“Mom! Dad! Look What I Just Did!”

Reflections on Deci and Ryan’s Self-DeterminationTheory

Not long ago, I met with a family to talk about beginning piano lessons. I chatted with the parents for several minutes and as our discussion drew to a close, their eight-year-old son exclaimed, “Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!” Both parents turned to recognize their child’s enthusiasm and acknowledge the merits of his most recent achievement. The brief and somewhat routine exchange lasted only a matter of seconds. Without skipping a beat, the parents resumed our conversation while their son launched another adventure on his gaming tablet.

It’s probably safe to say that exchanges like the one above occur on a regular basis, maybe even so often as to take on a commonplace feel. From another perspective, such routine exchanges also capture something quite marvelous in the way they provide illustration of the remarkable research done by Edward Deci and Richard Ryan at the University of Rochester. Working together during the 1990s, Deci and Ryan developed what they call Self-Determination Theory (SDT) based on their observations that human growth and wellbeing are related to three basic needs – autonomy, competence, and relatedness. They observed that when those needs are satisfied, people are motivated, productive, and happy. When thwarted, growth and wellbeing may plummet. Expressions like “Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!” provide a great example of Deci and Ryan’s research in just a few words.

In the years since the emergence of Self-Determination Theory, its influence has been felt across various educational and entrepreneurial domains. Most notably, author of Drive (2009) Daniel Pink connects Deci and Ryan’s research to satisfaction and successful performance at work, at school, and at home. Australian music education scholar Gary McPherson and colleagues uses the SDT framework to explain the personal and interpersonal highlights of a longitudinal study of over 150 Australian music students (2012). Furthermore, the search-engine giant Google has instituted a policy that allows its engineers to spend 20% of their time working on projects of personal interest. These examples demonstrate how paying attention to Deci and Ryan’s combination of autonomy, competence, and relatedness may promote desirable outcomes both in terms of personal development and the quality of experience within specific contexts.

So, what does all this mean for instrumental and vocal music teachers and students? How can music teachers incorporate autonomy, competence, and relatedness? Here are some thoughts.

Autonomy may be understood as the need we all have to direct our own lives. Synonymous with notions of independence and freedom especially related to our feelings, thoughts, and actions, autonomy encapsulates our need for self-endorsement and self-government. For all children, autonomy is something we acknowledge as an unavoidable and necessary element of their growth, from the two-year old child’s penchant for the word “No” to the teenager’s inherent drive to do things his or her own way. Autonomy is also something we admire in the adult person’s ability to figure things out and make decisions. As an aspect of learning to sing or play a musical instrument, autonomy is all about students’ basic desire to feel in charge of their own activities and take ownership of their musical pursuits. This doesn’t mean that students have no need for teachers. Students rely on teachers in such a way that autonomy is not eliminated, as is the case with control, compliance, and conformity. They depend on teachers to pass on musical knowledge, values, and behaviors by incorporating and building on their autonomy.

Competence refers to the feelings of effectiveness in our personal interactions and successfully experiencing opportunities to exercise and express our capabilities. Our desire for competence is at the core of self-improvement – the need to run faster, express ourselves more fully, take on challenges, learn and create new things in our own lives. In learning to play a musical instrument, the need for competence is what underscores autonomous students’ and their instructors’ desire to seek out and create processes that maintain, enhance, and challenge students’ performance skills and capabilities. Playing fast and loud may be one approach that instrumental students typically employ to optimize their effectiveness in developing musical capabilities – an approach that’s completely in sync with the confidence and curiosity students bring to their musical pursuits. Effective teachers recognize the enormous impact of students’ feelings. They continuously use students’ personal investment in self-improvement as the foundation for a broad spectrum of engaging and productive practice and performance routines.

