Perhaps one of the most challenging aspects of being a music teacher is dealing with only seeing each student for one forty-five minute period per week. The difficulty in this is that so much can be forgotten in the week that transpires between class meetings. While overlapping some review from day to day is nearly always a good idea, it is essential when teaching weekly classes. Even so, just reviewing is often not enough; the deeper understandings that I want my students to gain and that give knowledge a practical context and relevance are born from “hands-on” learning, and not from just learning the facts. This depth of teaching and learning requires time to apply knowledge, and not just remember it. On the other hand, knowledge cannot be applied if it is not remembered. With this in mind, today I offer some practical tips on how to maximize retention and understanding from one weekly class meeting to the next.
One of the important techniques I have found is to keep together the goal and the tasks and steps that lead up to it. This supposes that there is a higher purpose, for example, to teaching a class how to play a song on a musical instrument than just teaching them the song on a musical instrument. There are many possible goals, both musical and non-musical that might motivate teaching students to play a song. You might be teaching music reading, teaching them how to self-evaluate, refine, or present. You might be teaching them to analyze music, or how to interpret a musical work. Non-musical goals could include developing spatial reasoning, which is useful for both musical and non-musical applications, or about a musical culture in collaboration with the social studies teacher. Or, you could be teaching them how to play a song on a musical instrument because you are developing life-long music lovers, and your class is interested in learning to play; to experience music in a new and exciting way as a performer. Whatever the goal, it must always be in front of the students as they fill out a worksheet, practice a melody on a keyboard, teach a song to another student, improvise, analyze, sing what they are about to play, or what-have-you. Students are less likely to forget something they learned if they understand the application and the reason they are doing what they are doing.
A second technique is to give the students multi-sensory activities with which to learn. Lately I’ve been teaching my 6th grade students mixed meter. In the past, I have given them music to listen to, sing, and/or play in mixed meter, and explained the grouping of mixed meter measures into two groups of uneven subdivisions. This method leans heavily on intellectualizing mixed meter, but was not overly successful. Many students had significant difficulty accurately performing mixed meter, and some could not tell me what meter was when we were finished with the unit. This year, I used movement and body percussion first. We played a game with large bouncy balls; the students had to walk to all duple subdivisions, and toss the ball in the air for all triple subdivisions. They did this after familiarizing themselves with the music (“Tanz” from Carmina Burana) by listening and following a listening map with different icons for duple and triple subdividsions. The next class, I taught them a body percussion pattern, and they did that with a partner to the same music. For the third class, we did “Tanz” again with body percussion, and then the first theme group from the 4th movement of Concerto for Orchestra by Bartok. At this point, everyone was clearly hearing and accurately moving to both triple and duple subdivisions. For the Bartok, I gave them the theme written in standard music notation. They could see the groups of three or two eighth notes, and also now could see the many time signatures, and understand what they meant, because they had the feeling of two-four and five-eight meter in their bodies, not just their heads. No review was necessary from one class to the next; they all remembered the body percussion patterns and what duples and triples sounded like.