Flip FeedBACK into FeedFORWARD at Piano Lessons

A podcast has my wheels turning and I’m excited to share it with you! Jennifer Gonzales, from Cult of Pedagogy, held an interview with Joe Hirsch, a fourth grade teacher and author of The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future and Lead the Way to Change.

Before reading further, you may just want to listen to the podcast first. If you don’t have time to listen to the 57-min interview now, then read on and listen later. What you’ll find in the following paragraphs is how I imagine Hirsch’s approach of shifting feedback to feedforward can be applied in piano lessons.

Moving from Feedback to Feedforward

Why am I so enamored with this particular podcast? Because it addresses exactly what we as teachers do in every lesson! Along with teaching new concepts and repertoire, a good portion of our lessons are based on what happened during the week of practice. We give feedback on what was accomplished or NOT accomplished. This feedback we normally give is what Hirsch calls “traditional feedback.” It focuses on what happened in the past–over the week and between lessons.

Hirsch claims that this traditional feed back is problematic because it means we only focus on the past which can’t be changed. Instead, he states that teachers and coaches should think forward and “fix the future” which leads to unleashing the potential of those receiving the feedback.

In his words…

“You can’t control what you can’t change.”

“We can’t change the past, we can only fix the future.” -Hirsch

There are so many nuggets in this podcast that I’ll be posting a series of articles so that you can digest this rich information one or two nuggets at a time. In this first post, I mine a few that you can use tomorrow, today, right now! 

Where to Begin

Instead of dominating a lesson with your opinions and expert advice, consider stepping away from the “command and control” post and use these four Lead Questions (discussed around minute 16:43 in the podcast) to encourage students to develop their own problem solving skills.

Pondering lead questions (questions to encourage careful consideration) begin with phrases like:

I noticed that…?

I wonder if…?

Probing lead questions (questions to encourage further investigation) begin with phrases like:

What if you decided to…?

How might…?

My guess is that every lesson you teach includes feedback–verbal reactions to and suggested comments directed at what you heard and what you saw. Although there may be some friendly interaction between you and the student, most likely the lesson is dominated by you and driven by your feedback and instruction. These lead questions can open the door to feedforward.

Hirsch challenges us as teachers to reconsider this typical interaction with a fresh perspective.

How Traditional Feedback Fails

According to Hirsch, the typical feedback fails for three reasons:

Failure #1 Feedback “shuts down students’ mental dashboard.” It usually puts the feedback receiver on the defensive and can result in mental paralysis or brain overload.

How does this translate in lessons?

When we correct fingering, technique and sloppy rhythms in one piece at the same time, we attempt to fix too much at once which can overload and turn off student brains. Hirsch claims that this can make the “frontal lobe turn dark.”

Instead, choose one thing at a time (like a rhythm issue) and lead the student to correcting it with appropriate lead questions. Once the rhythm is mastered, add another layer of focus (like dynamics) and ask the student to add a crescendo while playing the correct rhythm.

Failure #2 Feedback “focuses on ratings and not development.” Instead, the goal of feedback is to create positive and lasting improvement.

How does this translate in lessons?

It’s easy and perhaps takes less time to point out wrong notes and flaws. It takes guided questions and planning to develop independent thinkers and listeners and lead them to solving their own problems with strategies that build confidence.

If the student returns to a lesson with a thumb on a black key, it would be easy to force the student to change to a “better” (your suggested!) fingering. Instead, consider using lead questions to help the student to discover new fingering possibilities. For example: 

“Billy, I wonder if there is another fingering that might work in that passage?” Which one feels better? I noticed that you played the passage more fluidly by avoiding the thumb on a black key.”

Working through this process, the student may realize that the thumb on a black key is awkward and be pleased with a personally-selected fingering that works better.

Failure #3 Feedback “reinforces negative behaviors.” Reminding students of their flaws from week to week can lead to them believing that they are helpless.

“Instead of focusing on who our students are, we need to focus on who they are becoming.” – Hirsch

How does this translate in lessons?

