how to do a balanced self-assessment. I have one student who is unbelievably self critical, and spend a great deal of lesson time working on it with him (and would like to hear what others have done to manage this type of student).

    I work primarily with younger students, and do want them to feel a sense of accomplishment (having had some of those completely demotivating teachers). However, I also want them to learn that they have to work diligently for weeks or months before they make significant progress on certain pieces or skills and that’s how life is. I’m really interested in the ideas in this discussion, because my hope is to help provide a foundation for a good mindset about practice and playing while still keeping expectations high.

    Happy new year!

    1. Tracy, you hit the nail on the head with analysing their playing! May I ask what’s on your checklist?

      Do you video your students? I know that it can be hard to play and analyse at the same time. I do a lot of videoing and using guided questions to direct students’ focus to different elements of their playing. I find that if you don’t ask specific questions, students may say very unhelpful and ‘fixed mindset’-type remarks like “That wasn’t very good.” or “Terrible!” and the like…

      1. Dear Leah,
        Thanks for the note and I’ll definitely look up your blog – it sounds right up my alley! I do videorecord often – in fact, it’s one of the great motivators for learning notes (we don’t record until they can play a whole piece).
        Here’s the checklist I use – Students have a short version with the first question only. Lower elementary students only have to do the first 5 questions, everyone has to do the rest.
        1. Did you play the right notes? (If not, it depends on the age of the student where to go – younger ones find their missed notes, and plan which measures to practice first, w/music, watch hands, eyes closed, away from the piano, name notes, etc. With older students it’s sometimes fingerings, gesture, where they’re eyes are looking on leaps, memory issues, needing to practice mixed groups, etc.)
        2. Was the counting/rhythm correct?
        3. Was the tempo OK (or too fast or too slow) and could they feel the downbeats? If no tempo is marked they experiment and play way too fast and way too slow to figure out what’s “right.” Getting the swing of the downbeats takes a lot of work with some.
        4. Is the sound beautiful? It’s amazing how aggressively and harshly some young children are inclined to play (piano), and getting them to relate their physical movements to lovely or harsh sound on a piano is a big part of what we do at lessons.
        5. What is the story of their piece and what feelings do they have or want their audience to have as they listen? I found a chart of feelings categories on the Internet. They pick out one or two words (or more for longer pieces with more groups) and write them on the top of the music so they think about them before they practice.
        Older students (upper elementary) also discuss:
        6. What was the dynamic plan and did they play it? Was it mapped out for each section or group?
        7. What was the color plan (staccatto, legato, accents, pedal) – and did they play the plan?
        8. Was the balance (and voicing) good? Could we hear the melody over the Alberti bass? Did all notes of the chords play and release well? Could we hear top notes? Etc.
        9. Was the phrasing lovely? Could they feel and hear the drop lifts? Was there a shape to the phrase? Did the first or last note bang? Can they sing along or hum as they play (or with a recording) and get the breathing?
        By going through the same list for every piece, it seems that most children become comfortable talking objectively about what is going well and what needs work, without it being bragging or a sign of failure. Although each new piece is a struggle and they don’t like being back at ground zero, they do learn that persistence pays off.
        I hope this helps – and look forward to visiting your blog – thanks!

  18. I keep thinking of the best teacher I ever had, a math professor. And how utterly irrelevant all of this discussion is of whether he was sufficiently “nice” or “tough.” Now granted I’m a math nut and was always good at it; I was never a music prodigy, but I can fairly be called a math one. And he didn’t spend time trying to be my best friend OR punch me in the stomach and act like he was doing me a favor. He just presented the information extremely quickly, clearly, concisely, and with enormous knowledge, and got out of my way. He wasn’t acting like my best buddy, and he wasn’t “setting expectations.” It was a topic I loved, and he gave me the tools to really excel.

    I still remember being in elementary school and high school, where being like that would get you beat up by peers or resented by the teachers. If you’re smart or love your topic, it’s considered a problem in that environment. Then, my first college math class was his. I can still very clearly recall seeing him at the board writing down the problems he wanted us to do for homework at the end of the chapter. And it would have been easier for him to write down the ones he didn’t want us to do. He started at one end of the board, started writing, and went the length of the board, the wrapped around to the left side again. The message that sent to me was that the bullshit was over. Now it was time to put a brick on my accelerator and really see what I was capable of. I still remember how excited I felt. This place was different. This was where you went to GET GOOD.

