Dichotomy between technical and expressive music-making: exploration of related topics

As mentioned in my last blog post, a 2011 study headed by Marcia Higuchi and others has shown that technical accuracy and expressivity in piano playing may not always work hand in hand. The research involved analyzing the performances of nine pianists. After some organized practicing, the pianists were instructed to play the same piece twice. The first performance focused on cognitive aspects, such as accuracy of pitch, rhythm, and technique. The second performance centered on affective aspects, such as playing with nuance, phrasing, and agogic accents. Researchers concluded that, through analysis of audio files, emotionally infused performance may limit cognitive and motor skills in piano playing; in addition, they also found that a cognitively informed performance may negatively impact the expressivity behind music-making.

The study further explains this phenomenon by delving into the physiological reactions of the brain upon executing cognitive or affective performances. When the brain performs cognitive tasks (in this case, accuracy towards the score), several regions of the frontal cortex are occupied with monitoring working memory. However, these same regions must also regulate emotional aspects through the amygdala (a part of the brain that manages the relationship between sensory details and emotional reactions). It seems that the brain is struggling to juggle a lot of material at once, which may explain the difficulty that pianists in the study were having—for instance, playing with accurate pitches in the left hand during emotionally oriented performances. Moreover, difficulties were also extant in the pianists’ problematic formulation of a nice legato line—which implies attention to musical phrasing—when trying to get all the notes and rhythms correct as part of a cognitively informed performance.

Although this study offers an interesting point of view on the dichotomy between expressivity and accuracy in musical performance, I think, ultimately, musicians need to work towards synthesizing the two. My problem with this study is that the pianists were given enough time to learn the music to produce a performance that would be mediocre at best—the type of performance that would “get by,” so to speak. However, if the participants were given more time—say, three months on a piece of music—I believe that their cognitively and expressively informed performances would probably not differ much from each other. After all, speaking from my own experiences, given enough time with any piece of music, my duty as a performer is to find a balance between the technical and artistic facets so that both can shine through equally.

Despite this wish for technique and artistry to culminate on a plane of equality in a musical performance, I do realize that there are certain scenarios in which it is challenging to integrate both aspects. One thing that comes to mind is sight-reading. Growing up, my parents had always asked me to practice sight-reading, and it makes me cringe whenever I think back to those days. What a stupid, stubborn child I was. Every time they told me to try reading through music, I would purse my lips, stare them down my button nose, and argue that my teacher didn’t assign it. And then I’d storm off, grinding my feet into the carpet.

How I wish I had listened to my parents. Had I only spent a few minutes a day reading through music. In an article on cognition and motor skills in piano sight-reading, Brenda Wristen emphasizes the development of basic motor patterns, quick visual recognition of musical schema and notational tropes, and the ability form auditory representations just by looking at the score. All of these skills are necessary to becoming a proficient sight-reader, and, perhaps more importantly, they use various learning modalities—a topic that I went into some extent in my first and second blog posts. Now, how does this tie into my discussion of cognitive performance versus affective performance? I think that sight-reading is a cognitive-driven exercise, meaning that when I sight-read, I am trying to get through a piece with a steady tempo as accurately as I can—the goal of execution is based on following the score. If I happen to play with some musicality while sight-reading, that is certainly an added bonus—but, in most circumstances, I find that trying to sight-read expressively is like using my non-dominant hand to write in neat cursive.

Given this train of thought, I think that the study lead by Higuchi, as discussed earlier, would apply to sight-reading because this cognitive-driven task typically diminishes in accuracy once we try to factor in musicality. Harkening back to my earlier posts on motor skills in performances, I also believe that building a familiarity—in the automated, implicit sense—with motor sequences, keyboard topography, and chunking of large musical gestures will add to the success of sight-reading expressively.

With Higuchi’s study in mind, I am now thinking back to an article by Dr. Noa Kageyama on The Bulletproof Musician—“8 things top practicers do differently.” The practice techniques discussed in this article are based off of a study led by Robert Duke at the University of Texas at Austin that involved seventeen student pianists learning a short passage from Shostakovich’s Piano Concerto No. 1. The students only had one day to work on the short passage (three measures long), and had to perform it fifteen times for the experiment on the next day. The researchers compared how the students practiced with the level of performance that was achieved the day after. This led to conclusions on what were the most popular strategies used by students who had the best-rated performances (on technical and musical spectrums) after their practice session.

For the purpose of this blog, I’ve decided to focus on three practice techniques that I found most effective—at least, in my own practice sessions—and, for the sake of discussion, I will point out how these practice techniques operate on a purely cognitive level. The first strategy is practicing hands together early on in the process of learning a new piano piece. To me, this strategy works because, ultimately, the piece must be played hands together; therefore, by using the hands simultaneously early on, the students build a long-term memory foundation sooner. Building this early foundation is important since it primes the brain right from the start; so, even though the material may feel weak and unfamiliar as students struggle to practice hands together, it builds an auditory preparation in their mind of how the piece should go, of how the piece will eventually feel in their hands.

The second practice strategy I found most compelling is the necessity to address errors immediately, and to rehearse these errors until they are corrected. The act of rehearsal keeps components of short-term memory active, which helps build correct associations and their relevant connections. Rehearsal also helps to sustain long-term memory retention of these associations. The key idea in addressing errors is not so much the quantity of practice time, but the percentage of how many times the mistake was practiced in its correct form. Robert Duke’s study found that the best-ranked students had high proportions of correct practice trials before they performed.

Another idea to keep in mind is the fact that the cognitive processes of recognition and reminding are both important in practice and performance settings. “Recognition” is when you see or hear something and you know exactly what it is, and “reminding” is when you come in contact with something that triggers a memory or a thought of something else. These terms tie in with the previous discussion on addressing errors immediately because quick error detection hones the ability to recognize what is on the score and with accuracy. It also hones the relationship of motor skills (in terms of the ability to remind) because exercising consistent motor patterns or gestures would trigger a series of mental associations to effectively produce the desired sound.

The third practice strategy that I found most effective is slowing down. Yes, slowing down. It seems a little too simple, maybe too hackneyed by swarms of music teachers. And yet, it is an excellent strategy because it enables better control of precise motor actions. It allows us to realize what we are physically doing. More importantly, slowing down makes it easier to process material in terms of realizing how our kinetic feel connects with what we see physically, and how that connect with the resulting sounds—again, this refers to my multi-modal take on performance as mentioned in other posts. On a basic level, slow practice allows us to have more correct practice trials. In my opinion, even if the tempo is slow, as long as we are playing the right notes, rhythms, finger technique, and even expressive elements, components to music-making will be better retained in memory.



Duke, Robert A., and Carla Cash, et al. “It’s Not How Much; It’s How: Characteristics of Practice Behavior and Retention of Performance Skills.” Journal of Research in Music Education Vol. 56, No. 4 (January 2009).

Higuchi, Marcia K., and José Fornari, et al. “Reciprocal modulation of cognitive and emotional aspects in pianistic performances.” PLOS ONE Vol. 6, No. 9 (9 September 2011). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024437

Kageyama, Noa. “8 things top practicers do differently.” The Bulletproof Musician. Accessed December 1, 2014.

Wristen, Brenda. “Cognition and Motor Execution in Piano Sight-Reading: A Review of Literature.” Update: Application of Research in Music Education Vol. 24, No. 1 (Fall-Winter 2005).