Find the good in whatever your students prepare for lessons and reinforce with genuine praise. Then guide students to reflect on their preparation with leading questions like:

“I noticed that you slowed down in measure four.

It seemed tricky for you. How could you become friends with it?

I wonder if you should play hands alone or tap the rhythm on your lap first?

Which practice strategy would help you master this challenge?”

These lead questions are just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to flip traditional feedback to feedforward.

The podcast continues with Hirsch describing six components of feedforward. He shares them with an acronym REPAIR:

  • EXPANDS Possibilites
  • Has an IMPACT.
  • REFINES Group Dynamics

Stay tuned for the next post which will dig deeper into the REPAIR acronym.

How do you feel about my application of Hirsch’s advice to the piano lesson experience?

How do his words validate what you are doing already?

How does his approach expand your thinking about how to interact with students?

Please leave your comments below and stay tuned for more feedforward tips coming soon!


Find more about Joe Hirsch on his website.

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Leila Viss

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

8 CommentsLeave a comment

  • I think we need to be careful about playing with semantics. “I wonder if you should play hands alone or tap the rhythm on your lap first?” may sound nice to us, but it still implies a command. My students would see through that in a heartbeat. I’m not asking their opinion if I say that. I’m still telling them what to do.

    On the other hand, asking them to come up with practice strategy to overcome a particular challenge is a great idea, especially if they’ve got several strategies to choose from. But don’t stop there! Ask them to demonstrate their chosen practice strategy on the spot in the lesson. That way, you can ascertain whether they understand how to use the practice strategy and if it will be used correctly at home.

    If you can’t trust them to pick the correct practice strategy, offer them a choice of 2 strategies that you know will work. “Do you want to learn this piece by practicing backward or using brackets?” gives the student a choice. It doesn’t matter to me which one they pick, because I know both will work. They feel more confident when they’re given agency and get to participate in the planning process.

    • I do agree with how we phrase things and yes, I don’t always go about “telling my students to do things” in a round about way, they would see through that. However, I do believe that the more ownership and “voice” we give to students as they develop their skills the better and reminding them of tools they already have in their back pocket is a way to help them help themselves. I also think a question like this leads a student to consider other options. They may say, “No, I’d rather drum the rhythm..pass me the drum.”

      I like the way you’ve extended the option into choosing from practice strategies. And yes, if you read my “Planning Kit for Piano Teachers” I’m all about using various practicing strategies with memorable names AT the lessons to ensure correct practice at home. It needs to happen at the lesson for it to happen at home.

      Thanks for your comments!

      • Absolutely, students need more ownership in the learning process! And this is a great way to help them develop it.

        Funnily enough, I’m currently re-reading Richard Chronister’s “A Piano Teacher’s Legacy” as part of my continuing education. I read Chapter 9 immediately after reading your blog post – one of the essays said almost the exact same thing as this post. The essay was titled “Students learn what they practice and practice what they learn.”

        • Interesting how history repeats itself! I do not own Chronister’s book but know it’s highly esteemed and it’s on my reading list.
          If you are suggesting that I was influenced at all by his book or that chapter, that is not the case. Purely my own thoughts based on experience and learning from others.
          I do appreciate hearing that this post is similar to the thinking of great pedagogues of the past and thank you!

  • In an Oclef podcast this past week (EP39) Julian Toha uses the phrase “feedback loop”. After playing a phrase/section, you should pause and reflect on what you just heard/felt — asking yourself “what went well, and what didn’t go well”? Then ask yourself ” what change can I make to be better”?
    I find that the most difficult thing in this process is getting the child to talk through the problem. They just want to try immediately to play it again, LOL! I compare this to taking can of paint and throwing the paint on the wall by the handful. Eventually, you will achieve the desired outcome – the wall will be covered with paint. However, you will have a big mess to clean up, LOL!
    I am working on helping my students to be more proactive during their practice at home.

    • Oh cool, I’ll have to check out that podcast. Thanks for sharing. And yes, proactive practice at home is the key! It needs to begin with training on how to be proactive at the lesson. Taking time to reflect and answer questions is essential. Thanks for your wise input, Anna!

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