In my last installment I examined the issues of developing and establishing an effective home practice routine. I also discussed the importance of both accountability and ownership in addressing effective student learning development.
In this 4th installment of Effective Studio Teaching and Learning Strategies I would like to investigate the primary pedagogically based teaching methods with reference to human learning and relevant teaching applications.
Before we can know what it is that we wish to teach, how to introduce and reinforce it, we also need to know some basic tenets on how people learn. And, we need to understand the central role of personal ownership in the learning process. In fact, fostering personal ownership in our students generally leads to their increased motivation towards learning. Duke Ellington says; “When a man finds out what he wants to know, that’s the beginning of education”. However, on the other hand, Plato states that, “All learning under compulsion has no hold on the mind”. It then should become our first priority to assist our students in finding out what it is they wish to know.
The primary responsibility for studio teachers is to both passionately share and demonstrate the benefits and joys to be gained through investment in consistent, systematic personal practice. Therefore we should strive to lead our students towards developing their own learning process. The student’s growing self-motivation should, in turn be affirmed and strengthened through recognition of the rewards gained through successfully achieving realistic performance challenges. Private lessons will hold little value if students are not encouraged to engage in self-motivated personal practice on their own intuitive.
At this point it is important to assess how we ourselves as musicians were taught, incorporating those successful elements, while discarding those that are not effective in today’s educational environment. It is important to realise that we generally teach the way we were taught – How often have we found ourselves repeating strategies our teachers used with us?
Daniel Kohut, in his text, “Musical Performance”, states that… “There are many ways of learning, and no two people learn exactly the same. However, there are certain basic concepts of learning that can be broadly applied to almost everyone.” This model is known as the ‘Natural Learning Process’. It is this method that children regularly employ to acquire the basic human functions. This learning model is reinforced by Suzuki’s recommendation that children should learn to perform music the same way they learn to acquire other common functions such as crawling, walking, talking, etc.
The ‘Natural Learning Process’ involves the use of four primary methods of learning:
· Mental imagery
· Imitation (purposeful, comparative repetition)
· Trial & error practice
· Body feedback
We as teachers should seek to spend more time observing how children learn and this ought be a primary requisite in learning how to teach. Children learn by watching and listening, and then trying to imitate what they see and hear.
· Children are good at imitating others.
· Children learn by doing, and enjoy comparative, repetitive activities.
· Children improve their skills by trial and error.
· Children need love, praise, encouragement and understanding as much as food and shelter to survive and grow.
Through analysing and synthesising the above points one can then formulate an effective model for studio teaching. The teacher presents a model of what is to be recreated, either from personal demonstration or from another source; professional recordings or live performances. The student then tries to emulate, re-produce the model through ‘trial and error practice. Following their attempt to reproduce the model, the student is encouraged to compare their performance against the model. Once the necessary adjustments are applied they repeat the process until a close approximation of the model is achieved. Correct student performance is instilled as an automised habit by additional repetition through personalised application. We should strongly encourage them never to play the passage under consideration any faster than they can play the most difficult portion correctly.
This then is how we apply the ‘Natural Learning Process’ with our students. We begin by programming the brain with suitable musical images through demonstration, exposure to fine recordings and live performance models. (Be sure to play for, and with your students.) The student is introduced to the concept of learning to focus on the performance goal, not the performance procedure. That is, involving students in visualising what it is they wish to sound like, focusing on imitating the model instead of trying to work out how to achieve the desired result.
The next task is to reinforce the use of trial and error practice, always focusing on the end result with patience. This can be illustrated by assisting the student in measuring their performance against the model they are attempting to imitate. This is much like using a set of scales that measure and compare weights of objects against that which is be evaluated. If we are truly interested in the value of intrinsic, self-motivated study that can be applied to all learning tasks, then this system will promote personal ownership of the learning process.