Music and Dyslexia (part 3)

Researching a wide variety of information regarding dyslexia, I have found a wealth of knowledge I wish to share with educators and pedagogues in hopes to better enhance the educational experience of dyslexic students. While searching for information, I discovered many sources that claim one thing while another source attempts to argue against it. In this post I will be using the information that best correlates with the experience I have had while working with a dyslexic student.
With this being my third and final post, I wish to create a document that lists how to diagnose and help students with dyslexia. A majority of this post will encapsulate materials taken from my research, but I will also be mentioning instances I have found to be true while teaching. Obviously these lists are not all-inclusive and any additions are welcomed.
Diagnosing Dyslexia
Clearly the best way in which to diagnose something as significant as dyslexia is to consult a professional early on. However, as educators, we may be first to notice an issue and need to alert the parents so the appropriate accommodations can be made. Listed below are warning signs of dyslexia. I have chosen to use warning signs relevant to children at the middle school level. It is at this age that I, as a music teacher, would first have contact with a young instrumentalist associated with a band program. The ideal age for diagnosing dyslexia is when the child is beginning to read but I would not normally work with a student that young. Each example below will be related to music and teaching music.
Warning signs of a middle school student:
• Child may avoid reading out loud in class (understood.org)
In this case, the teacher may ask a student what a short musical phrase means, such as diminuendo poco a poco. The student may not even look to where the teacher is referring and simply ask the teacher to explain what it means. I find it is important to see if their eyes are looking at the music or not. If they constantly avoiding eye contact with the score, there could potentially be an issue.
• Child may take a long to finish tasks that require reading
Perhaps the student is practicing at home but they say it takes them a long time to learn their music, significantly longer than most. Then when they do come in for a lesson, precision and execution may still be a concern. Parents may also become involved by noticing how long it takes for their child to learn a piece of music or etude. They may then approach the teacher about the issue.
• Child has difficulty saying the correct word
In this instance, the student may get words confused and say a word that rhymes with the correct one. Understand.org gives the example “distinct and extinct.”
• Child has difficulty expressing ideas in an organized way and with proper spelling, grammar and punctuation
Notice where the student places an accidental once asked to place one near the appropriate note. Young students may place them on the right at first, but the teacher may want to take notice if this is a common occurrence.
The following two examples are ones I discovered while working with my dyslexic student:
• Listening to others in order to play their part correctly
This goes back to my previous post about compensation. It is my experience that, as stated before, a young musician with dyslexia will rely on another sense to achieve their goals. Often times, the student will become dependant on their ear in order to correctly perform their part. This occurred on multiple occasions while working one-on-one with my student.
• The student may watch the fingers of another to learn a passage
This is not directly related to a person with dyslexia but can be a factor. The situation here is that the student will watch the fingers of another who is playing the same part and mimic what the other person is doing. I have seen this on multiple occasions when I play scales with the student and they will watch my fingers to make sure they are playing it accurately. I have even played an incorrect note to see if the student would follow, and they did. Upon completion of the scale, I asked them if it was correct and they do believe something sounded off, but cannot pinpoint the issue. Meanwhile, the page with the scales written out was sitting directly in front of them on a music stand and they were watching me instead of reading the music that contains all of the answers.
According to the Davis Dyslexia Association International, students can exhibit many different characteristics. I am going to list quite a few (but not all) of these characteristics below just to show how many there are and how any combination can affect a student. They claim that these characteristics can vary from day-to-day, or minute-to-minute.
• Appears bright, highly intelligent but is unable to read, write or spell at grade level
• Labeled as lazy, careless, dumb or immature
• Is not “behind enough” or “bad enough” to be helped in school
• High in IQ but may not test well academically
• Tests well orally, not written
• Seems to daydream often; gets lost easily or loses track of time
• Learns best through hands on experience, demonstrations, experimentations, observations and visual aids
Vision, Reading and Spelling
• Complains of dizziness, headaches or stomach aches while reading
• Confused by letters, numbers, sequences, or verbal explanations
• Complains of seeing non-existent movement while reading, writing or copying
• Seems to have difficulty with vision, yet eye exams do not reveal problems
• Spells phonetically and inconsistently
Hearing and Speech
• Has extended hearing; hears things not said or apparent to others
• Difficulty putting thoughts into words; speaks in halting phrases, leaves sentences incomplete, stutters under stress
Memory and Cognition
• Excellent long-term memory for experiences, locations and faces
• Poor memory for sequences, facts and information that has been experienced
• Thinks primarily with images and feeling, not sounds or words
(Davis Dyslexia Association International)
I list all of these characteristics in hopes that an educator will have a better chance at diagnosing dyslexia. Regarding music, not a lot has been done in terms of dyslexia research. According to one study led by psychologist Merav Ahissar from Hebrew University in Isreal, it took years to bring together just 24 dyslexic musicians. Ahissar claims she could not find any studies on whether or not dyslexia is any more or less common among musicians verses the general population. These musicians were tested on basic auditory perception, which included their ability to discern between similar tones or similar time intervals. They were tested on auditory perception by distinguishing between rhythms or melody. The musicians were also tested on their ability to discriminate words and similar sounding non-words they heard. And lastly, they were tested on their memory and their speed accuracy when reading (What Musicians Can Tell Us About Dyslexia and the Brain).
Ahissar and her team found that the dyslexic musicians scored as well as the non-dyslexic musicians on the auditory perception tests. However, they performed much worse on tests dealing with auditory working memory, they were unable to keep a sound in mind for even a short time. In fact, those with the poorest working memory also had the lowest reading accuracy. It is with these tests that Ahissar hopes to show that researchers should be more interested in the memory-related areas of the brain in addition to the auditory ones in order to hopefully learn more about dyslexia (What Musicians Can Tell Us About Dyslexia and the Brain).
As this is my third and final blog post, I must conclude in saying this research has been tremendously informative. It has helped me learn about where dyslexia may originate and signs to look for and notice in my own students. I hope this has been informative and helpful for the reader and that this writing may help an educator better understand signs of dyslexia and how to produce a positive outcome. I will continue to research this topic and hope that in the future, I will be able to help any student who comes to me wishing to further their musical education.

Davis Dyslexia Association International. Understanding and Recognizing Dyslexia: What the Labels mean. http://www.dyslexia.com/library/information.htm#Dysphonetic

Understood. Dyslexia: What You’re Seeing In Your Middle Schooler. https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/dyslexia/dyslexia-what-youre-seeing-in-your-middle-schooler

Wired. What Musicians Can Tell Us About Dyslexia and the Brain. http://www.wired.com/2014/02/dyslexic-musicians/

Building Confidence for Greater Success in the Lives of Low Income Students: overcoming potential cognitive deficiencies through music (part 3).

Part Three:  using music to develop listening skills needed for language proficiency

I began my first blog post by discussing the effect that chronic stress has on the brain.  In addition to the hippocampus which deals with memory creation (pedagogical methods for improving memory are found in blog 2), the prefrontal cortex which supports language is also damaged in low income students who experience chronic stress.

Strong neural responses to the nuances associated with speech help us to hear differences between syllables – for instance, ‘ba’ and ‘da.’   Without these finely tuned connections, students attempting to succeed in a school environment relying prominently on vocal/aural directions can be a frustrating challenge and one on which many low income students are likely to give up.

Researchers from Northwestern University have found that learning  language and learning music may go hand in hand – learning music helps language acquisition and vice versa.  Being able to hear the subtleties of timing, articulation, timbre, pitch, phrasing, etc. helps create stronger connections within the prefrontal cortex.  When teaching low income students music, a high priority should be placed on developing listening skills.

Factors contributing to underdeveloped language acquisition

In addition to the prefrontal cortex being underdeveloped due to chronic stress, it may also be underdeveloped because of low stimuli at a young age.  In his book, Teaching with Poverty in Mind, Eric Jensen details a graph examining the number of words heard and learned by both low income children and middle to upper class children.  Jensen cites studies reporting that low income children hear far fewer words at home than their higher income peers:  they are read to less frequently, tend to hear shorter, more direct sentences, and are often engaged in conversation less than middle to higher income students.

In an interview with Nina Kraus, a neurobiologist at Northwestern University, she explains that children’s brains need constant stimulation.  Without it, as Jensen describes, their brains “scale back” and do not grow as quickly. They are unable to process what Kraus calls “microsecond precision” in processing sounds and language.

Effects of learning music

Kraus and other researchers from Northwestern spent two years working with the Los Angeles based Harmony Project: a non-profit based group that provides music instruction for low income kids.  In their report, Auditory learning through active engagement with sound: biological impact of community music lessons in at-risk children, they scanned the brains of participants (19 kids aged 7 years to 10 years) for two years: “We show that children who underwent instrumental music training in a community setting had faster and more robust neural processing of rapid speech elements than peers who only participated in a general music appreciation class over a single intervening year.”

Kraus explains in her recent interview that playing music involves the same elements of speech: timing, pitch, and timbre.  The more the students listen for this in music, the stronger their brains become at processing subtle elements of speech and language.

