Tuesday, October 15, 2013

To Look or Not to Look, Part Five

Before I studied Alexander Technique, I had a habit of sitting off balance toward my right side. I also pulled my head forward and down. Unbeknownst to me, I had developed a habit of focal length from sitting out of balance. When I changed my balance and became more upright and centered, the distance between my eyes and the music changed.

I would not have realized how strong visual habits become if I hadn't experienced changes for myself. Around the time I was changing my balance,  I was practicing a familiar piece when the notes suddenly began to jumble into a gray blob. It was like seeing a cartoon of dancing notes piling on top of each other, then returning to their respective homes on the staff. The experience didn't last long, but it was fascinating. I sat in wonder, and then concluded that I had just witnessed my brain changing a long held visual habit. The dancing notes were adjusting to the new focal length right before my eyes!

When working with students, we can help them find better balance. That is not difficult, and it helps many elements of movement. Here are other suggestions for teaching toward the goal of visual fluency:

1. Check any suspected vision problems with parents. This is obvious, but worth mentioning. Some children also need corrective lenses for piano playing but forget to bring them to lessons. Some children require vision training by behavioral optometrists.

2. Recommend piano glasses to students who wear progressive lenses or bifocals. These students are not all over 40, by the way. Lenses for accompanists can be built with small areas of far vision at the top so that most of the lens corrects for near vision.

3. Play catch mid-lesson. This gets the student's eyes in far-distance mode for a few minutes and allows the student to move freely. Koosh balls work well for this.

4. Palm eyes.  Palming eyes is a way to let them rest briefly. Gently place the palms of the hands over the eyes for 10-15 seconds. This can be better than closing eyes, particularly for those students who squeeze their eyes closed.

5. Apply removable stickers or page flags to different parts of the music: high, low, left, right, center. While the student plays, call out the color of a sticker and ask the student to send his or her eyes quickly to that sticker, then back to the score. Fun and functional.

6. Place objects on top of the piano. Ask the student to look quickly at an object, then return to the score, all while playing. Ask the student to notice when the objects can be seen with peripheral vision.

7. Place Post-it's or stickers on the student's hands. Ask the student at random moments if he or she can see the stickers with peripheral vision. This is also a tool for awareness of over-focusing on hands.

8. Use exercises and explorations from The Fundamentals of Flow by Rebecca Penneys (www.rebeccapenneys.com)  and Sensory Tune-Ups (www.allsensepress.com) by Kay S. Hooper.

As with all of our teaching and performing skills, awareness is central to success. Learning more about how vision impacts movement allows us to develop this area of sensory awareness.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

To Look or Not to Look, Part Four

The eye-rony (couldn't resist) of the instruction to keep eyes on the music is that pianists are still expected to perform without the score. Once the score disappears from view, the eyes will move to the hands for much of the performance. This is true for performers at all levels. A student who prepares for performance by memory will be retraining visual patterns set up when practicing with the score.

I remember my most challenging experience of retraining visual patterns well. My grad school teacher assigned me the exposition of a new-to-me Beethoven sonata to be memorized by my next lesson. I had never memorized a difficult piece from scratch like this before, and I realized that many things had to happen in order to accomplish this goal. One of those things was to learn visual patterns, not only those on the score, but those that involved movement across the keys. This opportunity was one of many that led me to learn more about movement and vision.

When playing by memory, the pianist is using central vision to identify keys, peripheral vision to trace the arcs of trajectory, and binocular vision to assess the depth of the movements. A pianist who has developed a limiting visual habit may find this transition more difficult than one who has had a variety of visual experiences while playing.

A pianist may also be accessing visual memory cues from studying the score. The popular name for memorizing images is photographic memory, but scientists refer to it as idetic memory.  The visual cortex is active both to recreate an image already learned and to adjust to the movements required in the moment. No one ever said it would be easy....

Many pianists who play from the score use this skill as well, but they call it "reading ahead". More than likely, the brain is tapping into memories of the next few measures. Studies that show eye movements in advanced pianists refute the notion that eye movement is always left to right when reading scores.

