Brain Rules, Part 3

Mike Lawson • Commentary • July 26, 2011

Brain Rules 4 and 6: Attention & Memory

After an introduction and overview of John Medina’s Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Home, Work, and School, as well as a close look at rules 1 and 2, in this installment we will concentrate on brain rules 4 and 6: “We don’t pay attention to boring things,” and “Remember to repeat.” Perhaps more than any of the other rules, these two exemplify the daily teaching goals of school ensemble directors in keeping their students’ attention, and teaching them in a way that they will retain the desired knowledge and skills. These two concepts are also interdependent and should be considered in tandem, or as Medina insists, “The more attention the brain pays to a given stimulus, the more elaborately the information will be encoded – and retained.”

According to research, we all have a tendency to “check out” of a presentation, lecture, or class after about 10 minutes of concentrated focus. Although we don’t yet know why this is true, we do know that understanding human attention can help us design instruction to hold students’ focus long enough to effectively assure strong understanding and retention of the material. One’s attention is influenced most by memory, personal interest, and awareness. Normally our past experiences (memories) inform us as to what we should pay attention to. Different environments and cultures create different memory priorities, which is why one student can recall the exact words you used a day before but can’t say what you were wearing, while another vividly remembers the color of your shoes, but not what you taught!

An understanding of these seemingly inconsistent characteristics can guide us as educators toward effective methods to stimulate interest and awareness in our students. It is probably no surprise that students in  particular age groups consistently have commonly shared interests. Also predictably, the youngsters’ interests are often not related to ours as adults. Seeking out examples, themes, and stories relevant to the culture of your students, or helping students discover their own cultural ties to that which you want them to learn, creates and stimulates interest. Understanding the background of a composer, the context under which a work was written, and any specific literal meanings in the work all can help “bond” the student with the music, but only if the student can relate the additional information to his or her own experience.

Medina (through the work of Michael Posner) offers four particular bullet points to “maximum focus” rehearsals:

  • Emotion captures attention,
  • Meaning comes before details,
  • The brain cannot multitask
  • The brain often needs a break.

First, an emotional event causes the brain to release dopamine, a neurotransmitter, which aids memory and the brain’s processing of information. These emotionally charged stimuli are of two types. One type of event is experienced individually, such as a sad feeling when you hear a song that reminds you of a dark personal memory. The second type includes those that are experienced universally, such as experiences related to food, sex, and survival. Emotions that are generally experienced by everyone are logically more powerful for use in teaching. All of our students can relate to the emotions connected to hunger, love, and fear.

Human emotional arousal is based more on “the big picture” rather than small details. In order for our students to remember the small-but-important details (micro), they first need to see that big picture (macro). In the context of current effective learning theory, which emphasizes knowledge retention, context is everything! This physiological imperative reinforces the popular macro-micro-macro approach to teaching/rehearsing. In this paradigm, a large portion of music is played both before and after the refinement of small component details. An additional benefit of applying this concept is enhanced learning of the substantive meaning of the work explored. Happily, the process of contextualizing the teaching increases the potential for retaining both the holistic objectives and performance detail of musical compositions. A win/win, for sure!

Medina’s 12 Brain Rules

  • Rule #1: EXERCISE
  • Rule #2: SURVIVAL
  • Rule #3: WIRING
  • Rule #4: ATTENTION
  • Rule #7: SLEEP
  • Rule #8: STRESS
  • Rule #10: VISION
  • Rule #11: GENDER
  • Rule #12: EXPLORATION

Current neurological research tells us that “multitasking” is a myth, according to Medina. For most of us who direct orchestras and bands, this is quite a shocker! It is quite common to ask student performers to perform a number of tasks concurrently in rehearsal and performance. Is this not possible to achieve? Perhaps this is a syntax issue. Though the brain itself multitasks constantly to perform its many and varied functions, it can only focus on one thing at a time. When teaching in a private lesson or rehearsal, it is not uncommon to hear a teacher stop the playing and say something like: “Now don’t forget the crescendo, F# clarinets. Tune it up, low brass, and flutes don’t rush. We all must attack and release together – sit up, Johnny… One, two, ready, play.” If these varied instructions are reminders of previously learned material, some of that information might “stick,” but likely only temporarily. For something to be deeply learned and retained however, those individual concepts must be processed (rehearsed) individually.

Sometimes, the brain needs a break. Something of which we teachers are all probably guilty is giving out too much information, with too little time for the brain to process it all. If a band director decides to require all his students to play all of their major scales by the end of his first semester teaching, that might not be the best idea (depending on context – there’s that word again!). Just because we understand now how to effectively play and teach 12 major scales, that does not guarantee that the students’ brains can effectively process that much information to assure adequate skill and retention. One can often see this in a student teacher’s work, where he or she may try to teach a semester’s worth of music theory in one intense lesson. The human brain processes one concept at a time, and it needs time to process new information and make sense of it by connecting that information to previously learned information. Sometimes, what appears to be “learned really fast” is forgotten even faster.

Consider the following rehearsal design utilizing the ideas in this article:

  • Teach in 10-minute segments with each segment presenting one “big picture” idea. Consider working on any one movement or work for no more than 25 minutes at a time.
  • Teach the meaning of a musical work (or at least delve into it) before teaching the details.
  • Give the rehearsal plan at the beginning of the rehearsal so that students know where the new information fits in the overall picture.

Medina himself says, “Better attention always equals better learning. It improves retention of reading material, accuracy, and clarity in writing, math and science – every academic category that has ever been tested.” These are proven ideas for getting and keeping students’ attention, the first step in memory retention.

Once something is learned, how do we assure that the students (or we) keep the desired knowledge and skill? Most memories will disappear in minutes. Conversely, the memories that you can keep past those first fragile few minutes will actually strengthen over time. Medina’s Rule #6 “Remember to repeat” involves replicating information within the first few minutes, and then also again within a couple of hours. Without the essential repetition, the memory is lost.

Consider the following rehearsal considerations for long-term memory:

  • Present new information gradually, in multiple ways, and repeat at regular intervals. Begin in the warm-up and transfer to the rehearsal.
  • Provide opportunity for practice and repetition of the new idea at regularly timed intervals within a rehearsal.
  • Return to previously learned material expecting the need to provide opportunity for more repetition near the end of a rehearsal.
  • egin a rehearsal expecting to return to previously learned material, and the need to provide opportunity for more repetition.
  • Give the students the tools and knowledge on how to practice for long-term memory.

If you are a teacher-in-a-hurry (and who among us is not?), then it appears to take an extra measure of patience and self-discipline on our part to allow the process to run its course. Maybe it’s not the-tortoise-and-the-hare, but the requisite short-term patience becomes long-term reward for both students and instructors.

We will visit more of the 12 rules in the next installment – particularly brain rule 5: “Repeat to Remember,” and see how that can affect our teaching to benefit our students and our programs. As a reminder, check out Medina’s website at, which includes an introductory video, and all manner of information presented in ways consistent with the actual brain rules.

Joseph Allison is the director of Bands and coordinator of Conducting Studies at Eastern Kentucky University.  He is also a co-founder of The Marching Roundtable (  Prior to these positions, 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 [email protected] or [email protected].

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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