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Ideas on Learning

Teaching focus and presence in young students

My students rely entirely on their ears when they learn a new song. That leaves their eyes with very little to do. Their eyes dart looking for some stimulation. Pictures on the wall. A person walking by. Children playing across the street.

If the phrase is difficult they may look to my fingers to try to help figure it out. At that point, I’ll gently tell them to close their eyes. When students are very young, they scrunch their eyes closed and open them up 10 seconds later. Keeping eyes closed is hard for students.

Over the course of a couple years, students will learn to close their eyes for a minute or more and then open them when we get to a new phrase. Something unusual, though, happened recently.

Allison, a 12-year-old student, started a new song. After checking in about school, tuning her violin and reviewing some songs, we began. I played The Road to Lisdoonvarna for her a couple times to familiarize her with the melody. Then I slowed down and played the first phrase repeatedly. Her eyes started darted around and fell on my fingers. I asked her to close her eyes.

Phrase by phrase, I played and she copied the song working out mistakes. For 20 minutes, Allison’s eyes were closed while she played. Watching her learn this song was a study in concentration and focus and presence.

When we got to the end, Allison opened her eyes with a huge smile. She worked through the song. But there was something else that made her smile. She had entered into a space in her head where there was nothing but music. She talked about how that felt and how everything but music just went away.

There is a growing awareness in our culture of the need to be present. To focus on what is happening right now and steer our thoughts away from what might happen or what happened yesterday. There are methods that teach people to become more focused and clear our minds of distractions. Learning music is an excellent method.

I have not come across any studies that look into whether developing an ability to focus and be present at an early age has beneficial effects later in life. But I don’t need to read a research study to know that something good — beyond learning music — must come out of practices like this. At the very least, it points students in the direction of non-distracted thinking and an experience of what that feels like.


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