How to coach our students (and clients)

While we may teach piano (or other instruments), coaching students & clients is a big part of our jobs.  It’s when we work with our students, rather than give them all the answers, that they have the most growth.  It’s when we work with our clients that we have the best relationships & outcomes.  And yet, have we really learnt how to coach our students & clients?

I did learn about coaching in my education degree, though it was called by different names.  However, a lot of it was theoretical.  The best learning was in my practicums & later on my professional career where I had chance to apply what I was learning.

If, like me, you want to learn more about creating those situations with our students & clients that have them coming back for more & raving about how much you have helped them learn … read “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever” by Michael Bungay Stanier.

Why a book on coaching?

I’m glad you asked.  Because it has a LOT of overlap into the work we do in our studios.

Do you feel like you:

  • Have to do everything for your students or clients?
  • Are overwhelmed … with the sheer number of tasks to get done or the emotional toll of juggling work & a personal life?
  • Are disconnected from the work that you really want to do?

These are all signs that your work is running your life instead of you being in control of your life & business.

But you are giving me yet another self-help strategy to add onto my workload!

I promise I’m not.  The book won’t take long to read.  Plus, it’s filled with examples, sampling wording to use, & great research.

One of the laws of change:

As soon as you try something new, you’ll get resistance.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier (The Coaching Habit, p. 26)

I took comfort in knowing that I wasn’t going to get things 100% right the first time.  Or, even the second time.  Just like we teach our students, it’s through intentional, consistent practice that we build the habits for our future playing.

Every chapter focuses on:

  • What is the trigger?  “When this happens ….”
  • What is the old habit?  “Instead of …”
  • Defining the new habit.  “I will …”
  • Question masterclass … that kick in the pants or ‘one thing’ to take away from the chapter.

Breaking It Down to 7 Essential Questions

How often have you asked a question?  Then, another?  Then, another?  And, you still haven’t heard the answer to the first question?  I’m guilty of this as much as the next person.  Especially if I feel rushed in lesson.

Ask one question at a time.  Just one question at a time.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier (The Coaching Habit, p. 33)

What happens when we ask a question, wait for the answer, really listen to that answer, & then move onto the next question?

It can be hard, right?  Especially when that answer doesn’t come right away.  However, in my education degree we were taught that it can take up to 30 seconds for some students to think through & respond to a question.  When I first started teaching, I would often silently count to 30 before asking for answers from the class.  Inevitably I got more students answering AND better answers than when I rushed the process.

Types of Coaching

Before I get into the 7 questions, we should look at the 2 types of coaching & what they look like in our studios.  After all, this effects how we approach our teaching.

Coaching for performance:

Tackles a specific, already existing problem. Solutions are easier to see.

Typically focuses on:

  • Projects (specific song or assignment)
  • Technical aspect of playing

Coaching for development:

Takes focus off the problem & onto the person to figure out the underlying cause of what is holding him/her back. Not always as easy to see what the real issue is.

Typically focuses on:

  • Relationships & each person’s role
  • Patterns of behaviour … most challenging because it deals with a person changing their own behaviour

Possible examples within our studios:

  • Student is playing scale incorrectly (technical aspect, coaching for performance)
  • Student doesn’t practice because teacher chooses songs (relationship, coaching for development)
  • Client pays tuition late … again (pattern of behaviour, coaching for development)

1:  What’s on your mind?

We all have students that love to tell us about everything BUT piano. (I tend to do this on my weeks I haven’t really practiced, but don’t tell my piano teacher that.  Okay?)

This is a great starting point for lesson because it opens up communication & lets us get to the heart of how we can help our students have success each week.  If a student struggled with a 2-measure section of one of their pieces, let’s start with that!  The student feels like it was a successful lesson & everyone is happy.

What if the student or client has a simple question?

If it is a simple request for information (i.e. when the next group lesson is being held or what does this new symbol mean), just give the information rather than going through this whole process.  However, anything to do with the relationship between you & your student or you & your client will often do better in a face-to-face conversation.

And, if I have a question? Just ask it.

I am completely guilty of taking the long way to get to a question. (My husband laughed when he read this because it is true in my personal life.) For the twins’ birthday dinner a couple weeks ago, I turned to my husband. “Oh, no! I forgot to take the cupcakes out of the fridge!” Blank look from my husband. “I wanted to get them closer to room temperature before we had them for dessert.” Still a blank look from my husband so I also paused. Then, a light-bulb moment for my husband. “Do you want ME to get the cupcakes?” he said. I nodded. “Why didn’t you just ask me that in the first place!?!” Honestly, I still can’t tell him OR you why I didn’t just ask right away. But, at least I know what to work on now!

If you are like me, let’s set up a new habit. The next time we have a difficult question to ask a student or client … let’s just ask it. No leading up to or explaining it. Just ask, in a respectful way of course.

2: And, what else?

Also, known as the AWE (And What Else) question in the book.  Did you know often …

  • The first response to ” What’s on your mind?” is not the real challenge.
  • The first solution for a problem is not necessarily the best one.

