Is demonstration the most powerful tool an educator possesses?

In this article, I’d like to share an experience that has led me on a journey to realise the answer to this question.

In this post, we will specifically look at:

  • Demonstration, what exactly is it?
  • The purpose of demonstration, why it matters.
  • Mindfulness for effective demonstration.
  • The outcomes of effective demonstration.


Recently, I was busy facilitating a lesson in which my learner was ready to begin learning a new song, and as I always do, I demonstrated what we would be learning to set the expectation for our direction together. ’That looks hard!’, my student exclaimed. I’ve heard students say this before, but for some reason, I found this especially profound to hear on this occasion. I began to consider what this remark really means, I realised my question – the title of this post – and I started doing some research. 

In past lives, I’ve had various jobs and attended various courses that speak of the importance of demonstrating. I’d gotten so used to being told to demonstrate that I’d never actually considered the importance of it, just accepted it as part of a process.

So, I began exploring. I stripped back my preconceptions, I removed all the labels and I went to work with a blank canvas, ready to learn.

Demonstration – What Exactly Is It?

The answer to this question may seem obvious, but I’d like to explore it nonetheless. Demonstration, perhaps most importantly, is the point in a lesson where we deliver our expectations to our learners. It is the moment where we establish what we believe our learners will be able to play, and in this precious moment it is imperative that we choose content that suits our learner. If we get this step wrong, we’ll cause much more damage than good. We’ll begin to understand how as we go along.

The Purpose of Demonstration, Why It Matters

As a teacher, we are likely able to talk the talk, but honestly, can we walk the walk

Every learner has the right to participate in high quality musical experiences on a regular basis. For children in England attending school up to and including secondary school, this is an expectation in alignment with the National Plan for Music Education.

Demonstration is our most powerful tool for helping our learners aspire. These demonstrations can be performances by famous, revered musicians, sure, but what our students really find impressive is an in-person demonstration. They want to be able to trust our authority and they want to know they are being supported by someone who is not only outwardly knowledgeable, but skilled and disciplined in their practise and delivery. They’ll really enjoy the chance to hear music being performed live in a musical way, and they will likely understand at least some of the aims of the piece just by hearing and watching us play. So, as teachers we’d better make sure we’re prepared for each lesson, and that we are skilled enough to play almost anything convincingly, more-or-less straight off the bat. 

If we can’t play what we hope to teach, we must consider what our learners will think. The odds are, they will – in some way – think negatively of us. They will likely know that we either haven’t prepared, or that we have unrealistic expectations of ourselves, therefore of other people, too. If we haven’t prepared, or if we have unrealistic expectations, what values do we instil in our learners? What will they aspire to? The likelihood is that they will aspire to what we embody in a situation like this. 

What students will almost definitely think – consciously or otherwise – is ‘if my teacher can’t play it, what chance have I got/why should I bother?’ In this scenario, we wave goodbye to authority, our students’ willpower and aspirations, and we welcome in negativity bias, rumination, and potentially, the actualisation of a negative internal narrative.

What needs to be said at this stage, is that occasional ‘slips’ in a musical performance should be totally acceptable. They should also be discussed and explored, and a positive, growth mindset towards these mishaps should be encouraged from a third, second and first person perspective.

I think there is a certain beauty to a performer making and owning a mistake during a performance. It helps learners see the human element to live music, and the inevitability of making a mistake at some point. It can help guide healthy views of ‘failure’ and help learners establish realistic, reasonable expectations of themselves when performing. It also helps learners to appreciate how amazing it is when a musician can play flawlessly, setting an expectation of the amount of practise time, resilience, and most importantly, determination is required to reach such a level.

Mindfulness for Effective Demonstration

To demonstrate effectively, I believe we simply need to be skilled in two essential areas of mindfulness: self awareness, and the awareness of – and sensitivity towards – the ability and experience of others.

