Friday, October 13, 2017

Making the Most of Music Lesson Minutes: Lessons I learned from a stick figure spotlight

Several years ago I marveled as I watched my son's exceptional kindergarten teacher spotlight a child in the class while simultaneously power packing the moment with teaching concepts. The wheels started churning in my own mind as I tried to think of how I could apply this same strategy to piano instruction.

Instead of just spouting off random facts about the child such as "Today we are spotlighting Sammy.  He likes___, _____, _____ and _______ and is the 3rd of 4 children...etc," she sandwiched into a simple spotlight some auditory, kinesthetic, visual activities which had all of the children's attention completely focussed on her and engaged in the learning activity.
As she drew a circle (head) on the whiteboard, each child traced an orange circle in the air with their finger and sang round orange circle. As she added each shape they traced, identified sides, sang and at the same time were trying to figure out the mystery child by looking for clues around them. The lessons continued as they used similar activities to sound out and spell his name in the air.
Following are some of the key ingredients that I think really made this moment effective.

Multi-Tasking to the Max- The minutes at weekly music lessons are limited. By packing in multiple concepts in a way that doesn't overwhelm students they will walk away learning and be retaining even more. Efficient use of time involves multi sensory activities ideally done simultaneously.
Use Appropriate Teaching Order (Hear, Feel, See, Name)-
As we experience learning through multiple senses, the labels take on more meaning.  For example having a student listen to and move rhythmically to an Adagio piece and then identifying it in the music and introducing the label "Adagio" is more likely to stick than just handing them flash cards with tempo terms to memorize or just pointing to the word Adagio in their music and defining it.

Engage the Students- Lectures and long winded explanations are not as effective as activities that involve the student and really engage their mind and body.

Include an Element of Surprise - Our inquisitive brains are wired to seek out the novel and new and because surprises engage our curiosity we are more likely to remember the unexpected moments in teaching rather than the mundane routines.  A bit of unpredictability can make a teaching moment more salient and therefore more memorable.

Repeat Routines with Adaptations - Structure can be positive, but just as our brain may go into autopilot boredom mode after ten repetitions of the same measure, a piano lesson approached in the exact same way every single week may not stick with the student as one where you change things up a bit.

Utilize Music or Rhythmic Patterns as a natural Mnemonic Device- Imagine trying to teach preschoolers their alphabet by just having them say 26 letters in a row over and over without rhythm or song. The ABC song is so much more effective! Likewise, teaching the lines of the bass staff through Susan Paradis's GBDFA song will probably result in faster recall of the music lines then just trying to remember that Good Boys Deserve Fudge Always.

Inspire - Part way through the year my son's teacher was diagnosed with cancer.  She had to cut back her schedule during chemo treatments, but even amidst this trial, she took the opportunity to make even this a teaching moment.  For "Head huggers with heart" she encouraged the children to make a hat to represent a favorite book character to donate to cancer patients and invited a guest speaker to come and teach the children a little more about cancer. They got to try on different wigs after learning about the hair loss that comes with chemotherapy.

Although our circumstances are different, as teachers we can weave opportunities into our teaching  that emphasize positive character traits and inspire students develop them.  Hopefully these core values will carry over into other aspects of their life outside of the music sphere.

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I will soon be adding a series of posts with specific activities that illustrate how I apply these concepts in my music teaching.

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