Relatedness reflects our basic need to feel socially connected and integrated, to feel that our autonomous efforts are relevant and valued by members of our surrounding networks. There is something universal in that we all want to valued unconditionally by the significant people in our lives. Students appreciate being recognized and accepted their teachers. Likewise, teachers appreciate being valued by students and parents. Relatedness also refers to the way communities provide infinite examples of successful human growth. Whether it’s musical, athletic, artistic, or scientific, seeing someone else’s positive results may provide the catalyst to our own actions, efforts, and intentions. In music instruction contexts, our need to feel socially valued helps to explain why it’s important for teachers to establish and maintain meaningful relationships with their students. This means teachers incorporate strategies that value students’ process and achievements as well as challenge their potential to tackle the uncomfortable. Effective strategies also highlight students’ successful learning and readiness for sharing their musical development with others at all stages of their musical journey. In this way, students who are part of a musical community experience significant ongoing advantages. They may benefit from being recognized for their contributions to the community’s musical life. And they may continuously draw inspiration from the knowledge, experience, and capacity for thinking outside the box demonstrated by their teachers, peers, parents, and more.

“Mom! Dad! Look what I just did!”  Have you ever heard a child’s exclamation of this relatively commonplace phrase? Perhaps you can think of similar phrases from your own personal experiences. What I appreciate about this exploration into autonomy, competence, and relatedness is the reminder that my role as instructor has multiple obligations. On the autonomy side, students need me to give them space to be successful, to make and learn from their own mistakes, and explore without limits. They need me to get out of the way as they exercise their musical autonomy. On the competence side, students need my guidance and depend on me to support their investment in self-improvement and competence. They need me to introduce aspects of musical development they cannot find on their own and work through their own intuitive musical discoveries. On the relatedness side, students depend on me to value their autonomous explorations and highlight the aspect of taking ownership. They need me to connect them with a breadth of musical experiences, to ensure their participation in sharing with and receiving from a musical community. My hope in doing so is that students will experience meaningful musical growth and personal wellbeing. And above all, I hope they’ll frequently have reason to exclaim – “Mom! Dad! Look what I can do NOW!”

My Favorite Way

In the summer of 2017, I taught a five-day workshop for piano students of all levels and ages. I must admit I really enjoy the opportunity to work with students in a summer setting. I’m never 100% certain what exactly I’ll need to do, but I know everybody comes ready to relax and learn something new. Looking back on the 2017 workshop, I have particularly fond memories of one student – eleven-year-old Alex – and the exploration I thought he was ready for on Day One.

Alex began his 15-minute mini-lesson with a performance of the Allegro movement from Clementi’s Sonatina opus 36 #1. By all accounts, it was a solid performance. Alex demonstrated an obvious mastery of multiple musical aspects. He played with good tone, dynamic shaping, and a consistent tempo.

“Thanks so much for your performance,” I said. “Could you play it again and change things up a bit this time? You know – make it sound different!” A look of uncertainty came over Alex’s face. “Try playing the piece the way you like the most,” I suggested.

During the seven to eight minutes that followed, Alex produced a number of interpretations with each one as a slight variation of the previous. As he modified each performance, I could see how Alex’s ability to “change things up” served to validate and reinforce his own confidence as a performer.

With only a few minutes left to his Day One lesson, I made one final request, “How about my favorite way?”

Recognizing that Alex wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, I continued, “For sure it’s only Day One, and you only met me nine minutes ago, so I’ll give you a couple of clues. My shirt is freshly pressed, I polished my shoes last night, this is how I typically sit, and this is how I use my voice. That should be enough.”

A few moments passed before Alex launched once more into the Allegro movement. What was going on in Alex’s head? Was he thinking this request was too much? Was he worried about his Mom, the other students, or even the group of teachers observing? It was obvious he had a lot on his mind. After his performance, he turned somewhat hesitatingly towards me. I smiled.

“You got it! That’s my favorite way all right,” I confirmed. Alex unwound with relief as everyone in the room – parents, students, and teachers – looked on in amazement. It was undoubtedly the way I preferred to hear the piece performed with deeply satisfying tone and phrasing.

