Best practices Lesson Plan Ideas Mindset Music and Science

How to get concepts to stick for music students

What cognitive disfluency teaches us?

I’ve been thinking about this for a while.

We are drowning in information these days. There’s so much information that our eyes glaze over.

The boards of education of every school district in America are touting the importance of having information about student attendance, test scores, reading ability, curriculum, assignments, and so on. And everywhere, we see charts, graphs, and tables. How can we keep up?

It’s so easy to put all this information into a pretty chart, but do we really understand it?

The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts

A few years ago, I read an interesting article in Wired called The Educational Benefits of Ugly Fonts. They discussed a research study where student volunteers were told to read some information. In one group, the information was easily scanned and read with a clear and legible typeface. In the other group, the same information was presented in an ugly, hard to read font. The students had to really work at making out what was being said.

The results?

The students faced with the ugly fonts actually remembered and retained the information better than those with the easy-to-read fonts. This is called cognitive disfluency.

“People process new information along a continuum, from very fluently (with great ease) to very disfluently (with great difficulty). Researchers have long recognized that people prefer fluently processed stimuli across a broad range of dimensions. A more recent stream of research suggests that disfluency sometimes produces superior outcomes.” – Adam Alter, a professor at NYU. See an interview here.

I was once given an assignment to copy the music for a Beethoven string quartet by hand. This was for a composition class at Juilliard School of Music. By the time I had written a few measures, I began to really get into the structure of the piece. It also helped me to retain some of the phrasing ideas that Beethoven was using.

I’ve done this kind of exercise before with creative fiction writing. I copied by hand the opening chapters of some of my favorite novels and short stories. “One Hundred Years of Solitude” by Gabriel Garcia Marquez is a favorite. After a few pages, my mind started to flow with the longer, mellifluous and magical phrasing he is known for.

In advertising classes, copywriters are given sample sales letters and told to write them out by hand for at least 30 minutes a day. After a few weeks, they are ready to start writing their own sales copy.

These are all examples of cognitive disfluency in action.

Smarter, Faster, Better

In Charles Duhigg’s book Smarter, Faster, Better, he describes how a Cincinnati public school turned itself around using cognitive disfluency.

“In 2008, the Elementary Initiative was launched. As part of that reform, Johnson’s principal mandated that all teachers had to spend at least two afternoons per month in the school’s new data room. Around a conference table, teachers were forced to participate in exercises that made data collection and statistical tabulation even more time consuming.”

Teachers were required to make handwritten index cards with each student’s data and then transfer the information to long rolls of butcher paper lining the walls of the data room.

“It was intensely boring. And frankly, it seemed redundant because all this information was already available on the students’ online dashboards… ‘The rule was that everyone had to actually handle the cards, physically move them around.’… “Handling the cards, she found, gave her a more granular sense of each student’s strengths and weaknesses..”

This made me think of my process for music lesson planning and notes.

I have been writing lesson notes by hand after each lesson for the last six years or so. I then transfer them into my Music Teacher’s Helper to send to the parent and keep a running record for myself.

What I’ve noticed is that I am incredibly cognizant of where each and every student is on their path and what the right next step for them is. I’ve been training a few teachers in this method, and they too are getting wonderful results. The fact that I’m handling the data gives me that deeper understanding.

So the counter-intuitive act of making it harder to input data to a system (and my brain!) has enabled me to retain it in a more readily available form.

When To Use Cognitive Disfluency

Cognitive disfluency is an advanced technique.  It is best used for understanding big conceptual or structural knowledge like in the understanding of how Beethoven composed a string quartet or Picasso created a cubist portrait.

For basic concepts, you want to be very intuitive and easy to understand.

Once your brain understands the basic building blocks of any activity –  it chunks the information together.  This is how you can drive a car and listen to the radio without getting into an accident.  The small blocks have been made into habit routines that are chunked together.

However, this is exactly when many people miss information.  They back the car over the tricycle because they are not as carefully monitoring the environment the way they did in the first month of driving.  The same is true when viewing the fancy charts of data or understanding a finished piece of music.  You can easily gloss over the real details without internalizing any of them.  And…forget about retaining the information as it was never stored in the first place.

What do you use for your lesson planning?

You may want to try the harder, less convenient way for greater results.

Feel free to forward this to your friends, music teachers, clients.

A version of this article first appeared at the Music Teachers Helper Blog.

Successful Teaching Business Teaching Methods

Pictogram: How to get more music students?

