Left..., Left..., Left, Right, Left!
Teaching Techniques For the Whole Brain
By James Hill
Explore a range of ways to engage learners across the entire neurological spectrum, from strong left- to strong right-brain-dominant. Also explore your own neurological style and how that affects the way you teach.
Unless you've had a hemispherectomy (an operation that removes of one side of your brain) you're neither a "right-brain person" or a "left-brain person." The truth is, we're whole-brain creatures. That being said, one of your brain hemispheres is probably stronger than the other and this neurological asymmetry plays a big part in defining your teaching style. The same asymmetry in a student defines his/her learning style. It's a magical thing when your style of teaching aligns perfectly with a student's style of learning but that rarely happens. This article is about exploring practical ways to engage all students, even those who don't share your neurological style.
The idea that each side of the brain is responsible for different functions (a phenomenon called "lateralization") was first proposed in the mid-1800s. Since then, we've learned much about the way lateralization works (we've also seen the proliferation of many myths and misconceptions on the subject ).
We now know that the left side of the brain is responsible for crunching numbers, recalling facts, and forming sentences. We also know that the right side of the brain specializes in guesstimation, gut feelings and seeing 'the whole picture.' While there's no doubt that complex musical activities like performing, improvising and arranging draw on both sides of the brain, it's the way we present such tasks that will either pique a student's interest or push them away. A student who can't 'find a way into' a musical activity will miss a learning opportunity and will likely become a distraction to the rest of the class.
As teachers it's our job to engage students in ways that align with their individual neurological styles. The first and most important step is knowing ourselves. If you don't already know your neurological style, take a short online quiz to find it out:
Your neurological style – left, right, or middle – sets the tone in your learning environment. It's the proverbial 'playing field' and it's never completely flat. If you're right-brain dominant, you tend to make decisions on an emotional and intuitive level. If you're left-brain dominant, you tend to arrive at decisions through analysis and logic. If you're 'middle-brain' dominant you find yourself using a mix of intuition and analysis. The downside to being middle-brain dominant is that you can be indecisive because you see things from both a left- and right-brain perspective (often simultaneously!).
"I believe that it is good practice to tell our students that we each have our own individual neurological strengths and weaknesses," says Diane Connell of Rivier College in Nashua, New Hampshire. "Feel free to use your own results as an example, explaining that you do not expect everyone to be perfect in every area ... Assign projects and assignments in their area of strength, and they will be relieved to know it is okay to learn the way they most enjoy learning." With that in mind, let's take a look at ways to engage learners on both sides of the corpus callosum.
How to Engage Right-brain (Intuitive) Learners
Open-ended tasks such as composing and/or improvising, lyric writing, and arranging will naturally appeal to students who are right-brain dominant. But what can you do to help students with right-brain dominance when they don't seem to be 'getting into' a particular task or assignment? Here are some things you can do to make an assignment more appealing to intuitive learners:
1. Work in groups: Right-brain students tend to be social; they like the company of others and prefer to work in pods. Remember, a 'group' can be as small as two students. In fact, a short 'turn and talk' activity (e.g. "turn to your neighbour and make sure he/she has the correct fingering for the C chord") is a simple, effective way to have students work together without re-arranging furniture or having students move around the room.
2. Make it multi-sensory: Right-brain students tend to be visual learners; they have to see it to believe it. If you're lecturing about music theory, for example, write your main points on the board or overhead projector. You may want to use a fill-in-the-blank handout that students can complete as you're talking. When using the overhead, whiteboard or flip-chart, make effective use of colour. For instance, you might highlight Uke I in yellow and Uke II in pink to make a duet score easier to follow. Or, if you're doing harmonic analysis (especially at a basic I – IV – V level), use different colours for each harmony: black for I, green for IV and red for V, for example. Whenever possible, ask "how does this make you feel?" Whether it's a harmony, a melody, a scale or an entire song, students with right-brain dominance are intuitive and like to explore their feelings.
Excerpt from J. S. Bach's Chaconne for solo violin (autograph score).
A fun way to pique right-brain students' interest in music notation (something they often struggle with) is to show them examples of visually fascinating scores. For example, bring a copy of a J. S. Bach autograph score (i.e. a score in Bach's hand) to class for discussion. Bach's famous Chaconne for solo violin (shown at right) is, in the words of German musicologist Georg von Dadelsen, "one of the most beautiful testaments to Bach's musical notation." Notice, as von Dadelsen puts it, "the incomparable way in which he combines the groups of notes into an aesthetic image; as if he wanted the character of the music, its inner movement, to be represented by its total visual component." For other examples of Bach's autograph scores click here.
"Capricorn" from Makrokosmos I by George Crumb.
For more extreme and playful examples of visually stimulating scores, see any number of pieces by American composer George Crumb. "Capricorn" from Makrokosmos I for piano is shown at right. This highly visual example of written music will excite the visual-spatial part of a student's brain, particularly if he/she is right-brain dominant.
3. Make it real: Demonstrate – with video and audio if possible – the relevance of an activity. A short video of a symphony performance can demonstrate the power of sight-reading, for example. Let students imagine a) being in another musical situation (e.g. an orchestra rehearsal) and b) how a particular skill (e.g. sight-reading) would be useful there.
4. Let them move: Keep right-brain students engaged during analytical activities through kinesthetics. For instance, have students walk to the front of the class to name chords, harmonies and/or notes on the board. Play games in which students can respond by raising hands, standing up and sitting down. One tried-and-true example is this: play a two-chord song for students (This Old Man, Tom Dooley, Ev'rybody Loves Saturday Night, Iko Iko, Alouette or countless others). Have students sit for the tonic chord (I) and stand for the dominant chord (V). This is a simple, effective way to make harmonic analysis a lot more fun for right-brain learners!
