The Piano Brain: Reading Music

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

“Fail not to practice the reading of old clefs;
otherwise, many treasures of past times will remain a closed fountain to you”.
– Robert Schumann (OBM)

In the West, reading musical notation is probably the most common method of learning and performing music. Nevertheless, some musicians are more practiced at playing without musical notation than with it, and many successful musicians from the worlds of jazz, pop, and folk do not read music. What incentive is there for students to spend the time and effort required to become literate with music notation?

Formal musical knowledge may not be an essential part of musicianship, but it does enrich it.  Everyone who can read a book has the intellectual capacity to become an effective music reader.  Just like in reading, we graduate from learning to read to reading to learn. If you need motivation or are looking to motivate others to learn how to read music, consider the following.

  1. Most ensembles and choirs require communication with other musicians through notation. Even jazz ensembles, and particularly big bands, rely heavily on written notation.
  2. Notation is the basis of music theory, which provides a pathway to a depth of musical understanding not possible without it. Theory helps us understand the conceptual and talk declaratively about music. It can open a new world of musical understanding.
  3. The ability to read music enables exploration of libraries full of new music otherwise not available to us.
  4. Much music, particularly western art music, is too difficult to learn by ear. If we want to play the extraordinary but complex repertoires of the great composers, reading music is the only means.
  5. Learning from notation demands a precision and a series of checkpoints that will improve other aspects of musicianship.

Beware of the attitude that spurns reading music. I am yet to meet a non-reader who does not regret their lack of ability to read music.

Beware of the attitude that spurns reading music. I am yet to meet a non-reader who does not regret their lack of ability to read music.

 

Sight-Reading

The beauty of this skill is that it speeds up the learning process and offers new and wider opportunities for making music with others. Poor sight-reading has been identified as one of the reasons students stop lessons. The most effective way to become a successful sight-reader is to practice it regularly.  There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and the time spent on it; you do not become fluent at reading anything without regular practice.  As with reading a book, in time students will recognize clusters of notes as phrases rather than as individual entities.  When I was learning piano, my sight-reading was comparatively weak.  The teacher’s advice was to obtain a stack of suitably difficult music and sight-read every day.  Once the piece had been played, the sight-playing experience was over.

The most effective way to become a successful sight-reader is to practice it regularly.  There is a correlation between proficient sight-reading and the time spent on it; you do not become fluent at reading anything without regular practice.

Improving sight-reading requires a continual increase in the difficulty of the material.  Learning to sight-read involves a different approach than learning for a performance.  Maintaining fluency and momentum is paramount.  One must not look back, nor stop to correct mistakes, for in sight-reading mistakes are tolerated.  Practicing with a metronome, backing tracks, or better still live ensemble partners, can help induce this necessary fluency.  Successful sight-readers keep their eyes on the music more often than poorer sight-readers.  This is one of the reasons many pianists struggle with sight-reading, for it is difficult to keep the eyes on the music while moving one’s hands to the correct keys. C. P. E. Bach (OBM) advised, “If you want to improve your sight-reading, practice in the dark.” This can be simulated by closing the eyes during practice or wearing a blindfold. Improving the sense of touch allows the eyes to spend more time on the page.

C. P. E. Bach (OBM) advised, “If you want to improve your sight-reading, practice in the dark.” This can be simulated by closing the eyes during practice or wearing a blindfold. Improving the sense of touch allows the eyes to spend more time on the page.

Sight-reading involves playing the current measure while scanning the next, moving fingers to the keys without looking, using prior musical knowledge to comprehend the music, and relating to the music on an emotional level.  Better sight-readers have a greater knowledge of musical styles and repertoire, which provides a database of familiarity.  This familiarity enables sight-readers to make educated guesses to maintain the flow of the music. Effective sight-readers scan the music beforehand, considering tempo, key signatures and difficult passages.  Students are unlikely to practice sight-reading at home if they don’t see it being valued during lessons.

Rhythmic reading is the most important and the most challenging component of sight-reading. This can be practiced in isolation, even away from one’s instrument. To become rhythmically strong, I recommend an approach which relates rhythm to pulse. Here is the rhythm from an excerpt of Brahms’s (OBM) Academic Festival Overture.

  1. Isolate and write out the rhythm for practice, as shown above.
  2. Add the pulse counts, as shown above. Over time, this will be less necessary, but to begin with, do not assume the student can do this.
  3. Ensure the student understands the distribution of accents. “S” means a strong accent; “W” means weak.

  1. Clap the rhythm while counting the pulse out loud.
  2. Clap the pulse and sing the rhythm to “da”.
  3. On a table, tap the left hand to the pulse and the right hand to the rhythm.
  4. On a table, tap the right hand to the pulse and the left hand to the rhythm.

 

This article is an excerpt from the book “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” (Purchase through Amazon) by Michael Griffin, an educator, speaker, and pianist, based in Australia. He is also the author of and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students.”

The Piano Brain: A Question Of Talent

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

How often have you heard someone say, “that student is talented”? Perhaps you say this yourself? Why talented? One could use words like competent, accomplished, capable, able, strong, skilled or phrases like “very good at it” and “has much potential”.  The uniqueness of “talented” and its relative “gifted” brings an implication of natural ability requiring less work and effort. No other word implies this.  Therein lies the danger.  Some people think the word encourages effort and builds self-esteem, but a significant body of research suggests otherwise.