I was inspired by a conversation I had last week with a music teacher I’m coaching.  We discussed ideas for marketing and I began spouting ideas off the top of my head.  As an E, for extroverted thinker  (Myers Briggs scale)  this happens a lot.  I don’t even know what I’m thinking until it’s coming out of my mouth!

Take a look at the ideas on this pictogram/mind map and see what comes up in you.  The best part of a mind map is that often, ideas on the map will lead to new better ideas.  I like to call these stepping stone ideas.  You get a few of these stepping stones that are not really great, but then they lead you to something that’s a whopper!

I first discovered mind maps from a book Writing the Natural Way by Gabriele Rico  She called them clusters and I instantly fell in love with the process.   It’s a way to access the hidden greater ideas from your brain in the most natural way – non-linearly.

Lists are linear.  But a mind map or cluster is an organic jumping off.  It’s how I imagine the brilliant actor Robin Williams’ brain worked.  His free association skills were astonishing.

The thing about mind maps is they mimic how the brain works.  You don’t always think in ordered lists.  You jump around.  And it’s great for coming up with ideas for anything.

I’ve taught this to teams at advertising agencies, in coaching sessions, at not-for-profit board meetings and even in composing music.  For my film scoring, I would gather ideas for the sound and the palette on a mind map before composing an aural sketch for the director.  I’ve taught mind-mapping to my wife and son and we have even used mind maps for grocery shopping!

Later, I discovered books by Edward deBono and Tony Buzan who further explore lateral and radiant thinking through mindmapping.  These guys are both great resources!  But I do love Gabriele Rico’s simple clustering exercise.  She made writing so fun and easy.

So take a look at my mind map/pictogram and see if it sparks some ideas for you to get more students for your teaching practice.  I haven’t actually tried all of these, so would love to know your feedback and results.  Please share with your friends.


A pictogram of ideas for marketing for music teachers
Where’s waldo?

Hey, where’s Waldo?  (only kidding)


About The Method Blog Successful Teaching Business

How do I know what to say on my music teaching website?


What To Say On Your Music Teacher profile or website?

As I talk to my music teacher coaching clients, I’ve heard many of the same questions.  One of these questions is, “What do I say on my website?”  Or “What should I put on my profile?

Once upon a time you could make a simple poster, put them up around the neighborhood and voila, students would appear!

Those days are long gone.  Nowadays, most students are seeking teachers through their smartphone.  Whoever lands at the top of the search engine wins.  Or at least they get a look.  And when they get there, they want to read something.

So, what do you say?

To do this, let’s first think through the strategy behind the web page or profile.

  1. Who do you want to reach?
  2. What’s the problem you are solving?
  3. How do you want to make them feel?
  4. What’s it like to work with you?
  5. What makes you different?  What’s your superpower?
  6. What should they do now?

[box] Note:  This post is a sneak peek inside our weekly Office Hours, which is included in our Musicolor Method Online Course.  As many of our teachers are running their own studio businesses, marketing is a big issue.  [/box]

1)Who do you want to reach?

My first website for teaching was just a single page.  It was a letter from me to parents of young children in my neighborhood.  I wanted readers to feel reassured.   I wanted them to feel I shared similar values as a parent. In other words, I’m just like them and have the skills to help their children learn an instrument.  And then, directions to send me an email or call me to discuss your child.


2) What’s the problem you solve?

This can be deeper than you think.  When most people think of a coffee shop, they think the problem solved is a cup of joe, a jolt of caffeine.  But Starbucks saw themselves as solving the problem of space.  They were a third place – not home or work – where you could relax with an excellent cup of coffee like in a European cafe.  By redefining the problem they were solving, they stood out miles ahead of Dunkin Donuts where the entire experience is aimed at getting you coffee and donuts fast.  Most of us would never want to hang out there!

The same kind of thinking can apply to the business of teaching.

The problem I solve at Park Slope Music Lessons is to train children in skills necessary for success in life through the vehicle of music lessons.

3) How Do You Want To Make Them Feel?

We may believe we make logical decisions.  But, it really comes down to emotion.  How do we feel about buying this product or service?  Later, we justify it logically.  I needed that new iPhone because of my business.  Really?  Well, it does make me feel pretty cool and cutting edge.  Plus, it’s sooo beautiful! And it’s water resistant and has an amazing camera that I can use in my lessons and…

There you go justifying it.

