How Movement Facilitates Musical Learning

by lsisterhen

“He just does not know how to stay still!” This is probably the biggest complaint that I hear among beginning music teachers as well as those who teach the very young. When working with pedagogy students who complain about their “hyperactive” or “inattentive” students, my most common recommendation is to get these students off the bench. While young teachers will often agree to give their students these short “breaks” to decrease frustration, it is sometimes difficult to convince them of the inherent pedagogical value of these experiences. The truth is, movement activities such as dancing, singing, or even simply stretching are the most effective ways to help students focus and learn deeply. Our most common off-the-bench activities are usually rhythmic, such as marching or walking to the beat, or tapping or clapping rhythms. I would like to propose even more types of activities that can be used in private or group lessons to help students reach their learning potential. Because movement is so integral to learning, especially in music lessons, I am going to dedicate the next few blogs to the connections between movement, learning, and music.

What we want is to engage the learner fully in the experience of making music. Unfortunately, most teachers think that students are only paying attention when they are sitting still and looking at the music. We often rely far too much on language to communicate our ideas. The teacher tells, and the student obeys; this seems to be the tried-and-true approach in the traditionally dogmatic setting of the private music lesson. Fortunately, many teachers are using innovative approaches in a more facilitative format.

In order for active learning to occur, the student must be involved in the entire process, and must demonstrate some output of their understanding—some physical, personal expression of knowledge. Speaking, writing, singing, playing an instrument, and moving are ways to demonstrate learning. As music teachers, we have a ready-made process for this because music requires highly skilled use of the body. A student does not understand four quarter notes in a row until he has clapped them, counted them aloud, marched to them, and/or played them on the piano. So the first step in learning quarter notes is not showing the symbol and explaining that it gets one beat. Instead, it begins with a full-body experience in the sound-feel-symbol model promoted by Frances Clark and many others. But we should not stop there. Any time a teacher catches herself asking a student to verbalize, she should ask herself whether she could go straight to physical movement or singing.

The whole body must be involved in learning. While teachers tend to think that everything happens in the brain, you cannot actually have conscious thought without movement of some kind. Have you noticed that doodling sometimes helps you focus? Or that talking with a group of friends helps you organize your thoughts and feelings? Or that you remember things best after you have written them down? The same thing happens when you ask a student what key he is playing in and he starts fiddling around on the keyboard. All of these actions are types of movement that help us to establish meaning from what we have learned. Meaning is the final outcome of real learning.

A lot of the information from the upcoming blogs comes from what I have read in a very informative book by Carla Hannaford called Smart Moves: Why Learning is Not All in Your Head. One of the things that has been most interesting is the role of vision in learning, and the way our visual process changes according to our developmental stage. Hannaford points out that in early childhood, until about age 7 or 8, incoming images are spread out across the retina so that peripheral vision allows for the greatest amount of learning from our environment. As children learn to explore their living space, their eyes constantly move to gather sensory information. It is not until age 7 when the lens rounds out that children can more easily focus on an image, including words or notation in books. Two-dimensional sources such as worksheets, method books, and computers are not the best sources of information for children until age 7 or 8, and even after that, they should not be used all of the time. Visually, young students need a break from looking at the music every seven to ten minutes to reestablish their three-dimensional, peripheral vision.

Yet, teachers of even very young students tend to begin by teaching notation on the page. Convinced that students need to learn to read music first and foremost, there is a tendency to neglect the very activities that foster a secure sense of internal rhythm and aural ability. Away-from-the-piano activities provide a way to relieve eyestrain from what is called “foveal focus overdependence,” and this is just one reason that whole-body movement rather than theory worksheets are a better use of time during these breaks. Even stepping on a big keyboard is a great way to associate pitch with keys on the piano by using whole-body movement in a three-dimensional environment.

In the next blog post, I will share more about the vestibular system in development and how integrated movement is necessary for any type of learning to occur. In subsequent posts, I will write about the role of experience versus language in helping students to become completely engaged in the learning process, and how integrated movement in a playful context helps with motivation, decreases stress, and increases integrative processing between the two hemispheres of the brain.