Active Listening in Piano Lessons – Part 1 Teacher Talk

The act of listening, deep, active listening, is crucial to developing musical sensitivity. It is at the heart of all that we do as musicians.

active listening

Helping our students to listen more actively and attentively is a particularly important job for piano teachers. We’ve all experienced how easy it is to switch off our ears and just play the notes beneath our fingers!

Over the next three blogs, I’m going to be looking more carefully at the role of active listening. Along the way, I’ll be sharing some practical and easy ideas for you to try out. Members of The Community can find lots more active listening ideas in January 2022 Curiosity Box. Click here to access.

THE HONESTY GAME

The first place to start is with ourselves, the teachers. So, it’s time to play the ‘honesty’ game! Think about a typical piano lesson. How much time is spent making music (either singing or playing) and how much time is spent talking about music?

If you aren’t sure try recording a lesson this week (having obtained the necessary permissions) and listen back to them. I do this every now and again and I am always horrified by how many times I answer my own questions or talk about the music. ‘Why don’t you just demonstrate this Sally‘, I find myself saying.

THE PROBLEM

The problem with too much teacher-talk is two-fold:

  1. Words can be long-winded and confusing whilst ‘explaining’ through the instrument says precisely what is needed in a fraction of the time.
  2. Teacher-talk limits the opportunity for the student to develop their own critical and active listening skills.

Watching a skilled teacher at work with a student using demonstration and gestures is an inspiring revelation.

JUDGING TEACHER INPUT

The amount of teacher-talk in a lesson changes according to the level, age and experience of the student. The inexperienced, younger beginner will need more teacher input as you provide them with direct instruction followed by immediate feedback on their efforts.

As skills and concepts are learnt and built up less direct instruction is required and the feedback given changes. Now it becomes more about asking questions, demonstrating and encouraging students to make the connections between different areas of their learning. There’ll be more on how to do this in the third blog of the series.

THREE STRATEGIES FOR TALKING LESS

Talking less in lessons is hard and can feel very uncomfortable. Approaching it in a playful and light-hearted way can help to make it feel easier. Here are three strategies for you to try:

  • Have a ‘silent’ 5 minutes in a lesson. Set the timer and communicate only through musical sounds.
  • Have part of the lesson in ‘Twitter’ style where you limit the number of words you use to as few as possible.
  • Limit yourself to only speaking in response to a question from your student.

Of course, these three strategies all get the student involved. They will experience active listening as a result and have a less passive role to play.

TIME TO REFLECT

  • Record a lesson, randomly choose a five-minute segment and note down the ratio of teacher-talk, pupil-talk and music-making. Stay curious about what you notice rather than slipping into ‘the piano teacher inspector’ role.
  • Give one of the three strategies above a whirl in a lesson. Afterwards, consider how it felt – did the energy of the lesson change for example?

LISTENING MORE AND TALKING LESS

These strategies are short-term interventions. Use them lightly and with humour. They will make you aware of how much listening work we do for our students when we actually think we are getting them to listen.

Watch out for Part 2 of Active Listening in Piano Lessons blog post which will be published in a couple of weeks.

This blog post was written by Dr Sally Cathcart, co-Director and Founder of The Curious Piano Teachers

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