Over the past four decades, I’ve used my favorite way as an impromptu activity with my own students in my own studio and with students I meet in workshops. At first glance, it may seem like the kind of exploration that’s fraught with the potential for immense failure. Yet, I can honestly report that each time, over and over again, I’ve heard students perform what is undeniably my favorite way. Even students like Alex who have only just met me.

What seems noteworthy about this process is how it differs from typical interactions in which a teacher demonstrates and has the student copy the example. That’s not to say I never demonstrate performance models for my students, because I most certainly do. Rather, what this process accomplishes is to highlight students’ participation as actively reflective performers in contrast to passive copiers. My favorite way requires students to be actively involved in thinking about a real life person who has definite musical tastes and preferences. It calls upon students to exercise their own reflective capacity, to use their imagination and intuition to come up with a performance they may never have previously considered. Something that only surfaced in the precious and uncertain moments that followed their teacher’s request,

“How about my favorite way?”

Musical Performance & Breathing

May 9, 1986 Graduation Day – It’s hard to believe that 32 years have passed since I graduated from the Talent Education Institute in Matsumoto, Japan after three years of study with co-founders of the Suzuki Piano Method: Drs. Shinichi Suzuki and Haruko Kataoka. This week it seems natural for my thoughts return to Japan and an extraordinary moment from my apprenticeship.

Monday Concert was a weekly feature of the teacher program at the Matsumoto TEI, an opportunity for formal performance and informal feedback from Dr. Suzuki. Following the violin kenkyusei (teacher apprentices) performances, Dr. Suzuki would frequently join the performer on stage for a mini-lesson. It was something he visibly enjoyed doing – sharing with both performer and audience members alike. However, during the first few months of my apprenticeship, I never once saw Dr. Suzuki go on stage in response to a pianist’s performance. Typically he responded to my own performances with an encouraging smile. That is, until the week I performed Minuet 3 – a selection from the elementary piano repertoire.

Having bowed to the audience’s applause, I looked out with a slight tinge of trepidation. Dr. Suzuki had left his chair and was joining me on stage. Without a moment’s hesitation, he took out his violin and signaled to me for an “A” to tune his instrument. There would be no lengthy explanations as to his intentions. All the meaning was contained in his gestures.

A knowing smile. A lift of his eyebrow. There was purpose in his shoulders, in his stance, in his dedication as he circled the bow. Then a preparatory breath and seeing that I had not joined him in breathing – a recommencement. Breathing was more than a gesture of alignment, more than communication. It was a matter of breathing for one’s self, for the responsive instrument, the musical line, and the audience. With breathing as our common purpose, we launched into a revitalized performance of Minuet 3. Each phrase necessitated an exaggerated preparation and continuum. It was obvious Dr. Suzuki wanted breathing to provide momentum for the piece, to act as a kind of underlying impetus in support of each note. Breathing fully also meant that the physical gestures took on a new life, a kind of renewal that felt positive, free, and invitational. Before I knew it, our performance reached the final bar. I rose from the piano and joined Dr. Suzuki in a bow to the audience’s applause. Once again, he responded with his signature encouraging smile.

During the 32 years since my graduation from the Matsumoto TEI, I can’t even begin to estimate the number of times I’ve explored breathing and its remarkable impact with my own students. It’s a mainstay of my teaching, something basic and integral for all levels of instruction. When pianists incorporate breathing into their performances, something remarkable occurs. When we inhale, there is a preparation for and anticipation of engaging in performance. When we exhale, we may experience commitment, follow through, fulfillment, and release. With intentional breathing, there’s a bringing together of consciousness and physicality, a synthesis of mind and body.

What interesting about this process is the way our breathing differs when we’re walking and running, relaxing and enthusiastic, surprised and bored. At the piano, the way we breathe necessarily takes on similar variations in terms of what we need to play presto and adagio, piano and forte, not mention the unexpected sfzorando. Of course, attention to breathing has implications for how we use our body, the way we alter our seating position during performance, the gestures we use with our arms, even the angle of our neck and the tilt of our head.

