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

Read More » Comments (1)

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

Reuben Vincent

Teaching Adults

March 6th, 2017 by

Teaching adults music is both rewarding and challenging!

Rewards

I enjoy teaching adults. During the course of their lesson, our conversations together are very stimulating. The stories they relate from their own life experiences are a great source of enrichment and entertainment. Over the weeks and months, we form good friendships together. From a practical point of view, teaching adults can also help to strengthen our teaching businesses. Adults can often come later in the evening when it’s too late for younger pupils, or if they are retired or work shifts, they might be able to come in the daytime.

One thing I like about adults is their high level of motivation. They seem to fall into either one of two categories. Those who started having lessons as children but stopped for one reason or another. And those who simply never had the chance earlier in life. Either way, they have probably wanted to take up lessons for quite a considerable time and are therefore incredibly determined.

Challenges

Adults often tell me that they don’t think they can make very quick progress because they are Read more…

Read More » Comments (0)

Posted in Composing & Arranging, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

The six practice strategies listed below come directly from the cognitive psychological scientists at LearningScientists.org. Megan Smith and Yana Weinstein hold doctorate degrees and have systematically applied current research on the brain and how it learns to the classroom setting.

I’ve taken their learning strategies one step further and applied them specifically to practicing an instrument. A good portion of the following paragraphs closely resemble their findings and I greatly appreciate their inspiration for this post!

The main point of their research is how the brain remembers best. It’s not through repetition nearly as much as through retrieval of information.

“Every time you leave a little space, you forget a bit of the information, and then you kind of relearn it. That forgetting actually helps you to strengthen the memory. It’s kind of counterintuitive, but you need to forget a little bit in order to then help yourself learn it by remembering again.”

-Weinstein from TheCultofPedagogy.com

You may find the list below validating like it was for me. I’ve encouraged most of these tactics for years and am thrilled that they are now scientifically proven to work thanks to Dr. Smith and Dr. Weinstein! Perhaps you’ll feel the same? Each strategy is first defined in the clinical terms found at TheLearningScientists.org. Next, you’ll read how I relate them to practice. I’ve also connected visuals to each strategy to help practicers understand and recall each one. Read more…

Read More » Comments (1)

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Studio Management, 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…

Read More » Comments (4)

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

Encore: when performers return to the stage to give an additional performance!

“Encore” is also a great title for a new series of four music books bursting with favourite exam pieces for piano (and violin). Hold on! Did you just say exam pieces? Boring!

Not so. Over the Christmas holidays, I’ve had great pleasure in playing through these books for not only myself but also with the purpose of testing them out as possible material for my pupils. I have to say that the choices of repertoire are excellent. There is a real mix of styles and although not ever song “floated my boat,” the vast majority were very usable, a handful getting me really excited! Read more…

Read More » Comments (0)

Posted in Music News, Product Reviews, 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…

Read More » Comments (3)

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

Andrew

Member Spotlight – George

January 6th, 2017 by

Welcome back to our member spotlight series. Today we have George. He teaches guitar and drums in East Bridgewater, Massachusetts.

How long you’ve been teaching?
Since 1995.

How would you describe your studio space to someone that’s never visited?
I travel to the students’ home.

Was there a specific moment when you realized you loved teaching music?
I think when I realized how much joy it can bring to people both young an old made me realize I was doing something worthwhile, both for them and for myself.

How did you feel in the moment you made the decision to be an independent music teacher? Do you recall being nervous/excited/scared?
I was excited because it is a risk but the reward of being able to do something you enjoy is worth the risk.

What were the steps you took to get your first lessons to having a full student roster?
It is always a little slow going at first but it will happen over time if you stick to it. I mainly started out with flyers and internet ads and then as you go referrals happen and your business spreads through word of mouth.

What is one piece of advice you could offer to someone looking to start teaching music lessons?
Don’t stop you have to always put the work in even when at times it can seem discouraging.

How do you currently find new students?
I use a combination of things to attract new students. You really cannot rely solely on one thing. Try different things find what works best and stick with it.

How do you feel when you think back to all students you’ve interacted with over the years and impacted positively?
It is a good feeling to feel like you possibly may have made a difference in their lives in a positive way.

What is your favorite part of a lesson?
Usually working on songs especially songs that a student enjoys playing.

Is there a favorite piece or style of music you find yourself teaching your students today? And how has that changed from when you started teaching?
I like teaching modern songs and country. When I first started it was more geared towards rock but you need to adapt to the times.

How long have you been using Music Teacher’s Helper?
About 10 years.

What is your favorite thing about Music Teacher’s Helper?
It helps me keep track of my students lessons which is a crucial thing if you are self employed.

Read More » Comments (1)

Posted in Professional Development, Promoting Your Studio, Studio Management, Teaching Tips

pianostar

As a piano teacher, I have to say that I am often underwhelmed by music books for beginners. To be fair to the composers of such books, it is an extremely difficult challenge to write engaging music with such a limited palette of notes but having said that, young students still need to be inspired to build skill and move their music-making to the next level. So I was curious to take a look at a new series for young pianists from the ABRSM (Associated Board of the Royal Schools of Music) entitled “Piano Star.”

There are three books in the series:

  • Book 1 builds from a very basic skill level up to Prep Test (Pre-Grade 1)
  • Book 2 is at Prep Test level
  • Book 3 continues the journey building to Grade 1 standard

I have to say that I am very Read more…

Read More » Comments (0)

Posted in Product Reviews, Professional Development, Teaching Tips

music student focus

There is a common enemy among music teachers, heck, all teachers!

It’s the battle for the attention and focus of our students!

