As an independent, private music teacher, I am always being forwarded studies and news articles about the benefits of music lessons. It definitely feels good to be on the right side of this issue! And it certainly validates my profession.
This weekend’s Wall Street Journal has an article, A Musical Fix for U.S. Schools, which puts music instruction higher than all other so called non-academic activities.
“Kids in sports also showed increased ambition, while those in theater and dance expressed more optimism. But when it came to core academic skills, the study’s authors found, the impact of music training was much stronger.”
Breaking the day into different activities just makes sense. You need a break from just constant focus of core curriculum of Science, Technology, English and Math. But what the WSJ article says is it’s not just a break, but actually a boost. And the most potent boost comes from learning, playing and practicing an instrument, so much so, that it could be a simple cure-all for all the ills of the school system. At a calculated cost of $187/student per year, a typical large suburban school system could turn itself around.
The list of benefits of musical training include:
Music raises the IQ
Music can reduce the academic gap between rich and poor
Music does more than sports, theater or dance
Music can be an early screening tool for reading disabilities
What is the most important factor in a student? Many people would say it’s talent, or effort, or persistence, or luck or some combination of these.
Behind all of this is something that is more important – the proper mindset. Recent research (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007) has shown that there are two different mindsets among students:
1) intelligence as a fixed, static trait or you got what you got
2) intelligence is a changeable, flowing trait, in other words: you can learn whatever you put focus and effort to
Most of my music students do have a growth mindset, but may need some extra encouragement. To do this I need to use a specific way of communicating.
The Dangers of Praise and How To Do It Right
Researchers have discovered that if you just praise the intelligence of the child, there are negative consequences. So just being positive and saying “Good job!” is actually detrimental and has a backlash because given a new challenge, the child would rather not participate (quit) in order to “save face” and live up to the expected standard. Rather if the child was praised for their effort, the next harder challenge was met with more effort.
Communicating Learning Goals
Almost daily I have a student who complains
“That’s too hard! I want to just stay on the same song!”
Here’s some things I say and you can too in your classroom, studio or with your own children. Though I’ve made these specific to music, you can apply a variation of these to any subject.
Learning music is like playing a video game. Once you achieved the last challenge, we’re on to the next level.
You’re not supposed to know this already, this is brand new.
High Expectations For Forward Motion
I KNOW that you can do this, that’s why I’m showing you this.
This will be challenging, but I’ve seen you do amazing work before.
Remember how hard _____ piece was? And now you can play it so well. This is like that one only better.
Struggling Even With Effort
You are not there…YET (emphasis on the yet)
If you’re feeling overwhelmed, just remind yourself that you can’t do it…YET.
Let’s take a break and come back to this tomorrow.
I admire your persistence.
I appreciate your effort and focus on this.
I love how you never gave up on that last piece. Let’s do it here too.
Struggling But May Need Help With Strategy
Let’s work on just the one spot giving you trouble
What part is giving you trouble? Let’s just look at that.
How about we make a plan to learn this piece? You can do section A today and then section B tomorrow and then back to A…
By setting the proper belief system in place at an early age, we can guide our children to future success in music, and in life.
For more information, read this excellent article from Prinicipal Leadership, a magazine aimed at school principals.
For a free download on Growth Mindset Framing. You’ll have to register but it’s free and you can download a pdf.
With all of my students, I stress the importance of memorizing their pieces, especially for performance at a recital. Here’s some of the reasons why.
Repetition is the Mother of Skill
How many times did Tiger Woods hit a golf ball before ever entering a competition? Apparently he was already golfing at age 2 when he made an appearance on the Merv Griffin show with his Dad. He turned professional at age 21 after winning many competitions along the way. That’s 19 years and probably 30,000 to 40,000 hours of practice! In Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers, he discusses the theory that it takes an applied 10,000 hours of practice to mastery in any field. No wonder Tiger Woods is the greatest golfer that ever lived! He’s simply played 3 or 4 times much as anyone else before he even turned pro!
Now, I’m not demanding 8 hour practice days for my students, but five minutes the day before the lesson is just not going to cut it. It’s unfair to the student who is going to sound awful and not enjoy the wonderful process and sense of accomplishment of learning a song to a masterful level.