The question “how come you are you good at playing the piano?” might generate two responses.  One – because I am gifted, talented, a natural.  How do I know?  Because everyone tells me so.   Two – because I work at it.  “I am who I am through my own efforts,” said Beethoven (OBM). Learners with a “talent mindset” develop less effective learning dispositions than those with the “learning mindset” that attributes achievement to the quality and quantity of effort.  Stanford University research concludes that the “learning mindset” person works harder, persists for longer, likes to be challenged, learns from criticism, seeks feedback, pursues excellence and as a result, broadens their potential.  The “talent mindset” person works less hard (because talent means I shouldn’t have to work as hard as others), is likely to quit much sooner, is less adventurous in seeking challenges, seeks feedback less readily, is paranoid about protecting this “talent” image at the expense of learning, and as a result, underachieves over time.  Hence, if we want to develop healthy learning dispositions for our students, we should cultivate a learning mindset, which we do through our words, feedback, and the way we praise. Sticks and stones might break our bones, but words can do real harm!

Stanford University research concludes that the “learning mindset” person works harder, persists for longer, likes to be challenged, learns from criticism, seeks feedback, pursues excellence and as a result, broadens their potential.

In one sense, it does not even matter what the truth of the “talent” argument is, because perception controls reality.  Nevertheless, what is the evidence for genetic talent?  The world’s largest investigation about this – the international Human Genome Project spanning 16 years or so, found none.  No variant genes associated with intelligence or innate talent in music or anything else were discovered, and the report concluded they would probably never be found.  It was discovered that among our 19000 genes (rather than the more than 100 000 they expected to find),  99.9 percent of them are identical.  Our brains, which control muscular movement and expression, are very similar in capacity and capability. Brains are shaped by early childhood experiences and by what we do.  Intelligence is a result of working the brain to make new connections and then strengthening them.  Whilst everyone has about 86 billion brain cells, people vary enormously in the number of brain connections they have – up to 80 trillion- based on what they do. Hence the variation in ability and intelligence.  Some people read books, move their bodies, work harder than others, sleep more, and best of all for connecting the whole brain – play the piano.  Again, some people practice thirty minutes a day, three days a week.  Others might practice four hours per day, every day.  Some children choose to spend six hours per day looking at a phone, time that could be used cultivating the intellect. In a sense, we are neurological engineers of our brain.  As Aristotle (OBM) said, “We become our repeated self.”

 Whilst everyone has about 86 billion brain cells, people vary enormously in the number of brain connections they have – up to 80 trillion- based on what they do. Hence the variation in ability and intelligence.

Hence, when the world expert on expertise in any domain listed the factors uncovered from years of investigation into exceptional performance, he did not list talent.  Rather, 1) early childhood experiences, 2) the quality of effort – deliberate practice as he called it; and 3) the number of practice hours.  The last factor deserves more respect than it usually receives.  It is the single most significant factor in differentiating achievement in anything– provided the practice is of a quality nature.

What is quality practice?  Eighty percent of pianists aged 14 and under mostly practice a piece once through, from start to end (always at the very start!) without stopping to fix anything.  This, of course, is a run-though – not practice.  Those who make progress, practice in chunks, isolating phrases for specific attention.  They rarely go from the beginning.  These pianists practice slowly, and engage in much repetition – blocked, variable, and spaced depending on requirements.  The focus is 100 percent.  They practice “only on the days that they eat” (thanks, Dr Suzuki (OBM)) and think about what it is that needs to be the focus of a practice session.

Those who make progress, practice in chunks, isolating phrases for specific attention.  They rarely go from the beginning.  These pianists practice slowly, and engage in much repetition – blocked, variable, and spaced depending on requirements.

Andres Ericsson (MGBH), a researcher in the psychological nature of expertise and human performance, says, “In every case, talent is identified retrospectively, and the emergence of prodigious skill follows rather than precedes unique opportunity and substantial work.  No one has found a way to predict talent before they witness it.”

She plays so well because she has a talent.

How do you know she has a talent? That’s obvious. She plays so well.

Parental support plays a role in every case of prodigy.  There are no known cases of child prodigy not hot-housed by parents.

Exceptional performers almost exclusively are of a “learning mindset” disposition.  Lang Lang (MGBH) wrote “Journey of a Thousand Miles” to help people understand how classical pianists get so accomplished.  He started piano at age three, was soon doing six to eight hours per day, this became ten hours prior to turning nine, and the rest is history.  “I believe you have all the talent and creativity you need. What you can control is how hard you work.  You can make sure you work harder than anyone else.”

The word “talented” is used regularly in music education.  The idea that it is a positive ascription is not supported by evidence. Rather, it can cultivate undesirable learning dispositions and precipitate quitting. On a more global scale, eliminating this word from music teachers’ vocabulary might help future generations to consider taking up and continuing the challenge and joy of learning music, rather than accepting the permanent defeat and incapacitation of “I’m not musical”.

The word “talented” is used regularly in music education.  The idea that it is a positive ascription is not supported by evidence. Rather, it can cultivate undesirable learning dispositions and precipitate quitting.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist, based in Australia.  He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students.”

The Piano Brain: Teacher Questions In The Music Lesson

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

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Have you ever thought about the role of questions in your music lessons?

Whilst teacher questions serve to check for understanding, the most important benefit is that they engage the student in thinking to a much greater degree than do instructions. Thinking precedes learning. If there is no thinking, there will be no learning.

