There’s more to it than notes and tunes

April 11th, 2015 by Elizabeth Morgan

Is there any value in learning a stringed instrument? As teachers we try to inspire, and make lessons enjoyable. So much time, effort and money is spent in learning to play. Surely there is more to it than simply learning notes and tunes? How may we help our students get the most out of learning and doing the best they can?

The scope of this topic is extensive. However a few factors that are of musical and non musical benefit to the student bear special mention.

It takes time to get to know our students. I have found that apart from nurturing and fostering the relationship a deeper understanding of how they learn can make all the difference to their progress.

We now know that the brain is organised in two very different hemispheres, the logic left and the gestalt right. Every person has a dominant hemisphere. Both contain all the functions until specialisation begins. For gestalt this is ages 4-7, for logic ages 7-9. The gestalt years help us realize the appropriateness of the Colourstrings and Suzuki methods. Music is one activity which requires use of both sides of the brain. Every person is unique in the ways in which these two parts function. The more we access both sides the more intelligently we function.

A teacher who is aware of an individual’s left or right dominance can style an appropriate curriculum for the student. This alone can go some way towards deciding whether one should teach music or technique. Ivan Galamian said, “Technique should be a focus as music can be taught at any stage of life.”

The significance of an integrated laterality in learning a string instrument and understanding its relevance in teaching has far reaching implications. Different brain systems are required for the countless processes involved. String playing requires an intricate problem-solving workout that increases overall coordination between the body and the brain. An understanding of hemispheric integration translates into the basis of real learning: if different priorities are realised for each student instead of for example, mindless repetition of a difficult bar or passage, motivation increases and progress is tangible.

My stepdaughter recently said how sorry she is for children who do not learn a stringed instrument. She had also noticed her children experiencing activities in which they do not have to prove they are ‘cool’ or trendy: many string students are neither. The social benefits of music alone make a compelling case for the value of learning an instrument. An orchestra gives students gives a sense of purpose and satisfaction and keeps them off the streets as it were.

Another benefit may be less immediately obvious. When students first come to me they are often around grade 7 or 8 AMEB level. Their school results may not be particularly strong and they find concentration and focus difficult. When I ask what they have learnt at the end of the first lesson some look blank, speechless and uncomfortable! By guiding the students to develop increasing autonomy by means of less imposed instruction and more self-discovery, the students increase their motivation and confidence and most significantly, their school scores usually improve. For some students this happens to a remarkable degree. I have seen students who were unable to tell me what they learnt in their first lesson go from low to middle school results to the top of the class in two or three years. When they are encouraged to self assess – to listen, feel and think for themselves, a number of positive changes can take place. Whilst this type of teaching is not possible in large schools I am told that research has shown that the average SAT scores increase with every year of musical study.

Students are usually regimented at school and home where they are not always challenged individually and instead, thoughtlessly follow daily routines. When a teacher assesses and adapts to the student’s learning preferences and unique talents and abilities they will remain involved. Mothers are not always helpful in promoting this autonomy. When they come to the lesson carrying the violin, open it up, get the bow out and start putting the rosin on it is time to object! This is not helping their child if it is 8 years or older. Let them do it, also wash up, cook and learn to sew on a button! If I show the student exactly how to play a phrase and insist this is the way to do it how will they ever risk making their own decisions? How will they ever be able risk becoming innovative and creative in music let alone in life?

This is why we should consider our teaching for both the long and short term. Ask what effect my teaching will have in ten years time or even next month. Developing autonomy can take time – for some students it requires unaccustomed risk taking, but it is a gift to most students in the longer term.

Many learning difficulties are the result of lack of sufficient movement. Movement and stimulation of balance can greatly assist in the treatment of such difficulties. This is why Dalcroze eurythmics are a gift to string players young and old, not only in helping a student connect directly to the music experience but also in developing the mind body relationship. Biologist and educator Dr Carla Hannaford tells us that intelligence is formed by the movements of our muscles: physical movement plays a vital role in the creation of nerve cell networks and is the fundamental basis of learning. When children move, damaged tissues in the vestibular system can be overridden as nerve nets develop. There is a link between physical activity and academic success.

The brain gives a high percentage of its physiological organization of the body to the arms and hands. With string playing, both arms and hands perform particularly different tasks so the brain is challenged beyond normal activities particularly as movements become increasingly more subtle and refined as the student progresses. The human hand is a precise instrument. It can be forceful or finely sensitive. No wonder school scores improve.

Intricate and complex cross-lateral movements are essential for playing the 17violin as both arms must move across the midline in a co-ordinated manner requiring a high degree of timing and motor skills. These integrated, rhythmic movements, done in an organised and coherent way involve the entire vestibular/sensory system. When they are being used this sensory system grows and strengthens, making string playing a particularly valuable aid to the coordination of both mind and body especially for younger children.

Playing the violin uses the visual and auditory senses as well as kinaesthesia. Once a weaker sense has been strengthened the playing moves into a new level. Curiously, the number of students who need to develop the skill of actually listening to their own playing is astonishing if not alarming. It is important for string players to develop a balanced use particularly of the aural and touch/kinaesthetic abilities into advanced playing.

This deep and focussed listening can increase the neuronal connections in the brain and is synonymous with improved verbal, language and reading skills. It is also a way of counteracting the effects of the over stimulation to which students are so vulnerable today.

There is also much evidence to show that maths and science are reinforced by the acquisition of music skills. Remember that wonderful photo of Einstein playing his violin? Active music making correlates with increased spatial-temporal reasoning and increased wellness.

What about the pure joy of music making? Seeing those shining eyes after a rehearsal or performance is tangible evidence of value. Educator Tim Lautzenheiser sums it up when he says “The process of making music is the reward….music is music for its own sake. It offers a microcosm of life, for the essence of life is in the living: the journey not the destination; the process, not the product; and ultimately the purpose not the outcome.”

I have touched on some of the countless benefits to the individual from learning a string instrument. We see that it is one way to get children’s brains working in a healthy manner. String teaching embraces much of the human experience. Art and music are after all a core part of human nature. Learning the violin involves all seven intelligences, all three types of learning and both hemispheres of the brain. It also gives an outlet for emotion. In our world so full of challenges, we as string educators can make a difference. The arts may be at the bottom of the pile but in helping our students to develop more of their potential we are surely contributing to a better world.

Founding President of AUSTA, string educator Elizabeth Morgan has pioneered countless string programmes throughout Queensland and Australia.