Exercises designed to enhance language skills using timing, pitch, and timbre

In following with my previous blog, this section will again use Twinkle Twinkle Little Star as an example using the Suzuki Method style of rhythms and will assume that the song and rhythms are learned.  All of the games/exercises may not involve the song Twinkle, but will take into account the skill level set needed of young violinists to play Twinkle.  The exercises should increase in difficulty as skill levels expand.

Kraus describes the three skills involved in both language and music as being, timing, pitch, and timbre.  I will expand on each of these categories:

timing will include rhythm and the ability to play with others,

pitch will include repeating what was heard through playing and moving

timbre will include tone colors and articulation.


Rhythms: Have the students learn each of the Suzuki rhythms: allow them to make up their own words to each; Have them make up their own rhythms (2 beats in 4/4 time); have them teach each other rhythms

Identification games:

  • Repeating: You play a rhythm, have them repeat it on violin, with their voices, and be able to write it; have them play a rhythm and have the rest of the class guess.
  • Choose a rhythm from a hat: Have the students draw a rhythm from a hat, play it, have the rest of the group guess.
  • Rhythm bingo: Make bingo cards with various rhythms or Suzuki rhythms, play or have kids take turn playing as they mark what they heard on bingo cards.

Playing together using focused listening:

  • Drop in: Form a circle; have one person start with a rhythm on an open string, when the next person feels ready they join in carefully playing with the other person, continue adding students until everyone is playing.
  • Wipe out: Everyone stands; start by playing a chosen rhythm one time, anyone caught not ending with the group/making extra noise at the end sits down, continue by playing rhythm two times, three times, etc.  Whoever is left standing is the winner.
  • Quiet Listening:  Everyone plays Twinkle Theme pizzicato as quietly as they can with their eyes closed – listening to how together they can get the pizz.
  • Live, breathe, and die (via Erika Eckert):  Pick a leader – everyone has to do exactly as the leader does (same dynamic, amount of bow, speed); have the leader try adding accelerandos/ritardandos as the group gets better at this game.



  • Step and Skip: Have a solfege scale on the floor (or numbers or just different color steps); play stepwise scale patterns slowly, have the kids walk to the correct step (up/down); use small skips.
  • Dance:  Make up dance moves for trills, arpeggios, octave leaps, etc; play something and have them dance, when they hear one of the cues they have to do the dance move associated with it.


  • Mimic: have the group imitate short stepwise patterns (3-4 notes)
  • Jumping bean:  Have the students form a circle; the teacher plays 3 notes, the next student plays the same, then makes up their own 3 notes, the next student plays the last students notes and makes up their own to pass, etc.
  • Simon: Have the kids form a circle; start by playing one note, the next student plays the same note and adds, the next student plays both of the notes then adds, etc.

Error Detection: Play Twinkle but with a wrong note; see if everyone can raise their hands when they hear it; can they play back the wrong note?



  • Bow stokes: Teach the students different bow strokes (I like to start with ‘martele,’ ‘detache,’ and ‘legato,’ even if they’re not executed perfectly at this stage); have them decide what consonant/vowel/syllable each of the beginnings of the bow strokes make (example: martele = ta or ka, legato = wa or la, etc.).
  • Rhythms: apply these bow strokes to the Suzuki rhythms; *(It will most likely take a great deal of practice/time in order to both be able to execute these articulations and hear them easily – do a little work on this consistently.)
  • Moods and articulations:  Play Twinkle all legato vs. staccato; see if the students decide that one sounds “happier,” “sad,” etc.
  • Mood Charades:  Put emotive cards into a hat (happy, sad, angry, scared, etc.) have the students draw a card and try to play Twinkle using that mood; see if the other students can guess!


  • Descriptions: try to have the students put descriptive (not judgement) words on tone colors, what kinds of moods can we convey with these tone colors?
  • Monkey Hear:  Play Twinkle (or a section) using a particular tone color; have the kids repeat; change tone colors for each formal section; see if the students can mimick.
  • Extra techniques: I like to use tone discussions to also introduce some more modern techniques: sul tasto, ponticello, pizzicato, tremolo, playing on the other side of the bridge, etc.
  • Book reading with violin: Find a childrens book that has descriptive words (animal, monster, traffic books work well) have the students choose/find a technique on the violin that could be a soundtrack to the book; have a child read while you do the chosen techniques, or vice versa.


Listening usually is and should be a component of every music class and at any income level.  These games/exercises, however, focus on the bigger and more long term picture of developing stronger neural connections in the minds of low income students.  Most of these exercises incorporate the additional challenge of not just listening in order to repeat what was heard on an instrument.  This creates a level of focus that is not present for most children when merely listening to rhythms, pitches, or timbres.  The ability to detect nuances in music will strengthen low income student’s communication skills, therefore creating academic success in all subjects. The knowledge, communication skills, and confidence from that success will lead to more in all aspects of their lives.



Gabrieli, John D. E, Russel A. Poldrack, and John F. Desmond.  “The role of left prefrontal \ cortex in language and memory.” Proceedings of       the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 95 (1998): 906-913,  accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.pnas.org/content/95/3/906.full

Jenson, Eric. 2009. Teaching with Poverty in Mind. Alexandria: ASCD.

Kraus, Nina, Jessica Slater, Elaine C. Thompson,  Jane Hornickel,  Dana L. Strait, Trent Nicol, and Travis White-Schwoch.  “Auditory learning through active engagement with sound: biological impact of community music lessons in at-risk children.” Frontiers in Neuroscience, November 5, 2014. Accessed December 15, 2014. http://www.brainvolts.northwestern.edu/documents/Krausetal_HarmonyBiomark_Frontiers.pdf

Suzuki Method International.  “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star Variations S. Suzuki – Suzuki Violin School Volume 1 #1.”  YouTube video, 3:04.           January 31, 2011.  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vgz0Gebh0ww

“The Suzuki Method.” International Suzuki Association.http://internationalsuzuki.org/method.htm.

Turner, Cory.  “This Is Your Brain.  This Is Your Brain On Music.”  National Public Radio, September 10, 2014.  Accessed December 15, 2014.       http://www.npr.org/blogs/ed/2014/09/10/343681493/this-is-your-brain-this-is-your-brain-on-music

Conductors and Photographic Memory – Fact or Fiction?

According to the Encyclopedia Brittanica, photographic memory, or eidetic memory, is an ability to recall images, sounds, or objects in memory with high precision for a few minutes without using mnemonics.

When reading the biographies of many famous conductors one often comes across statements such as “Seiji Ozawa purportedly had a semi-photographic memory, and was able to memorize complex contemporary scores,” or “Mr. Maazel had some kind of photographic memory, allowing him to perform the symphonies of Mahler from memory.” Note the authors’ trepidation at claiming fully-fledged eidetic memory (which I’ll refer to as EM from now on).  The question remains: was it a superhuman ability that allowed these maestros to memorize complex scores, or does a combination of score preparation methods and vast experience deserve the credit?

What is eidetic memory? How does it work in the brain? Does it exist at all? Is it something that can be developed? How can you memorize scores without it? These are some of the questions which this blog will attempt to address.


The popular conception of EM is that a person could look at a page of words or images and retain the entire page in their memory with perfect or near-perfect accuracy (à la Lt. Dada from Star Trek). According to most research, this description of EM is a dramatic overstatement. Part of the public confusion may be due to EM’s popular name, and the analogy to a photograph. A true photograph can last forever, and can be examined down to the minutest detail at will. William Lee Adams, and many other scientists, believe that “it’s impossible to recall images with near perfect accuracy.” 

According to Alan Searleman and others, “The vast majority of the people who have been identified as possessing eidetic imagery are children. The prevalence estimates of the ability among preadolescents range from about 2 percent to 10 percent.” The ability usually begins to fade around a child’s sixth year, perhaps due to the increasing demand for verbal real estate in the brain, which alters brain architecture. There has been no research which supports that EM can be learned later in life, though such research would no doubt be interesting and rewarding.

Does this mean that all those maestros with purported EM capabilities are either lying, exaggerating the truth, or allowing a popular myth about their abilities to live through sensational journalism?

