2 KEY PRACTICES FOR THE YOUNG AND MATURING BRAIN
By Kevin Taylor
Parents want their kids to practice their instrument. That’s pretty much a given. Another way of thinking about this is neurologically: a mature brain wants an immature brain to behave like a mature brain. That expectation indicates that a mature brain may not be acting like one.
Western intellectual history has come to seeing children as other than defective adults rather late. Examining the body-types of children in medieval art we see children with adult dimensions – only smaller – small and feeble adults. Children did not have their own dimensions until the Renaissance.
It wasn’t until the 17th century that the first book about children (children’s diseases) was written. The first American pediatric clinic wasn’t opened until the mid-19th century. It wasn’t until the 1920’s that naturalists (Piaget, Zygovsky, Steiner, Montessori, Bruner and a few others) began to examine the specialness of childrens’ minds. For the next 80 years or so, the study of child-development had been dominated by researchers who looked at children’s behavior. They recognized that children acted and perceived things differently than adults. Children thought differently than adults and had odd motivations and conclusions about things (just talk with a 4 year old awhile for verification). These researchers created valuable models to incorporate that data.
In the 21st century the profound insights of the 20th century scholars, who described the “what” of child development are now being explained with brain imaging technology. We now can see “why” children cannot perceive things accurately. And we can see it in the brain when they can. The prior subject of child-development is now the new subject of human development.
We now know that it is the interaction and connections between brain structures that separate childish perceptions and motivations from mature ones. Kids’ brains just haven’t fully connected. We know that all our internal thought and external motion is coincident with brain neuropathways (brain circuits). We even have basic knowledge how talent is grown and what we can do to begin, embed and improve that growth.
Some would say that this materialistic view of ourselves robs us of the mystery and spirit of our humanity. But I believe that 10,000 years of the development of human language, art, religiosity and culture shows us that this scientific development is just another model for understanding the world. The neurological model is a new tool that serves us without necessarily destroying our values. Rather it can better help us in the creation of these values. This includes musical skill and artistry.
I am going to describe two important types of practice: one for younger students and one for maturing students. These types of practice coincide with the brain development of the child. The are very effective. And I’m going to explain why.
THE PROXIMITY PRACTICE
The proximity practice is most effective for children 4-8 in learning new material. It means that a parent or teacher helps the student in the practice by sitting in front and very close to the student and coaching them in an intimate, intense and positive manner. This keeps and guides the child’s attention, which they may have trouble doing by themselves (because of the distractions of the environment.) This also limits the child’s visual distraction if the parent sits close enough.
The proximity practice also creates integration between the emotional brain and the higher, pre-frontal cortex by keeping the child on task amid a limbic bond (you). The parent can provide valuable learning direction which won’t occur to the child. This creates the neural connections associated with skill development – especially if its emotionally satisfying to the child. Short, sweet and fun practices are best. We use the natural bonding of infancy between the child and parent to generate and reinforce the neural pathways necessary for skill.
The parent can’t be distracted either during the proximity practice. Full attention must be on the child and therefore we can respond if the child gets tired or oppositional. When the rapport breaks down, the learning will cease, so go do something else if that happens. Don’t force it. Your child will tell you when he or she has outgrown this kind of interaction. Much can be learned in a less than a minute with these types of practices.
THE STRATEGIC PRACTICE
Children younger than about nine years have spent their lives developing the lower parts of their brain (the vestibular and limbic systems) that is associated with, among other things, balance, movement, emotion, human bonding, sensory reactivity and basic conservation abilities (knowing things are what they are despite sensory changes when perceiving them). Young kids are not competent strategic thinkers, yet. Those connections come with the development of advanced language and abstraction abilities. They grow slowly.
The pre-frontal cortex of the brain is responsible for, among other things, planning and strategic thinking. It is the executor of the brain. It guides the activity of the person towards a goal. It can override the illusory sensory experience (ex: that small little plane in the air can actually fit people into it). When properly integrated with the rest of the brain it can perceive patterns and associate them with meaningful responses. It requires an accurate sense of time so it begins to mature at about age 9.5, and fully matures (integrated) at around age 25.
Why many teens who are on their own in their practice lose direction and motivation in their playing is because they don’t have goals. Goals are developed in the pre-frontal cortex. The typical goal may be a performance, a piece of music, a lesson-goal, or a grade.
Busy high-school students don’t have goals because they try to construct them WHEN THEY PICK UP THE GUITAR TO PLAY! That is NOT the time to construct a goal. The reason is that the activity of playing aimlessly does not heavily activate the pre-frontal cortex in tween and teens. It activates mainly the limbic system and motor cortex only. This activity is centered in the lower brain. In addition, if the student has anxiety built up around practice, then clear, goal-oriented learning during practice can’t happen easily. The actual touching and holding of the instrument can interfere with the higher thinking. The result is often immature sounding results. The student is just “phoning it in.” Very little progress and learning takes place. This reinforces the lack of motivation and by the age of 15 the child finds the activity meaningless and quits or just withers away to another activity.
The strategic practice is really not an actual guitar-in-the-hands-practice. It must be done away from the instrument. It can be done in the car on the way home from the lesson, or at any time – even right before a real practice. It is not physical. It is mental.
A strategic practice allows the student to plan what goal he or she wishes to accomplish the next time they approach the instrument. It just requires thinking about it. This neurological activity is done completely in the abstract. There is no physical connection with the instrument. Therefore there should be no anxiety that triggers the lower brain. It is just pre-frontal activity. It is as simple as a “to do” list for practice. The cognition is unlimited by the material.
The “to-do” list can be just about anything: to learn a piece, or a measure, memorize a section, master a movement, interpret a passage, work on tone, relearn an old piece, work on speed, “de-code” a passage in a higher position, etc. As time goes by the student’s goals will become more realistic. Real progress will be visible.
This activity can provide a direction for a student. It can help the student “own” his work and talent. It certainly improves the practice because there comes with practice a feeling of accomplishment of the goal met. Without goals, the learning doesn’t go forward. A student can play without goals and all it does is embed the activity deeper into the memory. If that activity needs work, then poor playing (poor neural circuits) becomes embedded.
Parents can help encourage this type of practice by asking about the student’s goals when they are away from the instrument: what are you working on? What are you trying to accomplish? Have you written your to-do list for practice?
Teachers can help encourage this type of thinking by clarifying only one technical issue at a time in the lesson. The clearer the student sees the problem, the quicker it will be solved – if its on the “to-do” list.
When students think about what they want to do when they practice, before they practice, they approach the instrument in a different way. It becomes a tool to embody their thinking. The gratification is increased from playing. And the results are increased musicianship, growing artistry and love of music.