Bad Language



“There’s no such word as can’t”. *

How often did we hear this from our teachers when we were younger? Or from our parents? And how often were we left with a feeling of frustration and the knowledge that, actually, there is such a word as ‘can’t, and sometimes, it’s exactly the word we need?

  • “I can’t play this piece.”
  • “I can’t play it hands together.”
  • “I can’t get the fingering right.”
  • “I can’t voice the fugue.”
  • “I can’t improvise on that theme.”
  • “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto.”

If our reply to all of the above is, “Yes, you can”, or “There’s no such word as ‘can’t”, we only leave a feeling of irritation and inadequacy in a student who is adamant (and quite correct) in their assumption that they ‘can’t do it’.

How do we change this around? By adding a single word – ‘yet’

Negative language such as “I can’t play this piece” is destructive. Telling somebody they have to say they can do something when they obviously can’t is just as destructive, only serving to reinforce a feeling of failure by not allowing a student to voice their concerns and feelings.

Insisting on the use of the word “yet”, however, can turn a bad situation around…

  • “I can’t play this piece yet.
  • “I can’t play it hands together yet.
  • “I can’t get the fingering right yet.

If we ask the student to also work in a “but”, and a solution, then we have turned a destructive situation into a positive experience.

  • “I can’t voice the fugue yet, but with some more very slow work this week, I will be able to manage it.”
  • “I can’t improvise on that theme yet, but if I spend a few minutes each day mucking about with it and not stressing out about being perfect, I will be able to manage something small by next lesson.”
  • “I can’t play Rachmaninoff’s second piano concerto yet, but I have only been learning for a year, so that’s fair enough! If I keep having lessons, keep practising, and keep enjoying the piano, I might be able to play it one day!”


Can’t is indeed a word. It’s a perfectly valid word. Sometimes it’s even the right word. But it should never be used in isolation.

*Disclaimer – Grammatically speaking, can’t is a contraction; cannot is the correct syntax. Congratulations and a grammar sticker to anybody who spotted this.

Ain’t colloquialisms just champion?


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  1. #1 by Percy Sugden on June 22, 2013 - 9:09 am

    I’ve said to many piano teachers, some highly qualified and others amateurs doing it to help pay their e.on bills that ‘I can’t… that scale, co-ordinate my hands, memorise that theory, sight read’ etc. and be totally unchallenged. As if to say ‘yes Percy, maybe you’re right, you can’t play but hey, my E.on bill will be paid thanks to you’ sort of thing. But negative language has a very big impact. One teacher, whom so happens to be the principal organist at my local Anglican church, called me ‘the most awkward person she had ever had the misfortune to teach’ the result of which has turned me against piano teachers (and maybe the queen’s established church) for life. A proffessional teacher would never scorn any pupil with such negativity, however recognising weaknesses and turning them into possible strengths.

    • #2 by properpianofingers on June 24, 2013 - 8:53 am

      I completely agree that the use of the word can’t should be challenged by us teachers. It’s a great shame that you have been turned off from piano lessons by your experiences, and I think this does go to show how important the language we use as teachers really is.

  2. #3 by Percy Sugden on June 25, 2013 - 6:35 am

    Indeed. Piano teachers are very easy to find these days but good piano teachers are very difficult to come across and it’s more of a matter of good luck if you do come across one in your area.

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