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Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Teaching With Style

I've enjoyed the messages I've received about everyone's various perceptual learning styles. I think I'm mostly visual, but I have a very strong aural and kinesthetic perception as well, and I work to strengthen all the areas equally. Today I wanted to talk about how I teach to the student's basic perceptual learning style, whichever it is, and how I also teach in ways that strengthen the student's weaker styles.

Visual students seem to have the most difficulties playing by memory and learning to play by ear. Visual students can play by memory, but they are easily distracted by visual interruptions during a performance. Any movement by the audience -- someone turning program pages, someone dropping the program, someone shifting in his or her seat -- can immediately distract the visual style performer and cause a memory slip. I have often found this to be my own particular problem, which is why I sometimes close my eyes during performances by memory. I strengthen my aural memory by adding in extra listening to my repertoire before performances. I also practice visualization during the "twilight" time, which is my name for those last minutes before actually falling asleep. I mentally practice performing my piece while I am in this relaxed, almost dream-like state. I can feel myself playing the piece, and I think that this strengthens my kinesthetic sense. I also go through specific exercises with my visual students to help them develop the five various kinds of memory, which I will discuss in a later post.

Visual learners typically learn to read music rather quickly, and there are some students that almost learn how to read music without my guidance. Sometimes rhythm can be a challenge, but when I present the visual learner with rhythmic charts that show the proportion between notes, the issue may clear up. {Teaching rhythm will be another topic for another day.] Visual learners also respond well to hand signals and cues or cards. They need to look at something when listening to music or playing by memory. I recall one young student playing an entire piece while staring at the piece. I told her that she did a fine job, and all that was left was to memorize the piece. She then told me that she had played the entire thing by memory. I understood then that she may have been "looking" at the piece, but she wasn't "seeing" it. Looking at the piece just gave her a place to rest her eyes so she could concentrate on playing by memory. It's an interesting trick and one that I haven't been able to master myself.

Since visual learners have the hardest time learning to play by ear, I start working on this skill very early in the Suzuki books. My students' parents are already following a daily listening regimen, but I find that my visual students need my specific guidance in the area of learning how to play by ear. I ask the student to look away from me, or we use a blindfold. Then we play the "mystery game." I play the A or E string and ask the student to tell me what I played. I ask the student to match the pitch I just played on their own violin. Usually the kids get this right away. Then I might play F# on the E string. I'll ask the student on which string they think the note is. They usually get this one too. Then I'll play a combination of 2 notes with "Mississippi Hotdog" rhythm, such as A then E string, and ask the student to imitate what I played.

I work at this at every lesson. I help the student learn to differentiate between pitches that are "steps" (seconds), "skips" (thirds), or the same note played twice. What fascinates me is that the student's finger may be correctly in place to answer my queries, and yet the student will not play. Somehow the student's body knows what the note is, but the student's mind is refusing to let go and just experiment. Those students who do finally let go and experiment with all the possible notes, learn the quickest how to play by ear.

I experienced something similar when I went back to church a decade ago. During my youthful formative years, I used my music training to sight read from the church hymnals. Now many churches do not use hymnals, and in the case of my own church, we read the words of the songs on a screen with not a single note in sight. I tried listening to the song through one time, but I still had trouble mastering the new material. Then I tried singing along from the first moment the song was played by matching the pitches as they occurred. I found that by the second verse I could actually sing the song. I see something similar in the way that students "experiment" with finding the notes of a new song by using their ear. Those students who let their fingers do the playing seem to figure out how a new song goes much, much quicker than a student who stands frozen and balks at putting down any finger.

Aural learners easily learn music by listening. They have no trouble playing by ear and quite often progress very quickly in the Suzuki world. They have an easier time learning to read music if they can sing or say note names or rhythms. They can quickly memorize music if they listen to recordings. In fact, aural learners may have difficulty memorizing a piece if they are only looking at the written part. These students may need lyrics for certain passages. Although an aural learner can respond to verbal cues, it may be distracting. I find it better to use some other sound as a cue rather than actual words: tongue clicks, finger snaps, or soft vocal sounds ("sh, sh, sh" or "tst," "tst," "tst"). To strengthen an aural learner's visual sense, I demonstrate new material for the student without actually playing the notes. I show my fingering or my bowing without making a sound. The student can only use his or her eyes to figure out what I am doing.

Because aural learners learn very quickly to play by ear, I find it crucial to teach them how to read music at a very early stage in the game. There is a tricky window of opportunity here, and if I miss it because I have poorly timed when to teach the student to read music, then I will miss altogether the chance for the student to learn to read well. For example, I have had new students come to me from another teacher who may have delayed the reading stage until the student was well into book 3 or even book 4. Unfortunately, this is way too late for an aural learner, who probably learned how to play by ear early in book 1. Now the student needs only to hear something one time, and they have the piece fairly well on the road to being learned. They never learn to use their eyes well. I try and correct this difficulty by giving the student other music that has no recording. We play duets or easier etudes -- easier anything! -- just to get the reading practice going. So whereas I might hold off on teaching a visual student to read until the playing-by-ear skill is developed, I teach an aural student early. [When to teach music reading is another post for another day.]