Self Awareness

Self awareness matters because we need to present our demonstrations in a rock solid, unquestionable manner. This means our knowledge and skills have to be on point. If we say we can deliver lessons to a certain standard, then we need to follow through. We owe it to our students, simply because the ceiling of our own ability is reasonably all we can ever expect to enable our learners to achieve. For example, if a teacher happens to be teaching a guitarist who has interests in Jazz at grade 8 standard, and the teacher is a grade 6 standard rock guitarist, the reality is that this teacher is out of their depth. They need to be realistic and put the needs of their learner first by sourcing a teacher who can best cater for their needs and interests.

The reason? Firstly, there is a huge technical and theoretical difference between grade 6 and grade 8. Secondly there is a huge difference between rock guitar and jazz guitar styles. So, already it is wholly unrealistic for a teacher to think that they will be able to quickly acquire the skills and capabilities to deliver a quality learning experience in this particular scenario. Thirdly, and most importantly, that student will be made completely aware that their progress and development as a musician is valued more than their teacher’s ego.

Simply, we should always aim to communicate true proficiency and competency in our demonstrations within the fields in which we claim we are skilled. If we cannot, then we need to re-evaluate our claims and consider how honest we are being with ourselves, and others. This is the only way to set realistic, musical standards and values in our learners. Unrealistic standards and values in ourselves = unrealistic standards and values in our students. We reap what we sow.

The Awareness of the Ability and Experience of Others

The awareness of the ability and experience of others matters because this is the baseline from which anybody listens. Knowing our students well is the only way to select and successfully pitch learning materials that are going to benefit the learner and cause them to have a healthy, inspiring, enriching engagement with music. It is definitely a skill, and it takes time, determination and research to hone. But, it is worth the time and effort it takes. Your students will absolutely thank you for it!

The Outcomes of Effective Demonstration

The outcomes of effective demonstration have stratospheric potential. By selecting and demonstrating learning materials that push our students and challenge them in the right way, we can firstly demonstrate that we are paying attention to, and are compassionate towards their individual needs. This step can go a long way in helping break down boundaries between you and your student, especially if they suffer with low self esteem. When our learners feel understood, supported, valued and relaxed, this helps to create a safe and secure learning environment within which our learners can flourish.

By demonstrating materials that our learners can relate to, we then have a stronger stance from which to influence them. By selecting and demonstrating a resource that is within their current field of interest and also sounds impressive to our learner, we stand a much greater chance of gaining their attention and intrigue. Attention and intrigue are a very powerful combination together, as they cause the learner to ask questions – either in their minds or out loud – and questions oftentimes cause us to seek answers.

This level of thought and care in our lessons gives way to the next outcomes; positive self regard and resilience. This is especially the case when we enable our learners to successfully ‘complete’ a challenge. In my experience, the resilience of an individual is built on a foundation of willpower, and willpower can only be achieved when an individual successfully completes a task and can take pride in the journey that led to completion. This building of willpower can be exponentially more powerful when the learner believes that they can’t, or won’t be able to complete a task.

Finally, A Short Anecdote…

Recently, I was teaching one of my beginner students, and we had just reached the end of learning a riff to a song they liked. We reviewed the outcomes of our most recent learning journey by exploring the ‘successes’ and the ‘challenges’ it presented. This exploration helps my learners to reflect on their work, but also offers me a chance to continue developing my awareness of how to help them. As a conclusion, we crafted an idea of how we could enable our next journey to unfold with more success than the last, at which point we were then ready to move on. I introduced the riff I’d prepared, and then demonstrated that riff to a backing track. Once I’d finished demonstrating this riff, my student then exclaimed the comment that influenced this whole post – ’that looks hard!’. I knew the contrary (especially since their acknowledgement of challenges during the evaluation of our last song helped in part with the selection of the new learning materials), but I kept this to myself and I continued carefully guiding their learning journey. By the end of the session, through my awareness of my learner, a careful guiding, encouraging and application of their self reflection, along with the application of certain teaching techniques, they had the outline of the riff memorised. By the end of the session, they were able to play the riff, albeit loosely, but had enough knowledge and confidence with the riff and our musical goals to take the it away and explore it through the week.

They were ecstatic, and most importantly, motivated to continue exploring the riff further. What was clear to me was that they understood the sound of the riff, they could see how it related to them, their musicianship and their instrument, and they knew it was all within their reach.

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