Using Exercise & Survival Instincts In the Band Room

Mike Lawson • Commentary • June 23, 2011

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Those of you with fully functioning memory might recall that we recently discussed an overview of Dr. John Medina’s best-selling book: Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School [SBO May, 2011]. We examined each of Medina’s 12 “Rules” and briefly looked at how they might apply to the school ensemble rehearsal.  Now it’s time to look more closely at how these findings can contribute to a better instructional experience for our students!

It’s important to note that the molecular biologist-author warns us that his principles are not prescriptive, but rather “a call for real-world research.” He stipulates that brain research in one context can’t be assumed or predicted as to how it works in another field. Medina does, however, give us ideas on how this research might apply in the real world, and this series of articles will explore some of these possibilities as they relate to music ensemble teaching and rehearsing. Let’s start at the beginning then and see what we find!

Exercise boosts brain power

A consensus among current neurological researchers is that exercise can improve long-term memory, reasoning, attention, problem solving, and even fluid-intelligence tests. In the laboratory it appears that 30 minutes of aerobic activity two or three times a week is all it takes, and adding a muscle-strengthening regimen gives you even more cognitive benefit. This begs the question: do concert band/orchestra rehearsals raise heart rate and pulmonary function enough to be considered aerobic exercise, providing a contribution to healthier brains?

Further, is it possible that activities such as marching band rehearsals provide an even greater physiological benefit? Following this logic, it may then be possible that an outdoor rehearsal in the morning helps kick start the students’ brains for learning in classes the rest of the day! This rationale is certainly solid motivation for applied research. Based on anecdotal evidence as well as Medina’s current research summary, we can likely assume that students learn more in a rehearsal that is physically as well as intellectually stimulating and active. We all know well what happens when students sit too long while the leader either talks too much or works too long with a particular section of students. Typically the younger or less-focused students talk to each other, whisper, play with mutes as if they are microphones or hats, or compete to see how many rotations one can get tossing a drumstick before being noticed by the director. You probably know that drill.

As teacher-directors, often our response to “rehearsal discipline” is to coerce the students into a benign compliance by sitting quietly and still, with no sudden movements. They are to play only when asked, which some days turns out to be 10 percent of rehearsal or less. Small wonder, then, that brains and bodies become “mummified” in a stupor – but they’re not disturbing anyone else (and their hibernation!).


Have you ever noticed how this “maturing” process of an ensemble often coincides with the instructor having to repeat himself, or the difficulty students have in paying attention consistently, and even less retention of instruction? As Medina emphasizes in his text. our bodies have always been conditioned to active movement. This fact is an axiom of our human evolutionary history. We moved constantly, up to 12 miles a day, and our brains developed not when we were sitting down, but while we were physically active!


Medina’s 12 Brain Rules

  • Rule #1: EXERCISE – Exercise boosts brain power.
  • Rule #2: SURVIVAL – The human brain evolved, too.
  • Rule #3: WIRING
  • Rule #4: ATTENTION
  • Rule #7: SLEEP
  • Rule #8: STRESS
  • Rule #10: VISION
  • Rule #11: GENDER
  • Rule #12: EXPLORATION

In light of our fundamental human need for physical activity and movement, Medina describes the modern classroom as the least effective environment possible for intellectual development and learning. As we sit statically, our breathing slows, and so less oxygen gets to our brain. The problem is that our brains require a robust oxygen supply to burn the fuels that stimulate activity and growth. Talking, laughing, yawning, stretching, and all manner of “goofing off” is the body’s way of getting oxygen to the brain! We are actually trying subconsciously to stimulate ourselves into an alert state of focus. We all do it: students in “less-than-electric” rehearsals, teachers in staff/faculty meetings, the body takes over and adapts.


It would certainly be understandable, given all this, to be a bit frustrated or puzzled about how to use this information in a typical ensemble rehearsal. After all, we still have to have a unified and focused rehearsal environment, right? Medina spends a good bit of time and effort encouraging teachers to allow their classrooms a bit of near-random and spontaneous energy, as the students have discovery moments that enhance the quality and depth of learning. For most of us, that seems antithetical to group-focused learning. They (the students) all have to get it,” and “get it in the same way,” or so the traditional story goes.


Perhaps we can plan activities in the rehearsal to keep the bodies and therefore brains working. This is one of the reasons why tried-and-true rehearsal techniques such as 1) not giving directions for more than 10 seconds at a time 2) not letting any section sit tacitly for more than 10 minutes, and 3) giving students stretch or talk break in between rehearsing different works are consistently useful. Maybe the “trick” is balancing the physical activity with the mental. It becomes pretty obvious pretty quickly that the model of “still body-active mind” is not biologically accurate or even practical.


Realizing the learning brain’s craving for oxygen, is it possible that all rehearsals should begin with breathing exercises rather than just the random few every now and then? Could breathing exercises also be physically and mentally useful in the middle of a rehearsal, particularly a long session like a 90-minute block? Even though it brings the potential of unfocused time getting all students sitting properly again and on-task, does a break in the middle of that 90-minute block ultimately counteract any negative organizational issues by allowing the students to move and get their brains and bodies the much needed oxygen? If we really buy into the idea of supplying the brain with oxygen for learning power, could pre-scripted exercise and movement during rehearsal increase learning power? To be more bluntly provocative: is it possible we sometimes sacrifice true learning and retention for a quietly-motionless (read: benign) rehearsal atmosphere?