There are  potentially three ways in which one can memorize a score. Score memorization, for these purposes, means that if suddenly all copies and recordings of Stravinsky’s Le sacre du printemps disappeared, an individual could recreate the entire score, including expressive and tempo indications.

The three ways to memorize a score are as follows:

  1. Eidetic. Assuming EM is a real trait: simply pouring over a score visually could allow EM possessors to memorize music.
  2. Mental. A person with fluency in reading music and clefs can, with enough time and study, read a score without the aid of any musical sounds, relying only on his or her inner ear. In this way, a score could live entirely inside the mind. Alternatively, a person with a tremendous ear such as W. A. Mozart can hear a piece of music and conceptualize it without the aid of reading notation or utilizing muscle memory through performing the music.
  3. Physical or intrinsic. This kind of memory applies best to a few layers of music only, which can easily be played on a piano or an instrument with a more limited polyphonic ability. A musician can memorize a piece of music either totally by ear using this method, or by reading the music (at either a highly proficient or painfully slow level) on an instrument. Constant repetition allows for muscle memory, or intrinsic memory, to kick in. When asked to recall the music, the musician will rely on their muscle memory to aid their memory.

Most conductors use a healthy mix of methods 2 and 3 when memorizing a score. However, physical or intrinsic memory of music cannot exist independently of mental preparation. The simple act of performing music from ear or from notation creates a mental concept which aides in later recall. It’s also important to note that memorizing by ear ignores completely all of the written musical indications on the page, which are obviously indispensable. Therefore, a mix of the two methods is usually preferable. Many conductors who are great pianists or violinists, for example, play every orchestral part over and over until they can rely heavily on both their physical and mental preparation. Some conductors who don’t play a chordal instrument rely more on purely mental/analytical preparation.

It is obviously true that alleged EM-possessing conductors such as Mehta, Dudamel, Toscanini, Maazel or Ozawa have incredible musical memory, but what’s really happening inside their brain when they set out to memorize a new scoreWhen you read a page of an orchestral score, you’re digesting far more than abstract symbols, you’re reading, and to read implies comprehension of meaning. The musicians listed above are or were some of the finest musical minds on the planet. This means that their brains are teeming with schemas and rich, layered reference points for musical meaning, to such an extent that each incoming piece of musical notation, upon being encoded into memory, activates a massive spread of brain regions. In fact, this mythical skill of perfect recall of the contents of a page is quite useless for a musician – we need the meaning! When a musician has developed an extremely high level of musical knowledge, memorizing music, no matter how much is already stored in the brain, becomes easier. 

Take dancing as an example. If you are like me and have absolutely no formal training in dance, you will find attempting to learn a highly-choreographed routine extremely difficult. However, after years of practice with many different kinds of dance, you begin to develop schemas and reference points in your brain. You begin to chunk related dance moves into categories. At some point your brain is so rich with schemas and chunks, you can memorize a new dance sequence with almost no rehearsal, and perhaps even from observation of another dancer only, without any physical preparation. This is precisely how a veteran maestro memorizes a score.

Yes, some people have better memory than others, but it is clear that simply becoming a better, more complete musician through years of exposure to music and performance, paired with a rigorous study method, will result in an ever-increasing ability to memorize scores quickly. ♦ Andrew Crust

How are we going to pay for all of this?

Recent discussion of my most recent blog post yielded a couple of good and related questions. In essence – without a marching band, how do I propose to fund my music program? I have several thoughts about this.

  1. Marching band is already a drain on the music budget.  Money raised specifically for marching band does not pay fully for the activities of a marching band.
  2. Music is already part of the curriculum.  Nobody asks how we are going to fund the science or math classes. Well, actually they do, but this occurs at a higher level of discussion surrounding the funding of public education in general.
  3. The reason this question is asked is because music is considered by some a luxury – the outlier of a public school education – and usually among the first subjects for which funding is cut.  The arts in general are always on the verge of elimination, it would seem.
  4. An analogy – football, it could be argued, is the most visible representative of a high school’s athletic department. And yet even with as competitive as football is, it remains an extracurricular activity to the physical education department.  Apparently it is even more extracurricular than marching band. You don’t see the football players out on the field during the school day – in fact, it is not permitted and is carefully watched by CHSAA (Colorado High School Activities Association).
  5. I have spent some time reading carefully the CHSAA constitution and bylaws which offer guidelines and rules for music as an ACTIVITY – this includes all the extracurricular components of a high school music program – all state ensembles, solo and ensemble competition, concert band competitions and…marching band.

So why then is so much of the school year, including class time, devoted to marching band?

Back to the cognitive stuff. The point has been made that several of the outcomes listed in my previous blog post are accomplished through repetition.  It is clear that as musicians, much of what we do in the practice room is drill and repetition. But it is the purpose and quality of that repetition that we are concerned with. Rote learning of scales and other technical patterns is a necessary component of foundational vocabulary upon which deeper and stronger connections are made.  We learn scales partly because the main vocabulary of western music since the renaissance has been collections of notes arranged in predictable intervals.  We learn them for fluency in keys and the ability to recognize patterns in music which are commonly used and therefore allow us the luxury of executing a known pattern (schema) without reading all the notes. It is the same with language – we don’t really see/read all the letters.  We recognize the patterns (words / vocabulary) and execute the already known schema.

Laura Eakman (Thing1) in her recent excellent blog post writes about the benefits of memorization and points to a study written by Richards J. Heuer for the Central Intelligence Agency titled “Psychology of Intelligence Analysis.”  In it, Heuer writes very specifically about the benefits of exercising memory and the effect it has on analysis.

First, he describes schema as “any pattern of relationships among data stored in memory. It is any set of nodes and links between them in the spider web of memory that hang together so strongly that they can be retrieved and used more or less as a single unit.” He goes on  “An analyst’s memory provides continuous input into the analytical process. This input is of two types–additional factual information on historical background and context, and schemata the analyst uses to determine the meaning of newly acquired information.”  In musical terms, I paraphrase “a musician’s memory provides continuous input into the performance process. This input is of two types–additional musical information on context, and schemata the musician uses to determine the meaning of newly acquired information.”

So we repeat in the practice room to build a web of schema that we can draw upon at any time – scales and modes, digital patterns (all of these including the theoretical construction as well as the motor skill memory of performing these patterns), chord progressions and function, and so on.  This kind of repetition is quite different than memorizing a piece of music for performance, which is in itself a rather large and complex schema – if it is treated as such. If, however, we are memorizing in order to make a successful brain dump (standardized testing, marching band competition) we are not really creating the deeper connections that make such memorization useful and schema-like, and accessible for future analysis.

Heuer also cautions that memory can be a handicap. “Learning new schemata often requires the unlearning of existing ones, and this is exceedingly difficult. It is always easier to learn a new habit than to unlearn an old one. Schemata in long-term memory that are so essential to effective analysis are also the principal source of inertia in recognizing and adapting to a changing environment.”  Hence the old chestnut ‘Practice doesn’t make perfect; practice makes permanent.’ So useful repetitive learning techniques also require quality sensory inputs, as well as quality material from which to learn.

Back to the ideal program. I have been known to tell my students that we generally reach about 80% of expectation, so the level of your expectation becomes a critical factor.  Putting that on a number scale, if you expect 50 and you only get 80% of that, you’re going to get 40.  If you expect 60, you’re going to get 48.  Would you rather have 80% of 50 or 60? Of course, this is a construct – a parable about the power of expectation – but it does tend to raise awareness.  As a teacher and a student, it is so easy to get lured towards the power of the lowest common denominator; to adjust expectation based on a forecast outcome based on expecting less from your students or yourself. In my experience, the best teachers/coaches/managers expect their constituency to succeed.  How you get there is a direct result of honest effort and the quality of the raw materials with which you have to work.

Put the latest Disney hit in front of your marching band, and you’re going to get 80%. Your students may love that they are working on a medley from Frozen, and there is some value in that. But are they really being provided with the raw materials to develop useful schemata?  And how does perfecting the field drill fit into that master plan?

