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Mapping music: some simple strategies to help students learn.

As teachers, we are always looking for ways to help our students learn music faster and more easily. We try to discover what works best for each student's individual learning style, and determine the appropriate level of challenge at each step of the way. Beside the immediate goals of preparing for a recital, contest or theory exam, our ultimate goal is to give them the tools to become independent learners, and prepare them for a lifetime of musical growth and enjoyment.

One technique I have found useful over the years is mapping, which my students and I have used to learn and memorize music more efficiently. Mapping can be used at any stage of learning, either for gaining an overview of a piece, or as a practice tool for solving specific problems. The unique ingredient is diagramming the main features of a piece and using this diagram as a "map" for learning the music. It can be done at the instrument or away from it, depending on the student's level, the complexity of the piece and the purpose of the activity.

As an introductory experience, try mapping a short, simple piece away from the instrument. Choose something with obvious patterns, such as a teaching piece by Kabalevsky. You might ask the student to first "play" the piece, or part of it, at an imaginary piano or on the fallboard, counting or chanting the rhythm to help them get a feel for the piece. Then ask them to draw a map and see how much they can play from the map. Take a small section at a time, hands separate if necessary, since it requires more concentration to remember the music without first playing it from the score. Sometimes I let the student glance quickly at the score, then play anything they remember--even before they begin their map. They are often surprised at how much they remember.

If a student doesn't know where to begin, have them play just the melody or harmony at the piano. These may suggest an approach for mapping the piece. If not, map a few measures yourself as a model and see if they can continue. Some students may find it more helpful to draw a map after first hearing a piece or even after playing through it once. Every student is different, so use your own judgment to decide just what kind of challenge is best for them.

The basic approach can be adapted in many ways to suit individual learning styles and teaching situations. Everyone sees different things in the music and has different ways of remembering them. Some students like to use colors, while others use words, pictures or musical symbols. In a group lesson or piano class, students might map a piece "by ear," read each other's maps, or each map a different section of a piece. Beginning students can also use maps to notate their original compositions so they can remember them.

Mapping is a great way to apply music theory to the learning of music. It makes learning more efficient, and it also develops theory skills. Even students with little theory background can learn to recognize "same" and "different," or to identify and label chords, melodic or rhythmic patterns, or sections of a piece, and they can invent their own symbols if they don't know what to write.

Mapping can also develop skill at improvisation, or the ability to "fake it," which helps when sight reading. If students can't remember all the details from their initial map but can "make up something like it," they are improvising on a piece. And by doing this early on, they become less fearful of memory lapses and are better able to deal with them. They also gain a better understanding of the musical content.

Mapping gradually becomes an internal mental process, and some students may find they can remember the music without even looking at their maps. But the act of drawing a map forces them to organize musical information in their own way, which plays a key role in learning. A student's map can also give a teacher insights into what the student sees in a score.

It is often helpful to begin mapping early in the learning process, to gain an overview of the piece and to notice things in the score that might go unnoticed once habits become ingrained. But the procedure can be useful at any stage, especially for solving memory problems. For remedial readers, it can also improve pattern recognition.

Mapping can reduce the risk of overuse injuries. Working away from the instrument engages the mind more than the muscles, and playing just the melodic or harmonic skeleton can clarify without physical strain the musical structure in the learner's mind. Mental practice also develops the ability to imagine and recall the sound, feeling or visual experience of playing a piece. Athletes use this technique all the time, and many great pianists have memorized music this way.

I have found many ways of using mapping in my teaching. Sometimes, before sight reading a piece in piano class, I ask students to identify the chord changes, then put these on the board to create a harmonic map. I then ask them to play the chords from the map without looking at the score. This helps them think harmonically when sight reading, instead of just hunting for notes.

Some years ago, a college student who was new to my studio brought in Beethoven's Sonata Op. 14 No. 1 for a lesson. She had worked on the piece for some time and it was well polished, but every time she played the last movement, something went awry. Either she would leave out a few pages in the middle, or she would nearly make it to the end and suddenly find herself back at the beginning! Together we located some similar-sounding scale passages where she was "taking a wrong turn." I drew a map of the important features of each passage (for example, the starting note of each scale, which hand played first, register changes and so forth). She then played just the selected passages, using the map, until she could play them correctly in any order. Next, she played the entire movement--once with the map and once without without a single memory slip, and from then on her memory was secure.

Another student was having difficulty memorizing the middle section of Schubert's Impromptu in A-flat, Op. 90, No. 4. I asked her to play just the skeleton (melody and bass line) from memory, but discovered that she could not do it, so we worked on it together. I numbered the phrases and drew a map showing the starting note and contour of each phrase. I asked her to play one phrase at a time--right hand alone, left hand alone, then hands together--using the map, until she could do it without the map. Once this was secure, she added the chords and completed the memorization easily.

I love students' maps and the many creative ways they find to notate and remember musical ideas. One student came up with an ingenious map of Bach's Prelude in C Minor from WTC Book I, consisting simply of the first note of each measure in each hand:

C/C A[flat]/C B/C C/C and so on

One of the beauties of mapping is that it can be applied to any instrument. A voice teacher I know uses mapping to help her students learn vocal texts in a foreign language. Before they begin a new song, they do a word-for-word translation and speak it with correct pronunciation and expressive inflection. They then memorize the text by writing the key words for each phrase on a piece of paper, along with a picture to help them remember the meaning of the word. (Pictures are wonderful for teaching songs to young children, too, since they help them visualize the story and remember the words and the melody.)

These are just a few of the many possible ways you can use mapping in your own teaching and learning, and I hope you will have fun trying it.

Selected References

Galer, Suzanne. "Memorable Mnemonics for Singers." Journal of Singing, May/Jun 1999, pp. 3-7.

Shockley, Rebecca. Mapping Music: For Faster Learning and Secure Memory: A Guide for Piano Teachers and Students. Madison, WI: A-R Editions, 1997, 2001.
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Title Annotation:Pedagogy Saturday X: THE ART OF TEACHING
Author:Shockley, Rebecca
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2006
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