The human brain evolved, too

Wow – this already sounds challenging, doesn’t it? As the Brain Rules text clearly states: “The brain is a survival organ. It is designed to solve problems related to surviving in an unstable outdoor environment and to do so in nearly constant motion (to keep you alive long enough to pass your genes on). We were not the strongest on the planet but we developed the strongest brains, the key to our survival.”

Okay, so far-so good. Next, Medina says: “The strongest brains survive, not the strongest bodies. Our ability to solve problems, learn from mistakes, and create alliances with other people helps us survive. We took over the world by learning to cooperate and forming teams with our neighbors.”

As a conductor, you probably like reading the words “cooperate” and “forming teams.” That’s what we do, isn’t it? It gets a bit tricky, however, when we consider the quality of the actual learning. One of the collateral benefits of the current discussion of standardized testing and its merits is the concept of the quality of the learning process, and how that affects both understanding and retention. Most all in the discussion now concur that the “bunch-‘o-facts” method (thanks to Alfie Kohn) is not the best way to educate minds and develop an actual learning process. There is also a healthy revisiting of Bloom’s Taxonomy of higher-order thinking skills – we’re even doing this in higher education!

It may be that the new emphasis on critical thinking and higher-level process is a great opportunity for the music ensemble teacher – after all, these concepts seem to describe the process of musical instruction, particularly as applied to large groups. Students must not only develop the mechanical skills to participate, but they must apply the learnings, synthesize information, and constantly evaluate how what they are doing relates to what everyone else in the ensemble is doing at the same time.

A potential “fly-in-the-ointment” appears when the great majority of the rehearsal process becomes “I tell you exactly what to do, and you do it,” with absolutely no room for discovery and evaluation on the students’ part. We’ve known for quite some time that students understand more and retain better when there is that “discovery” aspect to the process of learning. It’s just again that it seems so much more organized and disciplined to do the students’ thinking for them, doesn’t it? Again, the “trick” must be in the moderation of balancing between an individual’s freedom to discover, and the need for a unified class focus. Obviously, both are necessary to real success!

Ready for another challenge to the status quo? Medina further says: “Our ability to understand each other is our chief survival tool. Relationships helped us survive in the jungle and are critical to surviving at work and school today.” Fascinating, particularly in the context of complex large-group dynamics. Further: “If someone does not feel safe with a teacher or boss, he or she may not perform as well. If a student feels misunderstood because the teacher cannot connect with the way the student learns, the student may become isolated.”

How can you not feel challenged by those quotes? We operate in an environment where there is typically one teacher with 40, 60, 100 students! Even in situations with “better” ratios, there are still lots of them, and few of us. There is always the temptation to “over-organize” or “over-discipline” in order to maintain a semblance of control. Basic accountability warrants this. But the risk of stifling students (individually or collectively) is certainly a by-product of this approach, obviously. And we’re talking about artistically motivated, active students, hopefully. Is it even possible to do anything that meets every student in a group at the exact point of their need and readiness to learn? Or is the more pertinent question one of percentages? Compare that to “No Child Left Behind.” Very challenging, indeed.

At the very least, teachers of large groups are officially on notice that the dynamics of the student-teacher relationship are more complex than ever, both due to societal factors, as well as what we are discovering about learning needs and brain development. We can’t afford to take it for granted any longer that just making them “sit down and shut up” is the best way to approach actual learning – even if it does give the appearance of a well-oiled machine to an uninitiated viewer … or principal.

If you think at this point that the issues raised by the first two of John Medina’s “Brain Rules” are confined to large-group instruction, here’s one more quote from the book:

“There is no greater anti-brain environment than the classroom and cubicle.”

Keep an eye out in the next few issues of SBO, as we continue to visit more of the 12 Rules, evaluate how they effect our world, and analyze how we might use them to benefit our students and our programs. In the meantime, if you dare, check out Medina’s Brain Rules website at

Joseph Allison is a professor of Music, the director of Bands, and coordinator of Conducting Studies at Eastern Kentucky University. Prior to this position, Dr. Allison was the director of Bands and Orchestras at Sumter (S.C.) High School, where his program became the first internationally to be honored by the John Philip Sousa Foundation as laureates of both the Sudler Flag of Honor for concert excellence and the Sudler Shield for marching achievement. Allison maintains an active international schedule of clinics and adjudications in the concert, marching, and jazz activities. He can be reached at




Erin Wehr has taught music education for Eastern Kentucky University, the University of Missouri, and the University of Iowa. She has also directed elementary and secondary instrumental music programs in Iowa and Illinois, taught general music, and holds Orff certification. Wehr has served as a clinician, adjudicator, and guest conductor for elementary and secondary music programs, drum and bugle corps, and adult and community music groups.

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