An example of an opportunity for deep questioning is in the giving of feedback. Quality feedback is essential for student progress. Feedback needs to be quick, often, consistent and accurate. However, before the teacher imparts their wisdom to the student, intelligent questioning allows for self-evaluation. All learners need to be able to monitor and evaluate their progress without the aid of a teacher. After all, most students have a lesson once per week, and are their own teachers for the remainder. Monitoring and evaluation, along with goal setting and reflection, are the essential metacognitive components for self-directed learning. For self-evaluation, the question could be as simple as “What do you think?” or “What are your thoughts?” The best teachers continue this questioning process, driving deeper learning for understanding and insight. They tell their students almost nothing, prompting and probing, drawing as much as possible from the student without providing answers.  It’s a little like delaying the final perfect cadence!  These teachers do not accept shallow or superficial responses, for they have high expectations of the student. Intelligent questions suggest no teacher judgement, allowing for greater freedom of response. Some useful questions include:

  • What makes you say that?
  • What questions are surfacing for you? What are you thinking?
  • Is what you are doing working? Why? Why not?
  • Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
  • What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
  • Can you explain to me what you are doing?
  • Can you show me how to do this?
  • What goals would you like to set this week?
  • What’s your plan for tackling this?
  • Where will you go next?

Feedback and associated questions should apply to both the competent and less-competent aspects of playing. Many teachers are clear with feedback on the weaknesses of the playing, but less specific on what was good about the playing. Learners need to develop an acute awareness of both.

When asking questions, teachers should increase the “wait” time for an answer before butting in. The longer the wait time, the more opportunity to think and explore possibilities. Students can be very quick to say, “I don’t know”, effectively quitting the thinking process. We cannot accept this.

Sometimes an instruction is more appropriate than a question. For example, “Have your music ready, please” rather than an unnecessary question, “Have you got your music ready yet?”

Questioning is the essence of Socratic teaching. Plato tells the story that Socrates would teach without imparting information or answers. He would ask questions alone, allowing students to construct their own learning.

I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think. – Socrates

The best teachers ask questions in most of their interactions with students, even as much as 90% of the time. Studies on instrumental music teachers reveal that this is for many, an area for improvement, because many music teachers issue more instructions and commands than questions. This type of “control” teaching does little to engage students in the metacognitive process. Teaching and giving answers are not synonymous. When teacher talk dominates the lesson, at best shallow learning results. Metacognitive teaching approaches, such as questioning, foster how to think rather than what to think, resulting in a greater capacity to generate ideas and solutions.

 

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About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist, based in Australia.  He is the author of “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” and “Developing Musical Skill – For Students.”

THE PIANO BRAIN: REPETITION FOR SKILL DEVELOPMENT

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

The inflexible and automatic knowledge gained through repetition is the foundation of expert performance.  A warning has to be issued, however.   The learning brain does not distinguish between good and poor habits, but learns whatever we repeat. Repetition creates permanence, and habits are difficult to correct. In particular, it is essential to pay attention to rhythmic accuracy as rhythmic patterns are robustly set in the memory and difficult to alter once in place.

 

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Inexperienced learners struggle with the discipline required for repetition and get lulled into a false sense of mastery when they judge themselves as having played a passage reasonably well. Without sufficient repetition, however, the learning soon unravels. It’s best for teachers to practice in front of students, modeling the “how” of repetition, and give young musicians a specific number of repetitions to aim for in their practice.  As students become more mature learners, they regulate repetition, depending on the complexity of the passage. Experts repeat short passages of music again and again.

Most musicians stop repeating when they play a passage correctly, but it is crucial that they keep repeating after this point. Brain connections strengthen and consolidate with myelin, a substance that insulates the axon of a neuron; it is known as the white matter of the brain. Myelin development seems to be a key for learning and maintaining skills because it increases the speed and accuracy of data transmission. Myelin formation is more important than the number of neurons in the brain. Albert Einstein’s (OBM) brain, for example, had no more neurons than the average brain, but it had twice as much myelin. Experts have more myelin build-up on the neural circuits pertinent to their domain than do non-experts. In 2005, a Swedish professor found a positive correlation between myelin development and the number of hours professional pianists practiced. Myelin is a product of activity and is one aspect of brain plasticity, a term that refers to physical changes in the brain.

Brain plasticity includes an increase in myelination and an increase in the number of connections between neurons. In musical learning, increasing repetition of a phrase after one plays it correctly builds myelin, which supports consistent and accurate performance.

“The amateur practices until he gets it right. The professional practices until he cannot get it wrong”. – Stephen Hillier (MGBH)

The amateur stops repeating when he gets it right. The professional repeats well after to consolidate the myelin coating of the axon sheath. – Michael Griffin

It is common to confuse temporary performance effects with long-term learning. The teacher or parent may mistake the phrase “but I played it better yesterday” as a white lie, and the student might be disillusioned because he or she will think the blocks of repetition should have been sufficient for more permanent learning.

There are two issues here. First, even with spaced repetition, the consolidation process takes time. We cannot predict how much repetition it will take to master a skill, but human nature almost always underestimates this. If a passage a student thought he or she learned yesterday is a muddle today, the student must repeat the repetition process. Try not to be despondent. This is a natural part of acquiring skill. Memories do not just form at the point of learning, so it may take several sittings for neural connections to become strong. Some people seem to learn faster than others, but learning is not a race, and we are all capable of complex skill development through repetition. It may take one person six hundred repetitions over two weeks to consolidate a phrase, while it may take someone else only three hundred repetitions in one week. Students must learn to be patient and trust in the power of repetition.

Blocked and Spaced Repetition

 

Recently I was watching television when a commercial break interrupted my program. Commercials are annoying at best, but this set of five commercial spots really got under my skin. This is because one of the commercials played three times, not in a row, but with a different commercial in between. Just when I had forgotten it, back it came to haunt me. And I thought rondo form was just a musical concept!