What I enjoy about teaching breathing is the reminder that musical performances rely on what we do with our breath. In this way, breathing isn’t something incidental or superfluous. We pay attention to our breathing because we recognize how much the sounds we produce depend on how we breathe.

Beat & Rhythm: A Whole Body Event

Picture this – Six beginner piano students in my relatively small studio. Three on one side and three on the other. I’m at the piano. We’re about to explore beat and rhythm. I give a quick demonstration to remind everyone what it looks like when we keep the beat with our whole body. Followed by a demonstration of what happens when we use our whole body to do the rhythm. Looks like we’re all set to go. I’ll play a series of pieces from their first year of lessons. On one side, students will be keeping the beat. On the other, it’s their job to do the rhythm. But, there’s one more thing. When I shout “Switch!” students must get from one side of the room to the other, change from beat to rhythm or vice versa, and if at all possible avoid bumping into another student in the process. Yes- it’s a whole body event!

I’ve consistently used this activity throughout my entire piano teaching career because I want students to experience beat and rhythm as musical elements that come with huge amounts of physical involvement. I deliberately emphasize whole body movements in weekly lessons and monthly group classes, knowing that as soon as students sit down at the piano they’ll most likely reduce everything to the minimum. That’s why during students’ individual lessons I frequently make sure students get off the bench and get reacquainted with moving their bodies. Encouraging whole body involvement is my way of reinforcing that beat and rhythm spring right from students’ most internal core.

Sometime during students’ second or third year of lessons, I introduce another beat and rhythm activity that intentionally builds on students’ familiarity with whole body physical involvement. With the name Tap & Play, this activity consists of tapping one foot (while playing hands separately or hands together) or tapping one hand (while playing with the other). Knowing that it’s easy for students to engage minimally in this activity – a kind of automaton approach – my emphasis is on maintaining the level of full body involvement students experienced previously. I give enthusiastic reminders for students to engage with their core and breathe generously in the spirit of full participation. After a few months, students can typically use Tap & Play in multiple ways to explore various groupings of the beat, for example keeping all four beats in 4/4, keeping two beats in 4/4, keeping one beat in 4/4. Tap & Play is especially practical in helping students focus their practise on various tempi in relation to the inherent structure of the piece and their own internal momentum, rather than just playing slowly or quickly.

I’ve discovered that using a whole body approach to beat and rhythm has a positive and lasting impact on students’ musical development. For example, when one of my senior students recently played a relatively new piece with several vacillating tempi from beginning to end, I asked, “What can you do to check the consistency of your tempo?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he started tapping his foot coupled with a subtle yet committed movement across his shoulders. I watched in amazement as his own self-awareness took over to shed light on his tendency for wavering tempi. Where did that come from? – I thought to myself. Then I remembered all those group classes with the “Switch” game and the lessons with endless cycles of Tap & Play. It all made sense.

What seems clear is that I approach beat and rhythm as a matter of internal awareness. After all, students already know what it’s like to feel beat and rhythm from the physical momentum involved in their own daily experiences of walking, running, skipping, and dancing. My goal is to keep those feelings alive at the piano by making sure that students continuously explore beat and rhythm as nothing other than a whole body event.

Cheers!

How Many Pieces?

One question that seems to frequently challenge teachers of beginner piano students is – How Many Pieces? It’s a compelling question because an optimal number of pieces may have a positive effect on beginner students’ musical development, while working on too few or too many pieces may unfortunately inhibit students’ progress. So – How do teachers decide the ideal number?

My approach to How Many Pieces is based on the way we gain fluency in speaking a language. At first, when we only know a few words, we use them over and over again. Repeating these same words over and over is essential because that’s how we increase our fluency with speaking. At the same time, we also gradually take on new vocabulary. However, what’s key in this process is that our fluent vocabulary is always larger than our new vocabulary. The amount of established vocabulary of words and expressions is always greater than the number of new words and expressions we might be attempting to incorporate. Also, when we acquire new vocabulary, we don’t stop using our fluent vocabulary. New vocabulary isn’t something we isolate from our fluent vocabulary. We continue to use and strengthen our fluent vocabulary as a kind of foundation for exploring new words and expressions.

