Clicker Training: Exploring Non-Verbal Feedback in Private Instruction

Mike Lawson • String Section • February 8, 2019

Share This:

I recently heard a fascinating piece on the radio in which the concept of “clicker training” (a proven method of training animals which has roots in the notorious “Pavlov” experiments) has been modified to teach muscle memory skills in aspiring surgeons.

Although the radio program I heard in December was very thorough, the transcript I found only covers part of the presented material. I share it in case, like me, some readers have never heard of clicker training:

“In searching for other teachers’ experiences implementing traditional clicker training, I found a method called “TAGteach,” shares Karen Pryor.

TAGteach has been introduced into many fields. In addition to skill acquisition, there are promising applications to improve the quality of life (use in therapy for behavior modification, learning disabilities, developmentally disadvantaged children and adults, for example). The process and its psychology is making an entrance in specialized careers that are performance-based and require intensive training (teaching/coaching/apprenticing).

Clicker Training: The Basics What is TAGteach?

In keeping with its acronym, (Teaching with Acoustical Guidance), TAG teachers use a clicker to mark a precise response, action, or position- or “TAG point.” The sound of the click becomes an acoustical binary message that is quickly processed by the brain. Students do not need to process corrections, emotions, or translations while the body is trying to perform complicated movements. The TAG-trained student learns to react to this “data” with lightning-fast speed while building muscle memory and confidence.

Positive Reinforcement

The clicker more or less stands in the stead of dialogue/ discussion/descriptions (to indicate something done correctly). There is no action or reaction for failure(s) to implement. The clicker is only used to indicate to the student that they are doing the requested thing correctly.

With the training of animals, the clicker is associated with food to reward and instill motivation for behavior. In our use, I believe we can skip this part of the process altogether as your student should already have adequate motivation: the desire to learn, to play at a higher level. Succeeding in a difficult or seemingly impossible effort is the best of rewards.

The Non-verbal Element

When using clicker training and the TAGteach method, there will still be verbal communication in the lesson. As with any curriculum, system, or method, each teacher and each lesson will evolve to meet needs as they arise. Decisions for drastic measures can always be made in advance, but ultimately the lesson’s general atmosphere will remain as it has been. I suggest using TAGteach and clickers to address a situation in which a student struggles to find what you are trying to give them in whatever aspect challenges them physically and musically.

Often we try increasingly random (and sometimes intuitive) ways to help the student “get there.” I find myself throwing all I’ve got at the student…searching for that one phrase or comparison or initiating headspace) hoping something will be effective.

In this vein, I am challenging myself: when I find myself growing chaotic, I will get out the clicker. I will have my “taggable” lesson content I will test my ability to make this a viable teaching option; available when needed.

Who: Evaluating Which Students to Approach

This is not a teaching method for all students. There are many who primarily benefit and enjoy and expect the relationship. There is nothing wrong with that. Such students would devolve or feel unsatisfied with the experience and time spent with a rigid and hyper-focused (yes…and dry) lesson.

I would consider these students:

• Students who have such drive and dedication and want. They work independently towards their goals. Usually you inherit established technical problems – but not always. Some students get stuck in the typical “biggies” and stay stuck. This is repeatedly frustrating for them and you. Maybe tagging will be effective.

• Those serious students; mastering the instrument is their primary goal and really want to be able to this well. They want the best instruction and feel rewarded when they work and enjoy practicing.

• Special needs students: I imagine it would particularly resonate well with those who have disabilities affecting: vision, body awareness, and/or verbal comprehension. The usefulness of a single-sensory method of helping a student with physical placement and movement is already difficult. To have a disability added to the task and benefits of learning to master an instrument is so important to recognize and take every possible idea that might help facilitate the journey. Sometimes it is risky or makes the teacher vulnerable or is quite a failure and possibly even weird. But I feel strongly that it is part of our job. Do it anyway. Be proud to work in such a manner; parents and students will appreciate your effort and energy and attention.

Look for the extremes of dependent or isolating mannerisms, dependent personalities and guarded personalities are actually both good candidates for some distance and re-organization of the manner in which lesson objectives and student health can be approached with this (and similar) types of working with them.

Removing the Teacher from the Learning Experience: (Keeping the “Human” Element of Teaching)

The tone, atmosphere, pace, decisions regarding boundaries of a lesson, and the intensity of instruction should be about the student. The course of activity and focus ought to reflect and react to what they are experiencing, and what the student needs.

Most students wish to impress, to be liked, to be respected and to be cared for in addition to merely learning a skill. There are, naturally, some that put more importance on the relationship with their private instructor than others. Try to judge which students benefit from more interaction, which might not correspond with those who want it most.

