A New Perspective on Movement and Music

by lsisterhen

Walk into any elementary school classroom and you are likely to see children sitting at their desks, listening to their teacher, or dutifully completing assignments while bent over books and paper. Likewise, enter most music lessons, and you are likely to see the child at the bench, eyes glued to the music, trying their best to coordinate finger movement with the notation on the printed page. In both instances, children are expected to sit still, collecting information through the visual senses in a two-dimensional context. In this type of setting, inattentiveness can easily set in. Students concentrate mainly on getting the right notes with little attention to musicality, and they often lose awareness of what they hear and what they feel in an effort to “read” correctly. Going back to the image of the classroom, can you visualize the students tapping their pencils on their desk, or wiggling their feet back and forth on the floor? Can you see your own music students bending their neck to get closer to the score, tightening up their shoulders, or pushing their tongue to the corner of their mouth to try to “concentrate” better? These movements are natural ways that children try to maintain attention.

A growing body of research suggests that our traditional ways of learning and teaching are far from ideal, and that our students are fully engaged only when all of their senses and emotions are part of the process of learning, with physical movement occurring naturally as part of that full sensory experience. Experience and sensory input from the environment have a great impact on attention, memory, and cognition, and integrated movement is necessary in order for any learning to occur. In fact, research suggests that 95% of learning occurs not through formal training, but through direct, sensory-motor experiences with the environment. Only if there is full attention to a task can neural connections be altered and grown, and movement provides a way to maintain attention while at the same time deepening our understanding of the material. For example, “conducting” music in the air while listening is one way that the aural experience can be even more deeply embedded in the mind.

Integrated movement gets us away from talking and into moving, with music forming a natural complement to movements that activate the entire vestibular system. While movement may seem like merely a supplement to learning, it is actually crucial to higher-level thinking and creativity. Our goal in lessons should be for musical experiences, rather than explanations. Frances Clark famously said that “Teaching is not telling. Tellers belong at banks, behind bars.” Young teachers sometimes feel that they are “cheating” if they rely on clapbacks or singbacks to help students experience success; on the contrary, the symbols on the page are merely a representation of concepts that are bodies and minds innately understand. Any new rhythmic pattern should be experienced physically first before a student should tackle it in a repertoire piece.

In music lessons, we have a ready-made manipulative at our disposal for illustrating musical concepts: the keyboard. In fact, singing and playing an instrument provide the kind of physical output that allows for true learning. Yet, we must use the larger muscles and coordinate pulse and sound with movement in order to access the full-body experience. Some teachers might defend that the purpose of piano lessons is to learn to read music and play the piano; but I would argue that our students must be educated not just as pianists but as musicians who can explore music with their bodies, thus internalizing concepts that must be “felt” to be truly understood. To move to music, to “dance” to it, is to understand its natural flow and pulse, which comes alive only when it has been experienced by the whole body. Music combined with movement provides a wonderful foundation for playing by ear, improvising, and composing; this fact is illustrated by the success of Dalcroze lessons.

Teachers often complain about their hyperactive students who cannot “sit still,” but in fact, these students learn best when they are moving, wiggling, and turning their heads. This is their way of staying alert to new material. For students with learning difficulties, reading music can present its own set of challenges and stresses. These students, who often had inadequate vestibular development in early childhood, may find it difficult to track across a page with their eyes. Others learn best through their other senses, even closing their eyes to listen better, which is often confused for inattentiveness by their teachers. For all students, physical movements internalize and solidify new concepts in our nerve networks. Our brains require less energy and function more efficiently through the regular practice of coordinated, balanced movements, which stimulate the production of neurotrophins like dopamine. Dopamine fires up the growth of existing nerve cells and increases neural connections, while at the same time providing motivation.

To summarize, there are three main reasons that integrated movement can be beneficial in a music lesson:
1. To help students focus, increase attention, and improve cognition
2. For greater musical perception and internalization of rhythm
3. For motivation, variety, and memory, through increased dopamine levels

In my next couple of posts, I will talk about yoga postures and Body Gym exercises that can be used in the music lesson to increase focus, attention, and cognition. This semester I am planning to use some of these strategies with a group of young beginning piano students in the Baylor Piano Laboratory Program, and I look forward to sharing the results of these experiences on this blog.