Master Your Feedback Style: A piano teacher’s guide to positive redirection

I want you to imagine that every time you respond to your piano student you are giving them a coin. Each time you give feedback, you are adding to your student’s figurative coin collection. And just like a coin has two sides, any statement can be phrased in one of two ways. It can be positive. Or negative.

  • “Don’t hang your thumbs down off the keys.”
  • “Where are your thumbs? Let’s keep them up on the keys.”

Both statements are basically fixing the same thing, but spoken in completely different ways. One is effective, the other is not.

Much of a piano teacher’s effort is taking ‘in-progress’ preparation and analyzing it to figure out how it can be improved. You listen closely to the music for interpretive problems. You watch the student’s technique to root out physical problems. Much of what you focus on seems to be what the student can’t do. Because, like any good teacher, you want to help the student improve.

The language you choose is so powerful, and it can go two ways. Will your words inspire, or will they discourage? What side of the coin will you present? What kind of coin collection are you gradually amassing for your students? One that nurtures confidence, or one that keeps them afraid of disappointing you?

Let’s explore the two options you have. The negative option is to tell the student exactly what they are doing wrong, and how. Or, to tell them what it is you want them to stop doing.

  • “Your left hand is too heavy.”
  • “You are forgetting the crescendo here.”

In each case you are likely right to point out these things. You have found the problems that need to be solved. The student’s playing does need work.

We want to keep problem-solving. But we can fine-tune our use of words. There is a subtle way to put a positive spin on the feedback we give, even if this feedback involves something the student needs to fix.

  • “Let’s check the balance between your hands. Try playing your left hand softer here.” (With warm-ups and breaking down the actions.)
  • “What is the dynamic through this passage? Crescendo? Let’s start softly then build.” (Experimenting with weight.)

Why does negative feedback fail? I feel there are three reasons. 

1. Negative feedback is discouraging

Every negative response is discouraging. There are some teachers who just never seem to have a positive thing to say. They won’t gloss over with a positive statement because they don’t want to give the impression that they have missed something. Their reputation is at stake. If a child disappoints in some way, then the teacher wants to assert that they have high standards, and they want to excuse themselves from the child’s performance.

I saw this a number of years ago at a music festival. A child had performed fairly well and had placed in the top three of her class. In the vestibule of the concert hall after the class, she looked to her teacher for feedback, proud of her accomplishment. The only thing the teacher commented on (loud enough so all could hear) was that a section of the piece didn’t go very well. That kind of discussion could have waited for the private lesson. A simple, “Well done,” would have been more appropriate feedback for the public concert hall.

I even saw this kind of negative talk at a major conference workshop that focused on enthusing teenagers. 

At the workshop a teenage girl, the student of the workshop clinician, performed a Chopin nocturne. The student said it was exciting repertoire that made her love to play the piano and continue taking piano lessons.

After the performance (which was fine), the clinician stood beside her and said, “This is not your overly committed student, not practicing three hours a day, not going to be a professional musician someday…not destined for the concert stage…” After a while there were so many things that the girl was not, I wondered if there was something that she was.

2. Negative feedback is not instructive

When understood literally, Don’t statements leave students only with information of what they should not do. “Don’t slur,” says only how not to play. There is no information that explains what you want them to do instead. And even if you do fill in afterwards with suggestions, the first words out of your mouth have already set a negative tone. If you compare this kind of feedback to the coin you are giving to your student, then they are amassing a collection of coins flipped to the down side.

A few years ago two of my students played in a Level 5 class at the music festival. The adjudicator spoke in front of the class after the performances, and he was trying to explain what he wanted from the participants. But he could only say negative statements, like: 

  • “When you get to this point of the piece what we don’t want to hear is…”
  • “So don’t get caught up in worrying about…”
  • “I don’t want you to feel like you’re not playing well…” 

He was trying so desperately to sound encouraging, but he had no idea how to phrase his responses to sound that way. He knew what he didn’t want the students to do, but was unable to focus his language on the alternative. Even the most qualified musician can lack the skill to communicate their knowledge in the most effective way. The best adjudicators do have this skill, and these are the ones who are asked to return to our festivals on a regular basis.

Effective teachers and adjudicators know how to sculpt their communications to sound constructive.

3. Negative statements contain hidden directives

The third reason negative feedback fails is this: within all negative statements, there lies a hidden directive. For example, “Don’t hang your thumbs off the keys.” If you remove the word don’tfrom that statement, what remains? “Hang your thumbs off the keys.” 

“Your left hand is too heavy.” The student hears, “Left hand heavy.”

“Don’t watch your hands,” becomes, “Watch your hands.” These hidden phrases do nothing more than reinforce the behaviour you are trying to change.

