I simply asked them to share with me a memorable event from their childhood. It soon became clear that things that make the most impression on our memory, are events that had the greatest stimulus on our senses.
I can’t remember much of my childhood. So much of it was playing, eating and sleeping. Just the normal, everyday activities. But I do remember going for my first music lesson as a seven year old…
I can still see and smell the thick fog of cigarette smoke that greeted me as I opened the music shop door and stepped into what felt like a scene from a Dickens novel. And the intrepidation I felt as I heard for the first time the voice of the Fagan-like character who introduced himself as “Mr. Coffin.” I remember the feeling of hopelessness as my mother disappeared off into the distance. I still feel uncomfortable now as I recall the feeling of his long, bony fingers pressing down on my back and guiding me further and further into the gloom of the music shop towards the instrument that I was to learn on.
Why does this long ago memory feel like yesterday? How can I remember so many details?
The answer is simple. The event had such an impact on my senses and indeed, the rest of my life. (For although, Mr. Coffin ironically died a month or two later, I carried on studying music with a new teacher. And my new teacher’s studio was called the “torture chamber” but that’s another story!)
So if stimulating the senses has such an impact on long-term memory, how can we as music teachers exploit this knowledge to help our students learn new concepts better?
10 suggestions to involve more senses (What ideas do you have?)
1 Don’t just explain how the first beat of the bar should be stronger; start dancing the waltz around the room counting one, two, three, one, two, three etc.! They’ll soon see that the first step is the most important and they’ll remember it for years!!!
2 If you want your student to hear a recording of a piece they are learning, go one step further and show them a video on YouTube. It’ll have more impact. They’ll observe how the musician/s perform the piece with their whole body.
3 When doing pulse training, don’t have them clap along to some obscure, boring old piece played by you! Let them choose their favourite song to find the beat. Now that’s much more fun and memorable!
4 How about some inspiring diagrams or charts on the music room wall? Sometimes it really helps to visualise the concept. Keep changing the posters. There is nothing worse than slowly watching a display curl up and die over several years of lessons. I never did understand why one of my teachers insisted on keeping his dog-eared poster of Beethoven up on the wall. He never referred to it. Beethoven just looked as grumpy and as depressed as us music students!
5 If you are a piano teacher and you have an electronic instrument to hand, why not let your pupil play some baroque music on the harpsichord or organ setting? Experiencing their piece in such a different way can really stimulate interesting conversations about the frustrations of keyboard musicians of the day and how the invention of the piano was such a milestone? And why was it called the “pianoforte”?
6 Don’t just tell your pupils what they need to do for next lesson, write notes that they and their parents can look back over during the week. I sometimes write silly things like “never wear odd socks” in the middle of their notes just to check that they are reading them!
7 Share a music joke. It’s a great way for everyone in the room to have a smile and it helps the lesson have more impact.
8 Students love hearing stories about famous composers and musicians. It endears them to the music that they are learning.
9 Record your students playing and let them hear it back, even if just on a mobile phone. What are they pleased with? What needs improving? This always has a larger impact when they work out what they need to do to improve rather than being told.
10 Teach by honest and enthusiastic example. Play the scales with them, tell them your favourite ones. Which ones do you find trickier? Demonstrate your sight-reading. Be honest and reveal what you find difficult and need to work on. Being “normal” is endearing and inspiring! Let them test your ear training (aural) skills! Pupils love playing the teacher. Play them an extract from a piece you are learning for yourself at the moment. Show them what you’re composing. Let them hear that recording that you’re excited about. They’ll want a career in music before long!!!
What tricks do you use to involve more senses in your lessons as an aid to memory? Please share them with us as a comment to this blog. We teachers are the world’s most enthusiastic learners!
- Learning to Remember: Part 1 – Forget Me Not!
- Learning to Remember: Part 2 – Patterns!
- Learning to Remember: Part 3 – Repetition!
On the subject of Stimulus, these suggestions are what the following music teachers kindly gave:
Robin Steinweg wrote:
“Any time I can use humour, they retain things much more easily.”
Kyle Cullen wrote:
“I’m sure smells could be brought into the process. I know a certain brand of cigarettes reminds me of working from a snare drum book as I worked on it with a teacher who smoked.”