Written by & under performance, Program Development.

In the last of this three-part series, I will review ideas from Marienne Uszler’s book, That’s a Good Question…How to Teach by Asking Questions. To begin, start by examining your own teaching either by audio or video recording yourself, or by simply taking notes and being aware of how you interact with students by asking questions. Do you do all of the talking? Do you allow time for the student to answer? Do you listen to the student’s answer? What types of questions do you employ, closed or open?

Closed vs. Open Questions

Closed questions, or pointers, begin with What, Where, When or How… and generally have a specific answer and point the student to a particular place in the score. Some examples are:

  • What is this chord?
  • Where does the theme return?
  • When should you begin the decrescendo?
  • How many times is that figure repeated?

Open questions differ in that they push the student to think beyond the obvious. Uszler calls them pushers and they can begin with Why, What if, Can you, Is it possible to, How else could you, and Have you ever wondered… For instance,

  • Why do you think the editor suggests this fingering?
  • What if you changed these major chords to minor?
  • Can you imagine another way to pedal this section?
  • Is it possible to change this lullaby into a dance?
  • How else could you make this passage sound mysterious?
  • Have you ever wondered why Bach’s pieces never use the highest or lowest keys on the piano?

Uszler gives many sample question/answer scenarios with both private and group lessons using a variety of open and closed questions. The value of the book is in these pages. She gives so many great suggestions for using questions to introduce a piece as well as to evaluate a current piece that the student is either in the middle or end phase of learning. She also identifies the different personality types of students (FOLLOW-ERS, DO-ERS, THINK-ERS, and FEEL-ERS) and how to best direct and word questions to facilitate learning. For example, a FOLLOW-ER is more comfortable answering closed questions and the DO-ER is immediately asked to try something in order to answer a question. The THINK-ER can be asked open questions that allow for deeper analysis and the FEEL-ER will respond to questions that are linked to mood or “surprises” in the music.

Using questions to teach undeniably takes up a lot of valuable lesson time. How many of us get frustrated by a student’s silence and simply give them the right answer? This is the easy way out and doesn’t help the student. However, examining your goals in teaching will help to understand the importance of teaching using questions. Are you more concerned with a perfect rendition of a piece on a recital or are you teaching the whole person? Using questions to teach provides a comprehensive musical education, allowing the teacher to find out what the student really knows (or doesn’t know) as well as guiding the student to think critically, become a self-evaluator and independent learner.

Isn’t it exciting to engage a student in evaluating their own performance? After all, that is what they must do in their solitary practice at home. If we aren’t actively seeking ways to engage our students to evaluate themselves, they will always have to rely on on a teacher for feedback. Uszler’s ideas are timely and helpful. Upon reading this book again, I am inspired to find more creative ways to teach by incorporating questions and drawing out the student. As September looms near, consider how you can ask questions to be a better teacher!