teaching music

The latest scientific research about mind vs body has huge implications for music teachers.  We are constantly working with the “body” to train our students’ ears and muscles to produce music.  Meanwhile, we continually work with the “mind” to manage egos, mental blocks, learning styles, and the basic disconnect between playing music and verbally describing it.

The bottom line in the new science is that there is no mind versus body.  The mind/body split, which has taken center stage in Western civilization for the past 2500 years, appears to be bogus.  Research now speaks of “embodied intelligence”.  The complex bodily systems are engineered to function and communicate so well with each other — electrically, chemically and physically, with whole-body signals taking place at a rate of about ten times per second — that the brain really functions more as a mediator and coordinator than as some kind of executive director.  One book likened the brain to being director of the choir, rather than the pilot of a machine.

I’d recommend the book I’m reading to anyone interested in this groundbreaking research.  It’s called Intelligence in the Flesh: Why Your Mind Needs Your Body Much More than It Thinks, by Guy Claxton.

One reason I’m excited about this book is that I’ve subscribed to its conclusions for some time now — I think my first Music Teachers Helper blog post relating to this way of thinking dates to 2008.  It is thrilling to see science support these ideas with detailed research, as described in Claxton’s very readable book.

You can read a few of my past posts* on this subject here in the Music Teachers Helper blog — especially Reversing the Learning Process.  In that post I suggest that while many people presume the brain tells the fingers what to do, and the ears decide if we got it right, the actual process is the reverse — the ears are in charge, and learn very quickly what is wanted; the muscles try to please the ears by testing and rehearsing their movements; and the brain takes notes on what has happened in order to provide help organizing and replicating it next time.

Science says next to nothing directly about the effect of “embodied intelligence” on music, and that’s not only true of Claxton’s book but also in many other areas of research, including work in linguistics and dyslexia.  I can’t explain this disconnect, but whatever the cause, it does free us musicians to explore the meaning and impact of this research on our field.

The research calls into question any teaching of a musical instrument that places music theory as its top priority.  Consider that perhaps the names of notes, chords, harmonic progressions, keys, and musical syntax are all ways of organizing and deeping our awareness of what we hear and play, and should be presented after listening and trying the music, not before.  Perhaps the physical relationships of half steps, whole steps, the “microballistics” of hitting a note are all more important than, or at least take precedence over, memorizing theoretical concepts.  Theory and practice are both important but what really comes first for the student?  That’s the question for a music teacher to consider.

Maybe a student should experience a G scale and arpeggio before being required to recite the names of the notes in the scale or its key signature.  The theory can then be presented as an exciting way of understanding what the ears and fingers are already experiencing.  Maybe our method books would be better off placing the section on musical notation and theory later on, after some physical work has already been done, rather than at the beginning of the book as if these technical details were the foundation of what is to follow.

The whole concept of what is right and wrong — what a mistake is — in playing music can change as a result of this research.  If you tell a student to play a C# and they don’t, is it really because they didn’t hear you or ignored you?  Or is the concept of a “C#” not as immediate to them as, say, the physical proximity of one finger to another, or the sound of the C# in relation to the surrounding notes?  Maybe the verbal description “C#” is lower down the pathway of perception than these other factors, and perhaps there’s a way to teach with a more immediate impact.  At minimum, allowing for this could be good cause for more patience and perception on the part of teachers as they try to figure out how students are feeling and thinking.

There is a large body of research on the subject but I’ll just mention one detail here.  There is a part of the brain called “Broca’s Area” which appears to control the syntax of language.  When it is damaged, people can still speak but cannot connect words fluently.  For example, instead of saying “the porpoise jumped in the ocean,” they might only be able to say “porpoise…ocean.”  Interestingly, there is a mention in the research that the same effect happens in the sequencing of music.

My question, however, is:  if a person with damage to that part of their brain can play or sing elements of music but have trouble sequencing them, what unit is being sequenced?  Nonmusicians might presume that the patient is having trouble sequencing notes — but the words “porpoise…ocean” are not single notes in a musician’s mind.  “Porpoise” could be written as a sixteenth followed by dotted eighth, and “ocean” could be a quarter note followed by an eighth note.  In other words, the basic units of music are not individual notes but relationships between notes.  The sequencing of music would then take place, not from note to note, but from one group of notes to another, or on a larger scale, from phrase to phrase.  Teaching someone to read a measure at a time would then prove to be an artificial and nonmusical way of learning the music, since often the last note of a measure is a pickup belonging to the next measure, much the way the word “guitar” could be written using an eighth note at the end of one measure leading to a quarter note at the beginning of the next.

