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Learning Piano Joyfully with NLP

by Nancy Blake(more info)

listed in nlp, originally published in issue 147 - May 2008

The three concepts used here are leading by reward, using a ‘moving toward’ strategy, and working to create positive internal dialogue. These all work hand in hand.

Leading by Reward

NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming) makes use of ideas and practices from other areas using the criterion ‘does this work’? Here we are drawing on the Skinnerian field called ‘operant conditioning’. Skinner’s research showed that the most effective way to increase the frequency of behaviour is to reward it. Punishment, because it is a form of attention, can also act as a ‘reward’, and may increase the frequency of behaviour, as the parents of small children often discover! The most effective way to extinguish behaviour is for it to get no response whatever.

The advantage of the reward strategy is that, while punishment raises anxiety levels, which creates physical tension and makes learning more difficult, reward leads to emotional and physical relaxation, a state which facilitates the positive learning we wish to encourage.

Therefore, the most effective teaching strategy is to avoid calling attention to incorrect movements and ‘mistakes’, in favour of drawing your pupil’s attention to what he or she is doing correctly. In teaching the correct finger and hand position (fingers curved, playing on the ends of the fingers), I start by showing them a picture of the correct hand position to imitate, and then may say ‘so which of your fingers do you think is doing the best? Do you think your other fingers could begin to do it like that?’ I would also invite them to praise the fingers that are doing well.

I think this approach to spelling tests could transform education!

Instead of marking a whole word WRONG if one letter is incorrect, why not say ‘Look, you’ve got five of the six letters right, now let’s see what we need to do to make the word perfect.’ In this day and age of constant examinations, anything that helps a child to feel good, and feel confident when approaching an exam, is going to be helpful throughout their educational career.

Moving Toward

Using reward creates a mindset of moving toward doing things correctly.

Fear of getting things wrong, or making a mistake, creates a moving-away strategy, as well as increasing anxiety and tension. We need to help our student think in terms of moving toward a correct technique, a correct performance, an emotionally inspiring performance.

To illustrate the problems created by a ‘moving away’ strategy, I ask you not to think of a purple cow. Immediately the image of a purple cow comes into your mind – our mind cannot think of ‘not doing something’ without first representing the idea of what doing it would be. You will be able to tell when a child is ‘trying not to make a mistake’. The finger, which already has learned which note to play, will start reaching for nearby notes – it is trying not to ‘make a mistake’.

Now, if I ask you to focus on the image of a brown cow – what happens to the purple cow? Without any effort on your part, it has left the field! This is why it is so valuable to be continually urging our pupils to be ‘moving toward’ the kind of playing they want to achieve – the incorrect technique, the mistakes, will gradually fade away.

Creating Positive Internal Dialogue

Following from the above, you will appreciate the importance for your pupil of developing encouraging and positive internal dialogue.

Especially with the older beginners whom I particularly enjoy teaching, there can be some very harsh, critical and perfectionistic internal dialogue going on. Most people are unaware of their internal dialogue until it is pointed out to them. My theory about why internal dialogue is so often harsh and critical is that it may be derived from things our parents and teachers said to us when they were either cross with us, or frightened for our safety.

If your pupil is hesitant and anxious, when their level of skill should be allowing them to play more fluently, the chances are that internal dialogue is getting in the way. One of my students realized that from her training as a bookkeeper, she was constantly telling herself “always double check.”

Once your pupils are aware of what they are saying to themselves, ask whether that is how they would speak to a child whom they were trying to encourage to learn. The response is often one of shock: “Of course not!” Then you can ask them to practise speaking to themselves internally in the same positive and encouraging way that they would speak to anyone else they were trying to help.

I find that these approaches help pupils to learn quickly, to associate their lessons with a happy atmosphere and, therefore, to continue learning even among the distractions of adolescent and adult life. Rather than in later years, regretting having given up, they continue to practise a skill which can bring them enjoyment throughout their lifetime.


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About Nancy Blake

Nancy Blake BA CQSW, has worked in mental health settings since 1971. She served as the Chair of the ANLP PCS (now the NLPtCA), as well as on a National Working Party developing postgraduate standards for Psychotherapy (NVQ Level 5), and contributed to the document which led to NLP being accepted as a therapeutic modality by the European Association for Psychotherapy.  She has presented workshops at UKCP Professional Conferences on an NLP approach to working with victims of abuse, and in psychoneuroimmunology.  Recovering from ME since 1986, she is the co-author, with Dr Leslie O Simpson, of the book Ramsay’s Disease (ME) about ME, as well as A Beginner's Guide to ME / CFS (ME/CFS Beginner's Guides). Both titles are available both in paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon. Nancy was previously enrolled at Lancaster University in a PhD doctoral program; her thesis topic was Conflicting Paradigms of ME/CFS and how the Psychiatric Paradigm creates its Influence in contrast to the Medical Model. She may be contacted via Her books are available to purchase at


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