At this point it is best to avoid over-verbalisation, moving directly to the creative experience of making-music itself. Be sure to avoid the temptation for excessive intellectualisation, for it is always better to show than to tell, and a picture, aural or visual, is better than a thousand words. In fact, words often have vague or multiple meanings. If a verbal instruction doesn’t produce positive results, either the verbal communication is faulty or there has been a misunderstanding of the words. Words too may block students’ ability to perform musically, often creating confusion. Timothy Galwey recounts the moment he realised that his best efforts to help a tennis student failed through giving too many instructions. The student only achieved the desired performance goal when Galway physically demonstrated the action, and then asked the student to copy his example.
Words describe experiences, but words are not the same as the experience itself. Music deals with emotions, feelings and insights that words often cannot describe. Essentially, we learn through doing an activity much more effectively than by trying to respond to verbal instructions about the activity. Regardless of what students may understand or misunderstand of verbal or written communications, the strategy should always lead to an artistic response. What does the student’s musical response sound like? The use of metaphors, analogies and stories can effectively aid students in forming visual musical images.
It is vital that we direct students toward obtaining personal problem solving skills. Teachers must be able to affirm, as well as lead students in recognising when a musical target is reproduced, passes the test of aesthetic judgement and that music is produced. As musical mentors, teachers should make it a point to share how and when significant musical performance is achieved in the lesson, as simply playing the right notes at the right time does not constitute a significant performance. The acquisition of effective personal assessment is dependent on understanding and implementing four fundamentals: good mental conceptualisation, relaxed concentration (the ability to focus completely on a specific goal), awareness of body feedback, and attention to proper posture/embouchure/hand position.
Of these four points, the ability to use relaxed concentration or ‘single-mindedness’, is the most important. Kohut describes four keys in achieving ‘relaxed’ concentration. They include: focused attention, requiring self-discipline; interested attention, requiring motivation; absorbed attention, requiring strong distraction to change focus, and merging with the experience. This is where the performer and the instrument become 'one', and are now capable of playing in ‘automatic response’ mode.
In the pursuit of acquiring musical conception, Arnold Jacobs states, "Begin by training the performer's brain, not the muscles". Before a musician plays or sings even a single note they must possess a mental image of the note itself, including all of the expressive and acoustical properties with which it is associated. Significant ‘music-making’ starts when we begin with an aural musical image. Aural images are acquired through active listening to professional performance examples. This involves a process most of us used as children when we first gained language skills: verbal association of speaking first, then reading and writing later. It requires repetitive and attentive ‘listening and response’. Likewise, it is through the ‘listen/response’ activity that we acquire our basic musical concepts of tone, intonation, internal pulse and expression.
Therefore the quality of our musical understanding is directly influenced by the quality and variety of the music our students hear. It is essential that our students’ musical ears be ‘programmed’, through systematic exposure to the finest examples of musical performance. The more brilliant performances our students hear, the more discerning their ears will become.
“The musical mind is concerned predominantly with the mechanism of tonal memory. Before it has absorbed a considerable variety of tonal experiences, the musical mind cannot begin to function in a creative way complex enough to be considered art.” Daniel Kohut
Effective teachers expose their students to superior musical performances while outlining specific things for which students are to listen. It is important to remember that the quality of past 'life experiences' can also influence the quality and nature of our student’s musical perceptions. These ‘life experiences’ may include reading an engaging novel, lingering over a lovely sunset, a visit to an art gallery, a great dining experience, going on an adventure or experiencing the joy of friendship, or of deep sadness and hardship.
Yet, it is one thing to work on developing our students’ musical perception. It is quite another to motivate the student in the use of their newfound musical understanding and appreciation. The student’s continued investment in personal practice requires a positive return from the time that they invest in practicing. What returns will the student receive for their investment? I believe that our students will return again and again to the practice room when there is recognition of tangible, intrinsic achievement rewarding students with a sense of personal accomplishment and lasting satisfaction.
In my final installment (5) I will continue the discussion on developing home study habits, along with further discussion on specific learning and practice skills.