Why Deflect Student Questions?

A recent forum discussion has gotten me thinking again about the practice some private brass teachers have of deflecting student questions about embouchure. In some cases I think this is unintentional and unconscious. It’s easy to be dismissive of something that you don’t have a good handle on and if you don’t think something is important in your own playing you’re likely to not consider it important for your students. I think this is particularly tricky the more accomplished a performer the teacher is. It’s hard to remember that effortless playing was the result of a particular process and not the method itself. Great musicians often have trouble taking a step back and helping struggling students when they don’t remember (or never knew) what it was like to have difficulty.

More interesting to me is the practice of intentionally deflecting a student’s questions because you don’t think offering an honest answer is going to be helpful. The example from the forum discussion was that one participant felt that informing a student that it the embouchure muscles must work harder to play higher would encourage unnecessary tension.

I think answering this one question hinders more players than could be helped because telling them it is OK to tense up isn’t serving them well as a teacher. I often answer most of a post a[nd] not 1 question because I don’t think it is in their best interest to answer it.

This does seem to be a fairly common practice from what I’ve seen in a lot of brass master classes and texts. A good teacher needs to set priorities for students and help focus their work in an order that is going to provide both immediate and longer term benefits. For example, fixing a brass student’s breathing can make improvements in their playing quickly and then set them up for work on more difficult challenges later. But this isn’t really the sort of non-answer that I’m curious about. When a student asks a direct question is it really a positive to fend off their inquiry or is it better to answer it directly and then move on as needed?

Of course there are situational factors that need to be considered, but I think we need to think about why a student would ask a question in the first place. While I’m sure that some students pester a teacher with questions for attention, most students ask questions because they are confused or curious. If the student is confused about a concept, I feel it’s best for the teacher to answer the question clearly. If my answer is going to confuse the student even more then it’s my responsibility to find a different way of explaining the concept. Sometimes this involves taking a couple of steps back and laying a foundation so the student can scaffold the more difficult to understand concept. This can take time, perhaps more time than is allowed in a particular lesson or class, but in the long term I think it’s best to address it eventually. Most of the time I think we can offer a simplified answer and explain why we’re glossing over it for later.

If the student is simply curious then avoiding the question is going to teach our students that curiosity should be stifled. Regardless of whether I’m personally interested in a student’s question, I don’t want to discourage them from asking honest questions. At the very least, we can make a positive teaching moment out of the question by helping our students learn how to research the answer themselves. Usually when I’ve taken this approach I ended up learning something new myself. In an article titled “Teaching Students to Ask Questions Instead of Answering Them” (may be behind a paywall) Matthew Bowker argues:

[Q]uestioning involves speculating about possibilities both real and unreal, given and hypothetical. To question is an immensely creative act because questioning requires that an object be not just as it is. If every object were just as it is, then questions would serve no purpose, for the only answer we could give would be to point at the object and say, “But here is your answer.” On the contrary, questions are designed to probe, to find something that is not already there, to discover relationships and possibilities that are not given.

Curiously, I’ve found it difficult to find much academic research or pedagogical discussions on deflecting a student’s question. It’s almost as if this practice is unique to music instructors, but teachers of other subjects almost universally want to answer student questions and encourage them.

Want to read a bit more about answering student questions? Check out “How To Answer Tough Questions” and “Responding Effectively to Student Questions.”

Lyle Sanford

What an interesting post! It had never dawned on me that some music educators might think deflecting a question might be best for a student. In the example you give, I can’t help wondering what the student is supposed to think when he/she feels the extra work of the embouchure needed for the higher register. To me the question would be a great launching point to talk about how we (I, at least) sometimes use more effort than neccessary – that great playing/sound seems so dependent on getting just the right amount of effort for each pitch.

This also sort of confirms my hunch that some music educators think of students as “other”, as in this case, “can’t handle the truth”. Seems to me that might lend itself to creating unhelpful aspects in the student/teacher relationship.

(Your pep band post was great – hope it gets people thinking)

Dave

Yeah, it’s interesting. As I mentioned above, sometimes I think teachers just want to help their students focus on the right thing and the answer to the question wouldn’t be a priority at that moment, but it send the message that whatever the student wanted to know more about isn’t important. As someone who considers myself a teacher first and a musician second, I don’t understand the attitude that discouraging questions like this.

Lyle Sanford

“As someone who considers myself a teacher first and a musician second, I don’t understand the attitude that discourages questions like this.”

Dave, that last sentence is why I so enjoy your blog. You have a knack for discovering and talking about/questioning various orthodoxies in music education and brass pedagogy that seem to be in place simply because that’s the way it’s always been done.

Keep up the good work!

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