THE PIANO BRAIN: The Metacognitive Piano Teacher

by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

To remain a pupil is to serve your teacher badly. – Friedrich Nietzsche


In addition to enhancing musical progress, the ultimate objective for teachers is to gradually become unnecessary in the learning lives of their students.  Metacognition is that wonderful learning stage when the learner drives the learning.  An umbrella term, metacognition means “thinking about our thinking.” It includes planning, questioning, monitoring, memorization, self-reflection, self-knowledge about our learning strengths and weaknesses, and self-evaluation.  It involves understanding our motivations, setting goals, knowing which practice strategies to implement, and being able to exercise self-discipline.  It’s about knowing when and how to use these strategies for maximum learning.  Novices rarely engage in the metacognitive learning strategies that drive real progress.  In contrast, the skills of super learners are underpinned by executive-function skills and character traits such as sustaining focus, commitment, perseverance, and resisting impulse and distraction.

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and non-learners. -Benjamin R. Barber

Metacognition is the learner’s coming of age.  It is the hallmark of intrinsic motivation.  The diverse set of skills this word represents is essential for reaching expertise in any domain, including music.  This is an important distinction.  It’s not talent, but the processes of development that lead to expertise.  But don’t expect students to welcome this style of learning.  As most teachers find, students actively resist it because it is difficult and requires more mental effort.  It’s a lot easier to be told what to do and to be evaluated by the teacher than to engage with the messiness of learning.

Great learning asks great questions, underpinned by great thinking.  The brain is more receptive to remember answers to questions we ask than when information is delivered by the teacher.  Over time, students should be asking themselves the same questions a teacher would.

The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student. Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge.

The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student.  Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge.  Metacognition, the most essential learning-capacity skill set, is overlooked, or, at least, insufficiently taught.  Harvard’s David Perkins (1992) posits that any substantial improvement in the learning capacity of society is unlikely until metacognitive learning is more fully addressed.

Metacognitive learners take responsibility for their learning.  Music students must be able to ask, “How effective is my practice? How effective is my learning? What do I need to do to get better?  What practice strategy does this task require?” Successful analysis of problems gets to the heart of the matter quickly.  Metacognition is not about factual knowledge or skill, but the process involved in gaining that knowledge or skill.  It enables us to question our beliefs and perspectives that color our approach and attitude to learning.  Children aged eleven or twelve might have an impressive body of factual knowledge, but have comparatively low metacognitive skills.  Metacognition usually flowers later in cognitive development, perhaps, in adolescence or early adulthood, but this process is dependent on the quality of teaching and parenting.  Young students should be prompted with questions and encouraged to verbalize thoughts and to self-evaluate.  In these early stages of teaching metacognition, teachers explicitly and consciously model (verbalize) their thought processes as they solve a problem.

Midway through my undergraduate music education degree I changed piano teachers. My first impression of my new teacher Stephen was that he was a little odd. Stephen barely said a word, so how was I supposed to learn from him? When I played, rather than comment, he looked at me expectantly, as if he were waiting for me to do the analysis. Uncomfortable with the silence, I uttered thoughts of my own. “Maybe this phrase could use more of a crescendo?” I’d ask. “OK,” he’d say. “Try it.” I did so, and the process would be repeated. I might not have understood this at the time, but Stephen was teaching me to think for myself, which led me into a new age of self-directed learning. I was learning how to teach myself. Prior to Stephen, my experience with piano lessons was quite different. My role was a passive receiver of teacher knowledge. My well-intentioned teachers always had given me directions and told me what I needed to do, and my job was to sit, listen, obey, and execute. Essentially, this teacher-directed style took the hard work out of learning.

Let me show you how to do this.

Let me tell you what you are doing wrong.

Let me tell you what I think.

Let me tell you what to do.

Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought.

This suited me fine, because I did not have to think too hard. Stephen would have none of this, for passive learning was not enough. Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought. Providing solutions before the student has had an opportunity to solve a problem constrains autonomy. Rather, good teachers hint, gradually increasing the content until the pupil works it out for themselves. Expressive disciplines like music require active participation, and teachers like Stephen enable students to question and to construct their own ideas. As I became more engaged in my own learning, my motivation levels skyrocketed.

This was probably my most valuable learning experience as a young adult, and I will always be thankful to Stephen for that.



Never stop questioning. -Albert Einstein

The simplest strategy for increasing student metacognition is to ask questions.  Not whilst students are playing, of course, for this does not prevent errors or encourage self-learning.  Simple, open-ended questions before and after playing prompt self-discovery. Here are some examples:

  • How do you think you played?
  • Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
  • Is what you’re doing working? Why? Why not?
  • Which goals would you like to set for this week?
  • What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
  • Can you explain what you are doing? What are you thinking?
  • What have you improved upon since last week?
  • Can you teach me how to do this?

One study found that over 90 percent of the utterances of the best teachers are questions (Lepper and Woolverton 2002). Questions are leading and informative, demanding thinking and exploration of ideas. It is sobering, therefore, to read references that suggest that most instrumental music tutors ask questions in only 2 or 3 percent of their words (Zhukov 2012). John Hattie’s (2009) research finds that 60 percent of the 300–400 teacher questions per day require only superficial factual data, 20 percent target procedural knowledge, and only 20 percent are open, skilled questions that prompt deeper thinking and higher-order understanding.

Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).

When students respond to questions, teachers must wait patiently and allow them to struggle to find the right words, resisting the temptation to put words into their mouths. Students need time to process and internalize information before giving a response. The period of silence between a teacher question and student response is referred to as “think time.”  Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).

