Piano Teaching and the Art of Criticism

Supporting Educators • Promoting Learning

“Advice is like the snow. The softer it falls, the longer it dwells upon and the deeper it sinks into the mind”

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834)

One of the key roles of a piano teacher is to help their students make direct improvements in their playing. To do this we must identify the priority areas that need attention, hopefully without turning into the scolding teacher in the photo above!

In this article I will share some suggestions on how to offer helpful criticism, encouraging positive progress and enthusiastic learning.

I will cover the following points:

  • Why Accuracy Matters
  • The Piano Teacher as “Critical Friend”
  • Golden Tips for Giving Constructive Feedback

Listening to our students play and offering suggestions for improvement is certainly not the whole of a piano teacher’s work, but in many lessons it will be a central feature…

I was quite surprised to hear a well-known teacher recently mention that he doesn’t ever point out his students’ wrong notes. His point, if I understood it correctly, is that focusing too much on the notes themselves can become an obsession that distracts from other aspects of a performance. Certainly, none of us want to turn into the dreaded “note police”!

On the other hand, however, a piano examiner recently mentioned to me that she had that day assessed several Grade One piano candidates in quick succession, each playing the same pieces with the exact same wrong notes, and all entered by one teacher. What are we to make of this?

One obvious answer is that the teacher in this instance lacked the aural and musical awareness to properly identify their students’ mistakes. But I think we must also allow for the possibility that the teacher fully recognised the mistakes and (for whatever reason) decided not to address them.

To me, at least, this seems neglectful. While it is right to focus on the bigger aspects of piano education, it is also important to encourage accuracy, and to identify any misreadings or incorrect details in a student’s playing so that they might go on to play with more confidence.

Quite apart from the fact that wrong notes can lead to a lower mark in an exam, competition or festival, we should also remember that (both in written and improvised music) they are often a revelatory diagnostic tool that can unlock crucial areas of understanding that a student needs help with. Left unaddressed, such errors can ferment to become more significant problems down the line.

To understand why accuracy matters in piano playing, we need to understand what it is; accuracy is a matter of intention:

When playing notated music:
Accuracy is realising the composer’s written intentions
When playing improvised music:
Accuracy is realising our own aural and creative intentions

Nor is accuracy just about playing the “correct” notes, fingering and timing. We might just as appropriately use the word accuracy in relation to tempo, flow, dynamics, articulation, balance, voicing, and even stylistic suitability.

To perform a piece with accuracy is not so much to play it perfectly as to communicate its truth.

Misreadings and misunderstandings are quite common when using notation, even for advanced players.

My scores from my time as a diploma-level student at the Royal College of Music are full of helpful markings from my teachers, including identification of notes, dynamics and articulations that I had ignored or habitually played wrong. And I want my students to benefit from the same, helpful attention to detail, both technical and musical.

But when helping students with improvised music, we should be no less committed to giving a helpful critique that addresses the question of accuracy. This can be attempted through dialogue, exploring to what extent their playing reflected their musical intentions, and how any gaps in their accurate realisation of their aims might be bridged.

Perhaps, for example, there may be a need for a better understanding of the theoretical elements of the music, or time spent working on pertinent playing techniques that will facilitate better fluency.

It’s important to recognise the difference between constructive feedback on the one hand, and negative criticism on the other. The former helps the student to improve; the latter leaves the student feeling deflated and discouraged.

For several years when my children were younger, I was an elected Parent Governor at their Primary School. When I accepted the role, it was explained that the function of a school governor is to be a critical friend to the Head Teacher, staff and school.

It’s a turn of phrase that has stuck with me ever since. Isn’t a critical friend the best type? If you have yoghurt in your beard, or smudged lipstick, far better the company of a critical friend than an uncritical friend who’s too “polite” to helpfully point it out!

I’ve tried to apply this in all my relationships: familial, collegiate, and throughout daily life. It’s perhaps one of the reasons why quite a few people now seem to value my advice, including my students. They know that I will be an honest friend to them.

So here’s a few practical, positive and personal tips for being a friend as we offer criticism.

Before launching into a critique of a student’s playing, I tend to ask for their own observations on how well they have progressed or performed a piece.

Often, their self-evaluation provides a perfect launchpad for the teaching that follows, and as I help them improve those aspects of their playing that they themselves are dissatisfied with, my own assessments and views percolate into the lesson too.

Of course, at times a student will have a view of their playing which is either rather inflated (“I was totally happy with it!”) or unduly negative (“It was a train-wreck”!). But such comments are always informative, providing a signal that the emotionally intelligent teacher will be alert to, and a frame for any critique which follows.

Most people have heard of and probably used the so-called praise sandwich. Much lauded in business and teacher training, it has equally become a staple of the television talent show.

“This was great …
but this needs improvement …
but I loved it overall!”

There are good reasons why this approach is so well-worn, but the praise sandwich is becoming a victim of its own success through overuse.

The problem is that many are so familiar with the tactic that they barely listen to the praise while waiting in trepidation for the inevitable “…but …”. It can sometimes be near impossible for them to hear and accept praise at all.

However, including a mixture of both praise and criticism side-by-side remains a vitally important part of giving holistic feedback. There are almost always positive aspects to a student’s piano playing which deserve recognition, affirmation and enthusiastic encouragement.

An accurate and fair critique begins with a recognition of how a student’s playing today improves upon and differs from their playing yesterday.

Assuming we have listened to the student play before, I believe that our first consideration must be how well they have progressed since the last encounter. If we fail to recognise the effort a student has made, or acknowledge their progress, they will quickly become discouraged and stop making an effort at all. Lack of affirmation spells the beginning of the end.

I have found it equally important to finish a lesson with a few encouraging words about how well the student has improved during the session. Our students should always leave a lesson feeling that something positive has been accomplished!

As we pursue the truth of the music in our playing, inaccuracy can easily become frustrating. How important, then, to regularly check in on our mood to make sure it doesn’t sour.

Excessive fault finding is never helpful; supportive criticism must come from a position of interest and enthusiasm. And rather than labouring over the same mistakes, I think we need to accompany our critique with genuinely helpful practical suggestions about how to improve.

It’s important to always be specific both when offering praise and when suggesting improvements. If either become vague, they are likely to be interpreted emotionally rather than with understanding. And that doesn’t get us any closer to the truth of the music.

I find it really helps to focus on one thing that most needs improvement. Becoming absorbed together, explore the music as an act of play rather than laboriously toiling in the pursuit of unrealistic expectations.

Music is a language whose nuances will never adequately be contained either in written notation or in verbose description. Musical demonstration alone is able to convey the full truth.

But in my view, demonstration should never be a moment in the lesson where the teacher shows off their own ability; care is needed to ensure that the focus should always be on the music and on the student.

Demonstration and explanation go hand in hand, the student’s attention directed so that they hear the music afresh, and see the techniques involved. I often ask students to make a mental list of observations, questions, and even their own criticisms of my playing, all with a longer view to constructively addressing their own playing.

And I think that demonstrations must always be shared with enthusiasm, the teacher communicating their own love for the music in such a way that the student comes to fully care about the details their attention is being drawn to.

In this way the music itself provides the critique; the teacher can diminish.

Over the years I’ve noticed that different students respond to criticism in different ways. This is hardly surprising; we all bring our own baggage to the lesson.

Some seem to enthusiastically lap up as much criticism as a teacher is willing to give, embracing it as a means to improvement. At the other end of the spectrum we find students who are more fragile, and for whom the smallest criticism can precipitate an existential crisis.

If our aim is to help each and every student make progress at their own pace and in their own way, we must be extraordinarily careful in how much criticism we offer, its pace and delivery. I believe that we should never offer criticism where it is unwelcome.

We must always gauge the student’s reaction, measure their subsequent progress, and tailor future criticism to best meet their temperament and learning needs.

There will perhaps always be those who suggest that in former times, harsh criticism spurred students on to greater success. But such a viewpoint is not without danger; we must always be clear that:

  • Criticism should never humiliate the recipient.
  • Criticism should never be knowingly or wilfully unkind.
  • Criticism should never be used to exert power in relationships.

Others, perhaps reacting to abuses and misunderstandings experienced in the past, will advocate shying away from offering criticism altogether. But a lack of diagnoses in our teaching will surely thwart pupil progress.

I have attempted here to describe a better, middle way in which genuine, honest, friendly and truly helpful criticism can meet students’ needs, without damaging the souls of either the student or teacher.

Knowing that our criticism is offered as a friend (and will always be accompanied by practical help where needed) makes all the difference.

Even two centuries ago Samuel Taylor Coleridge recognised the value of criticism that uses a more measured, “softer” approach. Recognising the wisdom of his advice, the best teachers will surely want to give criticism that, as he put it, sinks “deeper into the mind”, leading to positive, effective and lasting learning.

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Published by

Andrew Eales

Andrew Eales is a widely respected piano educator, writer and composer based in Milton Keynes UK. His book HOW TO PRACTISE MUSIC is published by Hal Leonard.