Nonverbal communication in music lessons

How do we interact with students in our teaching studios? Have you ever thought about some of the nonverbal behaviours we have and how they are perceived by your students? We have all heard theories that suggest communication is about 90% nonverbal and 10% verbal. How true is this? What nonverbal forms of communication are received and interpreted during a music studio lesson and how does it affect instruction and learning?

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Some would be intrigued to note that it is not our nonverbal behaviours which define lesson effectiveness by students. Research has shown that teachers are who more sensitive and responsive to nonverbal behaviours, were considered by students to be more effective studio teachers and have higher overall satisfaction with instrumental lessons. 

Nonverbal behaviour can serve several functions. It is a means of communicating emotion, it is an interpersonal relationship language, and it regulates interaction. Further, body language can convey attitudes which regulate meaning (Highlen & Hill, 1984). 

Defining teacher and teaching effectiveness is difficult. Administrators would criteria such as measures of student achievement, but as teachers, we realise that results are just the end product. It is what happens in the learning process — the interactions between teacher and student — that is as important as the product.

Siebenaler (1997) found that frequent teacher-student interaction in the teaching studio contributed to learning effectiveness. Carlin (1997) found that teachers who demonstrated more nonverbal behaviours were more effective than those who demonstrated fewer nonverbal behaviours. Levassuer (1994) in a study of studio vocal teachers and students, found that students believe the most successful vocal teachers were those that used eye contact, nodding, smiles, laughter, appropriate touch, varied vocal inflection, and sensitive use of space, timing and gestures.

Although assessment of effectiveness of nonverbal behaviours of teachers can be seen, what is not seen is how these behaviours are received and interpreted by students. Some students may be more receptive to nonverbal behaviours than others and Levassuer concluded that teachers need to be aware of this and adapt accordingly.

Cahn & Frey (1992) studied the receiver’s perception of verbal and nonverbal behaviours and concluded that the majority of meaning is derived from nonverbal cues. Thus teachers who are better able to interpret the nonverbal cues of their students will be better able to develop a good rapport and enhance overall teaching effectiveness.

In a study by Kurkul (2007) it was found that communication was an important factor of perceived lesson effectiveness. Further, it was concluded that it was not the teacher’s use of nonverbal behaviours but the teachers’ nonverbal sensitivity that had the strongest correlation to perceived lesson effectiveness by the student. Teachers with better nonverbal sensitivity were found to better perceive students’ instructional needs and adjusted accordingly. 

Having an awareness of the effect of nonverbal communication should be something we understand as part of our approach to music pedagogy. Videoing some lessons for review of your nonverbal behaviours would also be an enlightening experience. Behaviours to look for are eye contact, facial expressions, hand gestures, forward lean, head nodding, appropriate touching, silence and voice quality. Not only your behaviour, but your perception and reception of student nonverbal behaviours. Consider how your student responds to you. 

It is an interesting interactive and adaptive situation to be a teacher, particularly in one-to-one teaching. To be an effective teacher means not only to know your content, but to have effective communication skills to teach this knowledge in a way that is responsive to individual learner needs.

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