Thursday, October 2, 2014

New Tricks for Old Dogs

This blog post provides additional information and references for a Master Class I presented at the 2012 Biennial Conference of the North American Saxophone Alliance on March 15, 2012, at the University of Florida on September 13, 2013, at the Queensland Conservatorium on May 13, 2014, at the Australian Saxophone Retreat on May 17, 2014, and at Eastern New Mexico University on October 2, 2014.

Session Abstract
This is a topical master class (or lecture-demonstration) which explores music learning in the context of research conducted in the areas of cognitive load theory and motor learning. Key principles drawn from the research are applied to difficult passages performed by students in the class in order to achieve rapid skill acquisition.

Movement and the Brain
The body's motor control system is quite complex.
Let’s say we want to move from an E to an F. First the eye sees the new note. Optic nerve sends information to the primary visual cortex which sends processed information to the frontal cerebral cortex where the required movement is planned. The cortex exchanges information with the basal ganglia about your goal in moving the finger (which muscles to use) and the strategy to adopt to achieve this goal, based on your past experience.  The basal ganglia collects information from the parietal lobe (spatial recognition) and the temporal lobe (past experiences) and sends information back to the motor cortex via the thalamus.
Then, the secondary motor areas (PMA, SMA) in your cerebral cortex, and the cerebellum make the appropriate decisions concerning the amplitude, direction, timing, and force of the movements to make with your finger, determining specific angles required to actually push the key.  These areas send these instructions to the Primary Motor Cortex, your brain stem, and cervical spinal cord, which trigger a coordinated movement of the many muscles in your arm and fingers.

Musicians routinely call on the brain to coordinate extremely precise physical movements, informed by continuous visual and auditory input.  Almost the entire brain is used.

Cognitive Load Theory
Studies in the area of cognitive load theory have shown that our brain can really only process a very few items of information at once.  The most recent studies have found the effective limit of cognitive brain load to be 3 or 4 items at a time.

- Reduce the load on the brain by avoiding unnecessary tension and movement.
- Reduce cognitive load by breaking passages into 2-, 3-, or 4-note groups. Group easy parts: scale/arpeggio fragments, major seconds. Look for patterns: contour, shapes, harmonic/chromatic progressions.
- Stay relaxed. repeat, repeat, repeat.  Do it again tomorrow, and the next day.

Clark, R. , Nguyen, F., & Sweller, J. (2006). Efficiency in Learning: Evidence-Based Guidelines to Manage Cognitive Load. San Francisco: Preiffer.

Clark, R. & Mayer, R. (2007). Elearning and the Science of Instruction. San Francisco: Pfeiffer.

Cowan, Nelson. (2001). The magical number 4 in short-term memory: A reconsideration of mental storage capacity. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 24 , pp 87-114

Dubec, Bruno. (2011). The Brain, Top to Bottom.
Chapter on "Body Movement and the Brain"

Medina, John. (2008). Brain Rules.  Pear Press. Seattle.

Sweller , J., van Merrienboer, J. J. G. & Paas, F.  G. W. C. (1998). Cognitive Architecture and Instructional Design.  Educational Psychology Review, Volume 10, Number 3, 251-296.