Teaching According to The Four Tendencies


By now we all understand that people have different learning styles.  I’m definitely a visual learner-if I can see it or imagine it, it sticks.  Others find that they learn best if they hear it, or if something is put into a list, etc.  But Gretchen Rubin, whose Happiness Project book provided the inspiration for my own 12-month focus project wrote another book called The Four Tendencies, that takes a look at the 4 different ways people react towards inner and outer expectations.  I’m guessing she didn’t write it with classical music students and teachers in mind, but her theories have been a huge game changer in how I work with my students.

You should read the book, and you can get it here, but the gist of it is that when it comes to meeting deadlines, having self-discipline, and basically living their lives, people gravitate towards 1 of 4 general tendencies: Upholder, Questioner, Obliger or Rebel.

  1. The Upholder: This student is very good at meeting both inner and outer expectations. They are the goody-two-shoes who not only always practice, but always practice exactly what I asked them to practice, exactly how I asked them to practice it.  I can feel confident that if they set a goal for themselves (they want to do a particular competition, or audition for a festival) I won’t need to nag them about the approaching deadline.  These students make us wonder why our other students make things so difficult, and they are the reason that other parents think their kids should quit because they have a hard time getting them to practice.  Upholders make for dreamy students.  As adults, they are a little annoying because nobody should be allowed to be that perfect.  #inmynextlifeiwanttobeanupholder.


     2. The Questioner: This student CAN meet both inner and outer expectations, but           only if they have a full understanding of WHY they are doing what is being asked.  This is the student that wants to know what, exactly, that etude is going to do to improve their playing, or why, exactly, going to festival x is better than going to festival y.  when I have identified a student as a questioner, I know that I am going to need to explain everything in great detail, and make sure they understand why something needs to be done.  As far as their practicing goes, they will question whether they should tackle a passage the way I asked them to, and will come to their next lesson saying that they looked it up on youtube and found a different way of doing it, and shouldn’t they maybe do it that way instead?   I used to think that these students were a little annoying.  Why didn’t they just trust that I knew what I was doing?  But now I realize that they do trust me–  It’s just that they need to do research ALWAYS.  FOR EVERYTHING.  As adults, these are the folks who will do a side-by-side comparison of every vacuum cleaner every made before they decide which one to buy.  But they’ll be very happy once they get it.


  1. The Obliger: This student can easily meet outer expectations, but has trouble meeting inner ones. This is the student who is so enthusiastic in their lessons, leaves feeling completely inspired that THIS is the week that they are going to turn things around, and have the absolute best of intentions to do everything you have suggested/assigned, but then a week goes by and they have barely touched the instrument.  They haven’t watched that clip on youtube that you told them to watch, and they feel miserable and ashamed.  Thing is, they need to be held accountable for everything, or it doesn’t get done.  This is the track team member that successfully runs and wins races year after year while in school, but then as an adult, can’t get themselves to get out the door and go for a jog (because there is no coach and no team waiting for them).  For my Obliger students, I have them text me at the end of each day and tell me how much they practiced.  Knowing that they are going to have to answer to me at the end of the day seems to do the trick.  They don’t want to have to say “none”.  Other tricks include having them make little videos of their etude or a section of a piece and send it to me every couple of days, etc.  More work on my part, yes, but seeing how proud they are that they didn’t let yet another week go by without making progress makes it all worth it.


  1. The Rebel: Oh, the rebel.  Are you imagining a kid in a leather jacket with a nose ring (actually, that was me in high school—maybe I’m a rebel?). This is a bit more subtle than that.  The rebel tendency is when a person can meet inner and outer expectations, but only if it’s what they feel like.  They might practice one thing, but not the other.  You might assign popper 15, but they do Popper 18 instead.  These students, as sweet and enthusiastic as they are, simply have a hard time doing something that someone else has told them to do.  My work-around?  I give these kids multiple options.  I tell them a few different ways they could work on a particular passage or issue, and tell them that they can decide which one works best.  Rebels need to be the ones making the decisions.  I’ll give them the choice of three different etudes (all of which deal with the same thing) and they get to choose which one they want to do.  They feel in charge, and I know that they are doing what I need them to do.


If you’re curious about what your tendency might be, you can do this quiz and find out!

Has anyone else read this and applied it to their teaching methods?  I’d love to hear what other “tricks” you have come up with!




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