Rather than giving advice right away, whether it’s a student’s struggle with a section of their piece or a piano parent that wants to help their child more, get the whole picture.

In short, even though we don’t really know what the issue is, or what’s going on for the person, we’re quite sure we’ve got the answer she [or he] needs.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier (The Coaching Habit, p. 61)

Asking “What else?” or “Is there anything else?” changes the habit of giving advice.  It forces us to really listen & get to heart of the matter.  It also helps us avoid rhetorical questions: that advice wrapped up in a question.  Or, jumping in to solve something that a student can figure out on their own.

3: What is the real challenge for you?

“What’s on your mind?”

“Well, this week I didn’t practice because I was too busy since I had a birthday party, soccer two nights & a project due.”

“And, what else?”

“Well, my parents didn’t remind me to practice.”

“What was the real challenge for you?”

Notice how the student can’t blame the parent in that last question?  Yes, young students need their parents to be involved during the week.  But, I’m also a firm believer in training children to take responsibility for their own actions.  They won’t be perfect at it the first year.  Probably not even the second year if they are really young.  But, I do not want a teen trying to fob off their responsibilities onto their parents.

What if the student gives you more than one challenge?  If it is age-appropriate, ask them to choose one to focus on.  Bringing it back to the student teaches them how to analyze their practice during the week & make decisions that benefit their playing.  Instead of waiting for you to solve everything.

4: What do you want?

Yes.  I just said we shouldn’t rush in to solve every problem.

But, as teachers we are there to provide the advice & expertise students really need.  And, as I was reminded at my kids’ birthday party, it can be hard to ask for help … if you are even aware of what exactly you need.

Another variation of this question might be “Imagine that this problem is miraculously solved tomorrow morning.  How will you know?”

Remember … your student or client may not answer right away.  That’s okay.  They may need a moment to understand exactly what they want.

5: How can I help you?

If a student has done the hard work of answering the first 3 questions truthfully, we should help them.

If we are working through an issue with a client & they have worked with you to distil the main problem, we should help them.

That does not mean we have to say yes to whatever they say.  You can say “no”, “maybe”, or “no to this request, BUT I can do this”.

For make-up lessons, I have used this last response quite a bit.  “I will not do a physical make-up lesson, but I will make a lab assignment sheet including links to the apps needed so your child can do this in little segments during your holiday.”

6: If you say yes to this, what are you saying no to?

We all have a finite number of hours & limited amount of energy for each day.  The day that I began to say “no” more than I said “yes” was the beginning of a journey.  I went from feeling like my career was at the whim of everyone else to feeling like I had control over my career.  It has also ensured that my “yes” could mean something.

Rather than being busy or ‘work smarter, not harder’, I encourage you to be intentional with your time.  When I get a request, often I will say “Maybe.  Let me check my calendar & see if I can commit to that.”  It lets my students & clients know I respect their request, but also that I won’t shrug off my other responsibilities either.  Saying yes slowly means I know 100% I can follow through on that commitment.

A Yes is nothing without the No that gives it boundaries and form.

~ Michael Bungay Stanier (The Coaching Habit, p. 165)

7: What was most useful for you?

This one, out of all the questions, had me rethink my lesson structure for next year.

What if we end the lesson with, “What was most useful for you today?”

What if we started lessons with, “What have you learnt since we last met?” (question from p. 191)

The process of forgetting is interrupted.  Students think through their learning rather than having us spoon feed them information.

Mind blown, right?

What does this mean for you?

I highly encourage you to read “The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever” by Michael Bungay Stanier.  It was an interesting read throughout & has so many applications for our studios!  And, honestly, I’ve just given you the highlights here … there is SO much more to learn from the book.

You’ll notice that I’ve focused mostly on the student relationship in this article.  However, these questions could come in very handy with our ‘difficult’ clients.  Sometimes all we need a guiding hand to know what the expectations are.

In the comments below, let me know …

  • What questions do you use with your students (& clients)?
  • What do you think of the book?


  1. Hi Rosemarie,

    very interesting post! This book sits on my amazon wish list and thanks for reminding me about it.

    Two years ago I had some lessons in Alexander technique and my teacher alsways asked this question at the end: “What did you learned today?” Sometimes I dreaded the question before the lesson. It put some pressure on me. I couldn´t find much to tell – but maybe it was about the technique, there wasn´ t so much to feel and observe. Just tiny bits – and my overachiever soul wanted to tell about groundbreaking insights… 😉

    I thought about asking this question in my studio, but didn´ t because of my own feelings. I´ ll try it now because it will activate my student to think about his piano playing and not just consuming the lesson.

    Thanks for this article!

    1. Hi Carina,
      I’m glad to hear that you’ll be reading the book! And, that it’s inspiring your teaching as well. Completely understand about bad experiences having unexpected influence on teaching. Hopefully, you will find the wording that works out best for you. Perhaps these questions may work better for you … “Tell me 1 thing that stood out for you in today’s lesson.” Or, “What is 1 thing we did or you learnt in lesson today that will help your practice the most this week?”
      Let me know what you think of the book once you’ve read it, Carina!

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