As we use our muscles to achieve the production of sound, we need to train them to move in specific ways. Fluidity can only be achieved by repetition. By consciously practicing the repeated motions at the same time being mindful of proper alignment of back, wrists, hands, we can create smooth, fluid motions that create beautiful sounds without repetitive stress injuries.
Practicing small bits at a slow speed can produce incredible, exponential results. When pianist Glenn Gould burst onto the scene as a young man, his flawless technique stunned the world, as did his ingenious interpretations of Bach.
The bits of music phrases teach re-usable pieces of the fabric of music. Just like a recipe book or a code pattern that can be re-used in many projects, future songs will surely employ similar melodic, harmonic and rhythmic ideas. Music performance, composing and listening becomes easier as we progress. This is in fact the basic concept of object orient programming for computers. By designing a library of re-usable components, programmers can quickly put together new projects by cobbling together pre-build elements. Learning a later song is easier because the old one had similar patterns. And then, creating variations is now an option.
The famous actor Spencer Tracy was once quoted,
“Know your lines…and don’t bump into the furniture.”
You could say the same of music. Know the notes.
How can you make the music your own without knowing it at a deep subconscious level.
When I was briefly an actor, I took a wonderful class in
the Meisner technique. The basic exercise was called the Repetition technique. It consisted of 2 or more actors on a bare stage with minimum set props. It was improvisatory in that each would only repeat what the other said until there was a natural impulse to say something else. What was amazing was that the inane conversation became full or emotion and life immediately as the words were not hindering the emotion. It’s the same thing in music. But, we need to know our parts. Of course, in jazz, improvisation is the raison d’etre, but there is still an agreed-upon structure.
We need to get to the very heart of emotion in the music, and the only way is to memorize, internalize, and interpret as our own. To know the music fully.
Tell A Story
To make your music tell a story, you need to have a physical comfort level with it. You can’t NOT know your parts. Otherwise it’s like the actor who doesn’t know his lines…you don’t believe them.
Instrumental Music is extremely abstract. Pop and folk songs with lyrics provide a narrative focus. But pure instrumental music can benefit in having some kind of narrative in that it can bring a piece to life. Make up a storyline for your piece! Sometimes this is relatively easy as the music is dramatic and narrative by nature. Disney realized how Dukas’ Sorceror’s Apprentice was perfect in that it told the story. Take a look.
I’ve been astounded by the difference in performance by some of my youngest students when they add a storyline to their piece. What’s even more amazing is that 6 year stories are all pretty much the same! But the music sparkles!
Having a mind full of pieces to perform at a moment’s notice is a wonderful thing. It’s what makes one feel like a truly accomplished musician. And, you never know when your Aunt Harriet is going to pop over with her friends and ask you to play “something sweet.”
So far, it seems that there are some generally agreed-upon concepts.
Encoding – getting the information into your memory. Of course, the information needs to be right from the start. Garbage in does equal garbage out.
Storage – There’s short term and long term. It seems we are similar to computers in that we have temporary space for short term and commonly used information. If we don’t use it, we lose it, unless we consciously store it in an organized way.
Retrieval– Getting the right information out when you want it is possibly the trickiest. Many scientist believe that the human mind never forgets anything, it’s just difficult to retrieve on command. But, repeated retrieval places the keys to a specific memory in a prominent location. So if you want to remember where you put your keys, try saying it aloud when you put them down. And, practicing your piece on your instrument at repeated intervals is like oiling the doors to that memory closet.
How To Memorize Music
In a famous study done by George Miller at Princeton University they discovered that humans can memorize up to 7 discreet bits of information, plus or minus 2. But chunking this into groups greatly increases the amount that could be stored and retrieved easily. We can apply this to music memorization.
Chunking It Down
To start memorizing, I suggest with a small chunk or part, perhaps even as little as 3 to 4 notes. The younger the student, the less notes. As they learn, we can go to the next chunk, and after mastering and memorizing that, we group those two chunks together. By continuing to add to the memory in small groups, and then synthesizing those into a larger whole, the entire piece can be memorized quickly so that a piece with several pages can be played from memory easily.
Some common breakpoints would be first measure, then second measure, then group them together. Then do the next 2 measures that way before you group together the entire first stave. Then A section can be memorized as contrasted to B section, etc.
