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Thursday, January 5, 2012

Teaching Tip: Be Observant!

One of the best tips that I can offer a teacher or parent about how to be more effective as a teacher or parent is to be observant and pay attention to your student or child. When you watch carefully, you will figure out a great deal about what is going on in the head of that student or child. You will also gain valuable clues as to issues that negatively impact the student’s or child’s learning.

I was always fascinated with the stories of Dr. Suzuki’s listening to graduation recordings sent in by students. How, I wondered, could he be able to offer comments about the student’s posture or character issues just by listening to a recording? Now that I have taught for so many years myself, I can now understand how Dr. Suzuki accomplished this feat. I discern many things about a student, not only by watching the student, but also by listening, and using my sense of touch.

Most of the people in the world are visual learners, which means that they take in what happens around them through visual stimuli using their eyes. Try the following experiment: activate your “super ears” by closing your eyes and really listening hard without simultaneous visual stimulation.

How does your student or child sound when they walk into the room? A high school student of mine loves to wear a particular pair of cowboy boots. I can tell how she feels about herself and the upcoming lesson just by the way she clicks her feet when she walks into the room.

Can you hear that the student’s right elbow is too high or that there is tension in the student’s shoulder? The wispy tone is a dead giveaway. A high elbow usually means an over-pronated bow hold too. The index finger may be drooped over the stick and the pinkie may be straight and stiff, and the thumb may be showing signs of pushing through the underside of the frog and turning into a banana rather than being bent and strong and resting against the frog.

Can you hear the clunky bow change at the frog or the crunchy bow changes in general no matter what part of the bow? Check the bow hold again. Is the student relaxed? Is the student hanging out in the lower half of the bow most of the time?

Hear that slippery bow sound at the beginnings of notes? You can bet that the student’s bow is crooked or off the contact point in general. Or maybe the student is getting that squishy, soft sul tasto sound, where the bow is slipping over the fingerboard. Again, check the bow hold and see whether the student is completely opening up the right elbow when traveling the bow to the tip. Many students get a little bit sloppy and floppy once they develop “finger motion” with the right hand fingers, and the bow hold tends to suffer. Also, once students start reading music, they tend to focus on the music more and listen to the sound they produce less overall. I encourage my reading students to memorize their music repertoire as quickly as they can so that we can refocus on good posture, good articulation, and good sound. 

Now open your eyes and really observe your student or child. Are they looking at the music, if reading music is your purpose? I can tell by watching whether a student is really reading the music or whether they are playing by ear (or memory) and “appearing” to look at the music. Watch the student’s eyes. Are they focused or glazing over? Do they follow along with the music or does the student lose his or her place occasionally?

I have a really intelligent parent who has this disconcerting habit of slipping into a fixated stare at me in the middle of an instruction or conversation. I cannot tell if she is really listening to me or pretending to. The next time I experience this stare, I plan to stop talking or doing anything even if I am in mid-sentence. I cannot think of any other way to test my theory out. If she is really paying attention and just has that funny “look” in general when she is concentrating on a conversation or activity, then she will respond instantly to my stopping in the middle of my sentence or activity and ask me why I stopped. If she does not respond to my interrupted speech, my suspicion will be confirmed (at least at that moment in time), and I will need to think of a way to address this issue.

Students are a bit trickier to discover when they are not paying attention. I see it as a lack of focus in the eyes. I also stop talking in these cases and consider whether talking is feeding the child’s tendency to “wander off” mentally. I usually draw the child’s focus back onto the activity or conversation by engaging them in conversation with a question about the activity. My questions begin with “what” or “how” in order to solicit actual responses of more than one or two words. (Note: I am not discussing specialized cases of learning issues here, such as ADD or ADHD).

With eyes closed again, feel the energy in the air as your student enters the studio. I can tell when a parent or child have had a fight in the car on the way to a lesson or when a student has had a hard day at school just by the quality of energy (or lack of it) when they enter the room. I sometimes hear that there was a fight because the student’s “hello” is glum and fuming, while the parent’s voice is overly cheerful and upbeat. I have even been able to tell which child is the parent’s favorite or easiest to raise in a family of more than one child just by listening to the parent’s tone of voice when they address each child. Parents beware of this! If I can hear a difference in the tone of voice, you can be sure that the children can too.

This week, be observant about your student or child. You may learn something new.


  1. A high school studentJanuary 8, 2012 at 12:02 AM

    Gotta love those cowboy boots.

  2. Ha! You looked up the blog post! I remember two new pairs of shoes when I was 12 and beginning junior high school. One pair had rubber soles, and the other pair made a "clicking," "clacking" sound when I walked. Guess which pair I felt more confident wearing?

  3. Hope you don't mind that I used the boots as an example. They are really cool boots!

  4. Once I was playing a note-matching game with a student. Our backs were to each other, and he was pretty surprised when I told him I could hear that he needed to fix his bow hold again! As a first or second year teacher, I was a little surprised myself that the change in tone was so obvious.

    Thanks for all the tips!

    1. And we teachers get better and better at it over time! Isn't experience great?