Humour can be a useful tool when teaching – especially online, argues Naomi Yandell


Photo: Library of Congress

A few months ago, I was teaching a new teenage student online. His mother asked me to take him on because he always seemed disheartened after his previous teacher’s lessons. She was losing the will to insist that he practised because she could see he wasn’t thriving. Following my usual new-student strategy of starting with fresh and not-too-demanding repertoire, we set off on our journey together. He was cautious at first, apologising instantly if he made an error (this habit is so hard to eliminate once it has become engrained).

One of the pieces we began working on had a central section that really sings if you use a lot of bow. I asked him to use full bows and he used a bit more. ‘Your parents bought the whole bow; use it,’ I said. He looked at me out of the corner of his eye and slowly, once he had reassured himself that I was joking and it was OK to laugh in my lesson, his face lit up. Before I knew it, he was bowing away with gusto and we could both hear the difference instantly.

In the next lesson we were working on a moto perpetuo movement that needed small bows to sound precise and controlled. I explained this to him, and he played it again, but he wasn’t really taking on board what I was saying. Instead, I did what I often do, and asked him to watch me playing the passage twice, and then tell me which he thought was best – one played with short bows and the other with wildly long bows. I exaggerated hugely and, of course, it was obvious which one he needed to work towards. We both laughed. He got the point. Not that he immediately played it perfectly, but he understood what he was working towards, and why.

I am not saying that I am constantly joking during lessons, and I haven’t kept a tally of how much I use humour face to face versus teaching online, but my hunch is that I use it more when teaching online because it lightens both the atmosphere and the intensity of the situation quite considerably.

With the teaching of neat left-hand shapes, I have noticed that I can talk until I am blue in the face about the importance of keeping the left-hand fingers curved and ready to play but the message hits a bullseye if I contrast good and (very) bad. Young students roar with laughter, but they immediately get the idea and know which camp they want to be in.

With performance skills, too, it is easy to demonstrate the good and the bad. I show how unsettling it can be for an audience if a performer ends a slow gentle piece by ripping the bow off the instrument and looking as if they are about to run off the stage. Compare this with a slow and considered end to a long, quiet note and it’s pretty obvious which one is better.

Another favourite context is encouraging students to prepare their arms to move past the body of the instrument into higher positions. They find it pretty funny to see my left-hand thumb stopping my fingers dead by not preparing my arm to play higher up. They can see that there’s a practical issue and it’s comic.

With laughter comes relaxation, and with relaxation comes enjoyment. And with enjoyment comes engagement, confidence and focus. Can you think back to a lesson where one of your students laughed out loud? I don’t mean an embarrassed snigger, but a proper guffaw? If you can’t, try this out for yourself. I hope that you will like the effect it has on your student’s ongoing learning.

‘What did you say to him?’ asked my new student’s mother after the first lesson. ‘He sits completely differently, the sound is so much better, and he came out of the lesson smiling. That hasn’t happened in a very long time.’