A B A C A

The repeated commercial A was deliberately interspersed with other commercials. The arrangement was cleverly designed to make me forget and retrieve, and I found it difficult to dislodge the commercial from my attention for some time afterward. I had to acknowledge that this marketing technique was really successful. I had “learned” the commercial. I turned this irritant to my advantage.

A German psychologist – Hermann Ebbinghaus (OBM) – famously revealed the “forgetting curve”, proposing that students forget 90 percent of what they learn within thirty days. Further to this disheartening finding, the most significant memory loss occurs within the first hour. A memory becomes more robust when the information is repeated in timed intervals. The more repetition cycles, the better for learning, and the more spaces between the repetitions, better again.

Imagine, you have thirty minutes available for practice and have decided on three passages on which to work. How would you distribute this amount of time? You could practice the target passages in three blocks consecutively.

Passage A—ten minutes          Passage B—ten minutes          Passage C—ten minutes

Or you could practice them in the following manner:

Passage A—four minutes         Passage B—three minutes       Passage A—three minutes

Passage C—four minutes         Passage B—five minutes         Passage A—three minutes

                                        Passage C—six minutes             Passage B—two minutes

The first method is referred to as blocked repetition. The second, like the television commercial example, is known as spaced repetition.

Blocked repetition refers to sticking to a single practice task until it is effectively learned, then progressing to the next learning task. Spaced repetition switches between different tasks during the course of a single practice session. In both methods, one encounters the same material for the same amount of overall time, but as with the distributed practice concept, spacing the repetitions exposes one to learning the task repeatedly over a longer time span.

Blocked repetition is a useful technique for introducing new skills to create a foundation. It is effective for beginners as it allows them to concentrate on a single task. Even for advanced musicians, very difficult passages require a single focus and attention that might be disrupted if one switches frequently between tasks. However, blocked repetition requires the intense engagement of the learner. If concentration wanes during blocked repetition, progress can stagnate and possibly deteriorate. It is essential to remain attentive and fully alert during practice.

Provided that the practice time is not restricted and that the learner has the metacognitive ability to determine practice goals, spaced repetition is more effective than blocked repetition. Varying practice tasks frequently creates interference, which leads to a degree of forgetting. As with distributed practice, the benefits of spaced repetition relate to stronger memory formation due to the principle of forgetting and retrieving. When one revisits learning material a neural reconstruction takes place leaving a deeper impression on the brain.

Spaced repetition can be frustrating because it involves more frequent failure and more mental effort, but the rewards are worth this extra effort. Marketing teams and musical learners use spaced repetition, as do professional athletes. For example, golfers are required to play shots of varying distances. Whereas blocked repetition drills require a golfer to hit many consecutive balls to one distance marker before practicing another distance. Spaced repetition alternates distance replicating the real demands on the golf course. In skill-based endeavors such as piano playing, drills can provide an illusion of competence. Most teachers have heard their students say, “But I could play it yesterday!”

Spaced repetition can work in concert with blocked repetition, so music teachers should model how a practice session might alternate between the two. Practice technique also should be modeled to students in ensemble rehearsals. In any given rehearsal, I aim to revisit the passages that require the most attention at least three times throughout the rehearsal. I answer initial squawks from students (“But we’ve already practiced that piece!”) by explaining the rationale behind spaced repetition. Teachers cannot expect students to integrate these learning concepts if they do not exhibit them in their own methodology.

 

An excerpt from “Learning Strategies for Musical Success” by Michael Griffin. 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, author, and pianist. He has delivered keynote presentations in about 270 conferences and schools in 25 countries. His core topics are practice, mindset, metacognition and intrinsic motivation.

THE PIANO BRAIN: Motivation and Piano Practice

Article by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

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Motivation, from the Latin movere meaning to move, is the fuel that starts, stops, directs, and sustains human behavior. It creates a desire to persist beyond the boundaries of comfort, to overcome obstacles, and to achieve beyond our own, and others’, highest expectations. Motivation is the pre-cursor to music practice. Motivation gets results. It is, therefore, an overarching concern for pianists and teachers.

In general terms, motivation is categorized as either intrinsic or extrinsic. When we enjoy an activity for what it is and for the pleasure it brings, we are self-motivated, or intrinsically motivated. The reward for doing the activity comes from the activity itself. With extrinsic motivation, the reward is an external benefit from doing the activity. We observe intrinsic motivation when students engage in activities alone, when they choose to participate in activities without external pressure, and when they engage in activities in the absence of the promise of or opportunity for external reward. It is not only the choice to engage in activity that defines intrinsic motivation, but also the quality of that involvement. Does the student attend to difficult passages thoroughly or just go through the motions? Trying hard and spending extra time on a task are examples of intensity and persistence. These are hallmarks of an intrinsically motivated student.

External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.

Extrinsic motivation is entrenched in systems of education. External rewards – including gold stars, stickers and grades – are both material and verbal and presented with the hope that students will be encouraged to learn. In his massive body of research, John Hattie (2009) found “praise, punishment and extrinsic rewards are the most ineffective forms of feedback for enhancing achievement.”  External motivation tends to be transient in that students are likely to lose their motivation when the prospect of external reward disappears.  Extrinsic performance goals and intrinsic learning goals are different. Getting an A in music is an extrinsically motivated performance goal, whereas becoming a better musician is a learning goal. This is one of the drawbacks of grading systems. Students are interested in achieving good grades, but become less interested in learning because of being graded. When students focus on grades they do the work that is necessary to get that grade, but rarely more. When told that work will be graded, students are less likely to enjoy the task and less likely to return to that material after the test. In comparison to learning goals, outcomes from performance goals are shallow and limited.

Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer.