    And he wasn’t my cheery best friend who encouraged me, nor was he the bastard who thought yelling was motivational. He just made demands on me and — this is the crucial part that gets past people — GAVE ME THE TOOLS NECESSARY TO MEET THEM. You can “set high expectations” all you want, but if you are not skilled at the CRAFT of teaching, if you can’t explain things well, if you don’t know why a composer did what they did, if you don’t actually understand how your instrument behavesor all you can say when a student is struggling is “do it again right this time” … none of this best friend vs. taskmaster junk will matter.

    1. The positive self-talk that is essential in moments of high performance is a great pearl of wisdom. It does not mean telling a student or yourself Pollyanna rose colored delusions about what is doable. Effective, positive, self-talk is baked into the practice process and is taught and repeated at every stage of learning from the first read through with stumbles to positive focused and enabling practice on the day of a performance. I’ve spent many years learning about the creation of resultants effective habit formations in my piano teaching and creative brain based coaching practice. Studying Dorothy Taubman’s approach to coordinate and healthy motions at the piano for many years transformed my own teaching by showing me the layers of motions that are beneath a flowing and coordinate technique. The executive coaching certification I earned from the NeuroLeadership Institute also reinforced these principals of effective habit formation and learning. At NLI the data collected working with top executives at mega companies such as Microsoft, Gap and others clearly demonstrated again and again that Motivation is key to “sticky learning” and the brain is primed to repeat the positive. These are the essential principals of brain based coaching and effective learning. Self-talk is the basis for our habits of mind. Many thanks to Noa for so clearly laying out these essential foundations for healthy and effective learning! I love this blog!

  19. Have you come across people who don’t receive compliments well? Because I think I’m one of them. If I were told that I did something g well, the pressure to replicate it would cause me to do the exact opposite. However if I were told that I didn’t do some parts so well, I would be much more motivated to work on those parts. I think at the end of the day a teacher really needs to know their students well enough and change tactics to bring the best out of the students. I also think that it’s not necessary to tell them that they did amazing, but rather to tell them that they’ve improved (if that’s the fact) and that they are on the right track.

    1. Hi Edie,

      Yes – there’s quite a lot of complexity and individual differences around feedback and how we respond. So the way one student might respond can indeed be very different than how another may respond. Makes teaching tricky, but a satisfying challenge too, I suppose!

  20. The one thing I like to add to the discussion is the importance of guarding the joy, the joy of music.
    Being driven is great. Striving to improve of course is necessary if you want to learn anything. These are great qualities in a student and fun for teachers to meet in their students. There are many ways in how we can coach or teach students, and all of the techniques can be of value depending on the specific situation, student, teacher, interaction, etc. But how do you know in the specific teaching of this specific student what is the right approach?
    I think the answer lies in the experience of joy: can your student and can you as its teacher still connect to the feeling of joy? The joy of music. The joy of playing, studying and teaching music. Well, the joy of being involved in music in whatever way.
    Of course there are always not so joyful moments in whatever you do (Who likes doing the dishes after a delicious meal?) But I think that the most important thing in teaching is to keep the joy of making music alive, both in yourself as a teacher as in the student. Then it does not matter if you teach an old or young amateur who has whatever kind of hopes and dreams you deem as realistic or not, or a young person who has the drive of becoming a professional. Then a not so tactful comment of a teacher (e.g. “ay, wrong note!”) can be heard and understood as just what is was: a note played that was not intended that way, and it can be joyfully corrected in the joint pleasure of making music. Mutual focus on wanting to learn/teach something, embedded in the mutual joy of making music together works wonders.
    Maybe it can be of help to both students and teachers not to focus too much just on getting good, better, best but keep at the center of what we do the thought: “How can we develop our own/our students playing and teaching in a way that keeps alive the joy of the wonder of music?”
    Because isn’t that why we are teachers and students in the first place? That we love music?

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