Providing a Positive Environment

Posted by on Jul 20, 2015 in General, Teaching, Thoughts on Teaching | 0 comments

There are many different ways to approach teaching in a one-on-one setting, but a few of these methods rise above the rest in successfully conveying concepts and ideas.  I’ve been thinking about a couple of these different approaches lately and reflecting on my own lesson experiences in order to define the most effective teaching environment for my studio.  After reading Strings Attached by Joanne Lipman and Melanie Kupchynsky and an article about Dorothy DeLay, the legendary violin professor at Julliard, I’ve thought a lot about teaching philosophies, operant conditioning, and the roles of positive and negative reinforcement and punishment in the music studio.


I have experienced both kinds of reinforcement and punishment in my own private lessons, all to varying degrees of success.  For example, positive reinforcement, such as praise for completing tasks and rewards for improving scales, as well as negative reinforcement, like being exempt from a jury performance or scale test, all led to increases in the causal behavior (e.g., practicing certain techniques, good time management, reaching goals).  On the other hand, positive punishment—in the form of added theory homework or verbal criticism from judges’ panels—and negative punishment, such as losing a solo in an ensemble or having section leader titles revoked, result in a decrease of causal behavior.  I’m sure we’ve all experienced similar instances of reinforcement and punishment in our own daily lives.


So what is the most effective method in the teaching studio?  Reinforcement or punishment?


In the book Strings Attached, the main character, music instructor Jerry Kupchynsky, or Mr. K as students call him, is known for being extremely tough on students—to the point that many parents today would call him verbally abusive.  He would most likely not be allowed to teach in schools today with all of the yelling, stomping, and name-calling he employed in the classroom.  His refusal to coddle students, however, was inspired by a deep sense of caring and pushed students further than they ever thought possible.  He created motivated, confident musicians with thick skins who learned how to push themselves and not take ‘no’ for an answer.


As a review of the book in TIME magazine asks, “Are we too soft on our kids? How do we best balance discipline with praise? How hard do we really want our kids’ teachers to push them?”  It continues citing further research and saying, “Overpraising kids makes them less confident and less motivated,” concluding with the key to Mr. K’s success: “It wasn’t about what happened in his classroom. It’s what happened once his students left the classroom. Whether his students became musicians or doctors or lawyers, they shared one trait in common: They pushed themselves.”   While I agree that there is a fair amount of overpraising in today’s society, the methodology behind creating self-starters can be complicated and sensitive.


Not all students react equally to positive punishment in the form of extremely critical feedback.  Not all students are able to fight back and get tougher with time.  For some, this may mean quitting music altogether.  For others, this form of teaching may inspire a lifelong drive to improve and succeed.  It is hard to predict how far is too far.  Crossing the line and using fear as a motivator may lead to mental damage, which can take years to undo.


In my personal experience, the fear of being wrong often overshadowed exploration and, consequently, pushed creativity to the side.  I became obsessed with being ‘correct’ because only then did I receive the positive reinforcement I desired.  When teachers used punishment, whether positive or negative—though it had the immediate effect of reducing unwanted behavior—it created deeper psychological barriers that prevented efficient learning.  In order for me to grow as a musician, I had to face my fears of being wrong, something that was instilled in me from an early stage of musical development.  I had to learn that winning and end results do not define me but that, instead, I should focus on the process.  Only after accepting failure could I become more creative and learn how to solve my own problems through open-ended approaches.


This is not to say critical feedback is the “devil” of learning and should be avoided.  On the contrary, it is the way in which critical feedback is presented and received that makes it effective.  Presenting feedback is an art form unto itself and should be done carefully.  Balance is crucial to criticism, and positivity should equal negativity.  Say one good thing before you say one thing that should be improved.  Praise a good quality in conjunction with evaluating a less desirable one.  This balance builds more receptive students because a feeling of success will drive more successes.  Your critical feedback piggybacked on positive reinforcement will give students the tools they need to succeed again and again, giving them the power to create more positive experiences for themselves.


Relying on positivity is the antithesis of Mr. K’s teaching philosophy, and it’s what I’ve found was central to the teaching of violin pedagogue Dorothy DeLay.  Ms. DeLay made learning as fun and enjoyable as possible.  As summarized by this article in The Strad, a periodical for string pedagogy, DeLay believed,


  • ‘Given enough time and ways of measurement [means of measuring achievement] people can learn to do anything.’
  • ‘You can teach anything if you can figure out how people learn it.’
  • ‘Learning is becoming more aware.’
  • ‘People learn best when they feel successful at it.’
  • ‘People learn best when they’re having fun.’
  • ‘There is always a right approach – it’s just a matter of finding it.’


For DeLay, creating a positive environment, especially internal, was the number one criterion for learning success.  Other components of her teaching included uniquely tailored means of communication, a step-by-step analytical process founded on depth and understanding, and confidence.  She focused on what she wanted to have happen, not what shouldn’t happen: “’You want to play with a lighter sound,’ not ‘You shouldn’t push the sound too much.’”  Also, interestingly enough, she emphasized measurable, attainable goals, not abstract concepts.  As my teacher, Dr. Molumby, has said to me in the past, “Expression will come as a result of technique, not the other way around.”  By focusing on exactly how to create a specific sound by measuring certain elements like air speed, muscle usage, air release, articulation pattern, you can express any sentiment you want.  Technique creates expression.


I have experienced the power of positivity in the studio both as a student and as a teacher.  The feeling of empowerment given in the forms of reinforcement have taught me that by doing something a certain way, I will get the results that I want.  I derive much more enjoyment from a lesson when I’m receptive to learning as opposed to being afraid of what will happen if I’m not prepared.  As a teacher, I find that rewarding positive behavior is much more enjoyable than punishing undesirable behavior for both the student and myself.  Instead of creating thick skins for my students, I find myself more focused on creating self-starters and learners via creative exploration.  As opposed to depending on me to dictate what is right and wrong, I can give partial responsibility to the student to think about different ways of solving a problem.  We can have intelligent discussions based on research, thoughts, and opinions that inform our musical decisions.  If a student is not prepared to have these kinds of discussions, then it is their enlightenment that suffers, not their self-esteem.  Teaching and learning are equal partners, just as the teacher and student work together to discover something new.


So, in the end, what is better for students—forming a tough skin for an inevitably unforgiving workplace or giving them the tools to solve problems and create solutions?  Well, unfortunately, (or fortunately, rather) teaching is not that black and white.  Gray areas and the blending of balanced methodologies are the keys to creating students that are eager to learn, not just in music lessons, but in life.  The foundation of successful learning is a combination of positive environment and trustworthy relationships.  Only then will students and teachers feel comfortable in testing the limits of what is possible.


Links cited in this post:

Operant conditioning:

TIME Magazine:

The Strad: