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9 minutes reading time (1774 words)

The future of piano teaching - Technology and the learning process

Editor's note: In the November/December 2014 issue, Clavier Companion launched a series of articles addressing the future of piano teaching. This article is part of that series, which will continue in future issues. 


"The popularity of this new pastime among children has increased rapidly . . . This new invader of the privacy of the home has brought many a disturbing influence in its wake. Parents have become aware of a puzzling change in the behavior patterns of their children. They are bewildered by a host of new problems, and find themselves unprepared, frightened, resentful, helpless. They cannot lock out this intruder because it has gained an invincible hold of their children."1

What have computers done to our children? As educators and parents, we fear that the next generation will grow up staring at screens all day, have trouble sustaining attention, and lack the ability to carry on a conversation. While you may assume that the above quote encapsulates ours fears for the future, it actually describes the fears of many decades—and many technologies—past. Azriel Eisenberg wrote these words in his 1936 American Journal of Psychiatry essay to describe how children would suffer at the hands of the latest, greatest technology: the radio.

The old problem of new technology

    Look through the technological timeline and you will see the same reactions to any new technology: Socrates feared that the written word would destroy our memories, skeptics in the sixteenth-century thought the printing press would create information overload, and controversy is still swirling over the snack-sized portions doled out by television. There is no question that innovations throughout the centuries have changed the ways in which we think, and, with the rise of computer technology, it seems as though our brains are being challenged in even more significant ways. Headlines are splashed across the internet (ironically enough), warning us of the dangers of social media, the demise of memory at the hands of multitasking, and attention spans shrinking to that of a goldfish. In fact, according to recent reports, there is a good chance that your attention has shifted several times just since you started reading this article! 

    Instead of taking the same path as our historical predecessors in assuming we will inevitably be swallowed by the black hole of technology, educators must take a different stance. The neurological benefits of playing a musical instrument have been studied and documented,2 and we must find ways to keep our students engaged in the process. Fortunately, we have hundreds of interactive, creative, and stimulating new technologies to grab the attention and curiosity of our students. It's time to stop talking about the next generation's inability to learn in nineteenth- and twentieth-century ways and, instead, understand how they want to learn in twenty-first century ways.

Learning hasn't changed

   The ways in which we learn and form memories haven't changed over the years. We still need information to be presented in manageable quantities and consistently duplicated in order for it to be stored in long-term memory. What has changed, however, is the amount of stimuli with which we are presented daily. If information is only attended to once or twice before the next stimuli invades our attention, those long-term memories are much more difficult to produce, resulting in frustrated students and teachers. Fortunately, lack of focus isn't an inevitable consequence of 24/7 technology. With the appropriate teacher guidance, students can learn how to hone in on the important information and select the most beneficial tools amidst the barrage of available stimuli. 

    While our main tool for teaching and learning is the acoustic piano, other resources must be employed to assist in the depth and reinforcement of learning. When long-term memories are formed, they are not stored in our brains like nicely wrapped packages waiting to be pulled off a shelf. Instead, memories are stored in various regions throughout the brain based on their type (visual, aural, emotional, etc.), creating an interconnected web much like the internet. Google "Beethoven," and you'll get millions of hits. Ask a student to tell you about Beethoven, and neural activity should occur in many different regions. This is the difference between rote memory—with its lack of meaning and connection to multiple neural regions—and actual learning of a subject. Rote memory won't help when you have that memory slip in the recital, but learning through multiple sensory inputs will provide several back-up systems when one fails. Music apps, educational websites, and video sites such as YouTube are all wonderful resources for reinforcing concepts, analyzing musical interpretation, and practicing compositional techniques. By using these tools in the lesson, a teacher can ensure that the learning is of a high quality and an appropriate level.

Sustaining attention

   As educators, we know that we must provide repetition and multiple learning opportunities to rein-force concepts properly. But how can we sustain a student's attention when we are asking for a phrase to be repeated (for the tenth time) towards the end of a forty-five minute lesson? Research studies have reported different findings on how long we can sustain attention—anywhere from a mere eight seconds up to twenty minutes—and we can probably all point to students who fall on either end of that spectrum. 