To replicate this language-based approach to fluency, I work diligently to set up routines that promote the above ratio between fluent pieces/skills and new pieces/skills for my beginner piano students. The following dynamics are essential in supporting students’ musical development:

  1. Everything every week – Most importantly, I hear everything my beginner piano students know how to play at every single lesson. When I don’t provide follow up on everything we did from their previous lesson, students may conclude that it doesn’t matter whether they play all their pieces/skills at home or not. I watch the clock diligently to make sure I always have enough time.
  2. Engaging challenges – I introduce appropriate challenges to keep my beginner piano students engaged with their most fluent pieces/skills. Challenges may include activities like playing with eyes closed, looking away from the piano, standing up, playing in the high treble clef and low bass clef. I make sure students have valid reasons for continuing to play their fluent pieces/skills at home.
  3. Acceptable mastery – Knowing that students develop fluency over time, I don’t get bogged down with thinking that students need to play every piece/skill absolutely perfectly before going on to new pieces/skills. Staying on one solitary piece/skill until it’s perfect can be detrimental for students’ motivation. As an alternative, reinforcing an acceptable level of mastery in multiple pieces may soon lead to students playing with consistent fluency.

After six months of lessons, my beginner piano students can typically play a minimum of ten pieces consisting of hands separate exercises and melodies. As they progress to hands together pieces, their total number of pieces frequently increases to fifteen pieces (sometimes twenty) including a mixture of hands together pieces, hands separate exercises, and melodies. While it might seem impossible to hear fifteen pieces in one lesson, most beginner level pieces are thirty seconds or less, so responding to fifteen pieces is well within the limitations of a 30-minute lesson. Even when students make errors or perform poorly in specific pieces, I still have ample time to respond to everything.

What I appreciate is how this approach to How Many Pieces has several significant benefits:

  • First of all, because I’m attentive to maintaining more fluent pieces/skills than new pieces/skills, I spend the majority of the lesson time in affirmation of positive student outcomes. In other words, most of our lesson time is spent doing things students do well.
  • Secondly, by playing more fluent pieces/skills than new pieces/skills, students develop fluency in the repertoire they’re most comfortable with rather than repertoire with which they have the least amount of experience.
  • Thirdly, by engaging challenges in a number of confident pieces, this approach means that students can have lots of fun with their pieces/skills rather than focusing exclusively on the repetitious perfection of an isolated piece.
  • Finally, because students play lots of fluent repertoire, they always have something ready for impromptu performances, like when relatives drop by for a visit or their teacher at school makes a spontaneous request.

Many years ago, I asked one of my first year beginner students, “Why do you think I always hear you confidently play so many pieces every week? Why don’t I just check off some of them and never hear them again?”

Following several moments of thoughtful deliberation, my student replied, “Well… So I won’t forget.”

It’s a response that pretty much sums up the question of How Many Pieces. It’s one that I most certainly have not forgotten!

Growth & Rest

Two simple words with an amazingly interdependent relationship in the way periods of Growth necessitate Rest, and periods of Rest fortify Growth. Just like day & night or ebb & flow – Growth & Rest are inseparable. Growth & Rest play important roles in a myriad of situations like learning to speak a language, developing athletic skills, practicing yoga or Tai Chi, preparing a meal, and learning to play a musical instrument. With Growth comes an adjustment to the way we do things. When we take time to Rest our body, mind, heart, and soul, we equip ourselves for taking on Growth.

What’s interesting is how an exclusive focus on Growth may produce desirable outcomes. Yet, at the same time there’s something that rings ever so slightly unhealthy and unsustainable about it. Similarly, a routine of persistent Rest may be comfortable for a certain length of time, although the prospect of permanent couch potato status seems less than attractive. So, what happens when music teachers use Growth & Rest to nurture their students’ musical development? What’s involved?