Kinesthetic learners may find it easier to learn a piece by coming up with a dance or other physical routine that fits the music. Sometimes it helps to have the student stand in different places for different parts of the piece. Kinesthetic learners may also enjoy learning to conduct simple beat patterns or even direct the flow of the pitches, moving the hand up when the note pitches ascend and down when the note pitches descend. I have read that kinesthetic learners may benefit from using the Kodaly method when learning notes. Any kind of motion would be useful, even walking around the room. When working with a kinesthetic learner, I can make adjustments by physical touch alone.

Because the kinesthetic learner's muscle memory is so strong, I find it imperative that this student work very carefully in order to learn the correct fingerings and bowings from the very first notes. If the kinesthetic student learns a piece with incorrect fingers or bowings, the student may have a tough time unlearning the mistakes. In some songs, I might suggest that the kinesthetic learner actually learn the piece or passage with "separate hands" by using pizzicato for the left hand notes (plucking the notes on the strings without using the bow), and then learning the bowing by moving the bow up and down in the air without the violin before trying to put the bowing and the notes together. Pieces like Minuet 3 (#15 in Suzuki book 1), Musette (#2 in book 2), and The Two Grenadiers (#7 in bk 2) are examples of such kinesthetic repertoire swamps.

To summarize how I teach to the student's other styles in order to strengthen them, I basically find ways to cut off the student's primary perceptual learning style. If it's a visual student, I find ways to eliminate sight from the equation. If my student is aural, I eliminate sound. If my student is kinesthetic, I eliminate touch and use simple, one-word verbal cues. My goal is always to develop a completely well-rounded student who is strong in all perceptual learning styles.

I first learned about the perceptual learning styles theory through an article by Cheryl L. Cornell ("How Best do They Learn?), published in the American Suzuki Journal in the summer of 1998. at the time, Cheryl was the Director of Northwest Missouri Talent Education in Maryville, Missouri, teaching violin and viola. I have always wanted to contact Cheryl to thank her for the wonderful article she wrote about the three perceptual learning styles. I have relied on the information that Cheryl wrote for many years now. I found the information very valuable and useful as a teacher, and I hope that you do too.

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  1. Excellent post! I (a visual learner) do the exact same as you described when I'm at a church that doesn't use hymnals. Uncanny. I still get super irritated though because I would prefer to sing the alto part and can' t pick it up by listening.

    My 6yo just started " o come little children" and using the whole bow rather than the upper half. His teacher asked me to reteach him lightly row and aunt Rhody with new bowing and it has made the last two weeks torture for us both. I can see how my son being a kinesthetic learner is effecting our success (or lack thereof) at that task.

    1. Oh boy, you have to be careful with kinesthetics, because one movement of the body and you have an instant new habit! I find it helps to separate out the hands right away in these cases. Pluck the notes first, then do the bowing in the air. Then put things together carefully. Small steps, big rewards.

    2. It might be less "torture" if you do less and expect less. Start out with a small step one day and build on that. Rome was not built in a day, and a new bowing does not have to be learned in one day either. You have 6 days in between lessons, so start small and build a little more each day. By the end of 6 days, you will be there and won't have noticed the torture along the way.

    3. We *tried* to do small steps. At the end of his lesson before spring break my 6yo finished Aunt Rhody. His teacher showed us the new bowhold and how to use a full bow. He marked the bowing on O Come Little Children, told me to teach it to him over break after having him learn to replay everything in book one up to that point. The Twinkle variations and Song of the Wind were to remain in the upper half, just using the new hold. The rest of the songs, including the Twinkle theme, were to be relearned with new bow divisions. We had 13 days, five of which my son was in DC visiting relatives without me. I broke the task down into steps for each day and upped our practice time from 30-45 minutes to make up for the lost vacation days, but yikes! I wound up telling his teacher that the task was just too big and that I made an executive decision to leave out Aunt Rhody. He wasn't too happy with us. I tried to communicate how difficult it was for him to change his bowing and told him how rocky it made our practice relationship over break. What wound up happening was that my son didn't get his sticker for the lesson because of the "bad practice attitude". That was not quite what I was looking for.

      It is usual for the teacher to mark the music and send the parent home to introduce it? I wondered if that was usual or if he was doing something different with me because he knows I'm a musician.

      I am so relieved to have found your blog, because your lesson plans for each piece will help me learn how to introduce the pieces in more logical steps. I've never started a flutist younger than nine so am not used to teaching music to kids as young as 4 and 6 and am unfamiliar with the peculiarities of the violin.

    4. I sent you a lengthy email. I hope you didn't mind. I hope I answered your questions. Feel free to write any time.

    5. I think I did not answer your question of whether it is customary for a teacher to mark music for the parent to teach at home. Yes, I do mark my student's music. I have learned, though, that many parents have trouble introducing things. Not everyone reads music or has learned an instrument. I usually need to give my parents more help. Now, I use my iPhone to make little short videos or audio recordings (voice memos) or take pictures and text/email them home with the parent. This has helped my parents a lot. Also, there are many instructional videos on YouTube that have helped some students.

  2. Wow - you're so involved in your students/parents' communication! Envious

    1. Have you figured out which style you and your student is?

    2. I'm not a teacher. ;D I can identify with the church hymnal bit too! I used to love sightsinging the harmony since I'm a 2nd Alto so the Melody is usually a little out of my range. But these days with no hymnals in church, it's too difficult.

      I think my boys are more Aural learners - as far as music goes. We discovered when our youngest was just 2 or 3 weeks old, that he could recognise music his elder brother was practising when I was 5-7 months pregnant. Quite interesting. But their learning is further aided by visual aids - in this case, the score.