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Neurology Applied: How Science is Bringing Music Instruction Back to Expressive Development

This article contains a lot of scientific information that applies to music learning in meaningful ways. There is much to learn about learning, and the connections to music are profound. Bear with me as I give you a basic overview of recent research by neurologists and show you how it connects to the practice of learning a musical instrument. At the end of this article, I will share practical applications of this knowledge to make music learning a more efficient, fulfilling, and enjoyable experience.

The Super-Computer

Imagine an advanced super-computer composed of millions of smaller specialized computers all networked together. This super-computer is connected to every function associated with a city - electrical power, waste management, construction, communication, storage, transportation, defense, resource acquisition, and even scientific research of new concepts to benefit the entire city.

This super-computer is not only networked, but the network itself is able to rewire itself to create new pathways of communication. Each individual computer is working as a team to manage energy and information for the whole. There are literally billions of different routing possibilities in this super-computer, the vast majority of which have not even been attempted yet.

Now, in your imagination, change the city to your body, change the computers to neurons, and change the super-computer to your brain.

You have between your ears the most advanced processor ever seen. With the advent of MRI, CaT scans, and now PET scans, neurologists have made amazing discoveries in just how amazing the human brain really is. Their research gives us clearer and clearer pictures of how the human brain assimilates new knowledge, practices that knowledge, and is amazingly flexible and pliable in its application.

Neuroplasticity Defined

Quoting the Wikipedia article, Neuroplasticity (variously referred to as brain plasticity or cortical plasticity or cortical re-mapping) refers to the changes that occur in the organization of the brain as a result of experience. Most of us think of the brain as developing through childhood and then reaching a state of maturity, then slowly declining as a person ages. While there is a natural progression to the brain as there is for rest of the body, the brain is actually continually building new connections between neurons all the time in accordance with new experiences.

The parts of neuronA neuron, or nerve cell are found throughout our bodies and by the billions in the brain. Their primary role is to transfer electro-chemical impulses incoming from the dendrites along the axon and onto the next neuron. One neuron can form neural connections to multiple neighboring cells via spines on the dendrites, forming neural networks, or neuronets.

Different areas of the brain have specified functions for every function of the human body, but these areas can be rewired if a section of the brain becomes unusable. For example, a person who becomes blind after an automobile accident can over time develop enough experience using their other senses to compensate that the brain "rewires" or remaps around the damaged area. When remapped, functions of perception that were usually handled by sight are now a function of hearing, smell, taste, and touch.

Associative Memory and Experiential Learning

When a person learns a new concept that they did not know before, that concept causes new neural growth in the brain. Humans learn new concepts by associating the new information with information they have already experienced. This associative memory uses already existing neuronets to build new paths of neuron activity. We build on our previous experiences, like constructing a new floor of a building.

Any of us who have been through a public school system are familiar with the traditional view of learning. Basically, if you are able to study and memorize rote facts in order to pass tests, you can work your way through most subjects in school without too much effort on your part. This rote learning process is necessary for fundamental knowledge such as learning the alphabet, how to read a treble clef music staff, or memorizing multiplication tables. This kind of learning is at the lowest level of Bloom's Taxonomy of Cognitive Learning and does not have direct application to any larger inter-related concepts.

In addition, gathering knowledge without direct application of that knowledge is really only learning someone else's philosophy about that knowledge. How do we really know that two plus two equals four? We only know it is a truth when we directly experience counting and clustering with four objects. Any teacher will tell you that they can not teach their students anything that they themselves have not mastered or at least have a thorough understanding of the process needed to attain a teachable skill.

One of the reasons that music students tend to be some of the top-achieving students in any school district is because the nature of learning to perform music is in itself a form of experiential learning. When a person directly experiences the knowledge they are gaining in action through more than one pathway of perception, the information is mapped into multiple neuronet pathways. Playing an instrument involves sight, touch, and hearing in dynamic ways that condition the mind to a higher awareness and a deeper understanding of music. This conditioning can then be applied to other forms of learning as well, which is why students trained in music tend to be good students - they apply their experiential learning skills to other academic disciplines.

Memory and Emotion

On top of that, our associative memory incorporates human emotion into the mix. The stronger the emotion attached to a memory is, the more details we remember about that memory over a longer period of time. For example, nearly every American citizen would be able to remember exactly where they were and what they were doing when they heard that the World Trade Center towers had been destroyed on September 11, 2001.

Human memory and human emotions are both chemical in nature. Emotions are transmitted from the brain to the body chemically through the central nervous system via molecules called neuropeptides. These "molecules of emotion," according to leading researcher Candace Pert, are secreted by several glands in the brain that respond to our thought processes and perceptions of the world around us. For example, a single instance of a perceived threat coming in through the senses is enough to trigger the brain to create peptides such as adrenaline that prepare the body's systems for a "fight or flight" response.

The emotions come into play with the general memory of experienced events, stored in a portion of the brain called the hippocampus. Most people can relate to the experience of being able to stay focused on something they find stimulating or interesting for much longer than things they find to be boring. The length of time they can remember the stimulating information is also greater.

So How Does This Tie In to Practicing a Musical Instrument?

Because of the nature of musical performance, particularly the complex behavior of operating a musical instrument, students of music have an opportunity to tie in experiential learning with expressive emotion and neural mapping to make music learning a more efficient, fulfilling, and enjoyable experience.

The general societal perception of practicing a musical instrument (or practicing anything, for that matter) is that practice involves mind-numbing repetition of the same things over and over to the point of boredom or dementia. There is no doubt that repetition is a necessary component of learning. In terms of neuroplasticity, repetition of an action causes the same neuronet to fire over and over again, which strengthens the dendrite connections between neurons in that pathway. This is known in neurology as Hebbian Learning, which basically states that "the neurons that fire together wire together." Repetition is necessary to strengthen neural connections that make executing a difficult passage of music automatic and effortless.