Intrinsic interest sustains motivation. We are born curious, with a natural desire to seek out novelty and challenge, to exercise our abilities and to explore. Have you ever seen an infant who was not curious and self-directed?  However, extrinsic rewards can deliver short-term boosts.  They can serve as a last resort to kindle a desired behavior or as a symbol of competence and belonging, but the effect wears off and can reduce longer-term motivation.  Intrinsic motivation is strongly linked with higher quality learning. Studies find that intrinsically motivated students are less easily distracted, take more initiative, and persist at tasks for longer. Therefore, a central mission for piano teachers and parents is to influence how children motivate themselves. Only then will children freely apply the effort required to reach greater heights. To foster intrinsic motivation in the music studio requires attention to three innate human needs: the need to belong, the need to feel competent, and the need to direct one’s own actions.

Autonomy refers to actions chosen and endorsed by self. The key here is choice. Increasing students’ options and choices is more likely to foster intrinsic motivation and subsequent effort. As early and as often as possible, teachers should give students some control of their learning. Choice might be as simple as involving students in selecting repertoire, but teachers must discern when allowing choice is wise. Permitting a student to decide which music fits the requirements for their technical and aesthetic progression is not prudent, but a teacher-selected assortment of several pieces that fulfill the criteria allows students to then choose a piece they like. Choice can be offered in the context of tasks and task order (“which piece would you like to start with”) as well as learning goals (“would you like to aim to improve sight-reading, playing by ear or playing from memory?”).

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers.

Positive teacher–student relationships profoundly influence student motivation and learning. School attendance, attitude, emotional engagement, and general academic achievement – all improve when students perceive acceptance, support, and encouragement from teachers. Students need to think that teachers like, respect, value, and care about them. When students connect with and respect their teacher, they are more likely to subscribe to the values and practices of that teacher. If the student does not like the teacher, very often they will not do well in that subject.

“They don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care, ” (Theodore Roosevelt)

An increasing level of competence, or progress, is a great motivator. One must believe in his or her capacity to accomplish a task. Even if students have healthy self-esteem, are interested in the learning content, and believe it to be important, they will not fully engage if they believe the task is beyond them. Hence the number one reason people quit music? Lack of progress and lack of competence.

 

  • “I’m not getting any better.”
  • “I’m no good at this.”
  • “I just can’t do it.”

 

Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort.

Students need the tools for making musical progress. A practice system that incorporates repetition, chunking and slow physical movement, when done on a regular basis over time, will deliver progress.

When students quit music, they give reasons like “it was boring, I can’t be bothered”, or “it’s stupid.”  The challenge to play music is not boring; if anything, there is too much for the mind to pay attention to when working through a musical challenge, not too little. Children use words like “boring” to protect their self-image, ego, and lack of effort. Devaluing an activity allows one to quit without the embarrassment of failing. Kristin Neff puts it well:

“One way to increase self-esteem is to value the things we are good at and devalue the things we are bad at. The problem here is that we may undercut the importance of learning valuable skills just because it makes us feel better about ourselves. In other words, our desire to achieve high self-esteem in the short term may harm our development in the long run.” (Neff 2011, p. 138)

 

The real reason for quitting is fragile competence beliefs. And this points to a lack of practice. Progress cultivates pride, enthusiasm, and perseverance.

References:

Hattie, J. 2009. Visible Learning for Teachers. New York & London: Routledge.

Neff, Kristin. 2011. Self-Compassion. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of Learning Strategies for Musical Success.

THE PIANO BRAIN: The Metacognitive Piano Teacher

by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

To remain a pupil is to serve your teacher badly. – Friedrich Nietzsche

 

In addition to enhancing musical progress, the ultimate objective for teachers is to gradually become unnecessary in the learning lives of their students.  Metacognition is that wonderful learning stage when the learner drives the learning.  An umbrella term, metacognition means “thinking about our thinking.” It includes planning, questioning, monitoring, memorization, self-reflection, self-knowledge about our learning strengths and weaknesses, and self-evaluation.  It involves understanding our motivations, setting goals, knowing which practice strategies to implement, and being able to exercise self-discipline.  It’s about knowing when and how to use these strategies for maximum learning.  Novices rarely engage in the metacognitive learning strategies that drive real progress.  In contrast, the skills of super learners are underpinned by executive-function skills and character traits such as sustaining focus, commitment, perseverance, and resisting impulse and distraction.

I don’t divide the world into the weak and the strong, or the successes and the failures. I divide the world into the learners and non-learners. -Benjamin R. Barber

Metacognition is the learner’s coming of age.  It is the hallmark of intrinsic motivation.  The diverse set of skills this word represents is essential for reaching expertise in any domain, including music.  This is an important distinction.  It’s not talent, but the processes of development that lead to expertise.  But don’t expect students to welcome this style of learning.  As most teachers find, students actively resist it because it is difficult and requires more mental effort.  It’s a lot easier to be told what to do and to be evaluated by the teacher than to engage with the messiness of learning.

Great learning asks great questions, underpinned by great thinking.  The brain is more receptive to remember answers to questions we ask than when information is delivered by the teacher.  Over time, students should be asking themselves the same questions a teacher would.

The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student. Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge.

The classic sign of passive learning is if the teacher is doing more work than the student.  Schools focus more on the transmission of knowledge rather than the transformation of knowledge.  Metacognition, the most essential learning-capacity skill set, is overlooked, or, at least, insufficiently taught.  Harvard’s David Perkins (1992) posits that any substantial improvement in the learning capacity of society is unlikely until metacognitive learning is more fully addressed.

