LEARNING MUSIC WITH BOTH SIDES OF THE BRAIN
Learning music is a unique exercise for the brain; it is unlike any other learning experience. The peculiar coordination of the left and right brain, which also includes the incorporation of feeling and intuitive sense — all this must be put together in one package. Yet many students, when memorizing music for a lesson or a performance, use a decidedly left-brain approach that will always get them into trouble.
A student who tries to remember where the fingers go in a sequential fashion, and uses that approach for an entire piece of music, is missing out on new learning experiences, and he is also making things ready for a memory lapse during a performance. I've seen it happen time and time again — you must have a " big picture " understanding of the music you're playing, you must use your ears more so than your fingers, and you must memorize with understanding. If you use a " sequencing only " approach (memorizing the order of the notes ), your grasp of the piece you' re playing will be similar to a setup of dominoes : knock one over and the whole thing falls apart.
When I' m memorizing a piece of music, I seek to have a complete understanding of the structure — from the chord progressions up to the form. If I know the chord movement, then I know the music, and I won ' t forget it. Ask yourself — in a difficult piece of music can you play the melody by itself and from memory? Or have you just memorized the hand positions? Can you transpose the melody? Can you start in the middle, or at an unusual place in the music and play from there? All of these are right-brain approaches that provide a necessary complement to memorizing the sequence of notes. If you ' re playing a sonata do you have a grasp of the sonata-allegro form? Do you know where the development starts, the recap? These are not academic exercises, they are important tools for knowing the big picture, and preventing memory lapses.
A few years ago I was serving as one of the judges for a piano contest. One of the student contestants was playing a Beethoven sonata quite well, when he suddenly went from the exposition to the recap, thus leaving out most of the first movement. I ' m sure that student learned a lot from that experience, but a thorough knowledge of the sonata-allegro form would have helped prevent such a lapse.
Students who are in the formative stages of learning to read music have a habit of memorizing their songs in order to avoid learning the notation system. All music teachers are painfully aware of this problem. One of the best preventions for this is to congratulate the student on his good memory, and then ask him to start somewhere in the middle and play from there. If he can start anywhere in the song by reading the notes at that spot, then his grasp of the music is probably real. Many, many times this is not the case. It is important that, at all stages of development, students have an inside-out grasp of the music they are learning. How does it relate to notation, to listening, what is the structure? What is the phrasing?
And of course there is the subject of rhythm and memory. I used to be the Dance Musician at Columbia College, where one of my duties was to teach one of the classes of their curriculum — Music for Dancers. During the large amounts of time we spent working on meter recognition, I often told the dancers that understanding rhythm was an important key in remembering the sequence of moves that comprised their choreography. Dancers have to have very acute short-term memory that can be too left-brain dominated. A student who incorporates rhythm into a sequence of dance movements or learning a piece of music — this student is using her right-brain and left brain. The memory will then be much more solid. All piano teachers know the frustration of listening to beginning students who insist on playing notes only and ignoring rhythm. A teacher must be very unyielding in this area. When students tell me they want to learn the notes first and then the rhythm, I ask them, " When your mother sang you a lullaby when you were very small, did she announce to you that she would first sing the notes and then the rhythm? " No, that ' s not the way to sing or learn music, at least not in the early stages of development.
Rhythm provides the framework for memory; imagine the difficulty of memorizing music if all notes were the same time value and there were no accents. While practicing music that presents extreme technical challenges, sometimes students and performers must abandon rhythm for awhile to work out the technical problems. However, it " s not good to stay in that mode for too long. Remember that rhythm is something that is discerned and felt, and making use of both functions will cement the structure of the music into the learner ' s brain.
In another treatise on this site I discussed concentration and performance, I hope now that you can see that making full use of both sides of the brain is also very important for successful performances and successful learning.Artist in Residence