As a music teacher, I can get so preoccupied telling students what I’d like them to do, and trying to motivate them to do it, that I forget afterward to let them know how well they did. I may suppose that students don’t need me to spell it out for them. Won’t they hear it for themselves if their music sounds better? Or pick up on the grimace on my face if it doesn’t? Receiving feedback, though, is a critical part of the learning process. If we as teachers are not making a point to communicate it to them, we shouldn’t assume that our students are figuring it out on their own. And simply shouting “Good!” while student sing or play their instruments offers little in the long run.
Giving feedback is a hallmark of quality music instruction, but one that can be easily overlooked. Good teachers are keenly aware of the responsibility to manage how time is spent. Although hopefully the biggest proportion of lesson time is occupied by student music making, teachers must also take time to talk to students. In the throes of a well-paced lesson, teachers will want to be efficient with their verbalizations in giving directions and explaining musical concepts. (I also hope teacher allow for students themselves to talk about their music making, as this can provide insight into the cognitive strategies underlying performance.) Offering feedback to students is just as important as these other teacher roles.
Last month I came across two good sources online that took up the topic of feedback. The first was a Freakonomics podcast titled “When Is a Negative a Positive?” In this short episode, journalist Stephen Dubner shares some research from the field of business management. Tackling the question of whether positive or negative feedback is more motivating, the podcast offers the answer: it depends…on the recipients’ level of expertise. With people who are new to a particular endeavor, positive feedback seems essential to help them increase their dedication to it. But for those who are more expert in a field, negative feedback can be more efficient in producing growth.
This general idea has been found in music education also, as researchers have probed the value of positive versus negative feedback. For teachers who work with beginning musicians, one of the most important qualities they can have is a warmth dimension (Lehmann, Sloboda, & Woody, 2007, ch. 3). Most young students thrive under the tutelage of a teacher whose personality is friendly and encouraging, and who makes music learning a positive (even fun!) experience. This type of learning environment would necessarily include much positive reinforcement from teacher to students. However, as kids mature and increase in commitment to their music activities, they seem to be able to handle more critical feedback from teachers. In fact they may even welcome it, knowing that it can advance their skill level, which in turn makes music participation more rewarding. Research studies in high school band contexts have found that these older students are able to benefit from negative feedback and they seem to understand that taking criticism is a necessary step toward musical improvement (Duke & Henninger, 2002; Whitaker, 2011).
Another online source that recently took up the topic of feedback was author Annie Murphy Paul, who writes much about how people learn. She offered up a blog post on keys to giving good feedback. Drawing on the results of educational research, she points out that effective feedback goes beyond just praise or criticism. It is informative and instructive to learning goals. Ideally feedback shows students how to monitor and evaluate their own performing, in effect making them less dependent on the teacher and more in control of their own learning. “The ultimate goal of feedback,” says Paul, “should be to teach learners how to give feedback to themselves.”
Of course these ideas also have much application to music education, especially to student musicians who have grown beyond the beginner stage. As teachers, we can be so focused on helping students prepare the music they’re working on that we neglect our responsibility to prepare them as musicians. We do this best by empowering them with the musical knowledge and skills they need to be self-sufficient learners who are able to make musical decisions for themselves. This is one of the reasons that simply telling students “Good!” accomplishes little. Broad feedback like this does not give learners much to take with them into the future. In these “Good!” moments, students can too easily think “ah, my teacher is pleased” without understanding what they did to produce the musically pleasing result.
I think we should aspire to offer more specific feedback that’s primarily directed at what students our have done, as opposed to who they are. Don’t get me wrong…we should make sure our students know that we respect them as people, and we believe them to be capable musicians. But whether using praise to inspire greater investment in music, or criticism to produce performance improvement, the main object of the feedback should be students’ music making. Telling students “you guys are awesome” or “you’re fantastic musicians” may be well intentioned and seem important in building self-esteem and a musical identity. But the positive feeling students get from simple praise like this can be fleeting. Consider, however, specific feedback directed at students’ performance, such as, “You used excellent breath support on that phrase” or “When you focus on rhythm there, your solo comes to life.” This feedback is informative and gives learners something they can take with them into the future. It can reinforce the physical skills and cognitive strategies that allow them to perform at their best. It’s true that young people rely heavily on the appraisals of others in self-concept building, but they do so based on beliefs about what things they can do well. If you just tell a student she’s a great musician, she may dismiss it as nice teacher flattery; even if she really receives the compliment, the emotional impact may soon fade. But if you tell her, for example, that her piano playing has improved since she started using more dynamic contrast, then you’ve given her knowledge that can be very useful going forward.
Giving feedback is something most music teachers do naturally. But a reminder now and then can be helpful. Perhaps we should strive to be more mindful and adaptable. It seems the right amount of positive and negative feedback depends on where our students are in their individual musical development.
Duke, R. A., & Henninger, J. C. (2002). Effects of verbal corrections on student attitude and performance. Journal of Research in Music Education, 46, 482-495.
Lehmann, A. C., Sloboda, J. A., & Woody, R. H. (2007). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills. New York: Oxford University Press.
Whitaker, J. A. (2011). High school band students’ and directors’ perceptions of verbal and nonverbal teaching behaviors. Journal of Research in Music Education, 59, 290-309.
Copyright 2013 Robert H. Woody
Source of image: Jose Kevo on Flickr Creative Commons