The Piano Brain: Teacher Questions In The Music Lesson

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

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Have you ever thought about the role of questions in your music lessons?

Whilst teacher questions serve to check for understanding, the most important benefit is that they engage the student in thinking to a much greater degree than do instructions. Thinking precedes learning. If there is no thinking, there will be no learning.

An example of an opportunity for deep questioning is in the giving of feedback. Quality feedback is essential for student progress. Feedback needs to be quick, often, consistent and accurate. However, before the teacher imparts their wisdom to the student, intelligent questioning allows for self-evaluation. All learners need to be able to monitor and evaluate their progress without the aid of a teacher. After all, most students have a lesson once per week, and are their own teachers for the remainder. Monitoring and evaluation, along with goal setting and reflection, are the essential metacognitive components for self-directed learning. For self-evaluation, the question could be as simple as “What do you think?” or “What are your thoughts?” The best teachers continue this questioning process, driving deeper learning for understanding and insight. They tell their students almost nothing, prompting and probing, drawing as much as possible from the student without providing answers.  It’s a little like delaying the final perfect cadence!  These teachers do not accept shallow or superficial responses, for they have high expectations of the student. Intelligent questions suggest no teacher judgement, allowing for greater freedom of response. Some useful questions include:

  • What makes you say that?
  • What questions are surfacing for you? What are you thinking?
  • Is what you are doing working? Why? Why not?
  • Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
  • What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
  • Can you explain to me what you are doing?
  • Can you show me how to do this?
  • What goals would you like to set this week?
  • What’s your plan for tackling this?
  • Where will you go next?

Feedback and associated questions should apply to both the competent and less-competent aspects of playing. Many teachers are clear with feedback on the weaknesses of the playing, but less specific on what was good about the playing. Learners need to develop an acute awareness of both.

When asking questions, teachers should increase the “wait” time for an answer before butting in. The longer the wait time, the more opportunity to think and explore possibilities. Students can be very quick to say, “I don’t know”, effectively quitting the thinking process. We cannot accept this.

Sometimes an instruction is more appropriate than a question. For example, “Have your music ready, please” rather than an unnecessary question, “Have you got your music ready yet?”

Questioning is the essence of Socratic teaching. Plato tells the story that Socrates would teach without imparting information or answers. He would ask questions alone, allowing students to construct their own learning.

I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think. – Socrates

The best teachers ask questions in most of their interactions with students, even as much as 90% of the time. Studies on instrumental music teachers reveal that this is for many, an area for improvement, because many music teachers issue more instructions and commands than questions. This type of “control” teaching does little to engage students in the metacognitive process. Teaching and giving answers are not synonymous. When teacher talk dominates the lesson, at best shallow learning results. Metacognitive teaching approaches, such as questioning, foster how to think rather than what to think, resulting in a greater capacity to generate ideas and solutions.


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About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist, based in Australia.  He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students.”

One thought on “The Piano Brain: Teacher Questions In The Music Lesson

  1. Great article! So often teachers forget that 90% or more of the learning happens at home. We really need to teach our students to self-assess so that they can be as efficient as possible at home!

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