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

The moment your piano student begins to play and you start making mental notes, you have switched into Adjudicator Mode.

The role of adjudicators has changed since the days when children would sit and have their playing torn apart phrase by phrase and note by note, a figurative (and sometimes literal) roasting on the spot.

When I refer to ‘adjudicator mode’ I’m referring to the role of someone who is in the position to assesses preparation and figure out how best to communicate support for further development.

Whenever I sit in the adjudicator’s chair at a music festival, I’m humbled to think that this community has entrusted their young up-and-coming pianists to my care. It is my primary job to encourage the community, the piano teachers, parents and children; to let them know that their efforts are being rewarded. I’m careful to choose my words wisely, for a single misspoken word could do deep, permanent damage to a child’s belief in their ability to make music.

It is the same for us teachers in the piano lesson. The child’s parents have entrusted us with his/her musical nurture. So much rests on our compassionate and timely choice of words. The single most important thing we can do for each child is to encourage the love of music and to plant musical seeds that can continue to grow for a lifetime.

In this post, Part II on Mastering Your Feedback Style, the focus will be on words; managing your communication in much the same way an adjudicator does. I’ve even included a free printable of adjudicator’s words that I’ve compiled and use when I adjudicate. Use it to add polish to your everyday teaching. Keep reading!

1. Words and time management

Adjudicators and piano teachers share one crucial thing in common: it is necessary for both to use time wisely. Therefore, upon the first (and for adjudicators, the only) hearing, we must quickly sort through all the things we notice and come up with the most fitting words, pronto.

Keep a page of scratch notes with students’ first names and two columns down the page: Good and Work. (Good meaning what the student is playing well; work, things they may need to work on.)

Throughout the performance make note of the musical moments that sound beautiful or exciting to you, or that need extra work. Make a bare minimum of notes in both columns, which will provide the framework for your feedback and/or instruction.

In festival, I simply write a measure number and music symbol to jog my memory. It might be “m 17 mf” in the ‘good’ column. Later, when I’m writing full sentences, I’ll be able to recall the performance from my little scratches and say, “In measure 17 your mf was a lovely dynamic contrast.”

Scratch notes prompt quick and effective feedback.

This approach helps you to focus and listen to the entire performance and formulate your feedback all at once, which is the best use of time.

Based on the advice of a good friend, I’ve also created a Master List of Adjudicator’s Words to help me zero in quickly on exactly what I’m trying to say. In festivals this list helps me sound fresh for each student instead of falling into a rut of repeating the same things. In your lessons, this sheet could help spark exciting discussions on how your student is playing. It’s FREE to print, here.

2. Positive tone first

My festival feedback style is to speak aloud only what I loved about the performance. In your lesson, the ‘good’ column can become the feedback you give first, to set a positive tone. Part I of this series is all about the psychological differences between positive and negative feedback.

The ‘good’ column helps you avoid general statements. A simple ‘well done’ isn’t enough. Let your students know exactly what they played well. Say specific things like, “Your opening phrases were expressive, and communicated the spirit of the piece.” Or, “Your staccatos in measure eight truly brought the music to life!” Your goal is to first communicate a specific positive response.

Your bright beginning will open up your student to the suggestions you are about to make.

3. Give specific pointers

The ‘work’ column offers things the student can work on. Comment only on the two or three most relevant. Two effectively spoken points are more memorable than a dissertation of nitpicking.

My husband and I bought a fixer-upper house early in our marriage, and for the first few years it was difficult to see past the work that had to be done. Sometimes it can feel that way with a student’s playing. There are so many things that need attention that it’s difficult to see past them.

With our fixer-upper house I developed the light-hearted motto ‘worst things first’ to help us decide how to allocate our time and resources to fix it up. While I’d never say that motto to a student, that general idea can help focus and prioritize my feedback choices. Rome wasn’t built in a day, and no student’s playing was ever fully developed in a single piece. I’ve learned that it’s okay to relax and choose a few ‘most important’ concepts to cover at a time.

In festival, the ‘work’ column eventually helps with the placings of the festival class, but more importantly, forms the basis of my ‘secret letter’ written to only the student and teacher. At the conclusion of my written adjudication, which is 80% focused on what the student is doing well, I write two sentences which may start like this: “Have you tried…in measure 18?” Or, “In the final measures you might want a little more….” I always phrase it in a guiding way to leave the artistic choice up to the child and the teacher.

I call this part of the adjudication the ‘secret letter’ because I don’t read it aloud. These suggestions can wait for the private lesson. What I’ve noticed is that festival participants glow when I read aloud my praises of their playing. Then, when I hand them their form, they go straight for the secret letter, wanting to know the rest of my comments. They are truly engaged in the feedback process.

To borrow this adjudicator’s approach into the piano lesson, remember to cover ‘good’ before ‘work,’ and then phrase your work statements as goals.

In the past, I used to simply give instructions for measure numbers and repeats, and even though my students were practicing, they often didn’t improve like I wanted them to. Now, I first set the goal, then explain how to reach it. I write all of this in their music dictation books.

Point form practice notes with clear focus on “Goal” and “How.”

By reading the goal first, the student can clearly identify what their practice is aiming for. There is a purpose to all of the repeating and refining, and they know what it is. Then with a suggestion on how to practice, they have a plan for how to reach the goal. Since I started writing ‘Goal/How’ instructions in my students’ dictation books, I’ve seen a marked improvement of preparation across the board with all of my students.

Choose two or three main points that are important for this stage in the learning process. If the student is struggling to learn correct rhythm, leave artistic interpretation for another lesson.

Write the practice plan in their assignment book. Avoid general statements like, “Wild Horseman, needs to be faster.” Give very precise instructions. It is helpful to include the student in creating the written assignment. Ask them to help you remember the fine points you worked on in the lesson, and write down those things. Write: 

  • measure numbers 
  • a plan for metronome use, with tempo
  • number of repeats for each section
  • special instructions like rhythm exercises for passages 

In a piano lesson you have one distinct advantage over an adjudicator: that you get to work with your student over time, and you get to see the results of your efforts bloom.

A word on mistakes

In adjudication, I never mention mistakes. I feel it is pointless to mention the obvious. The student already knows they’ve made a mistake and likely feels very badly about it. When my adjudication goes by without saying anything about the mistake, I can feel the parents and teachers give a sigh of relief, knowing their child and student has been spared. It is much more important for the child to feel like a success for being in piano lessons. One mistake at the age of 10 should not be a defining moment in their long life of music-making.

If I feel it will benefit the student, at times I will write about a “little slip that happened today” in the secret letter, with an idea on how to practice that spot, should they continue to play the piece.

In this one aspect, music festival is different from a piano lesson. It is normal for teachers to work on a weekly basis to find ways of polishing rough spots in music.

Lasting words

In music festival, most children don’t remember the adjudicator. It is unknown whether they’ll remember much of what I’ve said. What they will remember is how they played, how I made them feel, and their parents’ and teacher’s responses.

In piano lessons, your words have a far bigger influence on your student’s development. You help your students form an idea about what their relationship to music can be. Let them know specifics on what they’re playing well, goals for what they can work on (and how), write notes in their dictation books and in the music, and get them to try practice steps in the lesson before they go home.

Music Lover Magnet Poetry Kit turns our fridge into a blank canvas for positive words.

More joy will be experienced in your studio. And most important of all: your polished feedback style will help your students continue to take steps forward in their journey of music-making.

Watch for the next post in this series, on an exciting strategy that involves students in their own feedback process.

Related post: Student adjudicators: Mock piano competition hones student skills [Printables]

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I appreciate shares, comments and likes. Happy teaching!

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