I find the latest scientific research to be amazing food for thought in relation to music.  Teaching music particularly calls upon the science of learning and intelligence. In fact, since music is built on integrating physicality, emotion and thought into one act, the new science of “embodied intelligence” suggests to me that the playing or singing of music is one of the purest of human expressions.  It is up to us to find the best way to communicate that to our students.

*other related posts:  Beyond the Control Barrier, Mapify and Tonalize, Mind Over Muscle, Verbalizing the Work of the Ears, Muscularizing Music

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music Theory, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Reuben Vincent

Music Arranging

February 16th, 2017 by

What is music arranging?

Arranging music simply means taking existing music and making it playable on your instrument or for your ensemble. Good reasons to arrange might be to make a piece easier to play. Or convert music originally written for an ensemble so as to be played on a solo instrument, possibly with accompaniment. Although arranging can be a highly complex skill, it is also realistically within the grasp of every music teacher and most music students. Also, it’s great fun!

Why arrange?

I have personally found that arranging pieces especially for my students has given me a USP (unique selling point) to help me market my music teaching business. The idea that a prospective student can learn any song they want at the skill level they are at, is an extremely appealing reason to start having lessons. I also enjoy arranging as it is often very creative without the pressure to compose something from scratch. Encouraging students to try their hand at arranging is a practical way for them to develop their Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music Theory, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

How many times do you explain what an interval is in a year? How often do you introduce and review chords and their inversions? Wouldn’t it be nice to offer a resource for your students that suits your curriculum that can be viewed repeatedly and accessed any time? Ideally, this approach—called a flipped classroom—leads to less lesson time spent introducing a concept and more time reinforcing it.

A flipped classroom is defined as

“a pedagogical model in which the typical lecture and homework elements of a course are reversed. Short video lectures are viewed by students at home before the class session, while in-class time is devoted to exercises, projects, or discussions.”

With today’s tech tools, you can produce your own material or borrow resources from others for your flipped classroom approach….

E-Books

An app called Book Creator makes it easy for teachers to design customized “lectures” for students to watch at home or during off-bench time at lessons. The app provides a user-friendly platform for creating interactive e-books that feature text, narration, graphics and videos. It’s available for the iPad as well as Android and Windows tablets. Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music Theory, Product Reviews, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Leila Viss

Improvisation is Scary

October 23rd, 2016 by

For some, improvisation is a little scary. It doesn’t have to be with a clever back pocket pattern guaranteed to sound black-cat cool.

As I was planning for the fall, I wanted to include an improvisation activity that would introduce beginners to the idea of creating their own music as well as something to please seasoned improvisers. Thanks to an inspiration while attending a lesson with Bradley Sowash, I came up with a pattern that I call Black Cat Strut.

It’s an accessible improvisation jumpstart that offers tasks for both hands. While the left-hand stays pretty simple it still sounds hip. With the suggested tips, the right hand will get the opportunity to strut its stuff.

Check out this video that shows snippets of improvisers of all levels and ages strutting their chops.

Black Cat Strut is guaranteed to sound pleasing because both hands play something appealing and it’s in minor–always a popular choice for this time of year.

The patterns are suited for anyone at any level because both hands play separately–at least at the first level. In fact, there’s no need to play hands together at all and that’s the beauty of this jumpstart. However, it has just enough sophistication to build on it–suitable for those who are comfortable with improvising.

Here are some tips to help your students CATch on quickly:

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Teaching Tips

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Let me tell you about a little secret I’ve been keeping!

All my pupils love it! It’s been handy for helping them learn new songs, especially tricky bits! It’s helped them improve their music reading skills! It’s encouraged a deeper understanding of theory! And best of all it’s free!

So what’s the big secret? Drum roll please…. Noteflight!?!

What does Noteflight do?

Noteflight is easy to use software with which you can create, listen and print out high-quality sheet music notation. And it’s brilliant!!!

Is there a catch?

Not really. Most of my students use the basic version which is free. You can pay a monthly or yearly subscription for extra features but the free version is Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music News, Music Theory, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

MTH has the wonderful option to send Lesson Notes after each lesson. Although designed to simply let parents know what’s assigned or happening at lessons, this is an opportunity to save yourself time and keep your customers informed!

Answering ten unnecessary emails = wasted time!

