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Riley Music Academy Music Cast: Positive vs Negative reinforcement

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Positive vs Negative reinforcement

We have two dogs. For some reason we decided to have 2 kids 15 months apart, buy our first house and take on two puppies all within 2 years! Crazy? Oh Yes!

Anyway, we took the dogs to training classes and loved the head trainers attitude and approach. It was pure positive reinforcement. The dog obeyed the command and it was given a treat. We know other people who have trained dogs in different ways and some use the opposite method: the dog doesn’t obey the command, so you reprimand it. All the dogs in question have been ‘trained’ and are reasonably well behaved (apart from when one of ours sees a cat)!

I’ve been teaching a lot recently and while I do not consider myself an expert in learning methods, I witness a lot of different behaviours. I always try to tailor my delivery based on the individual but I’ve been thinking about positive vs negative reinforcement and what approach I take with my students, my kids and yes…my dogs! What are the pros and cons? What are my experiences? What benefits can you as musicians take from this?

Before we start the deep content I need to take you back to 1999. I was in my second year of music college and I was trying to make the transition between high school musician of the year two years in a row, in demand piano player at community college (big fish in a small pond) to below average in a music college full of talented players from across the country (tiny fish with an inability to swim in a huge ocean). I guess I was finding my feet but the desire to chase girls and smoke pot was not helping my quest for musical greatness! I was a terrible student. Not discourteous, but rebellious in a nonchalant, lazy and ‘holier than thou’ sort of way. I thought I knew it all and the reality was…I knew nothing (Jay Snow)!

I had two instrumental teachers. One for piano and I managed to pick up a bursary for a sax teacher too. They were both jazz musicians and were quite well regarded in the scene. They had very different approaches to teaching however. The sax teacher was mellow, used to play a lot in lessons and wasn’t great at delivering content. Regardless, I wasn’t interested in learning and I wasted  the opportunity. I didn’t practice and I wasn’t the best student by a long stretch. One day, he offered me a lift home (in his battered up Citroen BX) and put on a cassette of Sonny Rollins. He said that when he was 19 he heard Sonny for the first time and he realised that he needed to work hard if he was ever going to get anywhere close on the saxophone. Fast forward to the present and in hindsight I respect him for his subtle message. He gently encouraged me and offered positive reinforcement.

Unfortunately, the piano teacher had the opposite approach. He once told me that he had heard me on both piano and saxophone and “to be quite honest, I don’t think you’re any good on either!”

That was my last ever piano lesson! He completely drained my morale and I scraped through my degree.

So, I’ve experienced both positive and negative reinforcement and what is the outcome?

Well…in a way, I think the results are the same. I’m sure both teachers wanted to inspire me to do some work but the crux of the matter was that I wasn’t ready to listen. Last week I recorded a vlog about listening and I emphasise its importance. Sometimes though, you have to wait for the right time to take it in. You’re not going to fully absorb a tune if you are also doing the ironing or answering emails. Similarly, you might not be mentally ready to take advice. The old adage “You can lead a horse to water but you can’t make it drink” springs to mind. In the meantime, as a teacher you can be earning trust, respect and creditability and then when someone is ready to listen, you deliver your message and hopefully jump start their inspiration.

The two methods can produce similar results but let’s analyse them in a bit more detail.

The positive method

Best case scenario – the individual is encouraged and grows with confidence and believes they can take on the world. Criticism bounces off their ridiculously over confident armour and they take on challenges with fearless perception.

Worse case scenario – the individual has a rose tinted view of life and has been protected in a bubble. They may not be pushed as hard as possible to achieve (we can debate whether or not this is a good thing another time!) They may think that they are owed something in life and not muster the drive to tackle their own problems.

The negative method

Best case scenario – the individual has a tough love experience and comes out the other side with a thick skin, resilience and a longing to achieve

Worse case scenario – complete demoralisation. A hatred for the teacher and possibly the subject matter. A feeling of self pity and shattered self esteem which transfers to all other aspects of life.

Positive in my mind wins every time. Why take the risk of crushing someone with the hope they will achieve what you force on them?

That’s not to say that I don’t like to push people into uncomfortable territory. That’s one of the best ways to improve skills. A lot of my students state that they find lessons hard and they never sound good in front of me. Well, I feel it important to find the line of comfort and gently stretch them over to the other side. Do I do this with positive reinforcement? Yes, almost exclusively. Do I give them a nudge occasionally? Of course, but never to the point of total failure.

The other risk of course is rebellion. Much like me as a  naive 19 year old with my head in the clouds. I rebelled against all forms of learning. I rebelled against both my positive sax teacher and my negative piano teacher. I think about the message given to me by my sax teacher; at a much later date I have taken his advice and started to work hard. Did I take my piano teachers comments onboard and try to prove him wrong? Did his harsh words give me the wake up call I so desperately needed? No. I just think he’s an arsehole!

So how can this help you? Well…in the most literal sense, it can help you to find a teacher who can encourage you to achieve your goals.

But if, like me, you like to fly solo the majority of the time, then it can help you to find that line of comfort and work in that area to improve.

What do I mean by this?

If you consistently play pieces that you mastered months or even years ago then you are not working up to the line. Not even close. If you noodle over backing tracks with the same lines and phrases then you are not pushing yourself and developing your skills.

You need to find the threshold of your ability and nudge yourself over into that scary new territory. The place where all things hard are found and it makes you feel like a complete beginner! Put your ego aside and develop that new skill you’ve been wishing for.

This will not feel comfortable. That’s the point – outside of your comfort zone! So you need to push yourself in 1 of 2 ways. Positive reinforcement or negative reinforcement. I’m going to play that C# diminished arpeggio perfectly at 120bpm then I’m going to eat this lovely cookie! Or… Unleash the Full Metal Jacket Drill Sergeant and whip yourself into shape!

positve vs negative reinforcement


If you have any comments then please leave them below


2 Comments Add a Comment
  1. hawgdrummer7
    October 19, 2017

    I enjoy your takes on both positive and negative reinforcement. We were recently discussing this subject in my pedagogy class, and I was one of the few people that stood up for negative reinforcement. In my own teaching over the past few years, I’ve come to believe that they can go hand in hand. When pointing out something wrong with your students, I’ve found it’s important to acknowledge the bad at the same time as the good. “The diddles in this section sound horrible, but the sound quality you’re producing has really improved.” Never mention a negative without also mentioning a positive.

    While I personally thrive on negative reinforcement, I understand that most people do not, and have tried to adjust my teaching to match that.

    • Jay
      October 21, 2017

      Thats really interesting. Yes, I sometimes offer students a criticism sandwich. I praise 2 good things with a negative in the middle. Thanks so much for your comment.

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