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.

Strength Based Teaching

Anyone can learn how to play the piano.   While you may make faster progress at certain age ranges and abilities, the joy gained is not indicative to the rate that you progress.   The time and verve spent practicing the skill is however, indicative at the rate that you progress.  Learning an instrument requires self discipline to practice regularly.  Not only are you learning a language but your body is developing motor skills and both of these proficiencies need time to develop.

My teaching is based on a process approach to learning music.  How you get to the end matters and greatly effects the process and habits formed for repertoire to follow.   But how to sequence repertoire and skills is only part of the equation to succeed.  The emotional piece is a huge impact on whether or not the brain is ready for learning.  Students need to feel safe and confident when accomplishing fundamentals on a new musical instrument.  Making mistakes is part of the process –  if you don’t feel safe in making mistakes, it is a large hindrance to the process of learning.  Being a learner in itself a vulnerable role with teachers having a great deal of power and influence on the student. The practice of motivating students by fear and humiliation is wrong and still quite prevalent in many private music studios today unfortunately.

Our goal as music educators is to create life long music makers.