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Ideas on Learning

Revisiting memories through sounds and smells

As a young boy, I would visit my Aunt Ethel in Gainesville, Florida once a year. I loved going to her house. The board games, the old photos, her red Plymouth convertible. Aunt Ethel made me feel so welcome and loved.

Every time I walked into her house on the first day of my visit, the smell of Rice Crispy Treats would hit me and remind me where I was. Forty years later, the smell of Rice Crispy Treats still has the power to make me think of my Aunt Ethel and the joyful feelings I had when I would visit.

It amazes me how smell can be such a shortcut to my feelings. Music has that same effect. It is like a time travel machine for me.

When my daughter, Isobel, was 13, she loved the band, Evanescence. When she learned they were playing at a heavy metal festival 5 hours from home, I nervously agreed to take her.

It was an incredible day. It was like traveling in a foreign country! We were partners on an adventure experiencing unusual sites and sounds together. Isobel and I spent hours watching people around us, listening to the many bands that played, talking and laughing. I felt like the most ‘dad-like’ person in the thousands that surrounded us that day. And, yet, Isobel wasn’t embarrassed.

Parenting a teenager was new to me. It was joyful and scary. Being with her that day, listening to this band together, was an important experience for me. I was flooded with so many feelings: joy, wonder, excitement, love, connection. Most importantly, a feeling that we were going to be alright.

Isobel laughed when I told her how, over 10 years later, I occasionally listen to Evanescence. And not because I'm a fan of heavy metal. But rather, like the smell of Rice Crispy treats, the music of this band is a time travel machine -- one that takes me back to a period of life I don't want to forget.

As a teacher, this connection of sound and memories feels important to me. The better I am at attaching good experiences to the music I share with my students, the more likely they will have warm feelings towards that music for decades. In other words, the experiences that surround the music I teach are as important as the music itself.

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