Exploring Collaborative Insight Through Reflective Partnership Teaching

American Suzuki Journal 50 #2

By Merlin B. Thompson

As a Suzuki teacher, how often have you experienced the following? You provide an exemplary musical demonstration. Your student responds with a nearly flawless replication. You ask the student to explain what’s going on. The student replies with an explanation completely other than what you had in mind. It’s a perplexing situation, though not altogether uncommon. It succinctly demonstrates the relevance of a pedagogical style known as Reflective Partnership Teaching, an instructional approach that builds on the collaborative input of students and teachers. To understand how this model works, take a look at the following Suzuki Piano lesson formats for a student playing Twinkle Variations.

Format A: The Suzuki Piano teacher hears the repertoire in order, guides the student on various instructional points, and assigns appropriate home practice strategies.

Format B: The Suzuki Piano teacher hears the repertoire in a spontaneous order each week, selecting from the student’s favorite choice, the student’s most difficult piece, or the teacher’s choice. The teacher alternates between guiding the student on various instructional points and having the student lead the instructional points. Teacher and student collaborate on home practice strategies.

Each format has its own distinct selling points and may be used to generate successful student development. I’ve used both formats in my forty-year career, but these days, I have a definite preference for Format B.

When students reflect on what they’ve done and communicate with teachers, it helps teachers develop a sense of what they’ve achieved, how students might follow through on their insight, and what teachers might do to assist them with doing things better. The format allows teachers and students to be reflective partners in figuring out what’s going on and what to do to successfully move forward. Reflective Partnership Teaching uses the combined insights of students and teachers to generate musical and personal progress.

How it works

Reflective Partnership Teaching is not rocket science or brain surgery. It’s based on simple principles that involve gathering background information, exploring current considerations, and brainstorming future possibilities. 

Step one: Background information.

It all starts with teachers understanding where students are coming from. Because a student’s musical development is constantly evolving, they have good weeks and bad weeks. Students experience plateaus, confusion, celebrations, forgetting, and internalization—sometimes across everything they practice, and sometimes with random inconsistencies. By asking students to share reflections on aspects of their home practice, teachers send an important message to students: home practice isn’t an unrelated or separate activity from their music lessons. Home practice is where the bulk of a student’s development takes place. By making inquiries like, “please tell me about…” before each lesson component, teachers can gather the most up-to-date information. What a student worked on and whether they have concerns or confidence is important for teachers to know about. 

Step two: Current considerations.

This step is about teachers facilitating pre-performance goals and post-performance evaluations that match a student’s age and level of mastery. When students set goals, they indicate their readiness to incorporate developments from their home practice into performance. On occasions when they’re completely prepared, everyone may anticipate a confident performance. When students aren’t prepared, teachers can offer encouragement with statements like, “let’s see how things turn out,” or, “give it your best shot.” Teachers must support students no matter the anticipated outcome.

With post-performance evaluations, teachers confirm how much they value students’ reflective input. If a student points out the successes in their performances, it builds their confidence and takes the pressure off teachers to list every glowing thing a student did. When a student points out their failures, they open the door for teachers to assist with resolving rather than identifying failures. If a student indicates they’re not sure what’s going on, teachers may offer encouragement with statements like, “Thanks for that, I see where you’re coming from,” or, “That’s what you’ve got me for.” Once again, the information gathered will influence how teachers proceed.

Step three: Future possibilities.

 Teachers combine students’ reflections with their own reflections to determine meaningful follow-up. No matter how basic, students’ reflections demonstrate that they have awareness, knowledge, and creativity. Teachers may also broaden students’ viewpoints with various strategies from their own expertise. For example, when teachers collaborate with students on how to practice, teachers expand students’ tool kit, while students learn which practice tools they may rely on and when those tools are appropriate. When teachers use students’ knowledge and creativity as catalysts for expanding their musical boundaries, teachers may bring to life ideas that students have never heard of and offer them a musical encounter with something that brings students to life as well. 

The steps involved in Reflective Partnership Teaching are more than just asking about students’ practice at the beginning of their lesson. Teachers interweave students’ efforts and awareness with their own expertise as a matter of looking back at what happened (home practice), examining what’s currently going on (lesson activities), and brainstorming future directions (homework) to assist students in making musical progress.