Bottom line: When a right-brain-dominant student is having trouble finding a foothold in an analytical activity, try working in groups, making it visual and keeping it kinesthetic.
How to Engage Left-brain (Analytical) Learners
Left-brain activities like sight-reading, harmonic analysis and rhythmic analysis tend toward the factual and mathematical. Such activities will naturally appeal to left-brain students. But what can you do to help left-brain-dominant students when they don't seem to be 'getting into' a particular task or assignment? Here are some ideas for engaging students with left-brain strengths:
1. Write it down: Write an outline of the lesson on the board. Students with left-brain strengths often want to know 'where it's all going.' They will appreciate knowing the lesson sequence ahead of time.
2. Create boundaries and guidelines: An open-ended task like improvisation or composition can be terrifying for a strong left-brain learner who may be paralyzed by his/her fear of failure. Create boundaries to make the task feel more manageable. For example, begin improvisation exercises by having students clap short, improvised rhythms (e.g. four beats long). Then have students improvise short rhythmic phrases using a single note (start with the tonic note of the key you'll be playing in). Gradually expand the number of scale notes that a student can use in his/her improvisations.
Another example: a 'finish-the-phrase' exercise in which the teacher plays 'do-re-mi-fa-sol' and the student's task is to respond with an improvised conclusion or expansion of the phrase. Reduce the intimidation factor for left-brain learners by saying something like, "only use notes from the major scale and try to finish on do, mi or sol."
3. Allow for perfectionism: Left-brain-dominant students tend to be perfectionists and will enjoy the challenge of trying to get it 'just right.' With that in mind, you can mix a little left-brain-ness into open-ended exercises. For instance, have a student clap an improvised rhythm, then have the entire class clap the rhythm. Ask: "was that right?" "Were we perfectly together?" If not, try it again. The 'getting it right' aspect will appeal to left-brain learners, keeping them grounded in an otherwise right-brain-centric exercise.
4. Tell it like it is: Don't shy away from using (and defining, when necessary) musical jargon and terminology. A left-brain-dominant student tends to have a large vocabulary and an interest in words. Play word games like 'musical hangman' and have students create crossword puzzles with musical terms and definitions for homework. Include Italian, French and German musical terms and definitions.
5. Let them ask "why?": When discussing the way a particular harmony can make us feel (e.g. a major chord can sound 'bright,' 'warm,' 'at rest,' etc.), a left-brain thinker likes to know why this is. Explain that a chord is a 'stack' of notes (much like a snowman!) and it's the musical distance (i.e. interval) between each note gives the chord its particular sound. Left-brain students like to get 'under the hood' to find out how – and why – an engine works. Thinking about and discussing abstract concepts like key signature, chord structure and acoustics (e.g. what gives a note it's pitch? Why do certain notes sound good together?) is fun for left-brain thinkers.
Bottom line: When a left-brain-dominant student is having trouble finding a foothold in an open-ended activity, try creating boundaries, clarifying the structure of the lesson and exciting their interest in abstract concepts.
Freedom to Choose
An effective way to create a less-biased learning environment is to offer choices when assigning homework and/or projects. This accomplishes two things: 1) it engages students in a way consistent with their learning styles and 2) it gives you, the teacher, an indication of what your students' learning styles and preferences really are.
For example, have students choose one of the following homework assignments (which could be shared with the class at a later date):
Listen to five performances of the same song; write a one-page essay explaining the similarities and differences in the artists' interpretations of the piece.
Write two new verses to an existing song.
Choreograph a dance to an existing piece of music.
'Choice' activities can also be done in-class. For example, have students listen to a piece of music and either 1) write a paragraph about the way the music made them think and/or feel or 2) create an illustration that represents the music and/or their feelings while they were listening.
Students with left-brain strengths will tend to choose the assignments that involve writing and reflection where students with right-brain strengths will be drawn to the visual, creative and kinesthetic options. The point is that these 'choice' assignments invite participation from students across the neurological spectrum.
In a given learning environment there will be a range of neurological styles from strongly left- to strongly right-brain and everything in between. Try using some of the strategies outlined above to engage students in ways that align with their respective neurological styles. "Students with strong left- or right-brain tendencies much prefer to be taught to their neurological strengths," says Dianne Connell. "Although they can learn by different methods, they get most excited and involved when they can learn and do assignments in their area of strength."
Of course, this all depends on our own self-awareness, our understanding of the neurological strengths and weaknesses we bring into the learning environment and, given that, how we can engage all students, not just those with whom we most easily identify.
^ 1. The left/right brain concept has been embraced – and over-simplified – by those eager to sell products that seem 'cutting edge' and/or 'scientifically proven.' "Commercial promoters have applied [the concept of lateralization] to promote subjects and products far outside the implications of the research," says Neurology professor Terrence Hines.
^ 2. Research has found that the corpus callosum is larger in a musician's brain than in a nonmusician's brain. The corpus callosum is the large bundle of nerves that connects the two sides of the brain, allowing the two hemispheres to work together and exchange information. For more on this click here.
^ 3. Connell, D. Left Brain/Right Brain Pathways To Reach Every Learner. http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3629
^ 5. Connell, D. Left Brain/Right Brain Pathways To Reach Every Learner. http://www2.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3629