An extremely effective way of learning a new piece is by listening to an existing recording. This is, of course, the bedrock of the Suzuki program of music instruction.
At higher levels, this may influence the styling of the performance, but that’s why we listen to great performances! Better to mimic the masters. You can also record yourself playing the piece slowly to listen to it over and over again.
Writing as a Memory Aid
Actors learning lines often write and re-write their lines without punctuation, like a long run on sentence. Why no punctation? By learning the words as raw material, they can add their own punctation depending on the emotion required for the scene. We can do the same for music, though the punctuation is usually dictated by the composer in terms of tempo, dynamics and accents, etc. By copying the music to staff paper, another method of input has been created both visual, kinesthetic and even aural through mental memory of the sounds. As a composer, I’ve gained invaluable details and nuances by just copying pieces of music. The physical act of copying does something that internalizes into the mind and body. It’s why the great painters all learned by copying the masters at the Louvre.
Another technique to memorize is by relying on the auditory, and kinesthetic only. By blindfolding, or closing one’s eyes, or even turning out the lights, the musician can practice
without relying on the visual and play by touch and ear. This will also make the student realize quickly if they are not committing to a fingering pattern as they will be unable to play it blind. And, some of the best musicians in the world were literally blind.
I’ve heard of stories where prisoners of war without access to their instruments practice completely in their mind, visualizing the experience completely, hearing it in their mind’s ear and seeing themselves in the mind’s eye performing their piece perfectly. These people return from their isolation playing better than before! I’ve told a few of my students about this and you can see in this video, my student Mitra is actually visualizing herself right before she performs onstage. Wonderful!
My son Alejandro has been working on a difficult piece by Bach and he recently told me that every night before he goes to sleep, he visualizes himself performing this piece. Wow! I don’t even recall telling him to do this!
An Odyssey, A Memory Palace
There’s a lot of wonder at how some of our ancestors could remember stories to pass on to the next generation. One was was through the use of rhythm and sound in the form of poetry, a kind of word music. By linking the sounds with the imagery in the stories, whole long passages could be told and memorized. By singing the melodies of the piece you are trying to memorize, you are using these very techniques and internalizing the music. Glenn Gould would sing all his parts incessantly to the point where he never stopped singing even when performing in public or recording his piano pieces.
There’s also the technique called the Memory Palace, where using the memory of a physical place you know intimately such as your own home, you could “store” information in specific locations. So, to remember things in a specific order, you could then mentally walk through your palace and retrieve the information. I found this book where it taught me all the names of every play by Shakespeare in the proper order, and lo and behold, it works! Now I should really do this for something more useful like song lyrics as I’m terrible at remembering them.
The Benefits of Memorization
Now the greatest thing is that these memorization and learning skills are applicable and transferrable to the rest of your life, forever! You can use them to learn anything like languages, careers, work stuff, school, research, anything! You are basically learning to operate your mind. How to store information, keep it fresh, retrieve it when you need it and then use it to combine, build, mix, remix and synthesize all you want. And to think you got all this from memorizing your little recital piece!
We had such a great recital last Saturday and it made me think of how important these events are for so many reasons.
Recitals are like so many things in life. It’s a due date when you need to really know something well and you need to show it in public, in this case 100 of your friends, families and peers. Think of the times when you had to present a paper or a case or a sales pitch at a specific time and day. The recital is preparation for that. It’s a deadline.
Discipline and Mastery
Preparing for the recital is also like life. The discipline required to learn, memorize and perform the pieces is the same discipline you use when you are in college working on a term paper, at your job preparing the big powerpoint presentation to your clients, presenting your court case to the judge and jury and so on. There’s a level of mastery that needs to be achieved in a recital. Nowadays, it seems there’s less encouragement or paths to mastery with all the instant gratification of digital downloads and games and apps. We don’t let our children go 5 seconds before we step in to help them with a frustrating problem. Mastery requires discipline and a commitment to “do it again…and again.” Self-help guru Anthony Robbins speaks of the 10,000 hours it required to master a skill. Malcolm Gladwell describes some great outliers including Bill Gates in Outliers: The Story of Success. It does take a lot of time, discipline and repetition to master anything. And music lessons culminating in a recital is a training ground for discipline on the road to mastery. Even better to start at such an early age!
