“What is the difference between a teacher and a coach?” I asked my husband, Robin.
“The wheels on the coach go round and round.” His typically silly initial answer preceded more sensible thoughts.

In simple terms, teaching involves the transfer of knowledge and skills. Coaching is helping someone to unlock their personal potential.

So how does this apply to learning a musical instrument? Maybe sorting out the difference will help me understand what I do a little better.

First thing that comes to mind is that I teach music, but I coach my pupils.
As an instrument tutor I am not standing in front of a class of listeners who take notes, but I work alongside an individual and look for ways for this learner to progress in particular skills.

With a knowledge base in music, the aim from there is to work with any pupil based on his or her particular learning style and personality. Knowing the theory helps, but, along with that, being able to draw from many years of practical experience is so valuable. This would be more of a coaching role.
I naturally think of the parallel here of a sports coach: someone who has played the game and has a wide range of experience that they bring in to develop potential, to strategise and to tackle current problems with goals in mind. If a coach merely knew the rules of the game, but didn’t know a range of potential outcomes, he or she would not be much of a coach.

So too when it comes to teaching music. Every pupil is different and one way of doing things does not work for everyone. So, over the years, a good teacher develops a range of tools to use in order to coach pupils through. They want to make sure the pupil understands underlying principles that can be applied in various situations. For example, I could play the music for pupils and show them quite quickly how it goes, but that is not helping them develop their potential. I want to be sure they have the decoding skills needed to read any piece of music for themselves. This includes solid counting skills for rhythm and quick individual note recognition, especially in the early years.

Maybe coaching could be called coaxing at times.
There is a certain amount of coaxing needed to help reluctant learners make those lateral connections that apply the principles taught. An example of this would be with transposing. A pupil who can transpose a piece of music from one key to another has understood how the piece works in the first key in order to apply the exact patterns in the second key. But they may need to be coaxed into thinking it through. Not everyone is keen on having to work it out. “Isn’t the teacher supposed to tell me how to do it?”

I have noticed that some learners just want to be taught exactly how the piece is to be played without having to understand how it holds together, maybe harmonically or rhythmically. If I go that route, it can mean they can learn quite quickly at first. But I have so often seen those pupils hit a brick wall when they don’t understand the important basics. Scales, for example, help with an understanding of key structures. Steady and accurate counting helps with complex rhythms. Those who are resistant to being coached take longer to understand how their music holds together. I strongly suspect they will not retain much in the long run either.

When I started as a piano teacher at the age of 15, I was under the careful tuition of my mother in the family music school. I had a knowledge base good enough to start teaching, but less understanding of what to do in a range of situations. Over the years I realise I am a better coach now than I was back then, because I have had more experience of the pitfalls my pupils will face if certain things are not in place. So it is probably fair to say that a teacher becomes more of a coach with cumulative experience.

In jotting this all down, I may have sorted out some differences and similarities in these two roles. Essentially though, I have come to see that I need to adjust the combination of the two roles for each pupil and be aware that my pupil may not always be ready to be coached in the way I know is good for them… yet. And I’ll connect with them best if I can be in the sweet spot between the two.

I would so value any thoughts you have on today’s subject. I have heard a bit about coaching in the on line space of late, so it seems to be a subject people are looking at. I know I have not covered it in any way comprehensively, merely musing on what could be observed as the differences between teaching and coaching. I’m sure there is plenty more I’ve yet to learn too.

2 thoughts on “Teaching or Coaching?

  1. Delwyn, I would agree with your distinction between teaching and coaching. I call myself a teacher, imparting knowledge or skills when needed, but I realize I feel more fulfilled when I can coach a child or a teacher in a way that helps them learn on their own. When they come up with an answer or solution to their own problem or question on their own, they learn and are encouraged that they can do it. I feel that a coach needs to learn to ask the right questions at the right time, maybe encouraging the “coachee” to look at the problem from a different angle or perspective. Whatever the coach’s questions, the coach is there to help the coachee find the answer themselves. As a coach, my goal is to help them figure out the solution and therefore succeed.

    • Hi Shari, thanks so much for this input, I like that you’ve spelled out nicely that the coach looks for the person to work out what’s going on or to look at things from a different perspective and ‘knowing what questions to ask at the right time’. That’s where the value of years lived comes in. It’s wonderful to be able to bring that experience into our coaching.

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