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Effective feedback: There’s a lot we can learn from instrumental music teachers

Written by: Kieran Briggs and Martin Leigh
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Martin Leigh, Director of Music, King Edward’s School, Birmingham

Dylan Wiliam thinks that ‘there’s a lot we can learn from music teachers’. He describes how instrumental music teachers expect their students to become ‘self-regulating learners’ and teach them how to ‘practise productively’ at home between lessons (cited in Hendrick and Macpherson, 2017, p. 39). The implicit model of instruction, feedback and assessment here is both instructive in itself and applicable in every subject area.

That teachers want our students to succeed is axiomatic; we are idealists and altruists, and little pleases us more than that precious moment when a student knows more than us, can jump higher and think deeper than us, when they thrive without us. We also aspire for our students to learn self-regulation and independence (Zimmerman, 1989). It’s an irony, then, that we need to teach them explicitly how to gain autonomy from us; but instrumental teachers can help us to learn how (Kirschner et al., 2006; Rosenshine, 2012).

A time-worn path

Although every instrumental teacher is different, their lessons often follow the same pattern. The instrument is assembled and there is a warm-up, exercises and scales. Then there might be some work on a study, aural tests (improving the student’s listening skills) and sight reading (learning to perform an unseen work). This is perhaps half of every lesson. The remainder contains detailed work on a particular piece or pieces.

The student will then perform all or part of their piece for the teacher, and the teacher will build the remainder of the lesson around what they have heard. This might involve correcting mistakes and suggesting improvements in technique or interpretation. The teacher demonstrates, providing both a model of how the work might sound and an exemplar of how to practise certain difficulties. At the end of the lesson, the student will be set tasks for the next lesson: practise this bit, learn a new section, be ready to show me a new skill, memorise this passage, etc. The teacher will enter their students for external examinations, concerts and competitions, and will often speak to their parents about progress, setting short- and long-term goals, often in the form of a report.

A typical report might look like this (letter 243a in Anderson, 2006):

‘The Andante will give us most trouble, for it is full of expression and must be played accurately and with the exact shades of forte and piano, precisely as they are marked. She is very smart and learns very easily. Her right hand is very good, but her left, unfortunately, is completely ruined… I would lock up all her music, cover [half] the keys with a handkerchief and make her practice, first with the right and then with the left, nothing but passages, trills, mordants and so forth, very slowly at first, until each hand should be thoroughly trained. I would then undertake to turn her into a first-rate [pianist].’

This is Mozart writing to his father on 14 November 1777; instrumental teachers follow a time-worn and history-proven path. This teaching works, and we are beginning to have the evidence for why this might be.

The Do-Re-Mi of direct instruction

Let’s take the beginning of a piano lesson, where our student plays a scale. There is a distinct difference between the way in which an inexperienced pianist plays C major and the performance of a master. The former is halting, effortful and prone to mishap; the latter is fluent, easy and even beautiful. How do you move from one stage to another? Or, to put it in the words of an old joke, ‘How do you get from here to Carnegie Hall?’, to which the answer is ‘Practice’.

The difference between novice and expert is that the former is struggling with the scale one note at a time, whilst the latter can call on deeply embedded knowledge of patterns and structures; one note at a time reflects the moment-by-moment limits of short-term memory, and knowledge deeply embedded is stored in our vast and seemingly limitless long-term memory (Miller, 1956; Atkinson and Schiffrin, 1968; Baddeley and Hitch, 1974). The trick that piano teachers seem to have mastered is to teach their students to go from the simple processing of single notes to the building of larger-scale semantic-structures – to harness pupils’ deep and effortful engagement in order to embed knowledge in long-term memory (Craik and Lockhart, 1972).

The piano teacher will use an extraordinarily rich vocabulary to describe each pair of notes in the scale: the letter names of the notes, the accepted fingering for playing each, the distance between notes, the degree of the scale, their role in tonal harmony. They will also model and demonstrate, giving simultaneous visual re-enforcement to verbal instructions (Caviglioli, 2019). All of these instructions are used interchangeably to help students to reflect quite deeply on the process; at the same time, instrumental teachers instinctively know that smaller packets of information are more likely to be effective (Sweller, 1988). The teacher will link the learning here with other contexts – with the use of a scale as a melody in a piece. And, of course, the teacher will choose a scale that is just a little harder than the student can easily manage (Vygotsky, 1978).

Testing performance

The second part of our instrumental lesson is where the foundational skills are used in the performance of a piece. It’s significant that the first step here is invariably testing – a private performance, given by the student for their teacher (Rosenshine, 2012). This testing is so much part of the lesson that it provokes neither comment nor heightened emotions. The testing is both summative of the week’s work and formative: in performance, the student engages in retrieval practice, and the teacher’s next steps are guided by it (Roediger and Butler, 2011). The feedback will be positive and encouraging, and the actions to be taken will be completely clear; they are taken immediately by the student and the teacher immediately corrects any misconceptions. The student is asked to play a section again, more slowly, paying attention to fingering, dynamics or phrasing; the teacher then feeds back once more, possibly with a demonstration (they ‘make thinking visible’ (Wiliam, 2016)). The feedback is ongoing, a process, part of a ‘continuum of learning’ (Hattie and Timperley, paraphrased by Kirschner and Hendrick, 2020, p.199).

The nature of the feedback is both specific and general. Instrumental teachers never use the sort of woolly feedback sometimes found in classrooms – ‘play it better’ is not an option in the way that ‘use more adjectives’ might be for an English teacher – as they are addressing specific musical difficulties or correcting specific misconceptions (Hattie and Timperley, 2007). The instrumental teacher’s feedback is often explicit that this way of practising or that habit of thinking about music is a strategy (the former) or a heuristic (the latter) that can be applied more generally; they link back to similar difficulties found in earlier pieces (Collins et al., 1991). Because it concerns real works of art, their feedback has about it an authenticity, as it is ‘designed to give students the opportunity to observe, engage in, and invent or discover expert strategies in context’ (Collins et al., 1991, p. 43).

This feedback will be part of a plan for the student’s development. Instrumental teachers’ plans are tacit but highly detailed. Their long-term goal is that the student discovers and enacts a life-long love of music and of their instrument. The yardstick of success might be the BBC Young Musician competition, or a conversation, years later: ‘I still love playing, you know.’ Their medium-term goals are repertoire mastered, performances given and public examinations taken – an intricate web of opportunity for testing, feedback and validation that the instrumental teacher knows how to use brilliantly. These medium-term goals are almost entirely about spaced repetition of testing (as is the weekly rhythm of the instrumental lessons), building skills through time, reviewing and repeating older material in new contexts, effecting the change in long-term memory that is the building of knowledge (Ebbinghaus, 2011; Cepeda et al., 2008; Willingham, 2009)

The short-term plan is the most intricate of all: knowing how to direct, measure and motivate students’ practice. At every moment the student will have a clear model of what their goal sounds like (often embodied in the teacher’s example), of how their performance compares with that goal, and of exactly what they must do next (Hattie and Timperley, 2007).

Cognitive science has long found music to be a rich source of insight (most famously Ericsson et al., 1993). Dylan Wiliam could well be right.


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