If you teach children, you know there is a problem of focus that is just not part of teaching teens or adults.  Young children have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted!

Tips for Battling the Distraction

Steps can be taken to keep the distraction at bay.  Some of these things may seem obvious, but you must look out for them

  • Limit clutter in the teaching space
  • Remove potentially attention-grabbing toys or objects
  • Have  a policy that  phones must be set on vibrate
  • Limit the seating to discourage too many siblings in the space
  • Don’t allow eating in the studio
  • Limit or remove pets
  • Use music notation that is visually clear and clutter-free

As so much of our visual attention is placed on reading music notation, the following can greatly assist in attaining focus.

When presented with traditional music notation, students are often overwhelmed by how complicated it all looks.  And it is complicated!

Reading music is a high-level skill.  It takes a long time and a lot of practice  to understand all the symbolic language and the nuances.   

In the first few stages of our Musicolor Notation, students begin to learn structure.   They begin to notice the patterns of the entire piece as a whole and which parts are slightly different but mostly the same.  Then we dive into the smaller details.

With traditional music notation, we do the same.  But so often, students still feel overwhelmed by all the abstract symbols on the page.  

To help with this, we developed a Focus Window.  

What’s a Focus Window?

A Focus Window is a way of directing the student’s attention to a specific portion of the page.  You can use a Focus Window for not only  reading music but also for teaching reading words to young children or to place attention only on a portion of a large picture, graph, map or chart.  

By using a Focus Window, students can work on a smaller area  than they would naturally reach for.   It limits the information overload.

Constructing the Focus Window

There are a few ways you can construct a Focus Window.  

Originally we tried to use flashlights by focusing light beams on  certain areas of the sheet music.  That didn’t work too well with young students.  The dark room was too extreme and all sorts of hilarious screaming ensued!

Paper and cardboard cutout windows were mildly successful.  

Our favorite and simplest method of constructing a Focus Window involves Post-It notes.  These wonderful little 3” by 3” yellow squares of paper with the light adhesive made by 3M have been an essential part of our studio for years.

By using the Post-Its to block certain areas of the page, you can quickly create an area in the middle that is the Focus Window.  

Here’s an example of how to block out a small Focus Window from a larger piece of music.

A Focus Window for music

Only play what’s inside the window

Too often, students try to play an entire phrase which it too much for them to  hold in their mental desktop.  By making that phrase smaller, (much smaller!) and only showing a small portion visually, we can control their focus.

The benefit of using removable Post-It notes is that you can quickly resize the Focus Window or even move it as your student progresses through the piece.

Some Focus Windows are quite large and are made by covering up all the extraneous information many method book publishers clutter the page with.

So often there are instructions meant to be read by a teacher or parent but not the student.  This type of text is very overwhelming for young children.  The same is true of the small duet parts often printed below the student part.

Also, many times there are beautiful illustrations and graphics on the page.  These can be charming and helpful.   For pre-literate children, the illustrations can be the way they remember which song is which as they can’t read the titles.

But the graphics should be limited as they do pull away focus.

We also teach the parents of our students how to do this at home.  It allows us to send home lesson notes that say, “Work on the one measure in the Focus Window and then enlarge it to include 2 measures.”

Learning how to practice is a skill that affects a student’s life forever.  By teaching students  how to effectively practice by limiting data and concentrating repetitively on small parts at a time, we can teach mastery skills.

The Itch of Curiosity

By using a Focus Window we limit the data.  We obscure parts of the whole.  This can be used to our benefit.  It triggers a universal psychological effect known as the information or knowledge gap.  

In the 1990’s, Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Lowenstein put forth the “Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.”

“It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” (Wired magazine)

If you tell your students “you can’t peek under this until next week,” you have effectively created some curiosity.  Many of them will actually look just to see what’s there.   

Some have even “figured it out themselves.”

Others have practiced even more to make sure they get to “open the window.”

The Hidden Answer Window

The inverse of a Focus Window is a Hidden Answer Window.

Do you remember those interactive children’s books that have hidden flaps that allow a child to discover more content?  These were fun and engaging because of the curiosity invoked by hiding answers or parts of the story.

You can do this with music too.

Sometimes students are just not ready to work on certain phrases or maybe a left hand piano part is too tricky right now and you want them to work only on the right hand.  

Hidden Answer Windows in music

No peeking!

By covering the tricky bits with a little Post-It flap, you create a Hidden Answer Window.  They remind us that there is still unfinished business on this page, but we will discover it  together in future lessons.  

This  lowers the stress level of students who are desperately trying to seek your approval by playing everything perfectly.  It lets them off the hook.

It’s funny how some simple things can transform a lesson from drudgery and pain to effortless progress.

I have a few more practice and focus tips in a free download, 10 Tips To Make Practice Easy, Effective + Fun!

 

Read More » Comments (1)

Posted in Practicing, Teaching Tips

Ed Pearlman

Provocative Expression

December 5th, 2016 by

girl-1488518_640

In talking about musical expression at a higher level, as we’re going to do here, I just have one caution to suggest first:  one of the biggest mistakes teachers and students make about musical expression is to imagine that it’s icing on the cake, that it takes place after all the technical hurdles are passed.  On the contrary, expression is not the reward for having technique — it’s the reason for developing technique!  It needs to be part and parcel of the learning process, from day one, or at least from very early on.

There is a good reason why stage actors hyper-exaggerate every movement or sound they make.  They have to not only express an emotional gesture, but they have to make you notice it.

Two stories about making you notice an emotional idea:  one story about a touring musician I heard and wished I could give a lesson to, and one about a series of drawings that I once made.
Read more…

Read More » Comments (0)

Posted in Performing, Practicing, Teaching Tips