First of all, I should say that Growth & Rest is much more nuanced than concentrating on a recital program from September to June and subsequently taking the summer off after the performance. That’s called workingfollowed by taking a break. Growth & Rest is more about teachers helping their students to develop musical routines that are engaging, productive, manageable, fulfilling, and sustainable in both the long and short term.

One of the challenges music teachers frequently face with a Growth & Rest approach is that most music method books consist of what I call Growth repertoire. For example, in an elementary book of 20 pieces, the repertoire is typically organized to facilitate incremental student Growth piece by piece. Every selection is a Growth piece. Elsewhere in exam repertoire books, the whole point is to provide consistency in the level of difficulty for students. Thus, there are no Rest pieces. The end result in both cases is an overt emphasis on Growth without the benefits of Rest.

I use a Growth & Rest approach to make sure that all my students maintain a practical and sustainable balance to their musical development. This means, from beginner to advanced students, I don’t treat every single selection they learn with the same intensity. Rather, I make specific choices so that students explore a continuous intermingling of Growth & Rest. Of course, I have favorite Growth & Rest pieces that I use with all my students. However, I never want to lose sight of what my students need, when on occasion supporting my students’ development may require turning a Growth piece into a Rest piece and vice versa.

To say the least, I have immense appreciation for Growth & Rest as an instructional tool. I enjoy its reminder that learning to play a musical instrument naturally involves cyclical patterns of ebb and flow. I value its application from the details of an individual lesson, to the routines of weekly practising, to the underlying structure for months and years of students’ musical development.

My job as music teacher is to assist students with learning to play a musical instrument. One way I help them achieve personal musical success is to support their infinite potential for Growth with Rest that draws from their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual reservoir.

It’s all about tapping into the inseparability of Growth & Rest.

Cheers!

The First Lesson

Everything I do during a beginner piano student’s first lesson is geared towards two aspects. The first aspect relates to students as performers. The second aspect involves the process of building on.

To start with, my immediate goal is to establish students as performers. I make this goal a high priority because I want students to see themselves as musicians who give performances right from the get-go. This means making sure students have ownership of everything we do together during their lesson so they can experience what it feels like to share their music with others. I think there’s no better way to confirm students as performers than by having a concert performance before the end of their first lesson. How do I prepare students for a performance in one lesson?

Finger dexterity exercises, find 2 black key groupings on the piano, finger numbers 1-2-3-4-5, sing then clap then play the Pepperoni Pizza rhythm (four 16thnotes followed by two 8thnotes) – these are the activities I strategically incorporate to prepare students. Just add a bow before and after their performance and they’re ready for their in-lesson concert. Not to mention, they’ve got ownership of everything they’ll need to give a week full of concert performances at home for family and friends.

The process of building on is all about the way I systematically use first lesson activities in the weeks ahead to expand student competency and repertoire fluency. I take this approach because students depend on me to provide some kind of organized structure for their development. My job is to foster students’ musicianship by recognizing, refining, and building on what they’ve already done.

When students return for their second lesson, I deliberately revisit each first lesson activity as the opportunity to reinforce and validate what students have already accomplished. This process of revisiting first lesson activities takes less (not more) time than previously because I’ve been strategic with my choice of activities and because students are already familiar with what we do together. It’s my responsibility to help students execute those activities with increasingly higher levels of success and assist them in personally strengthening their own performance habits. Of course, I follow up by celebrating with another in-lesson concert performance. And most likely, there’s still enough time to introduce singing, clapping, and playing the Ice Cream Cone rhythm (8thnote, quarter note, 8thnote) before the end of the lesson.