Metacognitive learners take responsibility for their learning.  Music students must be able to ask, “How effective is my practice? How effective is my learning? What do I need to do to get better?  What practice strategy does this task require?” Successful analysis of problems gets to the heart of the matter quickly.  Metacognition is not about factual knowledge or skill, but the process involved in gaining that knowledge or skill.  It enables us to question our beliefs and perspectives that color our approach and attitude to learning.  Children aged eleven or twelve might have an impressive body of factual knowledge, but have comparatively low metacognitive skills.  Metacognition usually flowers later in cognitive development, perhaps, in adolescence or early adulthood, but this process is dependent on the quality of teaching and parenting.  Young students should be prompted with questions and encouraged to verbalize thoughts and to self-evaluate.  In these early stages of teaching metacognition, teachers explicitly and consciously model (verbalize) their thought processes as they solve a problem.

Midway through my undergraduate music education degree I changed piano teachers. My first impression of my new teacher Stephen was that he was a little odd. Stephen barely said a word, so how was I supposed to learn from him? When I played, rather than comment, he looked at me expectantly, as if he were waiting for me to do the analysis. Uncomfortable with the silence, I uttered thoughts of my own. “Maybe this phrase could use more of a crescendo?” I’d ask. “OK,” he’d say. “Try it.” I did so, and the process would be repeated. I might not have understood this at the time, but Stephen was teaching me to think for myself, which led me into a new age of self-directed learning. I was learning how to teach myself. Prior to Stephen, my experience with piano lessons was quite different. My role was a passive receiver of teacher knowledge. My well-intentioned teachers always had given me directions and told me what I needed to do, and my job was to sit, listen, obey, and execute. Essentially, this teacher-directed style took the hard work out of learning.

Let me show you how to do this.

Let me tell you what you are doing wrong.

Let me tell you what I think.

Let me tell you what to do.

Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought.

This suited me fine, because I did not have to think too hard. Stephen would have none of this, for passive learning was not enough. Great teachers seldom give direct answers or immediate feedback before probing for deeper thought. Providing solutions before the student has had an opportunity to solve a problem constrains autonomy. Rather, good teachers hint, gradually increasing the content until the pupil works it out for themselves. Expressive disciplines like music require active participation, and teachers like Stephen enable students to question and to construct their own ideas. As I became more engaged in my own learning, my motivation levels skyrocketed.

This was probably my most valuable learning experience as a young adult, and I will always be thankful to Stephen for that.

 

Questioning

Never stop questioning. -Albert Einstein

The simplest strategy for increasing student metacognition is to ask questions.  Not whilst students are playing, of course, for this does not prevent errors or encourage self-learning.  Simple, open-ended questions before and after playing prompt self-discovery. Here are some examples:

  • How do you think you played?
  • Tell me what you hear. How does it sound to you?
  • Is what you’re doing working? Why? Why not?
  • Which goals would you like to set for this week?
  • What can you do to learn this passage thoroughly?
  • Can you explain what you are doing? What are you thinking?
  • What have you improved upon since last week?
  • Can you teach me how to do this?

One study found that over 90 percent of the utterances of the best teachers are questions (Lepper and Woolverton 2002). Questions are leading and informative, demanding thinking and exploration of ideas. It is sobering, therefore, to read references that suggest that most instrumental music tutors ask questions in only 2 or 3 percent of their words (Zhukov 2012). John Hattie’s (2009) research finds that 60 percent of the 300–400 teacher questions per day require only superficial factual data, 20 percent target procedural knowledge, and only 20 percent are open, skilled questions that prompt deeper thinking and higher-order understanding.

Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).

When students respond to questions, teachers must wait patiently and allow them to struggle to find the right words, resisting the temptation to put words into their mouths. Students need time to process and internalize information before giving a response. The period of silence between a teacher question and student response is referred to as “think time.”  Early studies found that in typical classrooms think time rarely lasted more than 1.5 seconds. By extending this uninterrupted period of silence to three seconds, the length and correctness of responses improves, the number of “I don’t know” responses decrease, more students volunteer answers, and overall academic test scores improve (Stahl 1994).

Struggle is inherent in learning. This is the principle failing of the enthusiastic graduate teacher, so keen to impart as much as possible of their own knowledge that there is little real learning left for the student to do.  Teaching and giving answers are not synonymous.  Nor is learning and having the answers supplied.  Studies confirm that when teacher talk dominates the learning environment, at best shallow learning results (Chi et al. 2001).  What teachers choose not to say is essential.  The best teachers tell their students almost nothing.  They prompt and probe, drawing as much as possible from the student.  Likewise, teachers who solve problems for students implicitly communicate to the student that they are incapable of solving it for themselves.

I cannot teach anyone anything, I can only hope to make them think. -Socrates

The Socratic method is a questioning pedagogy.  Plato refers to Socrates teaching geometry to a slave boy, not by imparting his own knowledge, but by questioning alone, thereby allowing the boy to create his own conclusions.  Aldous Huxley was acutely aware of this when he wrote “The Dangers of Good Teaching” in 1927 (quoted in Abbott 2010):

“Working on the old-fashioned system, the clever teacher (deplorable paradox!) does almost more harm than the stupid one. For the clever schoolmaster makes things too easy for his pupils; he relieves them of the necessity of finding out things for themselves. By dint of brilliant teaching, he succeeds in almost eliminating the learning process. He knows how to fill his pupils with ready-made knowledge, which they inevitably forget (since it is not their knowledge and cost them nothing to acquire) as soon as the examination for which it was required is safely passed.

