I'm so pleased to welcome our next guest, my dear friend and colleague, Dr. Amanda Montgomery.
Good questions outrank easy answers. – Paul Samuelson
When is the last time someone asked you a really good question about music? I’m talking about a question that made you stop in your tracks and really think. The type of question that takes more than researching the correct execution of the mordent in the Sarabande of Bach’s Partita No. 1. A question that forces you to examine the what, why, or how of music making, and has several plausible answers.
Let me pose another question. When is the last time you gave a student a thought-provoking question? Even better, when is the last time a student asked you an inspiring question? I believe one way to evaluate the excellence of our teaching is by examining the quality of the questions we ask.
Questions are powerful and compelling tools. Underused and underrated in the teacher’s arsenal. Questions can be so memorable that you will never forget them. “Surely, you can’t be serious? – I am serious, and don’t call me Shirley!” Questions can be so quirky and off-the-wall that finding an answer requires one to delve deep into both hemispheres of the brain. “Why do we play in recitals and recite in plays?” But most importantly, questions encourage thinking. And I mean real thinking. Not merely regurgitating facts, but divergent and creative thinking. Asking great questions is a fantastic way to encourage our students to actively engage their minds in every lesson.
So, what makes a great question? The crux of it lies in whether you are asking questions that encourage convergent or divergent thinking. Convergent thinking does not rely on creativity, but rather than ability to answer a standard question correctly. An example would be, “Who was the first president of the United States?” Divergent thinking is the ability to use one’s creativity to find multiple answers to a question. A great example of this type of question is, “How many ways can you use a paperclip?” If you allow your imagination to run wild, you could come up with a multitude of uses for a paper clip.
A great question will encourage divergent thinking. Of course, convergent thinking is necessary. Students need to master the basic concepts and we must ask questions such as, “What does forte mean?” “How do you count this rhythm?” “What is the name of this note?” This type of questioning should only be the means of getting you on the road. The journey should largely consist of asking great questions that encourage thinking, discovery, and creativity.
What are the characteristics of great questions that encourage divergent thinking?
- Concise. Questions should be short with the interrogative pronoun (i.e. what, where, how) at the beginning. “Where is the climactic moment in this piece?”
- Build from simple to complex. Jumping in head first with a question that requires creative thinking can be intimidating. We must throw our students a few softballs to help their brains warm up. Simple questions such as, “Which articulations do you hear in the passage?” and “Which dynamics do you see?” can lead to more complex questions like, “Why does this piece sound like a ‘Rhythm Machine’?”
- Open-Ended. Establishing an open-ended line of questioning leads to more engaging conversations and puts less pressure on the student to produce the “right” answer. “Can you make-up a story to go with this music?”
- Thought-Provoking. Great questions require the student to collect and categorize information in order to formulate a variety of possible answers. “How many different ways can you count this rhythm?” Hopefully the student will answer by counting in numbers, words, motions, sound effects or any variation of the above.
- Empowering. Students will feel surer of their abilities because they have discovered how to improve, rather than simply being told what to do. “How can you practice to be note accurate when the left hand crosses over the right hand?”
Perhaps the most crucial aspect of questioning any student is the act of waiting for a response. Once the question is posed, wait for the answer. If your student doesn’t answer immediately, it is probably a good thing. Pat yourself on the back while you patiently pass the time, because you just made your student think.
About the Author: Dr. Amanda Montgomery currently teaches a group of talented piano students in her Orangeburg, SC studio. She holds the DMA in Piano Performance from Louisiana State University with a minor in Piano Pedagogy. Dr. Montgomery is an active member of the South Carolina Music Teachers Association, where she currently assists as the state’s Junior Competition Coordinator. She previously served as Staff Accompanist at Claflin University in Orangeburg, SC. Amanda is the proud mother of Kendall and Owen, both of whom study piano with their mom. New adventures lie ahead as the Montgomery clan will be relocating to the upstate of South Carolina next year!