Flip FeedBACK into FeedFORWARD at Piano Lessons


A podcast has my wheels turning and I'm excited to share it with you! Jennifer Gonzales, from Cult of Pedagogy, held an interview with Joe Hirsch, a fourth grade teacher and author of The Feedback Fix: Dump the Past, Embrace the Future and Lead the Way to Change.

Before reading further, you may just want to listen to the podcast first. If you don't have time to listen to the 57-min interview now, then read on and listen later. What you'll find in the following paragraphs is how I imagine Hirsch's approach of shifting feedback to feedforward can be applied in piano lessons.

Podcast: https://www.cultofpedagogy.com/feedforward/

Why am I so enamored with this particular podcast? Because it addresses exactly what we as teachers do in every lesson! Along with teaching new concepts and repertoire, a good portion of our lessons are based on what happened during the week of practice. We give feedback on what was accomplished or NOT accomplished. This feedback we normally give is what Hirsch calls "traditional feedback.” It focuses on what happened in the past--over the week and between lessons.

Hirsch claims that this traditional feed back is problematic because it means we only focus on the past which can't be changed. Instead, he states that teachers and coaches should think forward and "fix the future" which leads to unleashing the potential of those receiving the feedback.

In his words…

"You can't control what you can't change.”

"We can't change the past, we can only fix the future." -Hirsch

There are so many nuggets in this podcast that I’ll be posting a series of articles so that you can digest this rich information one or two nuggets at a time. In this first post, I mine a few that you can use tomorrow, today, right now! 

Where to Begin

Instead of dominating a lesson with your opinions and expert advice, consider stepping away from the "command and control" post and use these four Lead Questions (discussed around minute 16:43 in the podcast) to encourage students to develop their own problem solving skills.

Pondering lead questions (questions to encourage careful consideration) begin with phrases like:

I noticed that…?

I wonder if…?

Probing lead questions (questions to encourage further investigation)begin with phrases like:

What if you decided to…?

How might…?

My guess is that every lesson you teach includes feedback--verbal reactions to and suggested comments directed at what you heard and what you saw. Although there may be some friendly interaction between you and the student, most likely the lesson is dominated by you and driven by your feedback and instruction. These lead questions can open the door to feedforward.

Hirsch challenges us as teachers to reconsider this typical interaction with a fresh perspective.

How Traditional Feedback Fails

According to Hirsch, the typical feedback fails for three reasons:


Failure #1 Feedback "shuts down students' mental dashboard." It usually puts the feedback receiver on the defensive and can result in mental paralysis or brain overload.

How does this translate in lessons?

When we correct fingering, technique and sloppy rhythms in one piece at the same time, we attempt to fix too much at once which can overload and turn off student brains. Hirsch claims that this can make the “frontal lobe turn dark.”

Instead, choose one thing at a time (like a rhythm issue) and lead the student to correcting it with appropriate lead questions. Once the rhythm is mastered, add another layer of focus (like dynamics) and ask the student to add a crescendo while playing the correct rhythm.

Failure #2 Feedback "focuses on ratings and not development.” Instead, the goal of feedback is to create positive and lasting improvement.

How does this translate in lessons?

It's easy and perhaps takes less time to point out wrong notes and flaws. It takes guided questions and planning to develop independent thinkers and listeners and lead them to solving their own problems with strategies that build confidence.

If the student returns to a lesson with a thumb on a black key, it would be easy to force the student to change to a "better" (your suggested!) fingering. Instead, consider using lead questions to help the student to discover new fingering possibilities. For example: 

"Billy, I wonder if there is another fingering that might work in that passage?” Which one feels better? I noticed that you played the passage more fluidly by avoiding the thumb on a black key.”

Working through this process, the student may realize that the thumb on a black key is awkward and be pleased with a personally-selected fingering that works better.

Failure #3 Feedback "reinforces negative behaviors." Reminding students of their flaws from week to week can lead to them believing that they are helpless.

“Instead of focusing on who our students are, we need to focus on who they are becoming.” - Hirsch

How does this translate in lessons?

Find the good in whatever your students prepare for lessons and reinforce with genuine praise. Then guide students to reflect on their preparation with leading questions like:

"I noticed that you slowed down in measure four.

It seemed tricky for you. How could you become friends with it?

I wonder if you should play hands alone or tap the rhythm on your lap first?

Which practice strategy would help you master this challenge?"

These lead questions are just the tip of the iceberg of what it means to flip traditional feedback to feedforward.

The podcast continues with Hirsch describing six components of feedforward. He shares them with an acronym REPAIR:


  • EXPANDS Possibilites



  • Has an IMPACT.

  • REFINES Group Dynamics

Stay tuned for the next post which will dig deeper into the REPAIR acronym.

How do you feel about my application of Hirsch’s advice to the piano lesson experience?

How do his words validate what you are doing already?

How does his approach expand your thinking about how to interact with students?

Please leave your comments below and stay tuned for more feedforward tips coming soon!


Find more about Joe Hirsch on his website.