Open the door to creativity at piano lessons with Disney’s “plussing” and more

This is the second of three posts dedicated to the art of giving feedback or suggestions to student ideas, performances and creativity. The premise: flip feedback to feedforward. The inspiration for this series derives from Jennifer Gonzales, and her podcast interview with Joe Hirsch, educator, researcher and author of The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future and Lead the Way to Change.

You can read the first post here.

In the podcast, Hirsch talks through the steps to fix or repair traditional feedback. He frequently mentions a powerful metaphor:

As teachers “we tend to be window gazers and instead, we need to be mirror holders.”

In place of telling students what we see (and hear) through a window frame, Hirsch challenges us to find ways to hold up a mirror so that students see (and hear!) a reflection of themselves which gives them the ability to self-direct. This process engages students in their own learning and helps them see that, as Hirsch states:

“They hold the answers, but just need help finding the answers.”

To become mirror holders, Hirsch claims our feedback needs to be repaired. The steps toward repair can be remembered by this acronym:

R is for Regenerating Talent

E is for Expanding Possibilities

P is for Particular

A is for Authentic

I is for Impact

R is for Refines Team Dynamics

R is for Regenerating Talent

It’s important to be sensitive to the different needs of today’s learners. According to Hirsch, millennials –and for the sake of this article, let’s lump them together with their kids–are looking for people and places to help them develop their skills and become the best versions of themselves.

Those providing feedback should aim to amplify skills by stretching imaginations and encouraging dreams of what can be accomplished. Hirsch emphasizes that our feedback should push talent into an unknown area of development and potential.

How does this lead to creativity in lessons?

One extremely easy way to hold up a mirror for students and give them honest feedforward is to record a performance or improvisation with a mobile device and let them respond to the video. The camera says it all and the teacher can step away!

Pinpointing what a student does well is always important and should come first. For purposes of piano lessons, I’m going to replace the word “talent” with “skill.” For example if the student nails the Eb major scale, what are ways to regenerate this skill?  When applying this “regenerate” step to lessons, it could be interpreted as amplifying or extending the learned concept.

In a group setting, ask your student to teach another student the scale fingering and why it needs the three flats to be a major scale.

Consider these questions to trigger creativity in a lesson?

  • Can you play the scale in two octaves in 8th notes? Three octaves in triplets? Four octaves in sixteenth notes?
  • How fast can you play the scale? Let’s build up the tempo with the metronome.
  • Knowing the rules of scale fingering, can you figure out the correct fingering for Ab major?
  • Improvise a melody using the scale tones while I vamp. Now you vamp on I and V chords in Eb and I’ll create a melody.
  • You created a lovely melody in Eb, can you add chords to harmonize it?

E is for Expands Possibilities

This step is best explained with a term coined by Walt Disney called “plussing.” It’s a technique for growing an idea and improving it. Even if Disney employees thought they had a terrific idea, Disney would tell them to plus it. No doubt, this plussing upgraded the quality of all-things-Disney and Pixar continues this plussing tradition. Learn more here.

According to Hirsch…

  • “The point of plussing is to drive up the idea count up and not down.
  • Plussing holds a simple rule: no critiquing allowed. Others must accept the premise or idea and add to the idea with suggestions.
  • Plussing is inspired from the acting/improvisation world tip “Yes, and…”
  • Accept all offers and suggestions and always make the other person look good.
  • There is power of a “yes and” over a “no.”
  • Use lead questions in the plussing process.” Read more about lead questions in my last post.

Watch the video featuring Tina Fey and see how “yes, and…” works in the world of improvisation on the stage. Also, take note of what STOPS the magic of this creative dialogue.

How does this translate to developing creativity?

Piano lessons are not just about getting through each level of a certain method book. It’s about saying YES to students’ desires and giving them a chance to explore the language of music and music of their choice. It’s also a place to offer challenges and self-directed projects (with guidance) beyond the method book and beyond the page that have a beginning and an end. It gives students milestones to mark progress, and develop their own musicality at the keys.

Instead of shooting down a mistake and “hitting a brick wall” as in the video, take the moment to figure out why the mistake happened and make it a discussion. Was it a result of

  • Incorrect fingering?
  • Looking at hands too much?
  • Forgetting the key signature?

Together with the student, brainstorm ideas on how to avoid making that mistake by deepening the understanding of what it takes to play the piece. Giving students the power to help themselves at lessons will result in smarter home practice.

Sometimes mistakes unintentionally lead to new possibilities and are ripe for moving students beyond the written page. Get under the hood of the composer’s wishes, determine the chord progression and then let students experiment with ways to change it and make it even better?!

“Window gazers like to talk about their own ideas.

Mirror holders listen to students talk about their ideas.”

P is for Particular

There’s a limit to what anyone can absorb at one time. When shifting from feedback to feedforward, it’s important to pick battlegrounds “strategically and selectively.” Hirsch states:

“Trim, and don’t shave everything at once.”

Dumping information with a fire hose makes it hard to process. This leads to what social psychologists call decision fatigue. Too much information and correction short-circuit the brain which makes most choose the path of least resistance. They default to the easy, intuitive action and make NO changes.

How does this translate to teaching creativity?

It’s important to set limits on how much you ask of students’ imaginations at one time. Ask them to borrow and master a favorite chord progression first, then encourage them to create a unique rhythmic pattern within the progression. Break your instructions down into reasonable “decision levels” and let students enjoy success at each level before adding fresh components to their original work.

Master improv teacher and colleague Bradley Sowash uses SCAT to codify his line of suggestions as he coaches rookie and veteran improvisers.

S SPECIFY an improvisational activity with particular boundaries.

C COMPLIMENT student performances highlighting what was good.

A ASK questions to expand thinking and enhance the performance to the next level.

T TURN them loose and let students break free from the initial boundaries and explore other options.


I just scraped the surface of this brilliant “chain of commands” so sign up for our next 88 Creative Keys Online Clinic and Bradley will share how he uses SCAT to cultivate creativity and composition!

Monday, March 5, 11:00am EST with prolific composer and educator, Wynn-Anne Rossi.

Next time, I’ll expand on the last three steps of how Hirsch recommends repairing feedback.

A is for Authentic

I is for Impact

R is for Refines Team Dynamics


JOE HIRSCH helps organizations apply behavioral science to improve the way leaders train, support and empower their teams for success. Drawing on his experiences as an award-winning educational leader and researcher, he has earned praise from Fortune 500 executives to NFL coaches for his for his 2017 book, The Feedback Fix (Rowman & Littlefield).

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Leila Viss

Creative Pianist, Piano Teacher, Organist, Blogger and Author of The iPad Piano Studio

2 CommentsLeave a comment

  • Thank you Leila! I always appreciate your thoughtfulness in researching and sharing articles on piano teaching. It’s been a bit discouraging lately, so this was timely for me.

    • Well, I’m sorry to hear you’ve been discouraged, Kathleen. It’s good to hear that the article resonated. Hang in there and thanks for letting me know!