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  • Abigail James

Preparation, pacing and the power of praise.

Updated: Apr 10, 2020

​I came away from a primary school this week feeling something close to elation. Not only had all my lessons gone according to plan, the lesson plans I had put together on Sunday evening had worked well, but I had managed the behaviours and diverse personalities of a range of young students with what I felt to be success. From my perspective all my students had made progress and I left the school feeling inspired, energetic and rewarded. I could look forward to the next school free of any unhelpful feelings of doubt as to whether I had taught well.

This feeling doesn’t always happen after teaching! So what was it about today’s lessons in particular that produced it?

Preparation & Planning

Firstly, I was prepared and had a clear idea of what I wanted the children to do in the lessons. The plans weren’t overly prescriptive, so there was still room for change and spontaneity. Most diligent teachers plan and prepare for their lessons, but for me today, the pacing of the lessons worked particularly well. They had good ‘flow’ and I didn’t feel that there was any time to fill, if anything I could have done with a few more minutes just to conclude the lesson properly. I had planned the repertoire for each group for the next 5 weeks, prepared a simpler version of each piece and an accompanying open string bass line in order to cater for any students who would not necessary be able to manage the whole piece (differentiation: check!).


I chose warm-ups that used musical elements from the pieces so the children were being prepped to play their piece without realizing it. Teaching by stealth! The main work of the lesson was a section from a new piece, not only learning how to play it, but ensuring the children understood what they were playing (note names, rhythms, time signature etc.). Finally, a few minutes at the end of the lesson to clarify verbally what they should practise and to write it down made for a definite conclusion to the lesson. I think the structure of the lesson helped not only the children to feel as though they knew what to expect, but also made me feel in control of the direction of the lesson.

Expect the Unexpected!

The aspect of lessons that one can’t prepare for or sometimes control is what the children themselves bring to the lesson, their energy, their chat, their relationships to each other and their own approach to learning in general.

I have the student who tends towards the negative: “I can’t do this” is often the first sentence he offers. There is the pupil, a very capable child, who wants the lesson to be dictated by his needs alone, his choice of pieces, as he was “the first one to get the book”, therefore he assumes a leading role. I have the child who always calls out the answer before anyone else and the student who quietly gets on with learning the piece regardless of what else is happening around him. Many of the students have a tendency to talk amongst themselves or talk over each other, unphased by the fact that another student may already be asking or answering a question. And that’s just one group.

Lesson Content

This morning I found several things that worked well for me. The warm-up aspect of the lesson enabled everyone to join in with something immediately and engaged their attention. Even if it consisted of a relatively simple 5-note scale, I could quickly give instructions to make it more or less challenging to suit different students. Questioning the students as I went really worked too.

“Which note comes next in the scale? Which finger do we use to hold it down? What am I looking for in your left hand position?”

The questions came as they were playing repeated notes on each degree of the scale.

“Let’s play the Bs in the scale slowly, now move to C, but quietly. Which note next? Let’s play lots of them with walking fingers as fast as you can!”

The Role of Questions

Sometimes asking the whole group a question and sometimes giving each individual student their own question ensured everyone had an opportunity. I also found asking the children how we should play the next note of the scale gave them a chance to come up with their own ideas. It engaged the students far better then simply giving them bits of information to remember.

The Power of Praise

For all the groups, some working on Initial Grade and some complete beginners only on their second lesson, the power of praise was considerable. Praise is a great motivator, children love to be praised, they love to be rewarded with positive words. We all do and being able to praise the children for all sorts of different things gives the lesson a good atmosphere. It enabled me this morning to manage some challenging behaviours and indicate to the children what is expected of them.

I had a very lively beginner group, with lots of talkers in it, each one wanting my attention and a child who simply has to strum the guitar’s open strings at every opportunity to gain it. The occasional moments when he was listening and not strumming were the moments to praise him and show which behaviour will be rewarded. Praise needs to be immediate so I had to be on my toes to say well done when the right thing happened as it was different for each child!

Praise for effort and perseverance is vital. Well done to the child who tried, despite expressing her feeling that everything was too dif ficult for her, even a single note! Praising her every time she has a go will hopefully result in her wanting to try again next time and keep trying. Asking the children to help collect the next group, to put chairs away at the end or to tidy up their own guitars in order to keep them safe were not directly musical, but they were opportunities for me to say “thank you, you have been very helpful”. I found this to be a very useful tool, enabling me to give every child a positive feeling from the lesson, to give them lots of opportunity to earn praise and to allow them to take responsibility for other aspects of learning in a group and being part of a team.

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