This approach of students as performers and the process of building on is remarkable in the way it mirrors what happens in learning to speak a language. In particular, how the desire we have to communicate compels us to communicate from the get-go. No matter how fluently we speak, we communicate with what we know – it’s as simple as that! Furthermore, the process involved in strengthening spoken fluency comes directly from using and reusing the expressions we’re already familiar with. We increase our fluency with language by building on our successful communications with others.

What I appreciate about the first lesson is the opportunity to celebrate students as musical communicators. No matter how small or limited their musical skills and knowledge, students have something musical to say. What I also appreciate about the first lesson is the opportunity to set up explorations that enhance and strengthen students’ musical fluency. My responsibility is to facilitate activities that not only enable students’ first in-lesson concert, but also provide the structure for future reusing, revisiting, and refining of what’s familiar for students. In this way, the first lesson isn’t an isolated or stand-alone event. Rather, it’s a carefully crafted undertaking with important connections to the weeks, months, and years of lessons still to come.

Cheers!

My Eight Second Rule

How long on average do you think teachers wait for their students to answer questions?

  1. 1 second or less
  2. 5 seconds or less
  3. 10 seconds or less
  4. 10 seconds or more

The correct answer is A. 1 second or less.

Yes – it’s true! This astonishingly brief amount of time is substantiated by research completed in the 1970s at the University of Florida. At that time, science educator Mary Budd Rowe wanted to find out more about what happens when teachers ask questions of their students. She conducted a six-year research project in which one of the criteria she measured was the amount of silence that followed teachers’ questions. Believe it or not, she found on average that silence rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds in typical teacher/student interactions across a wide variety of instructional situations and levels ranging from elementary schools to university settings, from classrooms to museums and business settings. Most teachers waited less than one second for students to answer a question.

So, as a teacher – How long do you think you wait on average for students to answer a question? 1 second or less… 10 seconds or more…

Of course, there are lots of questions students can answer in 1 second or less like What’s your favorite color? Is it cold out today? I like to classify those questions in the immediate-answer category. However, when teachers ask questions from a more reflective-answer category like Where’s the top of the phrase in line 2? What bar has the most intricate articulation on page 1? Students will definitely benefit from taking their time to respond.

Part of the challenge in waiting for answers may be related to the idea that we’ve all grown accustomed to the speed of technology. Just think about it… How long are you willing to wait for a document to open? How long do you expect Google will take to answer a search request? I suspect it’s not very long before patience is put to the test!

Another aspect of waiting for answers may be connected to how teachers feel about silence. Somehow, we get so accustomed to the 1 second or less wait time associated with immediate-answer questions there’s an assumption that all questions can be answered within a similar timeframe. It’s almost as if we interpret silence as the undesirable indication of students not knowing the answer. We may presume that quickly answered questions are a sign of students’ purposeful engagement with learning. Yet, when we think about it – quick answers may not be all that desirable because they’re most likely the result of students memorizing information or only tapping into surface materials. In order for students to engage in deep thinking, reflective processing, or analysis, we may need to slow down the timing of question and answer activities. We may need to get comfortable with silence.

In my own teaching, I adhere vehemently to what I call My Eight Second Rule. It’s my way of committing to wait through at least 8 seconds of complete silence before I jump in with a rephrasing of the question or a few words of reassurance. I’ve gotten very comfortable with allowing for silence as the necessary requirement for answering reflective questions, encouraging my students to be generous with their own thinking processes because reflective questions can take anywhere from 15 to 30 seconds to answer, maybe even longer on occasion. Often with teenagers who may seem perpetually annoyed with any kind of question, I like to support them with statements like, “Don’t rush your thinking. I have great confidence in your ability to think this through.” Or “Take your time. This is the kind of question that deserves your deepest thoughts. I know you can do it.”

So, in your teaching, the next time you find yourself waiting for an answer, don’t be afraid to internally count off 8 seconds before you start to worry your student can’t or won’t answer the question. I most confidently can assure you – the ensuing silence is well worth the wait!

 

Frustration Follow Up

Have a look at the following two scenarios that deal with frustration and its follow up.

