Fat Questions & Skinny Questions

What kind of questions do you mostly ask in your piano lessons?

Did you know that not all questions are equal and some types have more learning power than others?


I played a game with some of my pupils this week where they had to spot every time I asked a question. It was great because it really kept me on my toes but it also highlighted that I had a problem! More on that later.


There are three types of questions we need to be aware of in our teaching. Before reading on take a couple of minutes to see if you can work out the differences between the following three groups of questions.


  • Shall we try going slower?
  • Shall we play this part hands separately?


  • What’s the name of that note?
  • Which finger should go on G?
  • Did you remember the dynamics?


  • What happened to the fingering in bar 5?
  • When could the rallentando start?
  • How does the music make you feel?

The first group are Imposter Questions. In other words they are not questions at all but are direct instructions just dressed up to appear like questions.

The second group are Skinny Questions. These are closed questions that require fixed answers in that they are either right or wrong.

The third group are Fat Questions. These are more open ended and therefore leave a bigger space for the pupil to reflect, explain and take ownership. Fat questions lead to learning.

Unfortunately in my teaching this week I caught myself asking LOTS of imposter questions – definitely a ‘could do better Sally’ moment for me! So, if you find you have asked lots of imposter questions don’t worry, we all do! It is a style of questioning that should be avoided whenever possible as, from the pupil’s point of view, imposter questions restrict learning.


Skinny questions have a place in lessons as they give facts and answer questions. They are usually quick to answer and because control remains with the questioner (you the teacher) they feel safe and the lesson keeps moving.

Here are a few examples:

  • Definitions – “What does crescendo mean?”
  • Memorising – “What’s the name of that note?”
  • Repeating – “F sharp is the key signature of G major. What is the key signature of G major?”


Fat questions are the really interesting and useful ones though. They require longer answers and encourage the pupil to think and reflect so learning starts to happen. When we ask fat, broad questions we are helping our pupils towards higher-order thinking.They are asked to consider their opinions, the questions engage the emotions and control of the question passes over to the pupil.

Here are some of the categories of fat questions with examples:

  • Comparisons – “What would it sound like if it went at a different speed?”
  • Contrast – “What happens if you play the chords with different fingering?”
  • Classify – “How might you label the structure of these two phrases?”
  • Defend reasons – “Why did you want to play it in that particular way?”
  • Design – “What elements of the piece could you use to create your own song?”

So what type of questions can you catch yourself asking? It’s quite hard to monitor yourself so like me why not ask your pupils to help you in your teaching over the next few days.

Join me next week when I will be looking at 2 more question types.

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

7 thoughts on “Fat Questions & Skinny Questions

  1. Prue

    I think the definition of different types of responding/ questioning is very helpful. Makes you think about what is the best one to use and when because of what you want achieve. Imposter questions do allow reframing of a direction in a non threatening way but an alternative could be to start with “let’s e.g try this with separate hands or let’s play this slower.

  2. Robyn

    Excellent ideas…your work is always enlightening. It Is so great to have someone cause you to stop and think about your ‘questioning’ technique.

  3. Bridget P

    I totally agree with the fat questions leading to learning. I am a qualified primary teacher and we are pulled up if our questioning is closed. We ask open ended questions often starting with how, why, what is your idea about where this is leading? etc.

  4. Julianne I

    With some students I like to use the words ‘top’ and ‘bottom’ as it can be less confusing than ‘left’ and ‘right’ for those who get a litttle muddled. This relates to the music thus: treble being physically the top stave in print, and bass being physically lower/bottom on the page. If they still struggle with this, for one particular student I say ‘the hand closest to me – the top/right hand’ or alternatively, ‘the hand closest to the door – the bottom/left hand’, using both terms wherever possible, so they can still associate ‘left’ & ‘right’ down the track.

    I also like Cheron’s comment about stickers and shading the clefs with colours. I’d probably choose Red for the Right hand, and Blue for the Bottom/left hand for an additional memory jogger.

  5. Cheron

    I ask my younger pupils to choose 2 coloured stickers( stars) to put on the back of their hands then using same colour crayons they shade in the treble and bass staves to match.

  6. Kate Lillington

    I keep finding I am saying ‘use your left hand’ and the child does not know which hand is left!! Any suggestions, apart from wearing a coloured bracelet’ could help here please!


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