Applying “How the Brain Learns” in every piano lesson

music brainProbably the most influential class I took while a graduate student was a music education class that covered how to teach music in a brain friendly way.  We read two texts:  How the Brain Learns by David A. Sousa and Intelligent Music Teaching by Robert A. Duke.  Our instructor, Connie Titterington, did a beautiful job combining these texts to create the outline for the class, allowing us to understand the science behind learning and how to apply it to music teaching specifically.  She modeled how to use brain friendly strategies with every class she taught and required us to teach our class peers with these same strategies multiple times.

I’ve always been attracted to science – having a curious mind and being a person of a thousand questions on how things work.  Furthermore, I have a passion for education and hold an intuitiveness on how to get students from point A to point B.  This class marvelously combined my strengths, passions, and questions I had been experiencing every day as a private piano teacher for the last several years.

One of the golden strategies I became more equipped to use while in the class is not giving too much information at one time.   I knew this intellectually, but I didn’t really know it in practice.  Connie knew that if we tried to learn everything in the Sousa textbook in a 10 week class, she would lose us.  She took out the most important pieces, and delivered them in a sequential and intentional way.  Every day, students are lost in lessons and classrooms when too much is thrown at them and they can’t synthesize the material.  If you’re explaining a new concept, focus on the basic principal, then add on to that later once you witness their clear understanding and independent use of the fundamental concept.

This idea of dealing with less information at one time is a HUGE factor in teaching students how to memorize music.  I finally know how to give students step by step instructions that work every time.  Sousa does a beautiful job explaining the concept of the “working memory” and how crucial it is in how we strategize memorizing any subject of material.  My number one rule is with students work with a smaller amount of music (usually 4 measures) and memorize one line at a time (usually this is separating the hands).  Repetition of retrieving that new information in the short term and long term is the next crucial step.  Grouping or chunking information (which includes finding patterns) within passages and within the entire piece also helps simplify the process of memorizing and learning a piece.  Most music is saturated with repeated patterns – helping students make these connections is constructive and fun.

Another aspect that we often downplay in its importance in learning is a student’s emotional state.  No matter how amazing your teaching skills and plans are, you’re not going to get anywhere if a student’s brain is overwhelmed with negative emotions. Period.  End of story.  Just last night, I had a student walk into my studio for their lesson with red eyes and audible sniffling.  I knew not to ask her what was wrong.  After working with this individual for several years, I understood her need for privacy and discomfort with people knowing she’s upset.  So I pretended not to notice and intentionally chose pieces to begin with that had low potential for frustration.  After 10 minutes, I could see that she was more calm and collected, then decided to dive into memorization for her recital piece.   Success!

I would LOVE more opportunities to learn more science behind learning.  I see the benefits every day and I know I’ve only scraped the surface on the power that it holds.

For an introduction to this idea of brain friendly teaching, watch David Sousa’s What is Teaching video here.

2 thoughts on “Applying “How the Brain Learns” in every piano lesson”

  1. What an interesting post! Nicely written. Excellent point about the learner’s emotional state. Both those textbooks sound interesting also.

    I just read a section on memorizing piano music from William Westney’s book “The Perfect Wrong Note” & it’s got me intrigued. I’ll email you a PDF of the section, about 3 pages. I’m curious what your take on it would be.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’m glad you liked it. I started thinking of so many other things I should have included when I was teaching last night! It was fun to write. Can’t wait to read those three pages you mentioned. 😀


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