Normal interactions, pressure, apprehensions

Reflective Partnership Teaching may fit with how many Suzuki teachers already think teaching and learning should take place. They are naturally curious about other people’s experiences, so of course, they initiate meaningful discussions that draw on students’ thoughts. They also recognize that students have a lot going on behind the scenes and it’s important for teachers to gather pertinent information on an ongoing basis. Music lessons are opportunities to share their expertise with students and, with equal importance, to make strong connections to students’ own day-to-day personal and musical context. 

Other Suzuki teachers may find their knowledge and expertise overshadow certain aspects of Reflective Partnership Teaching. With pressure from students, parents, colleagues, and themselves to constantly demonstrate their musical expertise as proof of their teacher status, they feel an enormous professional responsibility to do what they were trained to do – teach students. While they routinely engage their students in developing observation skills and setting goals (Steps Two and Three), these teachers may feel it’s unnecessary to gather background information (Step One) into students’ context because they assume everything is going according to the teacher’s plan. They have confidence the strategies they assigned last week are sufficient in meeting students’ needs, so they continue with the next step in their delivery without missing a beat. However, without the reflective connection to students’ real life personal and musical experiences, a vital component is missing. 

Some Suzuki teachers may feel apprehensive about Reflective Partnership Teaching. They worry about situations such as: what if students reveal they haven’t practiced consistently since their last lesson? What if students say they’re having trouble with everything? Or conversely, what if students indicate everything is going well after they just played a one-page piece with something wrong in every bar? 

These situations may seem daunting, even undesirable, at first glance. Yet when we look more closely, we see that with this information, teachers have a better sense of what to do next. Situations like those above can be resolved by seeking out appropriate resources. For a more current understanding of practicing, I suggest Benedict Carey’s book, How We Learn: The Surprising Truth About When, Where, and Why It Happens. Based on recent neuroscience research, this book goes a long way to dispel many long-held but not entirely accurate conclusions on practicing. As for students’ impressions of what’s going on—positive and negative—their awareness is a powerful starting point, not an endpoint. I suggest Karin Hendrick’s book, Compassionate Music Teaching: A Framework for Motivation and Engagement in the 21st Century. Her chapter on empathy emphasizes listening, responding with kindness, and engaging students in dialogue: all aspects of safe learning environments where partnerships of teachers and students come together to contribute their reflective insights.

Concluding thoughts

I recently celebrated my fortieth year of Suzuki Piano teaching. No big announcements. No fanfare. Just the quiet realization that forty years had gone much quicker than I could ever have imagined. Looking back on this rather lengthy trajectory, I marvel at how certain moments stand out in my teaching like the following conversation with my student, André. 

“What would you say is the one thing you’re most interested in?” I inquire. There’s momentary silence as fifteen-year-old André scans the room, as if somehow his eyes could sum up his thoughts. “Freedom,” he replies. Not sure where he’s going, I prompt, “freedom to…?” Without missing a beat André continues, “Freedom to be the person I really am.”

What I’ve come to understand from André’s insight into freedom is that everyone shares the fundamental desire to be accepted and valued. Everyone—student, parent, teacher—wants to be valued for who they are and what they do.

I’m amazed at how the simple acts of recognition and appreciation provide anchors for Reflective Partnership Teaching. By using this technique week after week and year after year, Suzuki teachers appreciate their students as persons: what they have to say and how they think things through. Suzuki students experience what it’s like to be valued and understood for who they are.

At the time of writing this article, the unprecedented challenges of a global pandemic along with social unrest, environmental concerns, and economic instability loom large. What will it take to make the world a better place for all of us? What can Suzuki teachers do to make a difference? Our potential to overcome challenges and realize dreams starts with each of us as individuals and continues over time as we build communities of valued, caring, and thoughtful people. Such endeavors take listening, curiosity, collaboration, and reflection—strategies Suzuki teachers possess in abundance. My hope is that through music teaching we may realize a future for ourselves and generations to come that reflects the very best of humanity. The time to contribute is now.

Bio: SAA teacher trainer Merlin B. Thompson (PhD, MA, BMus) is the author of More than Music Lessons: A Studio Teacher’s Guide to Parents, Practicing, Projects, and Character published by Rowman & Littlefield. A leading authority on Suzuki Piano pedagogy and music studio teaching, Merlin has worked with hundreds of teachers, students, and parents in workshops, conferences, established programs, and mentorships in online formats and in-person throughout Canada, USA, Australia, Japan, Spain, Great Britain, Brazil, and New Zealand.