Struggle is inherent in learning. This is the principle failing of the enthusiastic graduate teacher, so keen to impart as much as possible of their own knowledge that there is little real learning left for the student to do.  Teaching and giving answers are not synonymous.  Nor is learning and having the answers supplied.  Studies confirm that when teacher talk dominates the learning environment, at best shallow learning results (Chi et al. 2001).  What teachers choose not to say is essential.  The best teachers tell their students almost nothing.  They prompt and probe, drawing as much as possible from the student.  Likewise, teachers who solve problems for students implicitly communicate to the student that they are incapable of solving it for themselves.

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

The Socratic method is a questioning pedagogy.  Plato refers to Socrates teaching geometry to a slave boy, not by imparting his own knowledge, but by questioning alone, thereby allowing the boy to create his own conclusions.  Aldous Huxley was acutely aware of this when he wrote “The Dangers of Good Teaching” in 1927 (quoted in Abbott 2010):

“Working on the old-fashioned system, the clever teacher (deplorable paradox!) does almost more harm than the stupid one. For the clever schoolmaster makes things too easy for his pupils; he relieves them of the necessity of finding out things for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching, he succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process. He knows how to fill his pupils with ready-made knowledge, which they inevitably forget (since it is not their knowledge and cost them nothing to acquire) as soon as the examination for which it was required is safely passed.

The stupid teacher, on the other hand, may be so completely intolerable that the child will, perhaps, be driven, despairingly and in mere self-defense, to educate himself; in which case the incompetent shepherd will have done, all unwittingly, a great service to his charge, by forcing him into a rebellious intellectual independence.”

Initially, musical understanding is procedural. That is, students know how to do things but cannot articulate the process. A deeper knowing, declarative knowledge, is the ability to talk and think about music using linguistic terms. Allowing students to talk about concepts in their own words strengthens musical understanding from the procedural realm to include the declarative realm. Words enhance conceptual understanding; they enable us to think. Complex thoughts are not possible without them.


Verbal Mediation (Self-Talk)

Of course, I talk to myself; sometimes I need expert advice! – Thomas Jefferson

Abraham Lincoln’s secretary asked him, “Sir, why do you read aloud to yourself and why do you talk to yourself?” Lincoln’s response was, “When I do this, I remember twice as much, for twice as long” (Chandler 2004). This is verbal mediation – another strategy for increasing metacognition.

Verbal mediation, or self-talk, is thinking aloud.  When students encounter a learning difficulty, I ask them to think verbally. By thinking out loud as they practice, students uncover the root of a problem and gain a better understanding of the task.  Also, teachers get insight into students’ mental processes. More generally, reading aloud helps us process information in the mind and stay in the present.

Steven Mithen (2005) writes, “Children who provide their own verbal commentary, learn skills quicker than those who remain silent.”  Self-talk is essential for a child’s development and, although it gradually disappears as thinking becomes silent, we continue to do it occasionally – particularly if faced with a challenging problem. Verbal cues assist with thinking, memory formation, focus, and learning in general. For example, memorizing a list of words by saying them out loud is more effective than through silent reading (Ozubko and Macleod 2010).

The skills of metacognition are applied throughout the learning cycle.

  1. Planning. Before practicing, analyze the piece. Identify points of interest, patterns, the key, and expected difficulties. Set practice goals. Verbalize thoughts.
  2. Actively listen and monitor during practice.
  3. Evaluate. Identify difficulties and successes. Verbalize the strategies employed explaining why they were successful.
  4. Describe new practice strategies, how they can be implemented, and the expected improvement.
  5. Continue this cycle until satisfied with the result.


This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition.

Most children have one music lesson each week and receive little teacher guidance in between.  Hence, learning how to learn is essential. The complex and open-ended activity of music practice demands metacognitive skill probably more than any other activity. Explicitly teaching practice strategies teaches metacognitive skills. This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition.  The higher-order-thinking skills include performance preparation, concentration, monitoring quality, learning and memory-formation strategy, and self-evaluation.  Professional musicians have a high awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.  Stephen Covey (1994) writes that self-awareness is “our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.”

Metacognition provides us with this objective view of our strengths and weaknesses. It enables freedom of the mind. Through reflection and evaluation, we understand our actions more critically. We improve our learning by continually designing and redesigning our training.



Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of  “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”



1. Abbott, J. 2010. Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents. London: Continuum.
2. Chandler, S. 2004. 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself: Change Your Life Forever. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
3. Chi, M. T. H., Siler, S. A., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., Hausmann, R. G. 2001. Learning from Human Tutoring. Cognitive Science 25: 471–533.
4. Covey, S. 1994. First Things First. New York: Simon & Schuster.
5. Lepper, M. R. and Woolverton, M. 2002. The Wisdom of Practice: Lessons Learned from the Study of Highly Effective Tutors. 6. In J. Aronson (ed.), Improving Academic Achievement. New York: Academic, pp. 135–158.
7. Mithen, Steve. 2005. The Singing Neanderthals. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
8. Perkins, D. 1992. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press.
9. Ozubko, J. D. and Macleod, C. M. 2010. The Production Effect in Memory: Evidence that Distinctiveness Underlies the Benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology 36(6): 1543–1547.
10. Stahl, R. 1994. Using “Think Time” and “Wait Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC.
11. Zhukov, K. 2012. Teaching Strategies and Gender in Higher Education Instrumental
Studios. International Journal of Music Education 30(1): 32–45.

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2 thoughts on “THE PIANO BRAIN: The Metacognitive Piano Teacher

  1. That strategy is very interesting and actually I did it with some of my students but I didn’t know abaut this knowledge!
    I had a good teacher and clever teacher.Although had I both of the strategies experienced(classic and question strategies) and I bilieve that metacognition and question strategy is the best one!

  2. This is one of the most thought-provoking articles I have read on teaching and learning.
    Working out how best to empower students to learn and problem solve has always been the most fascinating aspect of teaching for me.

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