Once the basic musical concepts are learned, it is true that repetition is necessary to map the needed motor skills to perform those concepts. This is usually accomplished through rote repetition of phrases or by breaking phrases down into smaller units that the brain can successfully manage. Students are traditionally taken through the process of repetition by their teachers, but teachers in general do not give them an understanding of why repetition is the key to mastering the motor skills desired.

Breaking Down Old Paradigms

There is a large dropoff in student enrollment in school music groups from their beginner years through twelfth grade. There are many reasons for this beyond the scope of this article, but certainly the most common reason students give is that practicing an instrument "just wasn't fun anymore." Students that do continue their music studies all the way into adulthood have a few things in common: they either have a passion for music that makes the drudgery of practicing a bearable means to an end they desire, or they possess enough natural musical aptitude that the need for individual practice to be an effective participant in their school ensembles is minimal.

I personally was one of the latter. I had high music aptitude, and because  of that I was socially accepted in the high school band room. I sat first chair and rarely practiced on my own. It wasn't until I attended my first honors band festival as a participant, however, that a passion for musical performance and expression began to grow. The experience of performing music at such a high level of proficiency and expressiveness was so deep and vibrant, it made returning to my normal high school band the following Monday a let down.

There is no question that in order to be an aesthetically expressive musician, there are fundamentals of music that must be mastered first. Despite this, the sooner a student is given an opportunity to perform and become expressive through music, the more deeply the student will adopt a passion for musical expression - something that has enraptured humankind since beyond recorded history.

Modern student method books do an excellent job of combining music theory, mechanics, expressive concepts, and even history into a curricular approach. In modern "Wal-Mart" culture, everyone is looking for the one-stop source for everything. Modern method books provide a little of everything that a well-designed music curriculum teaches students. Simply going page for page through a method book, however, gives the student very few opportunities to become an expressive performer.

To make the emotional connection that deepens the experience and gets the information more thoroughly into the hippocampus, a student must have opportunities to hear harmony, listen to the sounds they make interact with other sounds, and simply to just love the music that is coming out of their instrument! Neuroscience is providing the answers - we learn better, retain more, and grow faster when we are emotionally passionate about the learning process. The repetition of practice sessions becomes the means to an end when the end is expressive performance.

Beginning Expressive Performance

As soon as a beginner student is able to perform a melody line or scale accurately with consistent independent tempo, they should begin by learning to play rounds. The most difficult part of playing rounds for beginners is maintaining pulse integrity as they perform and simultaneously listen to the other round participants. Not only does this develop musical independence (another skill difficult to develop in a school ensemble setting), it begins the experience of "Oh wow, did you hear that? That sounded really cool!" This is the beginning of teaching children an appreciation of the difficult to describe joys of live performance.

Also at this point, students should begin a study of playing duets. There are few things in music more infectious than being bit by the "close harmony bug." This again teaches musical independence and provides another opportunity for a "That sounded really cool!" reaction. A steady diet of small rounds, duets, trios, and so forth should be included along with their full ensemble repertoire and method book studies. A dedicated instructor could either find or write rounds and duets that even teach the concepts desired from their method book.

For more advanced students, studying from the Voxman Duet books or other instrument-specific etude books that contain duets is an easy addition to any private lesson regimen. Playing duets with your students is a lot of fun, especially with the more advanced students. It is also an excellent way to practice sight reading.

The Magic of Chamber Music

By middle school, students are ready to begin performing chamber music. They are also experienced enough that they can select their own pieces to work on with their friends. In my first teaching job in Muncy, Pennsylvania, I began a chamber music program the first year I was there. For the first year, I selected repertoire for the students - in successive years, I opened the library up to them and allowed them to choose their own selections. We had a chamber music concert each April, which was a great variety night of duets, trios, brass quintet, percussion ensemble, and myself performing a clarinet concerto with professional accompaniment on piano. The repertoire ranged from Disney tunes to Canadian Brass to duets out of the Voxman Duet books.

The students really loved "making their own music." It gave them a sense of ownership that they didn't have in a large ensemble setting. The over-achievers would put together great performances, and the students that needed more support could work with the piano player or a stronger partner. Everyone was required to perform in one piece, and most performed in two or three.

If chamber music is not an option, students can select specific performance books of music that they enjoy. Walk into any music store and you will see an entire wall of pop music written for every major instrument. One of my youngest trumpet students has a book of Star Wars tunes that he is not experienced enough to play yet. Just the fact that he loves the music is motivating him to learn as fast as he can so he can start playing those songs.

A Holistic (Whole-istic) Approach

What modern neurology has shown, at least to this music educator, is that music students need a more balanced approach to learning an instrument. Too much emphasis has been placed on technical skill acquirement and the expressive, artistic element is relegated to a secondary role. Part of the reason for this is the push in our culture to achieve high levels of complexity in the arts. Professional musicians that we all pay money to see have to be technically flawless to keep their jobs, and we as a culture expect flawless execution - even if the majority of the population does not understand enough about music to really know the difference.

When technical skill is developed and the aesthetic growth of the student neglected, we end up with a technician, not a musician. Not only does artistic development make the student more well-rounded, it accentuates every aspect of the learning. Neural mapping occurs more rapidly and knowledge and skills are remembered with greater detail when the student is learning how to play with emotion.

Passion for performing music does not have to be reserved for those with a high musical aptitude. In fact, if passion for the art is nurtured, more people will be able to expand their skills and understanding from whatever baseline musical intelligence they possess.

This article (c) 2008 Thomas J. West. If you wish to reprint this article on another website or offline, please contact the copyright holder before using.

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