Monday, October 29, 2012

Is technology changing the way children are learning?

I was talking to a music teacher friend of mine who was flustered by how long it took for many of her students to do things like memorize the notes on the open strings of a violin (there are four). The answer was often times on the page in front of them, and all it really should've taken was a quick glance at the page, some mental processing, and then providing the answer. Some of my other music teacher friends were bewildered by how some of their transfer students couldn't read sheet music without first writing out all the letters.

This all got me wondering about how technology affects the way children learn. In the Google generation, we don't really have to commit too many things to long-term memory since we have these pocket-sized devices where we can access a world's worth of information. How often do you hear people say, "Could you remind me to ____ by text/Email/Facebook?" I'm guilty of doing this, but conceptually, it's a really strange thing to do socially. The implication is I don't have the mental faculty to take it upon myself to commit this to memory or write it down. I'm going to ask YOU to remember to remind me about something you're expecting me to remember to address.

Don't think it's a big deal? Maybe it isn't. But I'm a little perturbed that I used to have all of my friends' numbers memorized. Since getting a cell phone, I can count the numbers I have memorized on two hands. It's a frightening to think about how dependent we all are on these devices.

But getting back to music and learning, it's pretty amazing how quickly my students can type paragraphs with their thumbs, yet some can't remember where middle C on a piano is. The piano is a heck of a lot more ergonomically and intuitively designed than QWERTY, but I wonder if we as teachers are failing to accommodate for the new ways that kids' brains are wired to learn.

Case in point, I have a young student (about 8 years old) with some mild learning differences. It's been a struggle to get him to focus on learning the layout of the piano and learn based off hand position and finger numbers (really basic stuff). I'm lucky if I can hold his attention for more than 2 minutes at the piano. However, the moment I introduced a computer and GarageBand, he had absolutely no difficulty concentrating and focusing for the 45 minute lesson. He was focused, creative, and inquisitive, a completely different student!

While I still feel that it's my obligation as a music educator to make him familiar with reading and playing piano, I also think that it's just as important to tailor his lessons to his particular strengths of learning. As much as I hate to admit it, a lot of popular music is written by people who program music rather than compose it in a traditional sense. However, doing so requires many of the same skills that go into becoming a good musician. If he can learn those core elements and have those with him the rest of this life, that will be a heck a lot more rewarding as a teacher than having a student who gives up on piano lessons because they're boring and irrelevant.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Vet school

An article posted by the Atlantic a while ago talked about the struggles veterans confront when re-assimilating to civilian life with particular focus on the isolation many go through when entering college. Author Alex Horton quotes them as perhaps the "least visible minority"on campuses. Veteran Kyle Lund explains, "The kid to your left is hung over, the girl to your right is there because her parents made her go, and the guy in front of you is there to get a high paying job ... When I'm in training, the guy to my left, right, and front are there for a common goal, and we're all facing hardships together."

On my semester back at school earlier this year, I had one of the most striking and rewarding performances of my career. I was awake, restless, and stressed. The day had passed, and I had been working well past a responsible bed time. Needing a break, I grabbed my guitar and went to the common room. I was confident no one would be there. I sat on the musty dorm sofa, opened my guitar case (I always love that satisfying click of the latch), and practiced some new compositions I'd been working on.

A disheveled student walked into the kitchen and started making some food while I played. After he presumably finished making the food, he walked over and asked, "Mind if I eat and listen?" I told him that I was just practicing, and that it would get repetitive, but he said he didn't mind. When I took my first tuning break, he said he enjoyed my music and offered some of the food he'd cooked. I didn't have much of an apetite and politely refused. He sat there for over an hour just soaking in the music.

Sometime during that hour, I found out that he was a veteran. He'd been deployed to Afghanistan and had fought on the front lines. Over the course of our miniature conversations, he'd opened up about the bombings, a life of constantly being on edge, and how strange it was being at school again after all he had been through. He also expressed his gratitude for the USO for bringing musicians and entertainers citing how the performers were always a highlight, always appreciated, and always a great respite and relief from daily stresses.

This young, twenty-something year old reminded me that music isn't just relaxation and entertainment. People thrive on positive communities, and few things can bring people together as quickly and deeply as music. Often, I worry that my pursuit of music is this terrible, delusional, narcissistic exercise to feed an insatiable, lonely, insecure ego. Then a lone student in a college common room listens to music with undivided attention and in doing so, shows that what I do has value beyond my ability to control. Heh, and as egotistical as that sounds, it's actually humbling. 

On that note, thank you to the men and women in the military that volunteer to put their lives on the line. Veterans live a life I can only begin to imagine and seldom get the love, support, and understanding they so desperately need and deserve. 

Jealousy in my life

OK. I'll admit it. There's a musician friend of whom I'm jealous. I'm not talking simple, "Wow! I wish I could play like that!" but a terrible emotional pang that skews and twists my perceptions. No juicy name-dropping here because his/her identity is irrelevant. What's on my mind is the nature of this complex and ugly beast we call "Jealousy." 

At its core, I think jealousy stems from insecurity. It's not about the person of whom one's envious rather what that person embodies that is unfulfilled in the jealous person's life. The musician is great at his/her craft, successful, and an absolutely delightful human being. I have absolutely no reason to bear resentment. However, when I see a performance of said musician, I yearn to be in a similar place in life, to have done things differently to be there, and to be as wonderful of a person.

This evening, I came to terms with my feelings but decided to do something about it. While I can't change the way I naturally react to the world around me, I can take steps to address the core of what's bothering me. I don't work hard enough at my craft. I practice several hours a day but certainly don't practice in the most efficient ways. I can be more pro-active in setting and achieving short and long term goals to get to where I want to be. Basically, I can give life my all and leave myself no room for excuses and regrets. 

And as far as my becoming a better person, the best I can do is to make life as pleasant for the people around me as possible and hope that my actions bring them happiness and fulfillment.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Failing a difficult student

I'm blessed with an awesome brother whose wisdom and judgement I trust. A little while ago, I had talked to him about a student who was a difficult nut to crack: every activity I tried to make music lessons creative, multifaceted, and relevant only seemed to dig the student (henceforth referred to as "Putney" as a tribute to a college professor who had to put-up with my own frustrating antics as a student) deeper into frustration and boredom. 

By day two of lessons with Putney, I knew I had a student was, as cliche as it sounds, talented but unmotivated. I also recognized that I needed to completely change my approach. Some of my teacher friends deduced that Putney was a lost cause, that I should do what I can and just take the money until the parents eventually gave-up. However, something about that didn't satisfy me, and it wasn't until I talked to my brother that the reason became clear.

Through our conversation, I came to realize that students like Putney are exactly the type of students that need the full attention of teachers. I feel that the greatest failing of the education system comes from teachers dismissing difficult students too quickly and defaulting the path of least resistance. To paraphrase my brother, "Sometimes, people who are more mature than their age feel demeaned to be treated like children. Treat [Putney] with integrity and respect for the intelligence you say you recognize within," (although my brother's true words didn't sound like a stale fortune cookie on steroids). Lessons with Putney continue to be difficult, but by increasing the challenge in spite of increased resistance and treating Putney with mature dignity has put us on a path to progress rather than prolonged resistance.