Teacher’s Corner by Lance Elbeck

As a former symphony musician now retired and teaching in Ottawa I’m continually impressed with the amazing memories displayed by the students at our school.

Fine symphonic players are excellent readers of music – great interpreters of notes on the page.  We like to joke that we’ve played the Mozart 39th Symphony (for instance) so many times that we could play it by memory.

Yet, how many of us could just sit down alone by ourselves in an empty room and play the 1st violin part to the Bartok concerto for orchestra completely by memory, observing all the rests, without an occasional prompt from our parts?

From the youngest students to the young adults in Stellae Boreales,

OSS teachers expect and encourage continual use of the ‘memory muscle’ in the Suzuki tradition.

It’s pretty thrilling for me to have a young child memorize a page of music, as they often do in just a week, and bring it eagerly into the lesson.

Stellae Boreales plays all repertoire from memory- I’m more impressed with their learning of the accompanying parts rather than the tune. The coaches set deadlines for the group for upcoming concerts – and are rarely disappointed.

A couple of decades ago I became pretty unhappy with my own musical memory. It was bad enough not being able to find my car keys or worse yet, to go into a room and forget why I was there in the first place.

The yearly solo concerto with the orchestra had become effortful from a memory standpoint, as the orchestra season became far busier and my outside musical affiliations increased, so one day it was off to the library for me to do a little research on the subject, hopefully to help my own memory.

Lo and behold, I found a wonderful book, The Art of Memory, by Frances Yates.

Ms. Yates begins in her book,

“In the ancient world, devoid of printing, without paper for note-taking or on which to type lectures, the trained memory was of vital importance. The ancient memories were trained by an art which reflected the art and architecture of the ancient world, which could depend on faculties of intense visual memorization which we have lost.”

The author then goes on to quote an unknown teacher of rhetoric in Ancient Rome:

“Now let us turn to the treasure house of inventions, the custodian of all the parts of rhetoric, memory.”

“There are two kinds of memory, one natural, the other artificial.  The natural memory is that which is engrafted in our minds, born simultaneously with thought. The artificial memory is a memory strengthened or confirmed by training. A good natural memory can be improved by this discipline and persons less well endowed can have their weak memories improved by the art.”

….Findings in the online edition of the journal Brain, pub. 2006, showed that not only do the brains of musically-trained children respond to music in a different way than those of untrained children, but also that the training “improves their memory” as well. After one year the musically trained children performed better in a memory test that is correlated with general intelligence skills such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ.

….The Canadian-based researchers (McMaster University) reached these conclusions after measuring changes in brain responses to sounds in children aged between four and six.

Over the period of a year they took four measurements in two groups of children — those taking Suzuki music lessons and those taking no musical training outside school — and found developmental changes over periods as short as four months. While previous studies have shown that older children given music lessons had greater improvements in IQ scores than children given drama lessons, this is the first study to identify these effects in brain-based measurements in young children.

At the beginning of the study, six of the children (five boys, one girl) had just started to attend a Suzuki music school; the other six children (four boys, two girls) had no music lessons outside school.

….The researchers chose children being trained by the Suzuki method for several reasons: it ensured the children were all trained in the same way, were not selected for training according to their initial musical talent and had similar support from their families.

In addition, because there was no early training in reading music, the Suzuki method provided the researchers with a good model of how training in auditory, sensory and motor activities induces changes in the cortex of the brain.

Analysis of the music tasks showed greater improvement over the year in melody, harmony and rhythm processing in the children studying music compared to those not studying music. “General memory capacity” also improved more in the children studying music than in those not studying music.

Prof. Laurel Trainor ….”it is very interesting that the children taking music lessons improved more over the year on “general memory skills” that are correlated with non-musical abilities such as literacy, verbal memory, visiospatial processing, mathematics and IQ than did the children not taking lessons. The finding of very rapid maturation of the N250m component to violin sounds in children taking music lessons fits with their ‘large improvement on the memory test’. It suggests that musical training is having an effect on how the brain gets wired for general cognitive functioning related to memory and attention.”

According to the general principles of ‘artificial’ memory we should put everything that we want to fix in memory into an image. The more vivid the imagery the more vivid the impression.

As a teacher I find myself continually challenged — trying to make the music come alive and jump off the page and into my students memories.