Gerda van Zelm

Gerda van Zelm, voice teacher at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, reflects on the transformative power of questions within one-to-one lessons, drawing on Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. Please add your comments in the “Leave a Reply” box below.

Student centred teaching and learning to ask questions: applying Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process[i] in one-to-one lessons

Thinking about my development as a teacher I can point out diverse moments or events that have given me important insights. These are insights that stay over time, seem to influence you profoundly and for that reason change you as a teacher. As a young teacher I felt responsible to share my expertise with my students to my best ability and the reader probably can see with me when I write this lesson down it is with a rather teacher dominant character.

For a number of years I have been carpooling with a colleague who happens to be a musician, a psychologist and also the school’s counsellor. These car rides have actually made an important contribution to my development as a teacher. My colleague is very good at asking questions and in this non-formal shared time we have explored many issues about teaching. Once I noticed that I learned so much from a colleague asking me questions, I began to apply the process of asking questions more and more during the voice lessons I was teaching. Then, some year and a half ago I came across Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process (CRP). This happened during one of the Innovative Conservatoire[ii] seminars in which I frequently participate. Liz Lerman developed the CRP as a way of giving feedback to an artist presenting work in progress. Liz is a dancer and choreographer and she devised critical response as a form of peer exchange with the dancers of her company. Having practised the CRP within the framework of the ICON seminar I was really curious about what would happen if I applied this in the one-to-one lessons I teach.

CRP consists of 4 steps, which I will describe in the context of a one to one lesson. In step 1 the artist (student) presents her work, in this case mostly a song or aria, and the responder (teacher) makes some statements about the meaning the presentation had for her. So as the teacher I express what in the presentation was meaningful for me, what touched me, what was compelling or confusing, striking, evocative, etc. Doing so I try to stay with the piece itself and how it communicated, avoiding – at this stage – my own opinion on the quality of the performance, what could be improved etc.

In step 2 the student asks their own questions. For students who are not yet experienced with the CRP this can be an especially shocking moment. I have often found that students find it very hard to ask questions about what they have just done. This is also the moment when many students have told me that nobody has ever asked them whether they have a question about what they are doing. It’s no wonder then that they are not able to ask questions, they are just not used to it. We have to learn to ask questions that have the quality to open up possibilities and that allow us to explore further, instead of questions that only seek for the “right” answer. So, for example, the question “Was I a good Despina”? gives you a very different answer than the question “What kind of Despina did you perceive”? Sometimes a student really cannot come up with a question, in that case I may help them a bit by asking: “Is there something you would like to be different”? or “Is there something you are not comfortable with?” Than I see the understanding in their eyes, answering: “Oh yes, of course”, I smile and say: “Tell me about it”. When they tell me what was bothering them or what they would like to change, I will say: “How can we phrase that as a question?” And then I ask them to try starting with “How can I……?”. Doing this we really begin to uncover the student’s question or preoccupation that we can address.

After working some time like this, we move to step 3. Now it is the teacher’s turn to ask questions. I try to ask open and non-opinionated questions. This is something I really had to learn, but over time you develop a muscle for it and it’s fun! There is a multitude of questions you can ask to open the student’s mind to think about possibilities they can choose. Some examples in the context of a voice lesson: “Who are you when you sing this, what happened before, what does your character want to achieve?” “To whom are you speaking?” “How do you like to use your body-language in this piece?” After some time working now with the CRP in one-to-one lessons, I notice that very organically we shift back and forth between step 2 and step 3.

Finally, step 4 is the step in which responder (teacher) can give the artist tips and advice. This is the step where earlier in my teaching career I tended to start (and firmly stay!). Liz Lerman has created a small rule in the game. Before giving the performer advice you have to ask: “I have an opinion about….., do you want to hear it”? The artist can say yes or no to this question. In the framework of a teacher-student situation it feels rather artificial to ask this, so it may not be necessary. I must also say that when we have worked thoroughly through steps 2 and 3, most of the time there is no need for step 4. In cases where I want to bring something to the attention of the student, I try to phrase this as a question in step 3.

I am very happy that I took on the challenge to use the CRP process in one-to-one lessons. I think my lessons have shifted from a much more teacher-centred approach to a more student-centred one. As a result there is more space in the lessons for exploring versus directing and I feel that asking questions opens up possibilities that help students to grow into their full potential.

Gerda van Zelm, January 2015

[i] Lerman, Liz. 2003. Critical Response Process, A method for getting useful feedback on anything you make, from desert to dance. Dance Exchange. Inc.

[ii] ICON,

Gerda van Zelm began teaching voice in 1981. Since 1992 she is a voice teacher at the Royal Conservatoire in The Hague, The Netherlands. From 2004 – 2014 she was the head of the vocal department at the same institution. She was a singer in the Dutch Radio Choir (1987 – 1993) and performed with the vocal ensemble Femmes Vocales (1990-1996). She performed as a soloist in opera, oratorio and art song. From 2008 Gerda has been involved with Opéra Mosset in France in divers roles, at this moment as directrice musicale.



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