The stupid teacher, on the other hand, may be so completely intolerable that the child will, perhaps, be driven, despairingly and in mere self-defense, to educate himself; in which case the incompetent shepherd will have done, all unwittingly, a great service to his charge, by forcing him into a rebellious intellectual independence.”

Initially, musical understanding is procedural. That is, students know how to do things but cannot articulate the process. A deeper knowing, declarative knowledge, is the ability to talk and think about music using linguistic terms. Allowing students to talk about concepts in their own words strengthens musical understanding from the procedural realm to include the declarative realm. Words enhance conceptual understanding; they enable us to think. Complex thoughts are not possible without them.

 

Verbal Mediation (Self-Talk)

Of course, I talk to myself; sometimes I need expert advice! – Thomas Jefferson

Abraham Lincoln’s secretary asked him, “Sir, why do you read aloud to yourself and why do you talk to yourself?” Lincoln’s response was, “When I do this, I remember twice as much, for twice as long” (Chandler 2004). This is verbal mediation – another strategy for increasing metacognition.

Verbal mediation, or self-talk, is thinking aloud.  When students encounter a learning difficulty, I ask them to think verbally. By thinking out loud as they practice, students uncover the root of a problem and gain a better understanding of the task.  Also, teachers get insight into students’ mental processes. More generally, reading aloud helps us process information in the mind and stay in the present.

Steven Mithen (2005) writes, “Children who provide their own verbal commentary, learn skills quicker than those who remain silent.”  Self-talk is essential for a child’s development and, although it gradually disappears as thinking becomes silent, we continue to do it occasionally – particularly if faced with a challenging problem. Verbal cues assist with thinking, memory formation, focus, and learning in general. For example, memorizing a list of words by saying them out loud is more effective than through silent reading (Ozubko and Macleod 2010).

The skills of metacognition are applied throughout the learning cycle.

  1. Planning. Before practicing, analyze the piece. Identify points of interest, patterns, the key, and expected difficulties. Set practice goals. Verbalize thoughts.
  2. Actively listen and monitor during practice.
  3. Evaluate. Identify difficulties and successes. Verbalize the strategies employed explaining why they were successful.
  4. Describe new practice strategies, how they can be implemented, and the expected improvement.
  5. Continue this cycle until satisfied with the result.

 

This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition.

Most children have one music lesson each week and receive little teacher guidance in between.  Hence, learning how to learn is essential. The complex and open-ended activity of music practice demands metacognitive skill probably more than any other activity. Explicitly teaching practice strategies teaches metacognitive skills. This is why, when compared with non-musicians, professional musicians demonstrate a higher degree of metacognition.  The higher-order-thinking skills include performance preparation, concentration, monitoring quality, learning and memory-formation strategy, and self-evaluation.  Professional musicians have a high awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.  Stephen Covey (1994) writes that self-awareness is “our capacity to stand apart from ourselves and examine our thinking, our motives, our history, our scripts, our actions, and our habits and tendencies.”

Metacognition provides us with this objective view of our strengths and weaknesses. It enables freedom of the mind. Through reflection and evaluation, we understand our actions more critically. We improve our learning by continually designing and redesigning our training.

 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of  “Learning Strategies for Musical Success.”

 

REFERENCES:

1. Abbott, J. 2010. Overschooled but Undereducated: How the Crisis in Education is Jeopardizing Our Adolescents. London: Continuum.
2. Chandler, S. 2004. 100 Ways to Motivate Yourself: Change Your Life Forever. Franklin Lakes, NJ: Career Press.
3. Chi, M. T. H., Siler, S. A., Jeong, H., Yamauchi, T., Hausmann, R. G. 2001. Learning from Human Tutoring. Cognitive Science 25: 471–533.
4. Covey, S. 1994. First Things First. New York: Simon & Schuster.
5. Lepper, M. R. and Woolverton, M. 2002. The Wisdom of Practice: Lessons Learned from the Study of Highly Effective Tutors. 6. In J. Aronson (ed.), Improving Academic Achievement. New York: Academic, pp. 135–158.
7. Mithen, Steve. 2005. The Singing Neanderthals. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
8. Perkins, D. 1992. Smart Schools: Better Thinking and Learning for Every Child. New York: Free Press.
9. Ozubko, J. D. and Macleod, C. M. 2010. The Production Effect in Memory: Evidence that Distinctiveness Underlies the Benefit. Journal of Experimental Psychology 36(6): 1543–1547.
10. Stahl, R. 1994. Using “Think Time” and “Wait Time” Skillfully in the Classroom. ERIC.
https://eric.ed.gov/?id=ED370885
11. Zhukov, K. 2012. Teaching Strategies and Gender in Higher Education Instrumental
Studios. International Journal of Music Education 30(1): 32–45.

THE PIANO BRAIN: MUSIC, CHARACTER, AND MORAL DEVELOPMENT

by Michael Griffin (MGBH)

white-spaceIn 2015, the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtues at Birmingham University called for character education to be embedded in the UK curriculum.  The report linked strong character traits such as resilience and perseverance to higher educational achievement, employability, and social, emotional, and physical health.  Character matters.  It is critical for personal happiness, maintaining relationships, and essential for an ordered society.  Character strengths help people thrive and become the best version of themselves.  But how is it taught, cultivated and nurtured?  The family is the first place where moral cultivation begins. If adults wish to raise children of good character, they should start by showing them through their own actions.

Children may not listen to their parents, but they never fail to imitate them. – James A. Baldwin (OBM), 1924 –1987, American social critic.