How many emails do you get asking  questions about schedules or upcoming events, even though you previously sent emails or other correspondence with that exact information? Read more…

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Posted in MTH 101, Music & Technology, Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Using Music Teacher's Helper

Groove website-3

“Here’s my top tip for musicians interested in becoming better improvisers: Forget the metronome. Practice with backing tracks, those auto-accompaniment loops that inspire, keep you on the beat, and mesmerize you into practice loops.” -Bradley Sowash, jazz improv specialist.

If you aren’t sure how to find or create backing tracks, I’d like to personally invite you to a webinar called “Groove Your Theory. The idea stems from Bradley’s regular use of backing tracks in his lessons and his own practice. We also use them at our 88 Creative Keys keyboard improvisation workshops that Bradley and I co-founded four years ago.

The webinar will be packed full of ideas that will help you save practice (or lesson) time as you compress theory, timing and technique and creativity into one activity. Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Music Theory, Practicing, Teaching Tips

Microphone

So you are heading off to your first recording session. What tips can help you achieve a great recording? Even if you are just having fun recording yourself in your bedroom, hopefully, the following tips will help.

Before the recording session
•  If this is your first time being recorded, if you can, visit the studio so as to get familiar with the vocal booth setup to help you relax. Even just looking at the photos on the studio website will help.

•  If you are recording a vocal, get familiar with the words, ideally, memorise them and bring a copy to help the producer follow for accuracy as you record.

•  When you rehearse, check that you only take breaths at the end of sentences to avoid spoiling the flow of the phrases.

•  Focus on your performance. What does the song mean to you? Can you “feel” the emotion as you perform?

•  Head to the session wearing Read more…

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Posted in Music & Technology, Performing, Practicing, Professional Development, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

Robin Steinweg

Student-led Group Class

February 27th, 2016 by

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By Robin Steinweg

How can a visit to a museum turn into a winning student-led group class?

My student, a high school senior, recently visited “the world’s only global music instrument museum,” located in Phoenix, Arizona. She took dozens of photos. Her enthusiasm bubbled over during her lesson.

I love to strike while the iron’s hot! So I asked Sarah if she’d share some of her photos (and excitement) with my other students at a group class.

The Musical Instrument Museum boasts over 6500 instruments on display, from some two hundred different countries or territories. I asked Sarah to choose fifteen or twenty photos, and spend 1-3 minutes telling us about each.

Though I’m sure it was difficult to narrow the field, Sarah chose fascinating subjects. She put them in order on her laptop, and while the rest of the group finished their snacks, Sarah captured their interest completely with her stories of instruments beautiful, rare, ancient, or bizarre.

One showed a metal piano which Steinway & Sons produced during WWII. They were called the “Victory Verticals” or G.I. Models, and some were parachute-dropped to troops fighting in Europe. They included tuning kits and instructions. When I asked my mostly young students why Steinway would do this, they seemed perplexed. One of them thought perhaps it was so they could hold funeral services. This ended up in a discussion about the impact music has on us. To impart courage, bring comfort, lift the spirits, entertain…

Some of the students there have great-grandfathers who served in the military during WWII–so this example touched them.

We ended the class in a state of musical entertainment: with each attendee taking a turn on my ukulele playing “The Hokey Pokey” (quite amusing).

I was so pleased with Sarah’s presentation. She fielded questions like a pro. I am continually impressed with music students’ creativity, maturity, and responsibility. All they need is opportunity.

I hope to find more ways to have a student-led group class!

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Posted in Music & Technology, Music History & Facts, Performing, Promoting Your Studio, Teaching Tips

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As students return for lessons after the holidays, why not kick off 2016 with pop music? Surprising your students with some Coldplay along with Chopin–or any favorite tune from the past or the present–could strike just the right balance to keep things interesting during the long winter months ahead.

The beginning of a new year is always a good time to reflect on the past year and make some revisions for the months ahead.  Has your curriculum remained relatively the same and even become stagnant?  Could you better match the interests of potential and eager customers in your local area by revamping your curriculum and adding some hit tunes from Adele, The Piano Guys or Star Wars?

David Cutler, author of The Savvy Music Teacher, discovered from his extensive research that music teachers who generated substantial (successful) incomes were more likely to integrate three elements into their instruction compared to other teachers who did not. They include: improvisation, technology and multiple musical genres.

Need to spice up 2016? Considering a fresh approach? Ready to integrate more improvisation, technology and musical genres, ie, pop music in to your teaching? Then you will want to sign up for and attend the 88 Creative Keys Winter Webinar Webshop. Watch the video below for more details. Read more…

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Posted in Composing & Arranging, Music & Technology, Professional Development, Teaching Tips