In my past life as an actor and television host, I had to memorize lines all the time. I remember this as an incredibly difficult task. My acting teacher gave us the trick of writing down the lines over and over to internalize them. And then to say them back in multiple different rhythms and phrasing. Along the way, I started to notice certain patterns in the language and even structural groupings of how one paragraph was almost like a variation on a previous one. We’ve done many of these things in the music lessons as I ask my students to play the second part first, or play it at triple speed and then play it with your eyes closed and then play it as if you were dancing. And then somewhere around the 100th time, the notes stop being just a sequence of sound events, but they start to flow and have a feeling of their own. “It’s like I wasn’t even thinking about it anymore.” is the phrase I’ve heard from several of my students.
Anxiety is a big part of any public performance. There was a survey somewhere I saw that listed people’s top fears in order of worst to least. At the top was public speaking, followed by death by burning! Incredible. Most people would rather die burning at the stake than have to speak in public. A recital is a public performance and by repeatedly going through the process, the anxiety lessens over time. 2 years ago, I remember a number of students in particular looking rather ill before their turn. Now, those same kids are still nervous, but it’s not the same panic attack level, rather a heightened level of awareness with a confidence that they will fly through.
Mistakes will happen as in life. In fact, how often do things go exactly the way you want them to? Almost never. Your goal is to minimize them. But you can never achieve 100% perfection, you wouldn’t want to. To play like a machine is completely useless. It’s the mistakes that make you sound human and gives you unique expression. As described in a recent NY Times article about what makes music so expressive, researcher Daniel J. Levitin at McGill University and Edward W. Large at Florida Atlantic University recorded a concert pianist performing a Chopin etude analyzing it for speed, rhythm, loudness and softness. They then recreated the performance with a computer stripping it of any human variances, in other words, making it more perfect. They then scanned the brains of listeners as they listened. The results? Perfection is boring.
Another thing discovered by these researchers is that music can give us emotional hits by creating a subtle change from a pattern. In all of my lessons, I’m always showing the structure lying underneath the piece of music we are working on. Whether it’s the grand scheme of section A followed by section B or even just how the notes of one measure actually are spelling out an F chord. It’s the same in real life. There’s an order and structure to how things are put together, whether it’s a sandwich, a computer program, a resume or a social network.
Possibly the best part of a recital is the immediate feedback from the audience. There’s no waiting around for an acceptance letter in the mail, if you did well, you know it right now! And if not so well, then you know that too. What’s great about our recitals is they are safe space, a controlled environment as everyone is there rooting for you. It’s your home court and we all want you to make a slam dunk! And if you don’t, we’ll empathize with you and give you a hug too. It really doesn’t matter – you did your best. And there’s always the next recital.
EVANSTON, Ill., July 21 (UPI) — Musical instruction can “prime” the brain to improve human skills in language, speech, memory and attention, U.S. researchers say.
A study at Northwestern University found the effects of musical training on the nervous system can build meaningful patterns important to all types of learning, ScienceDaily.com reported Tuesday.
Researchers studied music training’s effect on neuroplasticity, defined as the brain’s ability to adapt and change as a result of training and experience over the courseof a person’s life… read the rest at UPI.com
And here’s a snippet regarding the same study from The Sun UK.
Dr Nina Kraus, who headed the research at Northwestern University in Illinois, said: “The beneficial effects confer advantages beyond music. This argues for an improvement in the quality and quantity of music training in schools.”
Musical training has long been linked to intellect. But until now experts believed it was because children who played instruments were more likely to come from wealthier backgrounds where they got extra help.
The study showed musical training benefited children from all backgrounds.
We can hardly be surprised, meanwhile, that music lessons improve children’s IQ7, given that they will nourish general faculties such as memory, coordination and attentiveness. Kraus and Chandrasekaran now point out that, thanks to the brain’s plasticity (the ability to ‘rewire’ itself), musical training sharpens our sensitivity to pitch, timing and timbre, and as a result our capacity to discern emotional intonation in speech, to learn our native and foreign languages, and to identify statistical regularities in abstract sound stimuli…Read this full article