Scenario One During a lesson, the student repeatedly returns to the beginning of the piece, starting over again and again in order to create sufficient momentum to make it through the unwieldy challenges in bar 3. Finally, in acknowledgment of having hit a brick wall, the student fumes, “I can’t believe this! I played this piece with no mistakes every day last week! This is so frustrating!”

What do you do? What do you say? Consider these options:

A. The teacher says, “Don’t worry. It happens to everybody. Why don’t you just give it one more try?”

B. The teacher says, “Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself… Everything’s okay.”

C. The teacher says something else.

While it’s easy to appreciate the teacher’s attempt to neutralize the situation in both options A and B, it’s interesting to consider how each of these options uses statements that are completely contradictory to the student’s experience.

“Don’t worry.” – The student has already passed the point of worrying. Telling him or her not to worry will most likely have no positive impact.

“It happens to everybody.” – A nice bit of information, but knowing it happens to everyone else doesn’t really give the student any sense of what to do next.

“Why don’t you just give it one more try?” – At this point, it’s highly unlikely that trying it one more time will produce a different result.

“Just calm down and don’t put so much pressure on yourself.” – Good advice that goes completely opposite to what the student is experiencing.

“Everything’s okay.” – Obviously everything is not okay. Saying it’s okay only indicates the teacher doesn’t really understand what’s going on.

As an alternative, I’d like to suggest that when teachers encounter student frustration like the above example, they consider four steps for follow up.

  1. Acknowledge the student’s response – “I hear what you’re saying.” This simple empathic statement goes a long ways to confirm that teachers are on the same page as their students.
  2. Solicit the student’s involvement – “What do youthink is going on?” Rather than jumping to solve the situation, teachers indicate their confidence in the student’s thinking process.
  3. Allow the student sufficient time to process what’s happening. It could take an entire 60 seconds of reflective thinking for students to come up with an accurate assessment.
  4. Demonstrate your willingness to contribute – “What do you need from me?” “What can I do to help?”

What’s important in this situation is for teachers to avoid contradicting the student’s experience by using neutralizing language. When teachers downplay the intensity of the student’s experience, it’s easy for students to lose confidence in the teacher’s ability to really grasp what they’re going through. When teachers empower students to come up with their own solutions, they prepare students for the inevitability of the next frustrating situation.

 

Scenario Two – This example comes from my own teaching of nine-year-old Jonathan. During the first several years of Jonathan’s lessons, I had become aware that he’s often frustrated with his own progress. Now he is in the third week of learning a new piece.

MBT – So how’s your new piece coming along.

J – Okay, I’ve learned the first two lines.

MBT – What about the next line?

J – Well, I haven’t had time for it yet.

MBT (I remember he said the same thing the previous weeks) You know, when I look at the third line, I see how it might be easy to get frustrated in learning it. Tell me – what’s your strategy if you get frustrated?

J – I walk away.

MBT – You walk away… I think I get what you’re saying… Because if you don’t walk away, you’ll probably just get more frustrated. So that seems like a good idea. But, what happens if you walk away every day for three weeks?

J – I’m not sure…

MBT – Well… I have the impression that when you walk away from frustration the first couple of times, it means you’re the one who’s in charge. But after that, when you walk away from frustration, it’s actually line three that’s in charge. It’s kind of like – every time you walk away, you leave a brick for line three to use in making an even stronger wall against you. And if you continue to walk away, the wall just gets bigger and bigger and stronger and stronger. Can you see where I’m going?

J – Um hm.

MBT – So I’m thinking this week might be the time to change your strategy with frustration. How about when you get to line three, you just sneak past the wall? You don’t need to knock it down. Just sneak past without the wall being able to find out about it.

* * *

Honestly speaking, I had no idea whether my suggestion would work or not. It was a spontaneous metaphorical application. Would it be enough to help? I could only hope. After Jonathan played the entire piece from beginning to end without any sign of frustration at his next lesson, I remember smiling and congratulating him on sneaking past the wall.