Performance Anxiety (part three)

From the last blog posting, the difference between yoga and tai chi within the mind and body exercises was discussed. Yoga emphasizes to stretch in order to relax, whereas Tai Chi requires the opposite: being relaxed to stretch. The effect of the martial arts can be seen from young to old, and it can be incorporated into a curriculum as supplement to other methods, such as the Alexander technique in a university setting. The important thing to remember is consistency. Positive results can happen over time, but not over night. Our mind and body have to internalize the process of physical movement. Deep breathing while slow movements are created is one of the essential elements of the training. Let’s see exactly what poses we can do to gain the benefits from the mind and body workout. The following clip shows the “Beijing 24 form“, which the Chinese government developed in 1956. To go through all the poses, it takes about 5-7 minutes. As we can see, the person in this video moves with easiness, calm, and serenity, like floating in the air.

My mother teaches Tai Chi for one and half hour weekly session. Her class consists of different Tai chi forms such as the eight form or the 24 Beijing form which is broken down to practicing the first two, second two, or third two forms. She said it is not necessary to do the 24 form from the beginning to the end.  This is exactly the same as practicing a musical instrument. When we practice, we have to break down the music into small portions in order to progress at more manageable pace. Throughout the Tai Chi practice, deep breathing through the nose is a requirement. This placid workout is excellent for musicians because each pose is maintained by focus and direction. While we perform on the stage, we need to have clear focus and the direction of where the music is going. By practicing Tai Chi, we can learn to breath deeply, which will come naturally by exercising it regularly.

In a class setting, the first day can be just practicing standing up.  This video clip shows you the first move of Tai Chi.  This can be done anywhere any time. The correct alignment of the body can be a good meditation.

The second lesson can be learning a pose called ‘single whip’. This pose is known for helping blood circulation and energy flow. It is also beneficial to people with carpal tunnel syndrome. Some musicians have problems with their hands and arms, so learning the correct posture might prevent these problems.


There are variety of Tai Chi routines as well as poses. Once we learn each pose, the exercise can be done fairly quickly as we can see in the first video of this third blog. Many schools use a semester system, which is about 15 weeks. Let’s assume an Alexander technique class (twice a week) corporates 10 minutes of ‘Beijing 24 forms’ as supplement. The students in the class can learn one or two poses each week and go through the entire 24 poses within the semester. This is definitely something we should look into.

For the serious learners: there are a good number of Tai Chi schools are around in town and beyond for all ages.
*Tai Chi Fitness Wellness Center for Children (Boulder) http://www.bouldertaichi.com/
*Rocky Mountain T’ai Chi Ch’uan (Boulder) http://www.rockymountaintaichi.com/
*Gu Feng Tai Chi Club (Boulder) http://gufengtaichi.org/
*USA National Tai Chi Chuan Federation http://usantccf.org/

Conclusion The ancient Chinese mind and body exercise, Tai Chi, has many physical and mental benefits. To gain the maximum profit, it has to be regularly practiced and internally digested.  Unlike yoga, Tai Chi focuses on flowing tranquil movement, like swimming in the air, and it is easy on the body. In addition, this exercise does not require any materials, such as a yoga mat and is inexpensive for everyone. All one needs is loosely fit clothes. This is great especially for musicians. Many young performers face anxiety and stage fright. We all want to play at our best and share great music with the audiences without feeling nervous. To solve this problem, we should incorporate Tai Chi to learn  to calm ourselves and focus on our playing. It is worth considering devoting Tai Chi to half of the class time and learn the basic of the poses regularly for healthier vitality as supplement to Alexander technique.

Beginners Tai Chi.com Tai Chi Move: The single whip. http://www.beginnerstaichi.com/tai-chi-move-single-whip.html

Beijing 24 form. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pRMVYJQSmHs

Everyday Tai Chi.  Beijing 24 forms. http://www.everyday-taichi.com/beijing-24-form.html

How to use waist in single whip. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rWRE6oPnnEo

Standing Stake- first posture in Tai Chi. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=m5n4e8fmTzo

Proposed Practice Survey

My blogs focusing on practice habits thus far have examined:

  1. The type of research currently available about cognative processes of effective practice on musical instruments
  2. The need for more randomization in studies
  3. The need for more in-depth questioning about different aspects in a practice routine

In this final post, I’ll review the issue of randomize studies as well as provide a survey that could be used in future studies.

Considering that there are entire graduate-level courses examining how to construct experiments, surveys, and case studies that result in credible results, I can not attempt to fully answer the questions about randomizing music practice studies. And for every course offered in randomized trials, there are probably more books published about such a conundrum. The issue is clear, and, as laid out in Frederick Mosteller and Robert Boruch’s book Evidence Matters: Randomized Trials in Education Research, we know that “Opinions about education programs and practices are offered frequently – by children, parents, teachers and policymakers….randomized field trials, which are commonly used in other disciplines, are rarely employed to measure the impact on education practice.”

In their book Inquiry in Music Education: Concepts and Methods for the Beginning Researcher, Hildegard Froehlich and Carol Frierson-Campbell review the definitions and goals for “sample” and “ population”. They borrow Moore’s definition of population as “the entire group of objects bout which information is desired” and that a sample is defined as a subset of that population. More specifically the sample is “used to gain information about the whole”. This statement emphasizes our need, as researchers and educators, to randomize our studies about the cognitive processes of musical instrument practice habits. Studies, by their nature, are trying to derive useful results and information that can be applied to a larger group. If we are going to apply practice habits, we must make sure that we’re applying them to the appropriate populations. For example, if there’s a study that examine the practice habits of graduate students at a music conservatory, can those results be applied to conservatory undergraduates? Adult amateurs? Beginning students who are very young?

When publishing the results of experiments, researchers include information about how the experiment was designed and carried out. The purpose of this is to enable others to replicate the research. If the replicated experiments, carried out identically, reproduce the same results, the results from the original experiment can be attributed not to chance, but to some other, more consistent and broadly applicable reason. The same needs to be true in music research. It often is, but as more informal modes of sharing ideas and information (i.e. blogs, internet, for-profit publications, etc.) become more prevalent, it’s important to retain the information about the structure and sample used in deriving pertinent information. This way, educators can more appropriately use or discard results when applying them to their own students.

To conclude, I’ve outlined a proposed survey that could be used to collect information from instrumental music students about their personal practice habits. In this survey, I’ve tried to ask about topics, for example scheduling of a practice session, many different ways. The question isn’t simply “do you schedule your practice into your day ahead of time?” but rather ask 12 different questions in regards to scheduling practice sessions.

The terms ‘practice’ and ‘practicing’ are used as a context of individual “repeated performance or systematic exercise for the purpose of learning or acquiring proficiency” on your instrument. Please exclude any playing/rehearsing you may do with any other people (pianists, chamber groups, orchestra, etc) when considering your responses to the following questions.

Personal Background:

Instrument:                           Degree:                                               Year in Degree:

Age:                                         Nationality:                                        Gender:

Number of years total you’ve played your current instrument (do not include other, secondary instruments):


Please check the box that most accurately matches your stance on each statement. Please select only one answer and answer all questions.

SA = Strongly Agree            A= Agree N/A=neither agree nor disagree        D= Disagree  SD=strongly disagree

