We all love to be praised and, when used effectively, praise is worth its weight in gold. In these uncertain times and in the new arena of online teaching, many teachers may find themselves either falling into the trap of over-praising or struggling to praise at all. In this extract from The Virtuoso Teacher, music educator Paul Harris explores how teachers can use praise in a productive way. 


When well done is not so well done

Two trombonists, in a small group lesson, were asked to play a unison scale of B flat major. They did begin (near enough) together, but as they got about halfway through, confusion began to set in. As the scale proceeded there was little agreement on pitch or duration of notes. Sometime later, when the playing eventually came to a very uncertain conclusion, the teacher responded with ‘Well done!’ The students looked confused.

The basic rule: always praise where praise is due is indisputable and it need hardly be added that praising where praise is not due is counterproductive and encourages a lack of trust and respect. But it’s not that simple. Even praise delivered with the best of intentions (and at appropriate times) can cause unexpected problems.

Let’s delve a little deeper. Praise may be divided into two types: appreciative praise and judgmental praise. Appreciative praise will build confidence, while judgmental praise will often generate dependency and even anxiety.

Let’s look at judgmental praise first: ‘You played that brilliantly.’ ‘Good, you played that scale excellently.’ ‘You played that so beautifully.’ These comments are all warmly expressed and well-meant. But (especially if repeated often) they may cause dependency. They praise the person (you did this) and students will crave more. It may well cause them to work hard in order to receive more praise, but the thin veneer of immediate pleasure it produces may evaporate quickly and they are left vulnerable. The ego may grow (a lot of this kind of praise may turn out arrogant children) but the all-important self-respect will not. It can produce anxiety if pupils gain praise by accident (I don’t know how I managed to do that) which will cause uncertainty the next time they do (if I play it badly this time my teacher will think less of me). The ‘good on you’ type of praise should also be avoided – the inference will be that I’m bad if I don’t play the scale well.

Appreciative praise: ‘I enjoyed that’, ‘That was really accurate and musically phrased’, ‘That practice really has made a difference’, allows the student to think ‘My teacher liked what I did’, ‘I did well’, ‘My practice was worthwhile’. The student draws these all-important conclusions. This, over time, creates confidence and greater independence. They are liberated from a necessity for outside judgment to push them forward. Their self-esteem is boosted. They become more self-motivated. Positive yet non-judgmental observation will have the same kind of effect and is also an effective form of praise: I see you’re using the correct fingering now.

Of course we should often say nice things to our students: the occasional direct ‘You played that beautifully’ (especially if it really was beautiful playing) won’t lead to conceit and self-importance. But an awareness of this ‘darker’ power of praise is very useful in helping us to guide our students to self-reliance. Just thinking a little more about how we say things will help us turn potentially damaging judgmental praise into confidence building appreciative praise. There are three more useful praise ‘rules’ worth taking into consideration:

  1. Praising effort rather than talent is more effective
    ‘I’m really pleased with your hard work this week’ would create a stronger inner glow than ‘You’ve done brilliantly this week’. And connect praise with effort: ‘The work you did on that really has made a difference’.
  2. Praise followed immediately by criticism is not constructive
    ‘The intonation of that passage was well controlled but this section was awful …’ The praise in that remark will have been quite forgotten. Often teachers make their praise rather generalised yet the criticism detailed: ‘I liked the overall sound, but the G in this bar was thin and those notes were unfocused and …’ It’s very valuable to make the praise detailed and specific too – it will be taken much more seriously and have a much stronger effect.
  3. Sincere praise goes a long way

    Praise must always be honest. If your students know they are not playing well and are praised as encouragement they’ll begin to think that praise is simply another form of veiled criticism. And remember that there is so much that may be worthy of praise outside how they may be playing. If we increasingly develop the ability to notice subtle nuances in our students’ development and praise them appropriately, we will really add significantly to their self-motivation. We can praise initiative, enthusiasm, resolve and determination, independence, responsibility, and creativity. We must also show faith in our students’ potential: ‘I knew you could do that.’ Treat each success as if you expected it. Don’t be surprised (at least not too often!) – it weakens our case. A teacher’s use of praise can have a very far-reaching effect on the personality and success of their students. It is worth some serious reflection.


To read more about Paul Harris’s philosophies on teaching, take a look at his best-selling publications The Virtuoso Teacher, Improve your teaching and Simultaneous Learning...