Using a clicker replaces verbal feedback (critique/comment). The act of correcting a student is often rife with issues and cues in which a student feels each “good job” and “no, that isn’t right” personally. With those prone to sensitive internalization, that boils down to feeling accepted or rejected. Disappointment or pleasure has the potential to go deeper than the lesson content and context warrants. Alas, you will know when and with whom this approach is worth exploring.

A “clicker” method or feedback system can limit the need for an individual to hold the burden of an unreliable analysis or interpretation. We are, by nature, ill-suited and at a disadvantage with self-assessment. It is one of the main factors that bring students to the teacher’s studio.

Tagging: How to Use In Lessons

The idea or method of “tagging” or “marking” is a manner of teaching a multi-step skill in which each movement or action is sequential and necessary to the following motion, culminating in some way that can be quantified by the process. This is useful in the teaching of basic postures and setup as well as possibly finding use with (example: shifting).

Further-one can use it to indicate a passage has been done to satisfaction when taking a student through the “Five in a row correctly” practice. Click= good, again. Silence= oops. Start back at the beginning of the repeating process. The student will always know whether they succeeded or not and what to do next without speaking at all. If assimilating new ways of doing things could be accelerated in order to allow a student to use them during the transitions and not fall back to bad habits in order to play, it would be truly amazing! It is this that I envisioned putting to task.

Imagine – sounds can condition the muscles directly and change the reward process to be simple-to be fast! This is a proven method to teach dogs commands and temperament… to find unexpected miraculous feats possible in all the creatures of the earth. Why would string players be any less able to benefit?

Existing Feedback Techniques We Use

Most teachers find a way to utilizes “the mirror.” Although this manner (of self-evaluation in pursuit of progress) is no doubt valuable, it is only generally accurate and usually best suited to beginners who have yet to associate unpleasing sounds with specific causes based on the nature of the undesirable tone.

A major drawback of this is that in order to look in the mirror when determining bow angle… they must turn their head to look in the mirror. This undermines the posture and puts the weight of the instrument in (*gasp) the left hand instead of tucked and supported correctly.

In general, I have found it very challenging to get precise information and know when it is representing accurately; most visual feedback is actually incorrect (and confusing to process).

I Want It Now, Now, Now!: Immediate Feedback

Many of us have found the use of personal evaluation via video recording extremely useful (phones work amazingly well these days; with features such as screen-capture or freeze frame image saving-one can see virtually any aspect of their technique and study it). While this is undoubtedly a great tool and, feedback regarding one’s playing is always valuable, it all is lacking in an immediate or real time response to the student’s objective.

An advantage of using clicker training is that as soon as the student executes something correctly, they are immediately aware and can focus on what they just did or are doing before it has passed (and cannot be recalled to muscles and cognition).

During exercises of repetition, this instant external feedback is a very effective way to secure muscle memory without time lapse in which things are unlearned or confused by other stimuli or by doing it wrong in an attempt to recreate the accuracy found in the lesson. In part: it is the real time and external nature of this method that makes it so successful.

Was That Any Good? (What Went Wrong?)

These are the two most important questions every performer asks themselves. As teachers, we realize the importance of handling both the questions and the post-performance experiences tactfully, honestly, kindly, and in a manner that helps them work through things in a healthy manner; it is often when we join the ranks of adult performers with need to know what to do with ourselves and how to behave, how to process, how to judge, how to move on, and how to continue, performance after performance.

Do I Need to Source This or Just Introduce it?

When I was researching clicker training and tagging for myself, I came across a website put together by a gymnastics coach using TAGteach with her young athletes. She did such a wonderful job of presenting the material in a concise and clear way that I’m going to include the text here as she wrote it. Any of the mentioned violin issues could be substituted for the gymnastic examples described. She writes: “Training TAGteach has created a point-by-point database in their brains that can be revisited should there ever be a breakdown in performance. They eagerly learn which TAG points are the keys to success and how to replicate that success when they are away from their coach. They take pride in their own contribution, both mental and physical, to their performance. Ask why they landed on their rump during a beam dismount or why they didn’t make their full twisting layout on trampoline. The answer you are least likely to hear is ‘I don’t know.’ Instead, she will probably name a specific TAG point she thinks needs to be adjusted. ‘Ooops! I must have let my knees bend on the takeoff.’ She is just as likely to list the TAG points that were done with perfection. ‘Did you see that? I landed with my weight pressed equally on both feet’ These students have been given the keys to think through their own performance, identify problems, and find the solutions.”

The Latest News and Gear in Your Inbox - Sign Up Today!