I practice on days I have lessons
I practice before each lesson at least 2 hours (same day)
I practice before each lesson for less than 1 hour(same day)
I do not practice before each lesson (same day)
I practice after each lesson at least 2 hours (same day)
I practice after each lesson less than 1 hour (same day)
I never practice after a lesson (same day)
I take written notes in most of my lessons, or immediately after
I make audio recordings of most of my lessons
I make video recordings of most of my lessons
I practice at the same time each day (within 1 hour)
I schedule my individual practice time into my day
I practice whenever I can, and don’t necessarily schedule it
I prefer to practice in a practice room in the dorms
I prefer to practice in my dorm room
I prefer to practice in my apartment
If I have 15 minutes of down time to ‘waste’, I usually practice
If I have 15 minutes of down time to ‘waste’, I usually watch TV
If I have 15 minutes of down time to ‘waste’, I usually surf the internet
I get more done in my practice if I have to schedule the practice session/time-manage my day
I get more done in my practice if I have all day to choose when to practice
I break my practice into 3 or more different parts of the day
I come up with goals for my practice session before I start practicing
I start practicing by playing through a piece, then figuring out what I want to work on for the day/practice session
I play scales every day that I practice
I work on technical exercises each day I practice
Outside of repertoire, I work on vibrato at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on shifting at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on bow strokes at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on intonation at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on left hand dexterity/speed/facility at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on double stops at least twice a week
Outside of repertoire, I work on contact point/bow-weight/bow-speed control at least twice a week
I practice straight until I can’t focus anymore
I periodically take breaks (15 minutes or less) when I am at a stopping point in the content (i.e. reached the end of an exercises or section in a piece)
I take breaks (15 minutes or less) after a pre-determined amount of time (i.e. every 45 minutes you take a 5 minute break or every 120 minutes you take a 15 minute break, etc)
During my breaks (15 minutes or less) I leave the room I’ve been practicing in
I take breaks or stop practicing for the day when I get frustrated
I find it difficult to motivate myself to practice
If I can motivate myself to start practicing, I am often motivated to continue practicing for my regular amount of time
There are 5 days or more a month when I don’t feel like practicing so I don’t.
When I force myself to practice, I can be just as productive as the days I practice willingly
I sometimes give myself extrinsic rewards to motivate myself to practice.
I find practicing fun and interesting
If I have a productive week of practicing, I will have a good lesson
I feel most motivated to practice if I have an event coming up (i.e. lesson, rehearsal, concert, competition, etc.)
I often feel frustrated that there’s no end in sight when I practice, that I’ll never reach a “finish line”
I love that there’s always something to work on, or make better when I practice
I can always find something in my playing that needs improvement
I don’t know what to work on when I’m practicing
It’s easiest to identify and work on (in my own playing) issues dealing with technique
It’s easiest to identify and work on (in my own playing) issues dealing with interpretation
I include score study and mental conception of music in each practice session
I actively listen to recordings of my pieces on a weekly basis
I conceive of my interpretation away from my instrument as well as with it.
I set aside my instrument and use singing or other active ways to conceive of music performance in most practice sessions


For the following, please check the number of hours that closest applies to you. Times are given in hourly increments for the TOTAL, COMBINED number of minutes/hours practiced each day. With the acknowledgement that some days you may practice more or less than others, please make estimates as to your average practicing.

Less than 1 hour 1-2 hours 2-3 hours 3-5 hours 5-7hours Over 7
On weekdays during the school year I practice…(each day, on average)
On weekends during the school year, I practice…(daily average)
On weekdays during the summer when I am NOT at a music camp/festival, I practice….(each day, on average)
On weekends during the summer when I am NOT at a music camp/festival, I practice….(each day on average)
On weekdays during the summer when I am at a music camp/festival, I practice…(each day, on average)
On weekends during the summer when I am at a music camp/festival, I practice…(each day on average)
When I was in 9th grade, each day I practiced…
When I was in 10th grade, each day I practiced…
When I was in 11th grade, each day I practiced…
When I was in 12th grade, each day I practiced…

Is there anything else having to do with your practice habits, routine, or development of these that you’d like to share?

The Argument FOR Rote Learning and What an Ideal High School Band Program Look Like

I was very lucky to have participated in the music program at Wheat Ridge High School under Larry Wallace in the late 70’s. Wallace is a legend in Colorado and ran a program that I consider to be ideal.

During my senior year, WRHS sent 17 kids to All State Orchestra, 14 of whom were in the wind, brass and percussion sections.  I took two years of theory and two years of history from Wallace, played in the Wind Symphony, Orchestra and top Jazz Band. I still have the copy of ‘A History of Western Music’ (Donald Grout) that Wallace made me read the summer between my sophomore and junior year.  I also still have the Dorothy Horne theory book from which we worked, and the little sight singing books we used to learn solfege.  The 3 years I attended WRHS produced 4 university music professors, and 12 university professors in other disciplines that still play their instrument at a very high level, and 6 outstanding public school music educators. It was a rich and immersive environment.

Marching band started 3 days before school.  We learned a show with simple formations in those 3 days.  Marching band and pep band were treated as necessary adjuncts to the football, soccer and basketball programs.  The moment the bell rang on the first day of school, the band room transformed into a sanctuary where serious musical things happened.  We drilled.  Scales, order of sharps and flats, and solfege.

We did not compete as a band. Ever.  For Wallace (and hence the rest of us), that was not what music was about.

That’s where I sit.  Here is where I stand.

Richard Potts, director of the Human Origins Program at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History has posited as to how and why our species exploded from a relatively tiny population of somewhere around 2000 to the staggering current population of over 7,000,000,000.  It attempts to explain why as a species we became increasingly intolerant to inflexibility and stupidity.  His theory is called Variable Selection Theory.

John Medina in his book “Brain Rules” explains:

“Variability Selection Theory predicts some fairly simple things about human learning. It predicts there will be interactions between two powerful features of the brain: a database in which to store a fund of knowledge, and the ability to improvise off of that database. One allows us to know when we’ve made mistakes. The other allows us to learn from them. Both give us the ability to add new information under rapidly changing conditions. Both may be relevant to the way we design classrooms and cubicles.

Any learning environment that deals with only the database instincts or only the improvisatory instincts ignores one half of our ability. Some schools and workplaces emphasize a stable, rote-learned database. They ignore the improvisatory instincts drilled into us for millions of years. Creativity suffers. Others emphasize creative usage of a database, without installing a fund of knowledge in the first place. They ignore our need to obtain a deep understanding of a subject, which includes memorizing and storing a richly structured database. You get people who are great improvisers but don’t have depth of knowledge.” (Medina, p. 38)

Medina acknowledges that rote learning is absolutely essential to building a rich and meaningful database upon which we may improvise and create.  This improvisational component is where deeper connections are made – where our thinking evolves from recollection to knowing.  It is where we truly communicate.

Robert Snyder indirectly confirms Potts’ assertion regarding our ability to (and the necessity for) creatively improvising from the database.

“Thus the most effective form of rehearsal is, not simple repetition (learning by rote), but elaborative rehearsal, where the material rehearsed has some meaning in relation to something already in long-term memory. Referred to as “memory processing in depth,” elaborative rehearsal creates new memories that can be “anchored” or associated to older ones. (Note however that rote learning does appear to aid in implicit recognition, but not in explicit recall.)” (Snyder, p. 58)

In an educational environment rife with pressure to teach to the test, students are often shown the shortest distance from A (presentation of information) to B (recall of that information for assessment testing).  Non associative learning concepts are often used in these situations because of the short term gain in raw data acquisition.  One primary tool in non associative learning is memorizing information so that it can be  recalled by the learner exactly the way it was read or heard, or rote learning. The major technique used for rote learning is repetition, based on the idea that if the information is repeatedly processed, a learner can recall the form of that material exactly, but not necessarily its substance or meaning.

Rote learning is used from mathematics to music to religion. Though criticized by some, rote learning is a necessary precursor to associative learning as it is the means by which we develop vocabulary. Meaningful examples of useful rote learning include letters and numbers, arithmetic tables, names of colors, vocabulary, an basic formulas, theorems and postulates.  It is how we learn to spell and pronounce and how to learn a foreign language..More relevant for this discussion, rote learning examples in music include the basic vocabulary of music – labels for pitches, fingerings, scales, etc. There is clearly a place for drill and repetition in music.

Rote learning, instead of  being a precursor, has become a replacement for more meaningful learning and critical thinking.  This can be attributed to downward and lateral pressure to teach to the test.  Examples include student preparation for CSAP and TCAP assessments, and more directly to the point (and the purpose of this soapbox) the use of high school marching band and the attendant competitions as a replacement for state standards based music curriculum for a significant portion of the school year.

If we are to accept the basic premise that any instructional environment is focused on the concepts of learning – that is to say both the presentation of information, a system for how to process that information, and perhaps most importantly a laboratory designed to teach students how to learn themselves and thus to be lifelong learners – than we must adopt those kinds of learning best suited to those goals.  Rote learning addresses only the first part of this system – acquisition of information.

My Ideal High School Band Program

The Colorado Department of Education has established a set of standards in public education.  These standards are updated about once a decade and generally the people who arrive at these standards are pretty smart and well intending.  In my opinion, there is too much”political correctness” in these standards, but it is the law of the land. Teachers are supposed to use these standards as a guideline for creating curriculum.

