In the jungle that is music education, there lives a beast.
A terrifying dragon that lurks behind every chair, instrument and music stand, it is the Distraction Dragon. This beast is the greatest and most common enemy of all teachers.
We tremble upon sensing the slightest breath of distraction rising up among our students.
And though many have logged years of training, this beast still haunts us. You will never slay the dragon completely.
But with some practice, you can corral it with a few effective dragon-wrangling techniques I will share below. Let’s get started!
A common lure the dragon of distraction uses is the “shiny ball.” The shiny ball is anything that is more interesting than what you are saying, doing or demonstrating at that moment.
If you teach children, you know there is a problem of focus that is just not part of teaching teens or adults. Young children have shorter attention spans and are easily distracted!
Corralling the Dragon of Distraction
Steps can be taken to keep the distraction at bay. Some of these things may seem obvious, but you must look out for them
- Limit clutter in the teaching space
- Remove potentially attention-grabbing toys or objects
- Have a policy that phones must be set on vibrate
- Limit the seating to discourage too many siblings in the space
- Don’t allow eating in the studio
- Limit or remove pets
- Use music notation that is visually clear and clutter-free
Music Notation That Is Dragon-Free
As so much of our visual attention is placed on reading music notation, the following can greatly assist in attaining focus.
When presented with traditional music notation, students are often overwhelmed by how complicated it all looks. And it is complicated!
Reading music is a high-level skill. It takes a long time and a lot of practice to understand all the symbolic language and the nuances.
In the first few stages of our Musicolor Notation, students begin to learn structure. They begin to notice the patterns of the entire piece as a whole and which parts are slightly different but mostly the same. Then we dive into the smaller details.
With traditional music notation, we do the same. But so often, students still feel overwhelmed by all the abstract symbols on the page.
To help with this, we developed a Focus Window.
What’s a Focus Window?
A Focus Window is a way of directing the student’s attention to a specific portion of the page. You can use a Focus Window for not only reading music but also for teaching reading words to young children or to place attention only on a portion of a large picture, graph, map or chart.
By using a Focus Window, students can work on a smaller area than they would naturally reach for. It limits the information overload.
Constructing the Focus Window
There are a few ways you can construct a Focus Window.
Originally we tried to use flashlights by focusing light beams on certain areas of the sheet music. That didn’t work too well with young students. The dark room was too extreme and all sorts of hilarious screaming ensued!
Paper and cardboard cutout windows were mildly successful.
Our favorite and simplest method of constructing a Focus Window involves Post-It notes. These wonderful little 3” by 3” yellow squares of paper with the light adhesive made by 3M have been an essential part of our studio for years.
By using the Post-Its to block certain areas of the page, you can quickly create an area in the middle that is the Focus Window.
Here’s an example of how to block out a small Focus Window from a larger piece of music.
The Mental Desktop
Too often, students try to play an entire phrase which it too much for them to hold in their mental desktop. By making that phrase smaller, (much smaller!) and only showing a small portion visually, we can control their focus.
The benefit of using removable Post-It notes is that you can quickly resize the Focus Window or even move it as your student progresses through the piece.
Cluttered Page Layouts
Some Focus Windows are quite large and are made by covering up all the extraneous information many method book publishers clutter the page with.
So often there are instructions meant to be read by a teacher or parent but not the student. This type of text is very overwhelming for young children. The same is true of the small duet parts often printed below the student part.
Also, many times there are beautiful illustrations and graphics on the page. These can be charming and helpful. For pre-literate children, the illustrations can be the way they remember which song is which as they can’t read the titles.
But the graphics should be limited as they do pull away focus.
Focus Windows at Home
We also teach the parents of our students how to do this at home. It allows us to send home lesson notes that say, “Work on the one measure in the Focus Window and then enlarge it to include 2 measures.”
Learning how to practice is a skill that affects a student’s life forever. By teaching students how to effectively practice by limiting data and concentrating repetitively on small parts at a time, we can teach mastery skills.
The Itch of Curiosity
By using a Focus Window we limit the data. We obscure parts of the whole. This can be used to our benefit. It triggers a universal psychological effect known as the information or knowledge gap.
In the 1990’s, Carnegie-Mellon researcher George Lowenstein put forth the “Information Gap Theory of Curiosity.”
“It comes when we feel a gap “between what we know and what we want to know”. This gap has emotional consequences: it feels like a mental itch, a mosquito bite on the brain. We seek out new knowledge because we that’s how we scratch the itch.” (Wired magazine)
If you tell your students “you can’t peek under this until next week,” you have effectively created some curiosity. Many of them will actually look just to see what’s there.
Some have even “figured it out themselves.”
Others have practiced even more to make sure they get to “open the window.”
The Hidden Answer Window
The inverse of a Focus Window is a Hidden Answer Window.
Do you remember those interactive children’s books that have hidden flaps that allow a child to discover more content? These were fun and engaging because of the curiosity invoked by hiding answers or parts of the story.
You can do this with music too.
Sometimes students are just not ready to work on certain phrases or maybe a left hand piano part is too tricky right now and you want them to work only on the right hand.
By covering the tricky bits with a little Post-It flap, you create a Hidden Answer Window. They remind us that there is still unfinished business on this page, but we will discover it together in future lessons.
This lowers the stress level of students who are desperately trying to seek your approval by playing everything perfectly. It lets them off the hook.
It’s funny how some simple this is and yet kids find it so fun and engaging. Of course they’ll peek, but they know that they’ll get to it soon.
Where’s the Dragon Now?
And best of all, there have been no sightings of the Distraction Dragon.
So from one dragon-wrangler to another, go forth and teach without fears of dragons!
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