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The importance of using positive language

In any situation, we need to be very aware of the language we use and our actions because the way these are perceived by others sends messages which can determine, positively or negatively, the way children (and adults) feel about themselves and in relation to music. Take these examples:

  1. Mrs Smith makes an announcement in assembly:
    'could all the musicians gather in the hall for five minutes at break-time so that we can sort out the music for tonight’s concert?'

  2. Mr Jones talking to the new teacher assistant:
    'we’ve got quite a few non-musicians in this class'

  3. At the start of the first music lesson of the year Mr Harris asks:
    'who plays a musical instrument?'

All of these could have potentially negative connotations. It is fundamentally important that all children, regardless of their prior experiences, are made to feel that their music making matters. Using terms such as the ‘musicians’ is all too easy – but we wouldn’t use the terms the ‘readers’ and the ‘non-readers’, or the ‘mathematicians’ and the ‘non-mathematicians’. If something in our head classifies ‘other people’ as ‘the musicians’ then it can negatively affect how we feel about ourselves, so, as teachers, we need to be very careful to make all children feel like they are musical and can achieve.

Likewise, throwaway comments that we, as adults, might not even think twice about can be taken to heart, so we need to keep language positive.

Lehmann, Sloboda and Woody (2007:49)1 note:

'…people who at a young age were told that they were not musical seldom enjoy a childhood of growing musicianship.'

Teachers are very powerful people and we have the ability to significantly impact on how children feel about themselves. Sometimes what we say can be inadvertently misunderstood and taken to heart. A look or even a lack of comment can be taken as incorrect confirmation that something isn’t correct or good enough. There are too many adults who say ‘I am tone deaf – no really I am' or 'I can’t sing'. This may sound blindingly obvious but we should never tell children they are tone deaf, that they can’t play or sing in tune, that they have a terrible sense of rhythm, or that they should mime instead of sing or not be granted permission to join the choir. All these crushing indictments are likely to stay with us forever.

Instead, musical learning needs to be universally viewed as being accessible and open to everyone, promoted through positive experiences, appropriately challenging and engaging experiences. As a teacher, you have a significant role to play in positively influencing this.

1Lehmann, A., Sloboda, J. & Woody, R. (2007). Psychology for musicians: Understanding and acquiring the skills. Oxford University Press, Oxford.