    While we can't climb into the minds of our students to know if they are really paying attention, a 2010 study by Bunce and Flens attempted to do just that through the use of classroom clickers—an interactive technology that allows students to answer multiple-choice questions that are immediately collected and viewed within a classroom setting.3 Students in lecture classes were asked to "click" when their attention lapsed and again when they regained focus. The results showed that students lose focus far more often but for shorter periods of time than we may think. Lapses occurred just thirty seconds after class began and then every four-to-five minutes at the beginning of the lecture. By the end of the lecture, lapses were occurring every two minutes. The good news is that these moments of inattention only lasted for a minute or less. Of even greater note was the relationship between focus and pedagogical style. Students showed a peak in attention when active, student-centered learning methods were employed, and they retained this high level for several minutes after the instructor returned to the lecture. Variety of pedagogical methods is an important tool for any educator looking to sustain a student's attention and focus, and, through the addition of computer technology, we have yet another resource at our fingertips.

The importance of play

   With this information on sustaining attention and focus, one key ingredient is still missing: a curious and playful student. A teacher can work tirelessly to prepare a lesson plan, find appropriate repertoire, and plan performance opportunities, but, if a student isn't motivated to play with the piano, explore new sounds, ask questions, and search for answers, those hours of planning can be hours wastefully spent. Much research has been conducted on play, and it is apparent that learning cannot take place without it. When a student is motivated, curious, and playful, the brain releases dopamine, a neurotransmitter that assists in controlling the brain's pleasure and reward centers. But this neurotransmitter does more than just make us feel good about playing the piano. It also increases focus, decision making, and attention, while allowing regions of the brain to communicate easily with one another. A curious student also displays increased activity in the hippocampus, the area of the brain involved in the creation of memories. With such playfulness and curiosity, students are likely to exhibit characteristics of a state we all want to achieve—a state of flow. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi described flow as "the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity."4 Time flies by when we are engaged in activities we enjoy. Conversely, minutes seem like hours when we are faced with an unpleasant task. 

    While we may understand the importance of playing in the lesson, play looks much different to today's students than it did just a decade ago. When students play with technology, they have the ability to receive instantaneous feedback, compose, discover new information, interact with peers and teachers, and listen to master performers from all eras. In addition, the focused attention brought about by play doesn't just apply to the subject that piqued a student's interest; it also impacts learning and memory that surrounds the activity. A performance might stick in our memories as being highly successful, but we don't just remember what we played. Odds are, we also remember what we wore, who was in attendance, what the weather was like that day, and where we dined after. This can also apply to everyday learning. A student who comes to the lesson with a sense of exploration is more likely to remember those dreaded scale fingerings as well! 

    Frances Clark said, "Meet the students where they are, not where you are, and not where you want them to be, but where they really are." While she clearly wasn't speaking of technology, this is where we must meet the twenty-first century student. By combining traditional pedagogy and technology, we have the opportunity to create extraordinary learning opportunities that will inspire and motivate. It's time we meet our students where they play, where they are focused, and where they will thrive.

Notes:

1. Eisenberg, A. (1936). "Children and radio programs." American Journal of Psychiatry, 493-494.

2. Collins, Anita. (2014, July 22). How playing an instrument benefits your brain. [video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=R0JKCYZ8hng.

3. Bnce, D. M., Flens, E. A., & Neiles, K. Y. (2010). How long can students pay Check out our new Viola Concerto Accompaniments! Simplified string concerto accompaniments. Your Solution for those impossible piano parts! www.frustratedaccompanist.com attention in class? A study of student attention decline using clickers. Journal of Chemical Education (87), 1438-1443.

4. Csikszentmihalyi, M. (1990). Flow: The psychology of optimal experience. New York: Harper and Row.

Additional Sources and Further Reading:

Bell, V. (2010, February 15). "A history of media technology scares, from the printing press to Facebook." Retrieved from slate.com.

Brown, S., & Vaughan, C. (2009). Play: How it shapes the brain, opens the imagination, and invigorates the soul. New York: Avery.

Singh, M. (2014, October 24). "Curiosity: It helps us learn, but why?" Retrieved from npr.org.

Willis, J. (2006). Research-based strategies to ignite student learning insights from a neurologist and classroom teacher. Alexandria, VA: Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development.

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Piano Magazine is the leading resource for pianists, piano teachers, and piano enthusiasts. We bring you informative, interesting, and inspiring ideas on all aspects of piano teaching, learning, and performing. The official name of Clavier Companion magazine was changed to Piano Magazine in 2019.

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