UK Education secretary Nicky Morgan (MGBH), in her quest to help schools teach character, says one way is to learn a musical instrument. Supporting her claim, the Jubilee Centre study found that students involved in choir/music or drama performed significantly better on character tests than any other school-based extra-curricular activity. There is nothing new in this modern-day appeal for character education to be embedded in schools, nor in the relationship between character formation and musical learning. The great thinkers Rousseau (OBM), Kant (OBM), and John Locke (OBM) viewed the aim of education to enable children to think for themselves with the aim of becoming virtuous.  The views of Confucius (OBM), Pythagoras (OBM), and Aristotle (OBM) are also worth noting. Confucius (551–479 BC) believed the real purpose of education was, rather than to get a job, to become a better person. The cultivation of the self should be a daily renovation, and is a life-long process, requiring constant work and practice. A zitherist, Confucius considered music education indispensable for character cultivation:

Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practices.

Because of the deep influence music exerts on a person, and the change it produces on manners and customs, the ancient kings appointed it as one of the subjects of instruction.

A man who is not good, what can he have to do with music?

 

Wouldst thou know if a people be well-governed, if its laws be good or bad? Examine the music it practices.

 

Confucius suggested that the teaching of music, along with poetry, history and ritual, be the foundation for teaching moral behavior. This involved integrating songs and music into the curriculum that reinforced Chinese (Confucian) values and moral virtue. His view has support throughout history, for instance from Napoleon Bonaparte (OBM): “A moral book might change a person’s mind but not his heart, and therefore, not his ways. However, a piece of moral music would change his heart, and where the heart goes the mind will follow and the person’s ways will change”. To be a person of character is a choice from less virtuous alternatives. Accordingly, moral choice would be arrived at through a change of heart influenced by music. Like Confucius, English philosopher Roger Scruton (OBM) equates a decline in musical taste with a decline in morals, arguing that “beauty should be restored to its traditional position in music.”

In China, Confucianism is undergoing a renaissance, particularly evident in education.  A major reason modern-day Chinese parents value learning a musical instrument is that it provides a vehicle for visible application, thoroughness and commitment. Likewise, Aristotle (385-322 BC) believed that character is formed by doing.  One can only learn about commitment by being committed to a cause.  One learns to delay gratification by exercising the patience and experiencing the discomfort that comes with the wait.  Aristotle believed that the development of character strengths took time, being taught and learned through opportunity and practice. The repetition of the act becomes a habit, evident in thoughts, feelings, and actions, resulting in consistent patterns of action.

Human excellence, in morality as in musicality, comes about as a result of habit. – Aristotle, Book II of the Nicomachean Ethics

Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action.

 

Therefore, a person cannot be considered a “good person deep down” unless character traits are in action.

 

Aristotle’s teacher – Plato (OBM), believed that music permeated the recesses of the soul nurturing goodness, but that improper music had a “dangerous capacity to inspire lawlessness and boldness”.

Pythagoras (OBM) (570-490 BC) may well be the first person on record who employed music as a therapeutic agent. He believed that beauty and truth combined in music, and could “quell the passions of the soul”. In his philosophy, medicine and therapy were based on music.  Pythagoras believed that an appreciation of beauty aided recovery from illness, a position now supported by modern-day research.  He called the medicine obtained through music purification.  Hence, music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify manners, character, and physical ailments.  Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again.

 

[…] music played an important part in Pythagorean education because music could purify both manners, character, and physical ailments.  Those who committed crimes were prescribed “pipe and harmony” to shape the mind so that it became cultured again.

 

At night, Pythagoreans sang certain songs to induce sleep and sweet dreams. In the morning, they sang different songs to awaken and prepare for the day.  Sometimes the music was instrumental, played on the lyre alone.  Pythagoras considered the study of music essential for a rational understanding of God and nature.  Therefore, in Ancient Greek society, the primary goal of studying music was for learning moral behavior.  If education is about integrating thought, Pythagoras and the Greek thinkers who followed him led the way.

Contrast this regard for music by the Ancient Greeks and classical China to the Roman Empire that followed.  Music was not valued beyond entertainment, and became peripheral in education and culture.  Rather than arts, science, and intellectual thought, Rome’s focus was conquest and pleasure.  One of the main reasons attributed for the decline of the Roman Empire was a decline in moral character.  If only they had listened to Confucius.

 

Music is the only one of all the arts that does not corrupt the mind. – Montesquieu (OBM), 1689 – 1759, French Philosopher

 

There is no definitive set of character traits, but consider perseverance, commitment, and self-discipline.  Character is the X factor in expert performance.  Many people desire to learn music but give up too early without ever fully exploring their potential. Often, the reason given is lack of talent. A more likely explanation is the lack of character traits required for the challenge. Being a musician is a testament to character.  Almost 2500 years ago, Plato believed that “music training is a more potent instrument than any other.” Hopefully, the world will again give music the place it deserves in education.  There are positive signs. In April, 2015, it was announced that for the first time in USA education history, music will be a core subject in draft federal education policy (Every Child Achieves Act of 2015).

 

Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration.

 

Listening to music has long been argued as a method for developing children’s listening skills.  Listening to classical music boosts concentration, self-discipline, listening power, social intelligence, and aspiration.  Good music cultivates the mind.  Equally, another study found that listening to music with lyrics about alcohol makes people more likely to drink. Yet another study found a link between music embodying aggression, sex and violence, with antisocial behavior.  Music influences behavior. These studies might serve to argue against the popular contention that there is no such thing as good or bad music.

Next to the Word of God, music is the greatest treasure in the world. It controls our thoughts, minds, hearts and spirits. – St Augustine of Hippo

 

About the Author:

Michael Griffin is an educator, speaker, and pianist. He is the author of ‘Learning Strategies for Musical Success’.