The introduction to the music standards is elegant and can be found here: Introduction to the Colorado Music Standards The PDF of these standards is here.

Because the intent of these standards is to establish a set of expectations for what a graduating senior who has participated in a public school music program should know, I have used these standards to inform my proposed “ideal” band program.  The ideal program assumes a couple of very important ingredients: a school district and administrators that support the idea that a music curriculum should not be designed around the marching band season, and a sharp instrumental music educator who understands their own limitations.

By the time a student graduates from my high school band program (assuming a 3 year high school), they will have:

2 years of music theory.

1 year of music history

3 years of private instruction with a qualified professional

3 years of late August through late May concert band experience – performing at least 12 concerts in a 3 year span

2 years of chamber music experience including performances

At least one meaningful experience conducting a band

At least 1 year of experience in a leadership role within the band (drum major could count, but I would not allow this to be the only experience)

3 years of daily experiences exposed to music by major composers both living and dead

3 years of exposure to instrument fundamentals (before school daily warmup sessions)

2 years of experience auditioning for the state high school honor ensembles (both band and orchestra)

3 years of experience auditioning for district and county honor ensembles

3 years of experience playing for state solo and ensemble competitions

Attended at least one MEA convention

Attended at least 2 public performances per semester by professional music ensembles

Performed at least once per year for younger kids (solo, chamber or ensemble)

Performed at least once per year in a civic minded environment (for example Children’s Hospital or an assisted living community)

Experienced a masterclass by a world class performer on their instrument

Performed at least once with a piano in front of their peer group

Expected outcomes:

Able to make a refined characteristic sound on their instrument throughout the range of their instrument

The ability to play all major and all 3 forms of minor scales at least 2 octaves with discipline and refinement

Demonstrate an understanding of intonation and the role characteristic sound plays in intonation

Be able to sightread age appropriate music with continuity and reasonable accuracy

Be able to play with a metronome

Understand how and when to use a tuner

Be familiar with major works for wind band and orchestra either through listening, sightreading, or performance

Be familiar with major solo works for their instrument

Be able to play solo works for their instrument appropriate to level

Be able to identify major composers and compositions from each significant era of music

Be able to demonstrate basic conducting patterns

Be able to sing diatonic melodies using solfegge

Be able to read music in treble, bass, alto and tenor

Understanding of key signatures, basic chord function, voice leading and chord voicing principles

Understanding of the instrumentation of a band and the basics of transposition

Be able to improvise over a simple chord progression

Be able to demonstrate a foundational vocabulary of the musical lexicon

Next up – the specifics, and why marching band does and does not fit into this curriculum.



Medina, John. Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School. Pear Press. Kindle Edition.

Snyder, Robert. Music and Memory: An Introduction. The MIT Press. Kindle Edition.

Multi-modal connections in piano performance: the first few bars of Frédéric Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 7

In my previous post, I started and ended with stories about watching TV while practicing piano. Even as a child, while still figuring out what practicing meant to me, and what it meant to practice effectively, I eventually realized that practicing felt like a competition with the TV. While my younger sister was pointing at the screen, yelling “Clue! Clue!”— I’m talking about Blue’s Clues—I was trying to learn my first Haydn sonata, which, at the time, felt about as hard as playing “Désordre” from Ligeti’s piano etudes. I was always trying to be louder than the TV. On bad days, I found myself watching along in my peripheral vision.

The lesson learned is that the visual aspect of looking at what you are physically doing at the keyboard makes learning music more efficient. By constantly rehearsing the connections between what you see on the page and keyboard in conjunction with the sound you expect to come out, associations strengthen between elements in short-term memory. Building correct associations in our mental framework leads to better retention of musical memory. By eliminating external factors that may inhibit your working memory capacity, we are better able to focus on the task at hand, whether that be practicing piano, singing an aria, or working on orchestral excerpts.

As detailed in my last post, both Margeret Walker and Rolf Inge Godøy presented excellent points on the significance making musical performance a multi-modal experience that culminates in a synthesis of auditory, physical, and visual aspects. Music is primarily an aural experience. The most baffling factor of the aural experience is that sound is abstract. It surrounds us. We never see it. We never feel it, save for vibrations in the footprints of sonic resonance. And yet, even though sound is this big, confounding, abstract thing, people often apply visual descriptors to it, using words like small, cushioned, bright, ascending, and shadowed. We can think of many descriptors as schemas for musical interpretation.

In her article on the importance of combining cognitive skills with motor skills, Walker stressed how a visual memory of a physical gesture can help and enhance musical performance. From a pianist’s perspective, this multi-modal synthesis is evident in my rendition of Frédéric Chopin’s piano etude Op. 25, No. 7—famously known as the “cello” etude. To be honest, I don’t always realize what I do at the keyboard, and, oftentimes, things will just work “naturally” because of the implicit memory gained through defeating technical demands over and over again. This example we are about to walk through is a revealing demonstration of something I have learned about myself as a performer.

The opening of Chopin’s Op. 25, No. 7 begins with a recitative-like introduction, evocative of a solo cellist. The melodic line ascends with a yearning intent, and then gradually descends in a series of meandering turns. After this brief introduction, the main body of the etude begins as we hear the melody climbing out of the left hand, unfolding through the constant right hand accompaniment. Below is a video of the piece.

In my lessons, I am sometimes critiqued for over-preparing the beginning of a piece. The over-preparation comes from “setting” my arms and hands before the sound is ready to blossom. For me, this is not an easy habit to get out of, as I was trained from a young age to always prepare before my first attack. For non-pianists, this essentially means setting my hands at the keyboard, and then making a secondary motion with a gesture of the wrists and arms to depress the keys. The other way of doing this would be to bring your hands to the keyboard and execute the first pitch (or pitches) in a single, determined, fluid gesture. Of course, there is no right or wrong way about doing this because I have seen both—demonstrated by a spectrum of pianists from varying backgrounds and levels. The video above demonstrates a fair representation of this direct yet fluid gesture that leads us to the first pitch.

I bring this up because although it feels “safe” to be ready before you play the first pitch, the act of getting to the keyboard only to halt before you depress the keys interrupts the building momentum. Having the right momentum produces a favorable sound. The quality of sound production on a keyboard is dependent on key speed (how fast you depress the key). To get the most out of key speed, you want to be most physically available—have the most momentum ready for playing—and, thus, require optimal continuous motion.

In the beginning of the Chopin etude, I have an idea of what the sound should be before I play. At the same time, I also think of the physical gesture in combination with a visual representation of the sound. For this piece, I know that the first pitch will be one long gesture—the sound is intimate yet robust. The second pitch will take a slight preparation of the wrist as the music ascends; there is a sense of arching and yearning, a visual image of climbing and reaching, of sliding across strings. When the main theme blooms in the left hand after the recitative passage, the physical gestures are not spontaneous, as romantic as that sounds. Everything is planned and practiced with precise, calculated gestures that eventually become a rooted part of my implicit memory. The incredible amount of focus, exactitude, and determination required to produce a seemingly simple phrase goes to show that our practice sessions must also express the same echelon of concentration. This example demonstrates that our physical and mental faculties not only have to be perpetually aware of each other, but they must work simultaneously.

As you can see, using images of physical memory along with visual descriptors in concurrence with rehearsed motor skills can enhance musical performance. One of the issues in performance is that the origins of nuances are often inexplicable; nuances are impossibly difficult to recreate flawlessly with each rendition of a work. However, I believe that an awareness of practiced physical gestures can help recall or trigger the production of nuances. Looking again at the same Chopin piece, I have a network of associations primed and ready in my mind. The associations are all interwoven—a connectionist network. It goes without saying that they cue each other into the focus of conscious awareness; but, even more importantly, these associations cue explicitly learned motor habits into automatic responses.

The question now is: how do we get to that point? How do we practice the “right” way so that our motor skills link most efficiently with multi-modal aspects of performance? Moreover, a 2011 study headed by Marcia Higuchi and others has shown that expressive performance may constrain cognitive and motor skills in piano playing; the same study also suggests that a cognitively focused performance (one that zones in on the precision of rendering the notated score) negatively impacts the expressiveness of music making. This is an issue that can perhaps be addressed from the earliest stages of practicing a piece, and I hope to tie to that discussion anecdotes regarding practice approaches.



