Leonardo da Vinci once said ‘simplicity is the ultimate sophistication,’ and this is certainly true when it comes to giving instructions. I’m sure we’ve all asked for directions at one time or another and instantly regretted it, walking away even more confused. Delivering clear instructions and being efficient with language is a real art form, but can save us time and our students, confusion. Clear language starts with clarity of thought, so if you’re new to teaching it’s well worth spending some time thinking about your choice of words in advance. Here are a few things to consider…
Children are naturally divergent thinkers. It never ceases to amaze me how they manage to come up with ways to reinvent instrumental technique when given the opportunity, and so often, it comes down to semantics. If our instructions are vague they will almost certainly be misinterpreted. For example, ‘now attach the mouthpiece’ can easily lead to an upside down, back to front mouthpiece attached to any part of the instrument (or even any part of the student. Let’s face it, you didn’t actually say!) Being specific is important. Where adults would ask clarifying questions, children have a tendency to fill the gaps in our instructions for themselves. This is particularly vital in whole-class instrumental teaching, where 30+ different interpretations aren’t always immediately obvious, but are always problematic.
Less is more
Learning an instrument is an inherently practical activity. While verbal instruction is often useful and necessary, there is such thing as too much information. Also, listening to someone talk about playing an instrument is generally far less interesting than actually having a go. Be careful about the amount of information you give out in one go, and challenge yourself to use as few words as possible. Using ‘keywords’ or ‘key phrases’ can instantly draw a student’s attention to a particular aspect of their playing or posture, without having to stop them playing, maintaining the flow of a lesson.
‘Actions speak louder than words’ is a cliché but there can be real power in silence. Having students watch and copy your every move without saying a word can bring a different level of focus. Sometimes it can be easier to show than it is to tell.
Children are particularly prone to negative suggestion; this Derren Brown experiment is an excellent example. Therefore, it’s always best to express your instructions in the positive. ‘Sit behind your instrument with your hands on your knees,’ will likely be more effective than ‘sit down and don’t touch the instruments’. Always remember to ask for what you do want, not what you don’t want. At the very least it’s best not to give them ideas!
Clarity begins at home
As we mentioned in our last blog post, your students will spend more time playing their instruments without you than with you, so clear instructions have to reach beyond your teaching room. Breaking down a complex technique into a step-by-step process, makes it easier for the student to retain, and then replicate away from the lesson. A worksheet with top tips and reminders can prevent a week of practising bad habits, or not practising because ‘I forgot how to do that’. Similarly, clear instructions in practice books can save well-meaning parents from adlibbing their own based on something they found on the Internet.