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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Waking up the Whole Brain

Recently I had an unusual experience and made an interesting discovery with one of my students. I would like to share the process with you.

If you recall my post about the 5 practice questions (click here to read it), I have worked hard with one particular student to help him become more engaged in his learning and practice sessions as well as improve the quality of his preparation for his lessons. I say that I have worked hard, because after spending a very long time with this student, I have not been able to measure progress. It is as if there is some sort of disconnect in this student's ability to evaluate his own performance and execution. He does not seem to hear himself when he plays and seems unable to determine how to fix things.

For a long time, I thought it was just a matter of not having the necessary information to practice correctly. And so, I gave him that information. We discussed practice tips and strategies. We practiced these types of skills at his lessons. He would finish each lesson with some forward motion and progress, and then at his next lesson, we would begin anew the same cycle of problems.

I thought too that it might be a matter of not practicing enough, and so I addressed this issue with how my student planned his practice sessions and how much time he spent in those sessions to accomplish the assigned tasks. I did see a small amount of improvement. Many of his classmates came alongside him to offer help, collegial support, and ideas. Again, some progress, but not the progress I was looking for.

So, despite all my usual tricks, nothing really seemed to be making the connection with this particular student. Until last week when something magical happened. Before I tell you what it is, however, I need to pause a moment and tell you another brief story.

My husband has been ill for a long time now. It all stemmed from the accident that I had in May 2014, when I crushed my right shoulder. Although I was determined to heal completely and did so quickly, my sweet husband suffered in a different way, as men often do. They call it PTSD or Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Although I was the person who had the traumatic event, my husband went into a protective mode in his mind, which then grew to affect other areas of his life.

We have been grappling with all of the problems that come with PTSD, but my husband works with a terrific gentleman who has pioneered several techniques to address the PTSD problems. One of those techniques caught my attention. The subject (my husband) would hold a vibrating disc object in each hand, which the therapist controlled with gentle, alternating vibration to each hand, while my husband would discuss upsetting memories. The purpose of the alternating vibration in each hand was to "wake up" each brain hemisphere and keep the whole brain working during the entire memory process.

Fascinating, yes? I listened to my husband's story about this technique, and I recalled that the brain hemispheres were activated by the opposite hand; e.g., the left brain hemisphere with the right hand, and vice versa. Please understand that this a general discussion, and not a technical one. I do not profess to be an expert in these matters, but as a teacher I have been aware of these ideas and have experimented with different teaching techniques over the years. Now back to my student.

When I encounter a student who has difficulty engaging or connecting with his or her learning, I have often suggested that they speak aloud or pick up a pencil and write something in the music. These suggestions are designed to "wake up" the evaluating left brain hemisphere, because speech, logic, and reasoning are the province of the left brain. So during this student's lesson, I began again to offer my usual suggestions to help him wake up and start evaluating his own playing.

"What do you think you should do here? What do you think the problem is?" I asked. Notice that I used open-ended questions designed to engage him in conversation and thinking. Using "what" or "how" questions work wonders in doing this.

After fumbling an answer and not being able to pinpoint what or where the problem was, I helped him here. Then I tried another technique and suggested that my student write down a particular notation in his music, hoping that the act of writing would wake up his left brain more.

And my student obligingly picked up a pencil and wrote in his music with his left hand! That is when it hit me that he was left-handed and that he was really a right-brained student. Everything about him was about impulse, spontaneity, naivety, feeling, emotion, intuition, fun; he had little concept of time constraints and really lived in the moment. Oh boy, I thought, he is a classic right brain thinker. What I did not think about before that moment was that he was almost completely reliant on his right brain.

After witnessing the pencil use with his left hand, which I knew would continue to activate the right brain, I decided to try something related to the story my husband had told of his therapist's technique. My iPhone has a fun app called AppZilla, which has a bunch of little apps within it. One of the apps is a massager. I turned on the massager vibration and put it in my student's right hand. At first, he actually felt his heart rate increase due to fear. He held it for about 30 seconds. Then I asked him to play the part of his music that he had been struggling with. He sailed through it. I began to think that we were onto something here.

A few days later, he performed for the studio seminar class. His was a simple assignment: play the scale routine as assigned to all of my students, which has been an assignment that my student has struggled with since his first lesson with me. My class watched him struggle once again to be able to play the scale, and I watched until the point when I knew that my student had reached "the bottom" and was unable to continue. I walked over to him and handed him my iPhone set to the massager vibration. The class was unaware of what we were doing or why I was handing him my phone. They could not hear anything, and my student and I did not say anything.

After about 20 seconds, I took the phone and walked away. My student then played the scale just fine. The class was shocked. "What magic was that?" Someone asked. "What did you do?" they wanted to know. My student and I then explained what we were experimenting with.

Followup, my student's next lesson was very different. He sailed through his etude at a very fast tempo, without the constant stumbling and corrections (if any) that I was accustomed to hearing. I asked him about his practice sessions outside of the lesson, and he said that he was using the vibration technique to help him.

Isn't that an amazing story? Especially if we have come across another successful teaching tool?

On a final note, when my husband was working with the therapist on this technique, the therapist stated that he did not think it would take my husband long to get to this whole brain state since he was a musician, and musicians generally use all of their brain. However, this student was not using all of his brain and apparently was not accustomed to using his left brain much at all, judging from his reports of the types of difficulties he has with some school subjects. We are also using my Peterson Body Beat pulsating metronome to gain the same vibration effect as the AppZilla massager.

I am pretty excited about this new idea and look forward to other ways that I might be able to use it. I have met several dyslexic students in the past few years, and I am always looking out for additional ways to help students learn.

Does anyone else have any similar experience like this? I hope that this idea may help someone else in their teaching or practicing journey.

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