Teaching students to be critical in a healthy way and taking it personally

The best part about being a musician is that you’ll never be perfect…there’s always something to learn. The worst part about being a musician is that you’ll never be perfect…there’s always something to learn.

Music lessons.

Over at mustech.net, Joe Pisano just returned from PMEA and posted the following sentiment he over heard from fellow music educators:

Students are given a trophy for everything they do. They expect to be rewarded for simply participating in something. It’s all part of the “I’m o.k., you’re o.k.” culture… I think it’s a “dumbing down” of the perception of excellence. This is why I am such an advocate of “getting beyond the four walls of your school and classroom”. Students in music MUST be exposed continually to people, groups, and ensembles that perform music excellently. Too often a student is told they are good at something (in our case -music) and they go through life under a false pretense. Encouragement is needed at all times to truly strive for “better”, BUT they must have a reference to what “BETTER” is! Don’t believe me on this one? Tune in to the auditions at American Idol.


How do we get our kids thinking about excellence? Or how do we teach our students to be realistic about their ability? When do we learn how to evaluate, change and grow as musicians? Can we be critical of our own performance as musicians, yet remain sane in the process?

All of this got me thinking about my teaching with beginning musicians, particularly instrumentalists. From day one in my classroom, I strive to create an environment where students can risk big, feel rewarded, and act responsibly. I believe this creates a framework for students to strive for excellence and honestly evaluate their progress.

From day one in the beginning group lesson, I introduce the concept of risk by insisting that everyone must feel safe when they perform for each other with some simple rules:

  • Play with courage.
  • Play with understanding.
  • Be patient with others and yourself.
  • Know you can ask for help at anytime.

As kids progress, they know they will be rewarded daily, weekly and monthly by:

  • Constant encouragement.
  • Being highlighted in “The Podcast of the Week”
  • Being chosen as a soloist in an upcoming concert.
  • Getting a medal or certificate at the end of the year for completing achievement lines.

These may not be new ideas to anyone in music education, but it’s the last “R” of responsibility that I think often gets overlooked in our teaching.

Let me try to explain by giving you a “sample” transcript of what you might hear during a lesson in my classroom:

T: Ok, who is ready to play for me #43 on page 10? This was your assignment for today’s lesson…

S: I’m ready!

T: All right. Lucy, please begin when you are ready…

[Lucy plays but doesn’t quite get the rhythm right in the last measure…]

T: Thank you…now, did you play that without any mistakes?

S: No.

T: Good! That’s right. Where did you have a problem?

S: I think I made a mistake in the last measure…uh…with the counting?

T: Yes. That’s right. [addressing the rest of the class now..] The good news is she can now fix it…[with humor] or should we kick her out of the band? Of course not! How about this…does anyone have any tips for Lucy on how she can get the rhythm correct in that last measure?
-end transcript-

I really encourage my instrumental students to be honest and objective about their playing by constantly asking questions about what they are hearing and to immediately assess their performance with the help of others or by listening to recordings of their playing. I often make a big deal and applaud students when they can identify a mistake they have made after playing something. I say “if you can hear your mistakes, you can fix them.” This encourages them to take responsibility for their playing and growth as a musician. Assessment and especially self-assessment in instrumental music is a process of learning how to evaluate, reflect and change one’s practice.

How does this relate to kids understanding the difference between an excellent performance and something that is mediocre? If we can instill in our students from the very beginning that excellence is a journey, they will come to realize that the joy in learning to play an instrument, or sing, is akin to the first part of the quote at the top of this post: “The best part about being a musician is that you’ll never be perfect…” and the journey never ends.

It’s our job as music educators to give them the proper tools and perspective for the journey. Let me know how you make that happen with your students.

6 thoughts on “Teaching students to be critical in a healthy way and taking it personally

  1. Wow. Great post. I like your “rules” for beginners. Although I’ve always tried to create that type of culture in my beginning classes, you’ve verbalized it in a very clear format. (Can I steal those rules for my own use in the fall?!?)

  2. I love your blog! I love this idea of “ownership” of mistakes. I always point out my student’s mistakes TO them. I think I am going to do what you do and have them point them out to me.

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  4. I’ve found the book “Tools for Powerful Student Evaluation” by Susan Farrell very valuable in having students use various forms of rubrics and self/peer assessment tools. In addition I like the way that having students keep a journal provides a space for self reflection.

    With access to computers and recording equipment it’s fairly easy to keep an archive of individual and group performances for students to assess as well. One of the great things about keeping an archive of recordings for students to assess is the real tangible way they can hear improvement over time.

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  6. Wonderful post! If only more teachers would take this approach in having the students critique themselves. I think we often take the approach of just trying to fix the mistakes we hear for the student. Thanks for the example!

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