Say It Different Ways (and awesome teacher fails)

I used to work with an assistant rowing coach who would shout at the rowers “More dynamic! Not dynamic ENOUGH, MORE DYNAMIC!!”.  I’d see the rowers wildly trying different things with their bodies, trying to please the coach, until they heard “that’s it! That’s it!”. The next day, the whole scene would be repeated. I heard it on the water so much I had a little running joke at home where I’d shout to my husband (also previously a rower/rowing coach) “NO! MORE DYNAMIC!!” when he’d mishear something I’d said.

If you’re thinking that “more dynamic” means something in the world of rowing, you’d be wrong. Which is probably why the same scene was replayed on the water almost every practice- the coach wasn’t communicating clearly what she thought needed fixing in the boat. The rowers might get the idea for a second after trying a bunch of things to get a positive response, but ultimately the word “more dynamic” was never connected with an actual “fix” and so practices became full of repetition of the worst sort.

The same thing happens in music all the time. In the music world, there are lots of terms that we use to communicate ideas, and hopefully this musical language makes things clearer. You can’t communicate in a language only one person speaks, though, and even musical terms don’t mean the same to everyone. Even in print valid interpretations vary, depending on the composer, time period, and interpreter.

In athletics, usually only have one big communication weak spot with our athletes: how a body should move to get the best performance. Maybe also why Skittles don’t count as pre-competition food, but mostly that movement part. We can always rely on a demonstration to help clarify things, either showing them in wildly exaggerated ways or actually moving their bodies for them (super fun with the giant rower guys who have no idea how to do a proper jump squat. Side note, toddlers rock at squats- some pretty great form located here).

In music, we have proper movements to communicate (we’d never stoop so low to call them “movements”, in music it’s “technique”) but also feelings, sounds, and ideas. It makes communication extra challenging.

Recently, we overheard a younger student in the studio playing “Waltz” (J.Brahms) with some pretty wonky rhythms. The most obvious of these was a slow and dragging 16th note decoration (first beat of measure three, for those of you following the bouncing ball on your TV screen). The teacher had him play it again, and again. After each repetition, he would say “no, you have to subdivide!”. After the second or third time, finding that it wasn’t getting better, the teacher played it the way it should be played. Again, there wasn’t much progress, so they moved on.

There are two ways that the best intended teaching can end up being ineffective. Not correctly sleuthing out the cause for the error, and either not properly communicating and fixing the error, or not helpfully communicating the solution/correction. OK, 2 and 1/2 ways.

This particular anecdote was probably a mix of not correctly sleuthing out the cause for the error, combined with not properly communicating and fixing the error, and also not communicating the solution and correction helpfully.  See how I did that? Three in one! Actually, that’s not too fancy, because most teaching involves all three issues, which are usually all tangled up in a giant ball of sucky hard stuff (or interesting cool stuff!) depending on how frustrated/tired/food deprived a teacher you are.

In this case, a couple awesome things happened (go teacher! Way to eat breakfast!):

  • The teacher stopped before the student got frustrated
    • Students almost always think that not “getting something” is their fault. As a teacher, you totally have to stop before frustration hits, no matter who’s spectacular fail it is.
  • The teacher attempted another way of communicating the error- by playing it- before moving on.

He struck out on this particular case, but hey, not for lack of trying! I usually place my faith in the “rule of three“, since it gets me through most sticky spots.

This lovely student was having trouble playing anything that went quickly. If the teacher had just given him a few shots of espresso, he’d have been fine. Problem solved! Actually, espresso is how I solve most things, but I’m guessing it’d just cause this little guy to have some awesome vibrato but still wonky rhythm. Like how I just treated that solution like it was an actual solution to consider?

OK, our awesome student: quarter notes, no problem! Sixteenths, drag city (to be fair, that sounds like an awesome city). Eighths tended to pose issues for the student, as well. Because these two decorative sixteenths are the fastest notes in the piece, the student’s issue was probably more physically related to playing quickly, than related to an understanding of how the 16ths should sound. A caveat, though: whenever there’s a physical issue (like playing quickly enough) that gets enough repetition in practice, sometimes that becomes the way the student thinks the pieces sounds. Watch out for that trap door.

In this case, a little drill to help finger speed might be in order to suss out whether that’s the underlying issue. Next, isolating the measure or even note + decoration, using only audio examples or very simple words like “this should be faster”. Because that’s the second issue: the student might not even really know what “subdivide” means.

Yes, we have a responsibility to teach musical language to our students, and to learn it ourselves to communicate with other musicians- without it, quartet practices would be at best:


Repetition and grumpiness. So, learn the language!

That said, getting shit done is really the top priority, right? So be specific, and use the simplest terms possible. Because even if the parent sitting in the room thinks you’re more qualified because you use fancy music terminology (yeah, that happens, in pretty much every teaching or coaching situation I’ve ever been in, it’s weird), it doesn’t make you a good teacher if you’re not actually communicating with your student.

I snuck it in above, but it’s worth reiterating because I like it so much and it saves my butt so often- I like the “rule of three


Next up: musicians using weird and unhelpful language to try and combat stage fright (hey, hey musicians? It’s a science! We can use the proper language! Or at least, simple language! I can’t actually “grow roots” or “play through the string”. Though, that might just be me, props to anyone who can)!