Last year our daughter, Lexi, started participating in figure skating competitions. Before her first competition her coach required her to write down her goals, as well as her steps for achieving her goals. It was a great exercise.
But as we worked through this exercise together, our conversation went a bit like this.
Me: “What goals would you like to work towards? What do you need to improve upon?”
Lexi: “I’m pretty good at everything.”
Me: “But what would you like to do even better?”
Lexi: “I don’t know… what do you think I don’t do very well?”
Me:.… awkward silence… and then realizing I feel very weird about pointing out her weaknesses… realizing I act the same way with my piano students… realizing that these realizations are a “piano teaching moment”… forgetting all about figure skating…
Afraid To Point Out The Negatives…
My conversation with Lexi was a real eye-opener. I have always been uber-conscious of the self-esteem of children, of boosting their confidence at every moment, and of focusing on their strengths. And while I recognized long ago that addressing weaknesses was also part of the job, that darn “Rah Rah Positivity” of mine keeps on taking over 🙂
During my conversation with Lexi, I realized that once again my confidence boosting “Yay for being you!” ways were doing my students a bit of a disservice. Each time I downplayed their weaknesses and instead only focused on their strengths I was robbing them of an opportunity to self-reflect and improve.
Clearly I had to find a balance between being “real” and being “kind”.
So, I Stopped Being Scared and Started…
1. Asking my students to self-reflect before I offered any feedback – Instead of immediately chiming in with positive feedback once my students had played something, I instead simply said “How did that feel?” Yes, sometimes I got “Fine.” as a response, but most of the time I received some great feedback; my students would say things like “I’m still having trouble in that measure” or “I can’t get the left hand rhythm here.” or “It was pretty good, but I didn’t like how this part sounded.”
This was ideal. Because my students were the ones starting the conversation we could immediately leap into what needed fixing. I could still offer words of encouragement and praise as we worked through their weaknesses, but because they were identified by the student and not me, neither of us felt even a hint of negativity.
2. Phrasing my suggestions creatively – While I wanted to avoid “hollow praise”, I also wanted to avoid immediately pouncing on what needed work without offering some encouragement.
By phrasing my suggestions creatively I was able to preserve their self-esteem, without ignoring struggles that needed some attention. Using phrases such as “Now, I know you, and I know you’ll be able to fix this immediately…” before offering my suggestions worked wonders. It empowered my students to accept the challenge, but it didn’t gloss over the fact that there were actually some things that needed work.
This has been a powerful change in my piano lessons. Now, in addition to praising what my students are doing correctly, I am also praising their ability to persevere.
3. Learning that it’s okay – I am (still!) learning that it’s actually okay sometimes to simply point out what isn’t correct. I have worked hard to build an environment of trust and respect in my studio; my students know without a doubt that I care about them. I don’t need to always sugar-coat my feedback… they know that it’s coming from a place of wanting to help them achieve.
If I address their struggles with a smile, with helpful suggestions, and with a celebration waiting in the wings, then I’ve actually strengthened our working relationship, not compromised it.
Don’t Worry… You’re Still Fabulous!
None of this is to say that I have given up on moments that are full of praise and kudos and celebration and “Wow, you amaze me!”. Children are young for such a small amount of time and it’s my personal goal to fill these fleeting years with as much joy and compassion and long-lasting good memories as possible. But I’m discovering that these warm fuzzies don’t need to happen at the expense of their musical growth.
…As for Lexi? We had a great discussion about her skating. Yes, you have worked hard and mastered several skills. But how about those left leg spirals? And weren’t you having an issue with your waltz jump? I know with a bit of work you’d have that mastered.
She took my suggestions and went straight to work. Was she devastated by my observations? No. Did she come off the ice with an undeniable sense of accomplishment when she nailed something that was previously challenging? Yes.
One of the ways I like to encourage my students to work on technique that needs attention is through our popular technical exercise book TEDDtales (Technical Exercises, Dramatically Different). Using a story-based approach to technical work means your students are motivated and excited about perfecting their technique. It’s a win-win!