Don’t think of the Eiffel Tower!

I am writing this whilst sitting down the back of the room where my son is participating in a music ‘workshop’.  I promise I sat attentively for the first 50 minutes, but I can fortunately multi-task so now am writing whilst listening!  Whether they be musicians, coaches, or teachers I am always interested to hear the language used to instruct and encourage students or athletes.

Within this particular class the instructor is trying to get the students to play the piece smoothly.  Unfortunately his delivery isn’t going to assist the children in achieving that.

Phrases that have been said thus far include:

  • Who made mistakes in that piece?
  • No gaps
  • Don’t come in before one
  • No wrong notes please
  • Who played some strange notes in that piece?
  • If you play a wrong note you have to stand up
  • Not one wrong note please
  • Don’t overlap your notes
  • Don’t make that too long or too short

Language is very powerful in its ability to create a visual image.  By example, “Don’t think about the Eiffel Tower”.  The problem for our brain is that there is considerable effort required to process the word don’t. Particularly when time is of the essence, our brain tends to skip the word don’t and only hears the remainder of the sentence.  So, “Don’t come in before one” becomes “Come in before one”, which is exactly what one young 8 year old has just done 5 times in a row in this workshop.

So what does the instructor need to be doing?  The key is to put the positive image of success into the persons thinking.  “No gaps” and “Play smooth” are the same instructions with two very different resulting images. Just as when speaking to an athlete, “Safe hands” vs “Don’t drop the ball” have the same intention, with two quite different outcomes.  When we hear “No gaps” or “Don’t drop the ball” we need to interpret the meaning and then translate it to the intended action – essentially it is additional work for our cognitive processing – and more often than not we don’t do it.  If you’ve ever been with a 3 year old carrying a glass of water across a room, all it takes is for Mum or Dad to say, ‘Careful, don’t spill it’ and you will soon see the mop coming out to clean it up!

If you want to enhance the instructions that you give, tell the person what they need to do rather than what they need to avoid.  I’ll say that again, if you want to enhance the instructions that you give, tell the person what they need to do rather than what they need to avoid.  Do is so much more effective than don’t.  Listen out for when you use don’t in a sentence and rephrase it so it is very clear what you intend – what is needed rather than what is to be avoided.

  • Catch the ball
  • Come in on one
  • Play smoothly
  • Good articulation
  • Carry with two hands

So back to the piano class.  The instructor is getting some of it right, I’ve just heard. “As smooth as possible”, and “I heard some lovely sounds”.  However poor little miss 8 has just played the starting note early (again), I hope the teacher isn’t surprised.