This phenomenon is suppressive reinforcement. In the process of trying to suppress a negative behavior you are truly reinforcing it through your choice of words. How does this phenomenon work? The more effort your student puts into not doing something, the more difficulty they have not doing it. When the focus is on the undesired technique, that technique will be foremost in the student’s mind.

It is a matter of psychology. Famously known as the paradox of the white bear, mental suppression actually works to focus on the unwanted thought. When a person is told not to think of a white bear, all they can think about is a white bear.

If you try not to think of a white bear, all you can think about is a white bear.

The most common phrase in the English language that demonstrates the phenomenon of suppressive reinforcement is Don’t Forget. “Don’t forget to bring all of your piano books.” Remove Don’t and it says, “Forget to bring all of your piano books.” Not quite what we are attempting to communicate. Wouldn’t it make more sense to say, “Remember to bring all of your piano books”? 

You can see that every negative phrase has a corresponding yet more powerful positive equivalent.

The positive side of the coin

This brings us to positive alternatives to negative phrases. With our coin analogy, this is the up side of the coin.

As you watch and listen to your student play, you will notice some things you like about their playing. Let this be the first thing you comment on. This is positive reinforcement. Hey, here is something they are already doing well! Tell them about it. Let them know how good it is! In this way you keep them on the right path, and avoid the pitfall of them losing what they have already gained because you pay little attention to it.

You will also notice details that need work. You will listen and quietly assess and analyze. The next thought needs to be: what would I rather the student do? Then phrase your feedback with an action statement.

This blog post is based on a workshop I’ve given to professional teacher groups and piano pedagogy students. In one session at this point I said:

“Make ‘DO’ statements. It is much more effective to tell a student what you expect them to do, than to state what you wish they wouldn’t. A “do” statement gives the student a positive alternative, a ‘don’t’ statement just leaves them wondering.” 

Later in the workshop when the pedagogy students critiqued performances, one student made a valiant effort and said, “Do curve your fingers…” She took my suggestion to make a DO statement quite literally. How did I respond to her? “Well, you don’t have to use the exact word ‘do’.” In the middle of a workshop on positive language, I responded with a don’t statement! That’s how difficult it is to keep your mind on the positive and avoid the negative.

Make it your goal to give constructive feedback, with whatever words are appropriate. This takes skill and concentration. While keeping in mind something your student was not doing very well, let your spoken words direct their energy for a positive result. This kind of feedback is positive redirection

In very practical terms, if you see a poor hand shape, keep in mind what the student is doing poorly, but keep this information to yourself. Then out loud give the solution for making their hand shape better. Here are some creative ideas for improving hand shape.

If you see a student who has a difficult time dropping with arm weight into the keys, verbally focus their imagination on a heavy image, like heavy wet ropes from Faber’s Technique and Artistry book, and work to develop arm weight.

If your student is playing wrong notes or an incorrect rhythm, make note of the passage that needs work and guide them to discover the music as it is written. Then make notes in the music as well as their dictation book on a very specific practice plan with measure numbers, a metronome tempo and the number of times the passage should be repeated each day.

Ternary statements

If a point needs extra reinforcement, make a ternary statement. It takes its name from the musical term Ternary, or ABA form. These statements follow the ABA structure. First say the do, sandwich the don’t in the middle, and conclude with the same do.

“Just let your thumbs float above the keys. You don’t want them hanging down there, they won’t be ready when it is their turn to play, you want them up where they are ready.”

To help a heavy left hand or poor balance you could compare the dynamics to the student’s favourite animated characters. One of my students went to piano camp one summer and came home with, ‘Tigger and Piglet dynamics’ written in her piece. I loved this idea! What a clever way to inspire a child to remember how much arm weight to use.

The human brain can think only one thought at a time. Psychologists have suspected this for a long time. So, when you notice something a student finds difficult, give constructive feedback that focuses their attention on a better way. Guide them to think a positive thought. For example, “You will find it much more comfortable to play the music this way.”

Perhaps that is why it is so difficult to put this advice into action, because while you want to focus your student’s thoughts on learning a better way, you must be thinking two thoughts: the first being the mistake they are making, and the second being the correct alternative. With this duality of thought, it is so easy to slide into language that exposes the negative slant. It takes a great effort to speak out loud only of the better way.

So let us go forward as teachers mindful of what we say and how we say it, as we nurture in our students better technique, better expressiveness, better reading skills, and better consolidation of all the skills together as they learn to become fine young musicians. Let us amass for our students a large collection of coins flipped to the up side.

This article is first of a three-part series on Mastering Your Feedback Style. Coming up:

Master Your Feedback Style: 3 useful Adjudication tricks for piano lessons

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

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