So by putting in a few personal details, you can really help to convey an emotion.

For a music teacher website, I would suggest emotions like:

Fun, Trustworthy, Honest, Caring, Compassionate, Patient can be very effective.

Here’s an example I just made up.

Welcome.  My name is Samantha and I teach guitar to children in Burlington, VT.

I love working with children, and have three of my own, and a cute poodle named Buffy.  I am a patient, kind, and loving teacher with a great love of folk, pop, and classic rock.  Give me a call so I can learn more about your child.

In this profile, I’m using a first person narrative, meaning I’m writing to you as Samantha.   Now take a look at this one written in third person.

Welcome.  Your teacher’s name is Samantha and she teaches guitar to children in Burlington, VT.  Samantha loves working with children, has three of her own, and a cute poodle named Buffy.  She is a patient, kind, and loving teacher with a great love of folk, pop and classic rock.  Give us a call so we can learn more about your child.

Both are basically saying the same details.  But the first feels like you’re talking to Samantha directly, where the second feels like a big company has hired Samantha.  This may be useful for those of you who are uncomfortable to brag about your accomplishments.  But I do feel it’s a bit colder.

Do you see how even just listing the qualities of patient, kind, and loving has made you feel a certain way?

What you are trying to do from the start is to qualify your customers.  This is just a fancy business way of saying, choose the right customers for you.  That’s one of the reasons we mention the three kids and and the dog.  Small little fun facts can help you stand out.  They can help you attract the customers you most want to work with.

We are looking to build rapport with the audience immediately.  Parents will likely feel a resonance with another teacher who is a parent.  Dog lovers will love knowing about Buffy.  Cat lovers or people averse to dogs will go elsewhere.  This is fine!  They probably wouldn’t want to come anyway as they may be afraid, allergic or not comfortable with dogs in the area.

4) What’s it like to work with you?

This is where you tell them your process.

Example:  Weekly 30 minute lessons in your home, packed with fun and real skills.  Lessons are $30 per half hour.

Keep it simple but engaging.  Don’t go deep into the theoretical or drop the names of all the teachers and conservatories you studied with.  How are you going to help the client with their problem?

Example: I teach kids 6 years old+ to be future rock stars / leaders of the world!   We have a beautiful upright piano in my home teaching studio located conveniently at ___.  The cost of the lessons is $40 per hour and lessons are payable in advance in monthly payments.  The first two lessons are trial lessons where we determine whether it’s a good match between student, teacher, and instrument.

5)  What Makes You Different?  What’s Your Superpower?

Everyone has a superpower.  It’s the thing they do better than everyone else.  Quite often, they don’t even realize that it’s a power.  It’s so easy and obvious, they will often ask, “But doesn’t everyone know and do this?”

No!  Whatever comes so easily and naturally to you is often the very thing you are not valuing.  Because it’s so obvious.  But for other people, they would gladly pay you to do that.

A Strange Question

If you are not sure of your superpower or powers, try this experiment.

Send a quick email to 5 people who know you well.  They can be friends, colleagues, former colleagues, neighbors, people from the community, and maybe family.  Family quite often have no idea because they, like you, are too close to the subject.

The subject line of the email is “a strange question.”

Then you tell them, something like this.


I’m taking part in a course and need your help.
Can you tell me what my greatest strengths are?  What is my superpower?

I need an answer by Friday at 10pm.  (You need to give a deadline)

Thanks so much!

I did this experiment a few years ago.  It was incredible.  Though I knew many things about myself, there were a few things that did surprise me.  It also just feels incredible to know that all these people would share their love of you!

So as you write your bio summary statement, you can list some of these superpowers.

For example:

My students and clients have told me many times that I’m a great listener who just seems to get what they’re saying even before they say it!


I can relate to just about anyone.  I am especially good at reading people’s feelings.  I have a high EQ.


I’m super creative and can pull in all kinds of ideas into a lesson.  I’ve used stories from my life, pop culture, and folk stories to help illustrate a point.

6) What Should They Do Now?

In marketing, they call this the Call to Action.  What is it they should do next?
For most of you, that would be either an email or a phone call.  You want to engage the client in a conversation to see if they are the right fit, they understand your pricing, and how you work.

By the time the client calls you, they should already have answers to these questions, but they usually want to be reassured by talking to you, that you will be a good fit.

Keep it Simple and Smile!

Think of this acronym:  KISS.  Keep it simple and smile.  It will all work out in the end!