Press "Enter" to skip to content

The Benefits of Demonstrating in Lessons

by Dr. Thomas Lanners

Dr. Thomas Lanners has been a favorite presenter at for the past six years.  He is known for his solid advice, practical tips and humor. Here are some great tips from Tom and a preview of his 2020 session, The Benefits of Demonstrating in Lessons: Finding Imaginative Ways to Illustrate Any Concept. Be sure to register for 2020 to see his entire session. You will certainly enjoy spending time with Tom!


Demonstrating musical and technical concepts in lessons, whether in the most obvious fashion through playing passages for students or by other more imaginative means, can bring to life concepts that had previously only been described in words. Because the elusive, almost indescribable aspects of music are what make it so uniquely moving and appealing, an effective demonstration can substitute for a great deal of potentially confusing verbiage. Singing, conducting and movement, combined with visual, aural and tactile imagery and a host of other approaches, may efficiently resolve a wide range of difficulties.

There are many possible definitions of the word “demonstrate” as it relates to musical training. While it is important to model how to play an instrument through simply playing it for students, it is best to avoid a “monkey see, monkey do” paradigm that may discourage free thought and imagination. Fine and varied demonstrations of technical and musical concepts will lead to teaching that is clearer and far more concise. This broader definition of demonstrating illustrates the musical equivalent of the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words.”

When I seek to teach flow and contour in musical phrases, for example, I often make large, smooth gestures with my arms as I sing musical lines. If rhythm and pulse is a shortcoming for a given student, or even if those are simply primary elements in a given phrase, I count rhythmic subdivisions while singing the pitches, conducting as well to make certain my point is communicated as clearly as possible. An energetic piece in duple meter could benefit from a bit of marching on my part, while common dances such as waltzes become more vivid interpretively when the pulse and lilt is more closely associated with visual movements associated with the dance. This does not mean that teachers must necessarily be trained singers, conductors or dancers, as even rudimentary demonstrations of the sort I have described will likely suffice from a pedagogical perspective. The tempo in a relatively calm and placid piece may benefit from both teacher and student walking in tempo around the studio.

Singing demonstrations are the most common sort I utilize on a daily basis. They can be combined with the various movements described above, and are the best possible way to show naturalness in phrase shaping as lines rise and fall, and pacing and breathing as one phrase ends and another begins. Singing can even serve as a guide to effective rubato usage, because we can literally feel which pitches are of greater import when we utilize the vocal apparatus that is built into our bodies. Because music is a communicative language, drawing parallels between spoken and musical phrases can be a powerful tool. Most sentences begin at a relative low point in pitch and volume, then rise to a peak about two-thirds of the way through, typically dropping off at their conclusions. It is quite simple to demonstrate how musical phrases mirror this basic pattern. Clear enunciation and projection of words when speaking is directly comparable to intelligible articulation and tonal projection in music. Over-articulation that creates choppy musical lines can be illustrated by speaking a sentence in an equally choppy fashion.

Tactile demonstrations, such as playing a chord on a student’s forearm to show how voicing a given note over others actually feels, are tremendously valuable, provided, of course, that the teacher always asks permission to engage in such physical contact. Visual imagery, as in explaining the stretch at the peak of a long phrase by asking the student to picture a ball tossed upward that decelerates at the top and then accelerates as it drops, is superior to simply offering dry verbal instructions regarding tempo flexibility. “Miming” how a string player might release a shorter note in an orchestral or chamber music setting may assist pianists who tend to clip staccato notes in an unnaturally dry fashion.

Of course having and maintaining the abilities necessary to provide effective demonstrations by at least occasionally playing the instruments we teach during our lessons is imperative. We should acknowledge that we learned our native spoken language via immersion in it, supplied by those who surrounded us as children, and that we instinctively imitated the sounds we heard to develop our initial fluency. A musical language is no different, yet supplementing playing demonstrations with a myriad of other techniques will fill our pedagogical toolboxes to the brim, thus raising the likelihood that we will find methods that unlock the keys to our students’ innate abilities.

See Tom’s entire session by registering at

Thomas Lanners, Professor of Piano at Oklahoma State University, is active as a solo and collaborative pianist, recording artist, author, teacher and clinician throughout the U.S. and abroad. His performances have been broadcast nationally and internationally. Lanners has presented sessions at numerous MTNA and conferences, among many others. He served on the festival faculties and presented master classes in Sicily, Seoul, Shanghai and Beijing. American Music Teacher and Clavier have published his feature articles. Thomas holds Master’s and Doctoral degrees in Piano Performance and Literature from the Eastman School of Music.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.