Teaching Movement

I read. A lot. One of the books I have been reading lately is titled "How People Learn." This book is amazing in so many ways. It is well researched. It is clear. It cites its sources. It's bibliography is 80 pages long. And it admits where more research needs to be done before definitive conclusions can be drawn. I mean, really. What more could you ask for from a $20 book? Almost nothing. Except what today's article is about: movement.

Specifically, skilled movement. Stuff like walking, dancing, typing... playing an instrument. You get the idea. "How People Learn" focuses mostly on knowledge based learning, like math, history, science, language. Great! Thank you! This is very helpful when I am teaching my kids music theory! It does absolutely bupkis for movement based learning. Or does it? I don't know. That's the problem. The book just doesn't talk about it. Maybe it's the same, maybe it's not. I have a feeling its similar, which is an evasive way of saying "they're different." But today I am going to assume they are the same. Or at least similar enough you can generalize principles of knowledge based learning towards movement based learning.

Three Aids to Learning

The introduction of the book provides three keys to learning something well. They are as follows:

1. Students enter learning with preconceptions about a topic/task. That is to say, the "blank slate" philosophy of learning is totally wrong. If a student is coming in with incorrect assumptions, and you don't ferret those assumptions into the open, learning will be very difficult.

2. To develop competence, you must have a deep foundation of factual knowledge, understand those facts in the context of a conceptual framework, and organize knowledge in ways that facilitate retrieval and application. In other words, you have to know a lot of stuff, that stuff has to be related into a larger scheme, and it has to be organized in a way that the brain has easy access.

and 3. A "metacognitive" approach to instruction can help students learn to take control of their own learning by defining goals and monitoring their progress in achieving them. So it's best to help the students "get outside of themselves" as they are learning, thereby increasing their ability to learn without aid from a teacher.

Application to Movement

Warning: Hypothetical Territory Ahead

The book goes into a fair amount of detail applying the above principles to knowledge based learning. Here's where I move into an area which I have not specifically read research about. I am merely operating under the assumption that the three principles will work in the same way for movement as they do for knowledge.

1. Assumptions. Believe it or not, students do assume things about how movement works. One of the first assumptions I have come across is that because movement in other areas of life is easy to them (walking, opening doors, etc), learning how to play the instrument should also come easily to them. They are quickly disabused of this notion, and I need to do very little to help them realize how wrong that is.

Another assumption is 'Learning an instrument is different from other physical tasks." This can make things quite difficult for the student as they start to move in very unnatural ways that they would do for other tasks (like walking, opening doors, etc). One of my friends, Brandon Sterrett, reminded me of Mr. Miyagi. When the Karate Kid is first learning, Mr. Miyagi makes him wax cars and paint doors. Why? Because the basic movements in karate are similar to the basic movements in other, simpler tasks. I have found discussing similar movements helps students better understand what is required for the instrument.

A more subtle assumption is "The body moves in blocks." That is, the arms move in one large chunk. This leads to other unnatural movements as they tense up the wrist and elbow and end up moving their arms only from the shoulder. A related assumption is "More tension equals more power," which is pretty much exactly wrong. Tension is necessary, but power comes from relaxed, fluid movement that is coordinated across the whole limb.

There are more assumptions, I am sure, but you get the idea. Moving on.

2. Creating a conceptual framework for movement is proving to be very difficult. I do have some ideas, however. One of the first things I have noticed is: strength starts high in the center (the core) and decreases as you move towards the extremities (hands and feet). The wrist muscles are naturally less strong than the chest muscles. The thigh muscles are stronger than the calves. This is one of those obvious observations that I have never heard anybody point out. It has dramatic applications for something like the cello, because it leads directly to the next concept.

Movement should start with strong muscles and "ripple" out towards weaker muscles. I myself have fallen prey to using weak muscles for movement, particularly in the left hand where the intricate fingering is done. Mark Landson, a wonderful violinist colleague of mine, helped make me aware of other possibilities. Using the weight of the arm in conjunction with the stronger shoulder muscles to depress the strings, for example. What this concept also says is, the weaker muscles should respond to the impetus provided by the stronger muscles. Take advantage of physics, not fight it. I guess this concept could also be phrased as "Let your your body do what it is good at." Wrist muscles are not good as sustained effort, but the larger muscles are. The larger muscles are not good at precise movement, but wrist and finger muscles are. Etc. Etc.

3. Metacognition is an important part of learning. This is a fancy way of saying "being aware of yourself." Metacognition in movement is pretty difficult. I have noticed most of my students are hardly aware of their bodies at all. I have had some success, however, by asking them to focus on specific movements. Move the wrist this way, then that. Notice how it feels when the wrist is flexed. Move your wrist while moving your elbow. Tense your hand, now relax it, feel the difference. Etc.

I have also had some success by using external objects to force the student into playing correct form, like wrist guards for the left hand. Guiding the bow back to center while the student is playing. Etc. It is also helpful to ask the student to play incorrectly, because it makes them aware of what the body needs to do while playing "wrong." In fact, asking the student to play incorrectly often leads to the student playing correctly. When this happens, I often point it out to them: "If it feels wrong, you're probably right." Usually, they return the next week much improved.


It is difficult to draw conclusions at this point. It does seem, however, that applying the three principles outlined in "How People Learn" will help students both with knowledge based and movement based learning. Without experimentation, however, there's no way to know how well it all applies. Still, in the absence of a better way, it seems to work pretty well.

I hope this helps you teach better! Please, share any comments, constructive criticisms, and ideas you may have. If teachers don't help each other teach better, we're doomed. Doomed, I say! So stop sitting in the back row pretending you're not playing Angry Birds and interact!