What I've learnt from asking more questions in music lessons - Creative Music Education
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What I’ve learnt from asking more questions in music lessons

By Tim Topham | Piano Teaching

May 05

music lessons
Since the start of this year, I made a commitment to ask more questions in my teaching.

And not just questions for the sake of them, but effective questions that challenge students to think.

Questions that are suited to each student and give them more ownership of the lesson and their playing.

As a great side benefit, I’ve found that asking more questions requires me to think much more deeply about what and how I’m teaching and how I’m trying to get students to achieve their goals.

Do you talk too much?

Put your hand up if you talk too much…

…I thought that might be a few people!

I think as teachers we are almost predisposed to talking as it’s what we do, right?

If you spend most of your time correcting mistakes and talking at your students in lessons, I’ve got a challenge for you this week that’s going to inspire your teaching and take it in a new direction.

I want to challenge you to short-cut this natural tendency we all have to talk and talk and instead ask more questions.

Why focus on questions?

Questions get students thinking rather than just listening to us and reacting to our listening and thinking. And that’s what we’re here to help them do, right?

Ask yourself what’s more important: immediately correcting mistakes or teaching students to listen and critique their playing themselves (and ultimately be able to do this at home)?

My approach to questioning has really developed since I watched a master teacher in action at a course I was on in January. The teacher was a master of getting students to listen more accurately to their playing and adjust their playing by asking them questions.

In fact, I don’t think he ever dictated anything to improve their playing.

For example, instead of hearing the students play something and then immediately critiquing and correcting mistakes, he just started asking questions:

  • “What was most prominent in that section?”
  • “What is the mood of this piece?”
  • “What period of history is it from?” “How might that impact how we play it?”
  • “Where is the melody?” “Why can’t we hear it?”
  • “Where was the rhythm unsteady?” “Why?”
  • “How can you improve the tone of this section?”

And I thought, why don’t I do more of this in my own instrumental teaching?

Talk less and be concisemusic education questions

What I’ve found, as I’ve transferred this across to my instrumental teaching, is that asking the right questions is amazingly effective at getting students to listen to themselves.

Most of the time, if students are listening attentively, they can actually fix mistakes themselves.

Just bringing awareness to an issue can be the solution.

Keep in mind that students can’t remember too many things at once when they’re trying to correct something.

So while I might ask quite a few questions to get to the bottom of an issue, I always keep the agreed recommendations to a minimum. For example, if you’re expecting students to correct fingering, play the right notes, add the pedal and remember to shape the end of a phrase, all in one try, then you’re headed for frustration.

Instead, keep your points concise and only get students to work on 1-2 things at a time. You can always fix other things later on.

Oh, and when they’ve tried out the changes/fixes, start asking more questions!

Example effective questions

If this focus on effective questioning is a bit new to you, here are some of the things I say in my lessons quite regularly. Try them out this week in your teaching:

Scales

  • “What does a perfect scale look and sound like” or “What should the ultimate scale sound like?” (eg. even rhythm, even tone, correct notes, fingering – that’s my 4-point checklist)
  • “Where do you rate your playing on a scale of 1-10 where 1 is a disaster and 10 is the perfect scale?”.
    • “Why did you give yourself this rating?”
    • “What’s one thing you can change when you replay the scale to improve your rating?”
    • “Good, but what did you hear happening to your left hand that time?”
    • “What did you think of that play-through? Still not good, was it? What can you do to allow you to play it correctly this time?” (eg. slow down!)
    • “Much better. What should we listen for and improve next?”
  • “How can you improve the accuracy of your playing?” (slow down, focus, think ahead)
  • “Why doesn’t that sound any better than the last play?” (going too fast, not concentrating)
  • “What’s the most efficient way to practice this scale this week?”

Pieces

  • “How would you rate the accuracy of your playing?” “How can we improve that?”
  • “Phrases in music are like speech and song. What happens at the end of sentences when we speak?” (volume decreases) “How can mimic that on piano?”
  • “Why has the composer written two phrases here?”
    • “What does that show us?”
    • “If phrases are like sentences, what do we have to do between sentences when we speak so we don’t run out of air?”
    • “How can you show me that on the piano?”
  • “What can we vary in this repeat to add more interest?” (tone, dynamics, speed, articulation). “Let’s try one of those now. Which one would you like to try?”
  • “Have you taken note of every marking in the score?” or “What other markings are there on the score that show us how to play?”
  • “Is there another way you could phrase/articulate that?” “Why don’t you give that a try?”
  • “What’s happening in the rhythm in line 2?”
  • “Is there anything you can improve?”
  • “What patterns can you see?”
  • “How will you practice this at home?”
    • “Why have you chosen that method/place to start?”
    • “What’s that going to achieve?”
    • “How will you know if you’ve achieved your goal?”

General Knowledge

This is a natural place to ask open-ended questions (ie. questions which can’t be answered with a ‘yes’ or ‘no’). Eg:

  • “What does the title mean about how you might play this place?”
  • “What mood does the title invoke? Can you show me this in your playing?”
  • “What if you changed the mood: how could you do this? Shall we try?”
  • “What’s the key?” “Give me three reasons how you know.”…and if they get it wrong, don’t tell them the answer, ask more questions:
    • “Let’s check that. What does ‘key of a piece mean’?”
    • “What’s the first indication about the key of a piece in the sheet music?”
    • “What does that tell us?”
    • “Is there only one key associated with each key signature or multiple?”
    • “How do you work it out?”
    • “Now that you know the key, can you guess the first note/chords/hand positions?”
    • “What other chords are you likely to find in this piece? Can you play them?”
    • etc.

Of course this concept works in all aspects of music teaching: aural, theory, harmony, etc.

In fact, it works in all aspects of teaching in general!

Sure, it might take a bit longer and a bit more thought to teach like this, but you’re going to be tuning-in your students to their own playing, making them think and improving the way they practice at home.

How cool is that?!

So my test for you this week is to challenge yourself to ask as many questions as you can in your next lessons. Avoid dictating anything and rephrase everything as questions and see what the results are. You may go slightly crazy thinking up the questions and your students might think you a bit weird if this is new, but reflect back afterwards and let me know what you think below.

What will you notice?

So what did I learn from changing my question technique?

  • Students listen far more actively to their own playing
  • Students will anticipate your questions and answer it/correct the issue before you even speak
  • Students think about what they are trying to achieve before they start playing
  • When you grill students about keys and chords at the start of learning something new, they will find learning the piece much easier
  • Students feel empowered as they are working out what’s wrong and how to improve it
  • Practice becomes more effective at home because they’re listening and thinking about it

Just watch that you don’t answer questions before students have had a chance to think and answer them. It’s very easy to ask a challenging question and then rush in to answer before a student has had a chance to form an answer (this is particularly important for boys who can take longer to process and verbalise the information). A bit of silence while students are thinking is a great thing – don’t spoil it by simplifying the question or answering.

That said, sometimes you’ll ask a question that doesn’t make sense or that the student can’t understand. Rephrase and refocus with a new question. This takes practice, thought and knowing your students. I guarantee you’ll be a better teacher if you persevere.

How do you use questions in your lessons to involve and engage students?

Let me know below how you approach questions in your teaching? Do you think they’re important? Do you prefer to dictate and correct?

I’m looking forward to hearing your views.

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About the Author

Tim Topham has one mission in life: to stem the tide of children quitting music lessons by helping teachers maximise student engagement through creativity, technology and innovation. Tim hosts the popular Creative Piano Teaching Podcast, blogs regularly at timtopham.com and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, Californian Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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