Sunday, September 25, 2011

Brain Compatible Music Teaching by Susan Kenney

General Music Today

23(1) 24 –26 © 2009 MENC: The National Association for Music Education


Kenney begins her article with an example of a primary music classroom. The teacher is demonstrating the new song by rote and students are echoing each line as she sings it. Afterwards she introduces a game based on the song and explains the rules. The students play the game while she reminds them to use their light singing voice.

The author cites the book Making Connections: Teaching and the Human Brain, which believes that fragmenting content is the biggest mistake schools make. When we teach bits and pieces of a song the meaningful connections in the brain are interrupted. The brain is able to process parts and wholes simultaneously and in our attempts to simplify the learning process we are not allowing the brain to extract patterns on its own.

Towards the end of the article we revisit the primary music classroom. This time the teacher simply starts into the game with no explanation of the new song. The children watch her actions as they join in the game, correcting their own mistakes while making an attempt to understand. Through repetition, the children gain enough confidence to sing along. They become conscious of their own voice as well as the voices of others and the collective quality and accuracy improves.

Even though each child grasps the game, song, and social challenges at different times, it provides an opportunity for every child to find all of the patterns. This method of teaching allows the brain to problem solve as well as learn through bodily movement. The brain needs a great deal of input to detect patterns as well as time to interpret them, so the repetition of the game is key for understanding. If an understanding is not reached, then the emotional excitement from the experience will prepare the brain for further learning next time. During this process clear singing from students is not immediate and the teacher must be willing to wait and trust that the children will self-correct.


In my own classroom I teach new primary songs by rote. I follow the “one phrase at a time” method where the students echo what I sing or play. This is usually the quickest way to achieve results and move on to the next learning expectation in the lesson. This was also how I was taught and what I thought was the easiest way to absorb information.

I think as teachers we identify “success” with product rather then process, and reading this article has caused me to re-evaluate my methods of rote instruction. Do I correct students too early rather then letting them figure it out on their own? Am I too concerned with teaching the “correct” way of singing instead of letting them explore different pathways? And ultimately, am I breaking down the song into phrases because I don’t think their brains handle the whole thing?

After this reading I started to incorporate whole song instruction into my pedagogy. At first students were confused, but it was interesting to see their faces as their brains tried to make sense of the patterns. They were no longer passive participants because now there was a puzzle for their brains to solve. I think this article is valuable for music educators because it asks us to think about how we teach music beyond reaching curriculum expectations. It asks us to incorporate brain development into our practice, which could benefit the student in a non-musical way.


Renée Barabash said...

When I first read this article, I thought it would be wise to try the method described by Kenney prior to commenting.

After several weeks of teaching my beginning piano students songs by rote, without breaking the song phrase by phrase, I have noticed a significant learning curve take place in almost all of the students. As you described, the first response from the students can be discouraging; they look confused and as a teacher, you want to jump in and break the problem down for them. However, I persisted and made sure to encourage and praise my students' efforts. Now that we have graduated from simple folk melodies to melodies that are more complicated or from different cultures, the amount of time spent learning a song by rote has greatly decreased. I am interested in knowing which brain structures are engaged when learning songs in full rather than phrase by phrase.

Also, would a similar approach work with adult students? I find adult students will give up much sooner, regardless of the amount of encouragement from the teacher. How can similar learning be experienced by the adult brain?

Elizabeth said...

Often times, we get into the mode of breaking things down for children to help them gain meaning, but it's easy to forget about providing the opportunity for them to see the big picture. In fact, it is important for anyone to have the sense of this big picture. The whole-part-whole process is key. And through the process, as Katie said, letting the students "explore different pathways," though confusion may set in at times, students' brains are stimulated as they need to actively seek meaning.
Too often the emphasis on product, however, takes over the importance of process.

Just as the article emphasizes the importance of allowing the time for each child to process the information, so that meaningful connections can potentially be made, I am also reminded of the importance of wait-time in the classroom. There is a growing emphasis on providing an environment where the students feel that they can respond to teachers' questions without feeling rushed or anxious that someone else will simply respond for them. It would be interesting to see comparison in student brain activity between the two situations: wait-time and whole part process of teaching.

Federico said...

I agree with Katie that it is extremely important for teachers to recognize the value of the learning process through which children achieve certain results. Exploring different approaches to music-making makes children not only more aware of their potential and more confident in their abilities, but also improves their brain’s ability to generate a variety of neuronal pathways otherwise unknown.
I find particularly interesting the point made in the article that learning through entire melodies more than through sections of the same generates a game/puzzle effect in the child’s mind. It seems to me that children who learn through this methodology will be able to approach long-range musical thinking more easily, and, therefore, will better understand and manage harmonic syntax and phrase structure.
Moreover, challenging the brain through active participation in a classroom environment, together with the opportunity for the children to correct their own mistakes and find the “right” solution, helps to improve not only their basic musical abilities, but also their abilities to communicate the challenges that they have to face, and their own solutions to the problems; this will make them aware not only of their musical gifts but also of their communicative potential.

andrea said...

It is such a natural feeling, as a teacher, to want to jump in and rescue our students. We are always hoping that it is not too hard, and wanting success as quickly as we can--and sometimes this is at the cost of an effective teaching process. Today, we are becoming overwhelmed with instantaneous gratification as we are surrounded with technologies that allow us to connect, communicate and process (electronically) at the speed of a click. I find it difficult enough to work through a process sometimes, let alone a classroom of middle-school adolescents who have even less patience and are not always fond of having to experience moments of struggle. Yes, it is extremely important to teach individuals, both children and adults alike, to make their own connections and figure out the neural pathways on their own, but they need appropriate scaffolding to ensure they can reach success. If you are aware of an appropriate level of challenge for your students, you will be allowing them to struggle within a reasonable level and reach their goal without collapsing or giving up from frustration. And, in the process, we must ensure that we are not expecting students to make musical connections while learning new materials that are beyond their level or that they do not have adequate skills to process. It's a fine line, but when students are matched with the appropriate degree of challenge and they do make those associative brain links, it is marvellous and the energy is such that students will want to learn more.