Edwards, Williams. Motor Learning and Control: From Theory to Practice. Belmont: Cengage Learning, 2011.

Godøy, Rolf Inge. “Motor-Mimetic Music Cognition.” The MIT Press: Leonardo, Vol. 36, No. 4 (2003), pp. 317-319.

Higuchi, Marcia K., and José Fornari, et al. “Reciprocal modulation of cognitive and emotional aspects in pianistic performances.” PLOS ONE Vol. 6, No. 9 (9 September 2011). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0024437

Kageyama, Noa. “8 things top practicers do differently.” The Bulletproof Musician. Accessed December 1, 2014.

Walker, Margaret E. “Movement and Metaphor: Towards an Embodied Theory of Music Cognition and Hermeneutics.” University of Illinois Press: Bulletin of the Council for Research in Music Education, No. 145 (Summer, 2000), pp. 27-42.

Music and Dyslexia (part 2)

To begin this post, I would like to further expand upon the differences in the brain of a person without dyslexia and a person with dyslexia. As mentioned in my previous blog post, dyslexia has been found to be a neurological disorder that can affect a multitude of functions including reading, writing and spelling. Also discussed was the fact that brain imagery studies were done to show the developmental and functional differences in an individual with dyslexia. To better understand the differences, the following diagram from Dyslexia International shows an example of a non-dyslexic brain and the brain of a person with dyslexia.


These images were taken through an fMRI (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging) machine while the subjects read various examples of text. Image A shows brain activity in a group of people without dyslexia, Image B represents a group with dyslexia and Image C highlights the areas in which the brain is significantly more activated in readers without dyslexia. It can clearly be seen that image B is activated in different areas and contrasts the areas of image A. There are also fewer areas highlighted in image B. This proves that blood flows to different parts of the brain in a person with dyslexia (Dyslexia International).
Researchers have also been interested in the two hemispheres of the brain and how they relate to reading and writing. Additionally they are inquiring about whether or not the hemispheres can give them answers to dyslexia. According to Dyslexic International, the results of the study above show that dyslexics have a more symmetrical pattern of activation when reading and writing while non-dyslexics show a more lateral pattern with the processing mostly happening in the left hemisphere.
One final study to be shared comes from a blog called “Learning Disabilities” that contains interesting information about the hemispheres and lobes of the brain and also helps reiterate the fact that the hemispheres differ in dyslexics. The blogger “Mo D” discusses the Frontal, Parietal, Temporal and Occipital Lobes of the brain but also expresses that two other areas are responsible for reading: the left parietotemporal system and the left occipitotemporal system. The left parietotemporal system is used for decoding and word analysis while the left occipitotemporal system is used for the rapid access of words. These two areas combined are important when understanding written and spoken language in addition to being able to read fluently and effectively. Below is a diagram from the book “Overcoming Dyslexia” by Dr. Sally Shaywitz taken from the blog showing where these areas are located:

Brain Lobes

According to this site, a study done on the two lobes found that the parietotemporal lobe contained significantly less information processing material, known as gray matter, in dyslexics. This could hinder the processing speed and the ability to process important information. The researchers also found less white matter as well. White matter corresponds with reading skill and without it could cause deficiencies in the ability to communicate with other parts of the brain and may produce issues with this skill (Learning Disabilities).
Lastly, one final study was discussed regarding brain structure and a comparison was done with dyslexics and non-dyslexics. Interestingly, as mentioned before, the brain of a dyslexic is more symmetrical in structure and their brain hemispheres are the same on each side or the right is slightly bigger. Subjects that were not dyslexic have a more asymmetrical brain with the left hemisphere being larger. This is significant because it has been proven multiple times that brain size and structure is different between people without dyslexia and people with dyslexia (Learning Disabilities).
Why is this important when discussing music and dyslexia? The more educators from all fields and disciplines know about this deficit, there is a higher probability to help an individual with this ailment. As private instructors, we never truly know who is going to contact us and want lessons. They come to us from a wide variety of backgrounds, musical education and, in some instances, with deficits that may hinder their musical ability. It is our job to be able to help any young student who may seek our guidance and see they are fully satisfied in their musical endeavors.
When I was contacted two years ago by a parent of a dyslexic child wanting saxophone lessons, I was unsure what to expect yet motivated to help this young student musician. The path has been challenging yet rewarding for both of us in that he has been able to make some progress in his studies and I have been able to see what works and what does not. A bit of trial and error on my part as the instructor, but the student was patient with me and I with him. Over the past two years, he has been able to create a better concept of sound, prepare audition material well enough to make the top bands at his school and retain a better knowledge of classical and jazz saxophone.
For him, the learning process involved using other senses besides sight to achieve higher proficiency on the saxophone. During one of our first lessons, I noticed he relied heavily on his ear in order to learn material instead of reading the music on the score. Through this practice he was able to obtain a somewhat high level of aural ability. We started out our lessons by doing tone production exercises, which required little to no reading but required him listening to me. We also discussed scale exercises, which he was able to figure out mentally, again with little to no reading. Throughout each of these exercises, he was able to get better at the saxophone.
Some findings will attempt to dispute this, but I am a firm believer that a person with dyslexia will rely on their other senses in order to acquire the material they wish to learn. I have seen this with my own student as he used his ears instead of his eyes to achieve his goals. According to Dr. Sheryl M. Handler, M.D., children will often use their other senses in order to compensate for the fact that they are unable to read, write or spell certain things as they come up in their everyday lives. She says, “…children can compensate by using their other strengths until the educational demands increase.” Unfortunately, she goes on to say this will make the reading disability more evident. Regardless, the potential is there and dyslexic students are able to learn using a variety of personal strengths.
According to Lucid Research, this compensation will only be able to take a student so far, especially once they reach adulthood. Their article discusses how an older student may seem to have adequate skills with literacy, but these skills may begin to break down as they become faced with more difficult challenges such as going to college. Their term for this is the “Dyslexia Fuse Effect.” It is called this because the “fuse” is blowing because of the load being placed on the person (Lucid Research).
I was a direct witness to this as well. My student was able to get only so far with his major scales as he would figure them out mentally instead of reading them. But as we progressed and started to work on more difficult scales, such as harmonic and melodic minor, he would begin to shut down and start watching my fingers to figure out the proper placement. I would try and get him to look at a page of music in order to begin to figure out the information he needed, but it was a challenge for him to concentrate on the music for a long period of time. As we continue to move forward in his studies the obstacles are still there but he is constantly making progress.
I would like to conclude this post by saying that being a professional musician can potentially be quite challenging. A musician can be teaching in the academic environment or preparing themselves for a career in performance, or both, and it is still a difficult field. It can be even more challenging if one has to face some sort of deficit such as dyslexia. It can hinder and discourage even the most enthusiastic person, but the truth is, as I have found out, it can be overcome. Dyslexia is unfortunately a lifelong issue that cannot be outgrown (What Parents Need to Know About Dyslexia) or “cured (International Dyslexia Association),” but many have found ways around it, including using their other strengths to help them.
In my third and final post, I will be describing solutions to better help young musicians with dyslexia. I will hopefully use the post to list the solutions I have found that work well, and hopefully others I have yet to try.


American Association for Pediatric Ophthalmology and Strabismus. What Parents Need To Know About Dyslexia (Reading Disability). http://www.aapos.org/resources/learning_disabilities_/

Dyslexia International. Neuroimaging. http://www.dyslexia-international.org/neuroimaging/

International Dyslexia Association. Frequently Asked Questions. http://www.interdys.org/FAQIsThereACure.htm

Learning Disabilities. Brain Function of Reading, Writing and Spelling Learning Disabilities. Last modified Thursday, April 25th, 2013. http://neuroblog588.blogspot.com/2013/04/brain-function-of-reading-writing-and.html

Lucid Research. Understanding Dyslexia. http://www.lucid-research.com/documents/factsheets/fs19_understandingdyslexia.pdf

Shaywitz, Sally. 2003. Overcoming Dyslexia. New York: Vintage Books.