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: 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.