Music Teacher's Helper Blog

Learning to Remember: Part 4 – Stimulus!

Light Bulb MomentA few weeks ago, I conducted an experiment on my pupils! No, don’t worry! No one was harmed in the process!!!

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!

See other posts by Reuben Vincent


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.”

About the Author

Reuben Vincent
Reuben Vincent is a freelance musician working as a composer, producer and private music teacher, based from his purpose built recording studio in Bagillt, Flintshire, North Wales, UK. His main instrument is the piano although he is also known for a "mean" solo on the Kazoo!!!


  1. Beth T

    When my children were preschoolers, I would often gently tap the beat of songs on their little shoulders, hoping to help internalize the meaning of a steady beat. My eldest is now a talented drummer. I encourage all my piano parents of beginning students to tap the beat on their child’s shoulders when practicing together.

  2. Sharon Ellam

    LOVE LOVE LOVE this blog post!! Laughed at Mr Coffin!
    My first piano teacher had a large fluffy ginger cat that sat in her lap or walked along the keyboard in front of me. I am REALLY allergic to cats! After 30mins I’d walk down to mum in the car with watering, itchy eyes & sneezing. It would take the rest of the week to stabilise with allergies before returning to her.
    I have a few favourite techniques:
    1. Sometimes my little ones will ‘dare’ me to play what they are avoiding. I usually with a laugh play it with eyes closed or hands crossed then ‘double-dare’ them back. They laugh & then try…
    2. Story-telling – The Royal March of the Lion is a great example. I play the orchestral version for them as we identify the lion roaring & walking majestically closer & closer. Then I tell them that the piano version must sound like the lion is walking (like a king) closer & closer until the last sfortzando chord is the lion POUNCING on them to EAT them! LOL Never fails to inspire! Perfect dynamics – tick! 😉
    3. I give them a percentage response to something they’ve played…..’Oh, not bad! But that’s only 92% there!’ It never fails to stimulate a child to play again & again then look at me expectantly for that percentage to change….’Oh, getting better! That’s 93% there!’ Once we get to 98% there I ask them to guess ‘what has to happen’ to reach 100% there? As they score points for the House Points chart the points also mount up as they get 93 points if they’re 93% there etc… LOL I’m yet to find a child who doesn’t want that golden 100 points! 😀

  3. Reuben Vincent

    That’s an interesting idea Beth; thanks for sharing. I’ll try that. I’ve a number of pupils who seem to struggle “feeling” a steady pulse so that might help. Cheers

  4. Reuben Vincent

    Thanks for your comments Sharon. I’ve actually been trying out your idea about giving percentages today and have to say that it seems to work really well! So thanks very much. Anything to encourage more effort is great in my books. You had me laughing with your allergy story. What a nightmare for you. I wonder how our pupils will remember us? Scary thought!!!

  5. Sharon Ellam

    LOL Reuben I better not tell you about having to threaten to get my witch’s broom out of the cupboard for a naughty child….in all these years I’ve only had to put my serious voice on about 3 times. I love seeing their huge eyes when I mention my broom…. LOL! Just talking about telling ‘other’ children about my broom in the cupboard is a great story to keep someone focussed….. 😉 If I’m remembered in time I hope it’s with a laugh….that’s all I hope for…fun, story-telling & laughter in music lessons. And the ultimate story exciting young 8-9yo girls this term so far is about Beethoven’s ‘lost love from afar….the princess he could never marry’… ……the parents are cackling with glistening eyes as their children go to school & share ‘this amazing new song on the piano’ (Fur Elise – simplified version with coloured stickers identifying the repeating motifs). One mother told me last week that the hairs on her arms stand upright & she gets a cold shiver when her 11yo daughter plays Fur Elise so beautifully. Mission accomplished! 🙂

  6. Robin Steinweg

    Reuben, you sound like a fun teacher! And that bit about Mr. Coffin… lol
    I’ve been adding more and more sensory helps the last few years. Boom-whackers are great for seeing and hearing intervals, and especially good for internalizing beats if they whack themselves instead of the floor–and they get a kick out of seeing me bump one on my head. 🙂

  7. Reuben Vincent

    Boom-wackers!!! Now that’s something I haven’t tried yet. Watch this space…Thanks for the tip Robin. Sounds like a whole lotta fun!

  8. Reuben Vincent

    Ha ha Sharon! I bet that keeps the kids on their toes! Love it!

  9. Leila Viss

    Great post, this is why I hold Piano Olympics every summer and make sure to add off the bench activities in each lesson of some sort. Boomwhackers to iPad apps to tennis balls to scarves to recycled bottles–there are so many ways to engage students. You nailed it!

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