Conferences, improving as a teacher, Professional Development, Teaching Piano

OhioMTA Conference 2011 (2): Toxic or Terrific Teaching by Nicole Biggs

The next session at the OhioMTA Conference was given by Dr. Nicole Biggs, the new piano professor at Bowling Green State University in my town:

Toxic or Terrific Teaching: Exploring the Strategies that Bring out the Best in our Students

Dr. Biggs began by pointing out that our goal as teachers is to inspire and motivate our students in such a way that they can go on independently without us.  Our goal in effect is to teach ourselves out of a job.

A potential problem for some of us as teachers is that we may unintentionally emulate the teaching models we experienced, whether good or bad.  It’s a challenge, but if we perhaps experienced “toxic teaching” during our own studies, we need to find ways to ensure these teaching strategies don’t filter into our own teaching.  We need to transform any toxic teaching strategies into terrific teaching strategies.  

Dr. Biggs discussed a number of toxic teaching strategies, each followed by a description of the terrific teaching strategy that should replace it.  Here are a few of my favorite points that she made:

TOXIC TEACHING: Disrespect.  This teaching strategy uses exaggeration, sarcasm, and embarressment to bring about learning. The teacher might copy the students’ playing with an added “…only you weren’t this bad; I’m just exaggerating.”

…TERRIFIC TEACHING: Nurturing students.  Instead of using methods that might show disrespect to the student, teachers can use methods such as asking guided questions, and demonstrating an optimal sound model to nurture artistry from the beginning.

TOXIC TEACHING: Fixating on the obvious.  This is when teachers focus on wrong notes (especially with advanced students) instead of providing help with technique or artistry.  This leads to the student feeling that they don’t need the teacher until their playing arrives at a high level.

…TERRIFIC TEACHING: Teaching towards the greatest change.  As Nelita True once said, “Hear every student as if they are great artists.”  Teachers need to be able to provide help with technique or artistry even at the first few weeks of work on a piece.  Having all the notes correct should not be considered a pre-requisite.

TOXIC TEACHING: Demonstrative teaching.  Demonstrative teaching can be a joy killer.  If all the teacher does is talk, talk talk and the student never gets to play or input their thoughts, the student can become bored very quickly.  Similarly, if the teacher teaches that their is only one way to play a passage or a piece, students may become uninspired and uncreative in their playing.

…TERRIFIC TEACHING: Facilitating curiosity.  Students should be enthusiastic and curious!  Books on creativity talk about curiosity as fluency, flexibility, and originality.  They talk about trying to be surprised by something every day, and to surprise someone else every day.   As teachers, we need to model curiosity to our students, and find creative ways to nurture their curiosity.  As Jane McGrath once said, “Excellence breeds excellence, and curiosity breeds curiosity.”

To summarize terrific teaching, Dr. Biggs suggests:

  1. Provide a sound model for students.  Words aren’t always necessary; much can be said through the music itself.  For example, this is done through playing for students yourself and showing YouTube videos of the great artists.  This implies that the teacher must have the student’s repertoire in their fingers.
  2. Aim for the stars.  Even with intermediate level students, expose them to great artists such a Horowitz.  It will inspire them more than anything else.

In closing, Dr. Biggs encouraged us that if we recognize any of these toxic teaching strategies in our own teaching, we should strive to improve ourselves by transforming these habits into terrific teaching strategies.  Our teaching strategies should reflect our goals as music educations: to direct students towards lifelong music making, independence, and beautiful playing.

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