improving as a teacher, Motivation, Teaching Piano

Teaching Tip: Engaging the Emotions

I read something this week that mentioned in passing the benefit of engaging the emotions for learning.  This idea really stuck with me, and I haven’t stopped thinking about it since.  It makes perfect sense, but I just never thought about it much before.  I think this idea is worth some consideration.

Neurologically, humans learn best when their emotions are engaged.  Various research has been done that suggests the benefit of learning when the emotions are engaged (see “For Further Reading” below).  An effective speaker will appeal to the listeners’ emotions in order to affect and influence them to agree with the points made, support the viewpoint, and maybe even motivate them to do something about it.  Similarly, an effective teacher will connect with the students’ emotions to make the student interested in the topic and motivated to learn.  When the emotions are engaged, the learning moment becomes both meaningful and memorable.

The art of music is very close to the heart and the emotions.  We music teachers are very fortunate!  And yet, how often do we encounter students who seldom practice?  How about unmotivated students who quit after just a few years?  And how often do we hear completely unemotional performances?  These things do happen, unfortunately.  We can help prevent this from happening.  Perhaps through engaging the emotions we can help students connect with the music and be interested/motivated.

The Piano Lesson

So, what are some ways we as piano teachers can engage the student’s emotions in the piano lesson?

A few quick ideas:

  • Talk about the illustration of the piece, if there is one.  This is a great option for beginner level pieces that don’t have a lot of “meat” to them, as well as for more advanced pieces.  An illustration can be an effective launching pad into a discussion about what the piece is about and how the composer tried to emulate the subject through the composition.  For example, a piece about popcorn may have a lot of staccato articulation markings.  Ask the student to notice how high the popcorn is hopping up as it is being popped (in the illustration)!  Ask the student for ideas for making the piece/the piano sound like popcorn.  Then demonstrate to the student proper technique for achieving a crisp, staccato sound on the piano.  Show the student that making music is much more than following markings on the page!
  • Talk about the title/subject of the piece.  This is also a great option for beginner level pieces.  If the title of the piece is about cats, for example, ask the student if they know someone who has a cat.  When they light up and tell you what they know about cats, use whatever they’ve told you and incorporate it into the piece.  A two-note slur could be their grandma’s cat saying “Me-ow,” for example.  Now the student will be fairly busting to play the piece!  More advanced pieces, for example, Schumann’s “The Wild Rider,” can become a programmatic narrative of a horse and rider tromping through the country side.  Make an effort to connect the piece’s dynamics, articulations, texture, harmonies, etc. to the subject of the piece.
  • Talk about the composer of the piece.  Examples: Haydn had a wonderful sense of humor and loved surprises (tell the story behind the Surprise Symphony).  Liszt loved to play dramatically and show off.  Bach was a church musician and wrote profound works.  Talking about the composer gives the piece more depth, captures the student’s imagination, and helps them connect with “instructions” (articulations, dynamics, etc.) they see on the page.
  • Talk about the stylistic characteristics of the piece and the time period in which the piece was written (Waltz; Romantic period; etc.).  Suppose a student is struggling to play a Minuet in 3/4 meter (ah yes, the common issue: the delay between 3 and 1 that inadvertently makes the meter into 4/4!).  This can be a frustrating problem to solve for both student and teacher.  Ask the student imagine a dancing couple clothed in 18th century garb.  Ask the student to notice how elegant the lady looks swirling around the room with her big skirt, and to imagine how beautiful the ballroom must be.  Consider what a big event this must have been back in those days, and what kind of music was being played at the ball.  Now that the student’s mind is filled with this image, give the 3/4 meter another try.  The mental picture of the dancing will not only pique their imagination, but could also help them connect with and feel the dance-like 3/4 meter.

When the student’s imagination and interest is ignited, the student will be more willing to learn and make corrections than if they feel like they are doing things just because that’s what it says to do on the page.  Even a robot can follow directions.  Music is a matter of the heart and the emotions!


Of course, if is always possible that the student will become overly emotional during the lesson, which is not usually a positive thing.  This occurs when the student becomes discouraged, loses self-confidence, becomes frustrated, etc.  This probably means that the student is engaging the wrong kind of emotion at the wrong time!

For Further Reading

Dialogue on Learning: Creating an Enriched Emotional Environment | An interesting article that talks more about engaging emotions in educational settings.

Photo Credit: david drexler | CC 2.0

Don't miss a thing!

Sign up to get blog updates delivered to your email inbox.

Select ONE:

2 thoughts on “Teaching Tip: Engaging the Emotions”

  1. Great post!
    I love to use pieces that actually don’t have a title to encourage a student’s creativity in musical performance. Many of the pieces W.A. Mozart wrote when he was young display his playful, somewhat rebellious, childlike personality very clearly. On some of them, I can imagine that he may have actually been illustrating through music a dialogue between him and his father….kind of mouthing at each other back and forth.

    My teenage daughter will sit and listen to a recording of her french horn solos after she has learned the notes, rhythms, articulations, etc. She will close her eyes and imagine a story to go along with the music. Then, she will perform the story. At every performance, she will imagine the same story. It’s truly an amazing experience for the audience when she completely loses herself in the musical story like this.

    One thing I tell my students is that sometimes it’s better to NOT tell their audience about the story they are imagining. By communicating a story, any story, through the music, the musician encourages the listener to imagine a story….any story. It is not always necessary that they see the same picture that the performer does. It’s kind of like viewing modern art at a museum.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Rebecca. I love your idea of creating a story line to go with the piece. Not only does it make the piece more meaningful to both the performer and the listeners, but I bet that having a story probably helps the performer feel less anxiety about performing too!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *