Music = Brain Fertilizer?

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a music junkie.  My students would tell you that there’s always music playing in our class.  I like when music plays, but I love when I can find ways to integrate music into curriculum… It might even be a sickness.  I often feel like a crow being attracted to something shiny or a bug being drawn to a bright light when I see creative ways to bring music into classroom learning.

Music is cognitively powerful stuff.  It’s emotive and experiential.  Music connects with different parts of the human brain.  When it’s used in cross-curricular lessons, synapses fire in more areas of the brain.  Students learn even more.

I recently finished reading How Children Succeed by Paul Tough.  The book contains very little mention of music and its power in the classroom.  It does however reference something else that demands practice and high level of engagement.  It talks a lot about chess.

My favourite part of the book was about a chess teacher named Elizabeth Spiegel and her students.  Speigel’s teaching method differs from most chess teachers.  While her students play, she makes them keep a journal (students record their moves as well as their opponents’).  After each game, she works through all of the moves with her students.  Together they discuss where the game was won/lost and how to move on from there:

“Again and again, she would go over her students’ games, both individually and as a class, analyzing exactly where a player had gone wrong, what he could have done differently, what might have happened if he had made the better move, and playing out these counterfactual scenarios for several moves before returning to the moment of error.

Sensible though this process might sound, it’s actually a pretty unusual way to teach chess, or to learn it. “It’s uncomfortable to focus so intensely on what you’re bad at” Spiegel told me. “So the way people usually study chess is they read a book about chess, which can be fun or intellectually amusing, but it doesn’t translate into skill.  If you want to get better at chess, you have to look at your games and figure out what you’re doing wrong.”“ 

When I read that, I instantly remembered every single music lesson that I had ever taken.  My teachers and/or conductors (and some times my parents too) would stop a song and point out ways to improve my playing.  Some lessons focused on the song as a whole; other lessons were dedicated to the bits and pieces that made up the song.

My music teachers were just like Elizabeth Spiegel.

This article by Mind/Shift suggests that learning to play music develops neurological networks.  As networks strengthen, they can be used more quickly and efficiently: ”brain plasticity results from experiences which engage the brain through emotion, are repetitive, and which require full attention. Experiences such as playing music.“

I wonder if there’s more to it than just the music?  Is it possibly the way that we approach practice (mixture of small corrections that affect the big picture)?  Is there something to the instant feedback that we receive by playing something incorrectly?  Does the grit that musicians hone have an effect on those neurological networks?

Lots of questions… lots more learning to do on this topic.


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