To be a great teacher, you need to be a great communicator. You need to be aware of how your word choice, inflection and body language affect the way your student engages with the lesson content.
Your body is communicating with your students even when you haven’t said a word. Students will pick up your chair-slump and feel less enthused by their music. They’ll see the furrow of your brow in the corner of their eye and wonder what they’re doing wrong. They may not even consciously think about these things, but it will affect their lesson experience.
Aim to make your body language communicate openness, energy and positivity. Sitting forward in your chair will tell your students that you’re interested in their performance. Nods will let them know you get what they’re saying. Every little tap and angle matters.
Where you sit and stand in the room will also change a student’s perspective. Most of the time you will want to sit close to your student so that you communicate with them easily. Sometimes, however, it can be useful to get out of the student’s peripheral vision so they can go into their own little performance bubble. Play with your teaching space and notice the influence for each student.
Yes, what you wear matters too.
Imagine 2 insurance company offices. In IAEF Insurance Ltd, all the staff are wearing shirts and blazers. In AEFI Insurance Ltd, everyone is wearing vests and boardshorts. Which insurance company are you likely to choose?
I think the answer is pretty clear. Now, what if the office attire looked the same but you were comparing surfboard suppliers instead?
I’m not here to say that you need to wear a suit. But you should look how people expect a professional teacher to look. This will vary depending on local culture, so I suggest you imagine a well-respected school teacher where you are and base your personal dresscode off of that.
It’s one more signal to the parents and students you work with that you respect their trust in you and take the responsibility seriously.
Never put yourself in the position of having to say: “Do as I say, not as I do!”
Every time you play for your student, consider it a performance. Produce a beautiful tone, use exemplary technique and always (always, always, always!) sit with proper posture.
You can take modelling further than this, too. Try modelling with your voice the sound you want your student to create, or modelling in the air the movements you want from them. This can often be more powerful than several minutes of explanation.
Students will mirror your mood. You need to show them you’re excited to teach them and that you love music.
This can be as simple as training yourself to smile more and putting some extra animation into your voice when you’re feeling a little tired. (Bonus: You might just find you feel more energised after you’ve “faked” the energy for your student!)
You also need to show enthusiasm for your students’ pieces so that they feel excited to learn them. Tell your students what you love about pieces as you introduce them. Give them a little background info on the composer or let them know what song the rhythm reminds you of. (If the music is so boring that you can’t find anything fun to comment on, then please choose some different music!)
People of all ages want to be heard. They need to know that they matter and are seen as an individual.
It’s easy as a teacher (and as a human) to get distracted while someone else is talking. We start thinking about the next thing on our list or how to solve an issue in their technique and we nod along, but we’re not really listening.
I’m sure you’ve been on the receiving end of this too. Did it feel good?
We need to get in the habit of listening properly to what our students are saying. Quite often, they will reveal something you didn’t know about them. You might pick up on a misunderstanding they have about a musical concept. You might learn that they love ballet and find an opportunity to connect that to their repertoire later. You never know until you start paying attention.
The right question is often the magic key for a student to move forward. Asking great questions can lead your student to discover the answer themselves and take ownership of the knowledge.
Frame your questions to get your student thinking and puzzling by avoid questions which have a yes/no answer. For example, “What practice strategy could we try here?” is likely to get a more interesting answer than “Should we try using the metronome?”
When the goal is to promote learning rather than check understanding, ‘discover’ questions are better than ‘quiz’ questions. Discovery questions often start with “What do you think…?” They invite students to consider what something could mean or a solution they could use to a given problem rather than sounding like a test they might fail.
While we want our questions to encourage thought and discovery, we also want to avoid the vagueness trap. When we ask things like “What do you think of this piece?” we risk getting a flat answer because the student doesn’t know which direction to turn with this question. But if we asked them “What do you notice about the dynamics here?” or “What’s unusual about the rhythm?” they will be able to provide us with a much more interesting response.
Humans are storytelling creatures. We love a good yarn which brings our imaginations to life. 🙂
Evoking metaphors like a bouncing trampoline for staccato notes or a grumpy grandparent for a piece with a certain tone is a great way to get students to connect to the music they’re learning.
You can also connect with students by telling them stories from your own experiences with certain pieces or composers. Tell them about your first concert when they’re preparing for theirs, or how you learnt to love Bartók because it was your uncle’s favourite.