Teaching 101: Student Focus


Have you ever been frustrated with a student who couldn’t focus on what you were saying. Maybe even complained to a friend or colleague about it? We all have! We’ve all been frustrated when our students couldn’t concentrate on what it was we were saying or asking them to do.

I’d like to share a little story with you about a time when I felt that way myself. I was taking a Feldenkrais class, which is a kind of movement class. The teacher was on the other side of the room and was asking us to do a position where we were lying on the floor. We had our right arm crossed over our left arm. It was very complicated and we’d gotten there by doing another series of of movements. I could hear the teacher saying, “Right arm over left arm.”

I was feeling really comfortable I kept thinking, “Who is the Bozo who doesn’t know the right from their left?”

And the next thing I knew, I felt Cliff, the instructor, come over and just touch my right arm and say, “Your right arm over your left and I realized that I was in this position on the floor with my left arm over my right, completely convinced that my right arm was over my left!

It was such a humbling experience for me! I’m a piano teacher and I’m a concert pianist and I spend my life dealing with right and left and all the mutations of that. For me to be in a room with a bunch of people not only that kinda looking down on whoever the stupid person was who couldn’t do it, and then to realize that even the simplest thing like me telling right from left was something that could be hard under some circumstances.

So in that situation, my capacity to focus was just overwhelmed. I couldn’t figure out what was going on because I had done a series of things. Somewhere along the way I lost the train of thought. I’d lost what was going on and I couldn’t fix it because I didn’t even know I wasn’t doing it.

The way to fix things this is through scaffolding the experience. If you haven’t heard the term scaffolding it’s a great one to know. I’d like to explain a little bit about it to you.

It means taking a task, maybe what might feel like a big task to students, and breaking it down into a series of doable tasks —tasks that can be done as discrete units. In other words you don’t say something like, “Start here and play the whole thing very slowly,” Instead, you might just block off one measure and have them just play that successfully. Then you’ll build on that.

You have to be really careful. If you don’t scaffold things correctly, you can end up with a series of unsuccessful moments. That’s not going to string together into a successful performance. It’s just going to be a disaster.

So keeping a student invested and interested while you do the scaffolding is the process is where the real art is. Let me give you some ideas for ways to do that.

When you’re making a series of small doable tasks you want them to constantly change. The model of repetition for accuracy trying to get the students to be more and more accurate each time is what you want to throw out. You want to replace it with repeating for discovery. Yeah, I remember the first time I heard that phrase and I kind of thought, “That’s some kind of touchy feely thing and kind of stupid. I’m not sure I’m gonna go for that,” But I tried it I had the most incredible results with my students so let me give you some examples of what that would look like.

Let’s say all you want to do is get your soon to play A-B-C sharp. et’s say you want that to be really in Grange one understand what that feels like in their hands so let’s say you show them how to do it and they play A-B-C. What do you do then? Do you say do it again? No! You do something different.

For example you could have them played up an octave. You do something with the new skill to keep them interested. You might say something like, c”C you do it backwards?” They have to think about it and they have to internalize that and they then they get interested.

Even something silly like can you start in the middle and then go up and then go back? Could you make it minor? You could put it into a different key. All of those things are ways of becoming acquainted with what it is they’re actually doing and not just taking a little tiny task and repeating it. Because in the process of repeating it they get bored and they check out. The whole thing falls apart.

Have you ever had a student who concentrated really, really hard on a task you gave them and was able to do it— and then you said let’s do that again and they couldn’t do it at all? That’s because it’s not the same thing the second time through. They’re not creating it for the first time and their brain isn’t is interested. Many times the second time through falls apart. There’s a reason for that is because it’s not actually the same task.

What you want to do is create awareness and interest at the same time. It doesn’t make any difference what level you’re teaching. I might be teaching my student, Sean, a Prokofiev concerto and there’s a place that he’s having a problem. I’m not gonna say “Start here just keep playing it over and over again…” We’re going to try to find ways to bring whatever that passage is to life. If it’s my beginning student, Nathaniel, and he’s literally going to play A-B-C sharp for the first time, the task is the same: Bring it to life! Find some way to find meaning and physical connection with the with the material that you’re teaching.

Another thing that’s interesting is that this process is both diagnostic and therapeutic. Those are kind of big words, but what it means is it helps you figure out what the student needs help with, and it fixes it at the same time. It’s kind of a beautiful thing.

So, the next time your student can’t focus, see if you can use that frustration to bring your teaching to life. Bring it to the next level. Make small tasks that are interesting, constantly changing and fun. The results will be amazing. I promise.