Pianists are also called upon to play with other musicians and to accompany large ensembles. In these situations, it is imperative that the pianist call on "fast eyes". Collaborative playing requires a pianist to look at the piano score, the other parts, and the ensemble members and/or conductor. And, as I am wont to say, the pianist is always wrong. In other words, it is usually the pianist who has to cover for the mistakes of others. This is just one of the reasons that this can be a challenge to young pianists who feel secure in solo work but less so in an accompanying setting.

However, the adjustment from near to far vision is actually very calming to the nervous system. When eyes focus on near objects, they converge. When they focus on far objects, they diverge. Comfortable shifting between these two distances taps into the oculocardiac (eye to heart) reflex. This is a survival reflex that is calming because it allows the brain to become aware of potential escape routes from threats. Entertaining pianists like Liberace and Victor Borge were extremely comfortable with gaze shifting. A pianist who does not shift focus, whether playing with or without the score, may find performance more nerve-wracking than one who does.

Closing eyes while playing is a choice some experienced players make. This choice takes the performer out of the present environment, and the player may find this a way to go deeper into the music in terms of his or her own inner concept of the piece. However, if this an extended practice, it can create a sense of disconnect between the performer and the audience as well as a disconnect between the player and the immediate experience of playing. Again, this is a choice that experienced players make, not something we want to teach young students.

Part Five, the wrap-up of this series,  will offer some suggestions for helping students understand how vision and movement work together.

To Look or Not To Look, Part Three

Eyes move. They move left to right, up and down, and in various combinations of these axes. Anything in the body that moves does so because of muscles. The muscles that move eyes are designed to coordinate the way the eyes move in relationship to each other to allow us to take full advantage of binocular (two-eyed) vision.

Another way that muscle movement affects vision is by movements of the iris, the colored part of the eye. There are muscles that move the iris to allow the pupil to dilate and to constrict, changing how much light enters the eye. It is these muscles that we become aware of when we are fatigued from too much close work, like reading.

The  intention to see something causes the eyes to move in the direction of that object. This movement of the eye is called a saccade. Because it is a movement, a saccade has the two primary properties of movement: speed and distance.

If you are watching slow-moving clouds, your eyes will follow them at low speeds in small increments of distance. If you are watching a tennis match, chances are your eyes will move quickly from side to side to watch the ball.

In addition to employing intentional saccades, the eyes move in micro-saccades. These tiny movements help the visual system to remain lively to stimuli rather than stuck in one spot. Students who have trained themselves to look only at the music may be attempting to override the natural micro-saccades. This limits their ability to respond smoothly and easily to visual stimuli.

Taking this information to the piano is one of the best ways to help your students realize that they have some control over how their eyes move. "Fast eyes" is one of my favorite expressions for the ability to see many things in a short amount of time. Young students whose eyes are not yet fully developed may find fast eyes a challenge, but reminding them that eye movement is a part of playing piano music lays a foundation for this concept. Even if they are learning by rote, these students can benefit from understanding how their eyes move.

Very advanced players with excellent sight-reading skills will take quick glances at the keys. Their eyes also move around the page in what may seem to be illogical directions. Because they have fast eyes, excellent tactile and kinesthetic memories, and well-developed peripheral vision, they are able to incorporate a variety of eye movements into their playing without "losing their spot".  And, as one of my teachers once said to me, there are some parts of music that are easier to play by watching one's hands.

One of my favorite resources for helping students improve their eye movements is a book of exercises by Rebecca Penneys. It is called The Fundamentals of Flow in Music, and it can be purchased from her website at www.rebeccapenneys.com. The exercises cover a range of difficulty, yet they are fun to use. Teachers are permitted to copy pages for their students as well.

Part Four of this exploration will take us to the stage.

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

To Look or Not to Look, Part Two

Distance. Depth. Size. Shape. Trajectory. Space.

People with healthy visual systems use a combination of central focus for sharp image recognition and peripheral vision for less distinct perceptions of space and distance.   Central vision is what we use for note recognition, reading, computing, texting, and other tasks related to exacting work as well as identifying everyday objects accurately.

Peripheral vision allows us to perceive what is in the larger visual field. While it is less distinct than central vision, it is key to determining how much space we have to move through and how we need to move through that space in order to achieve our movement goals. Peripheral vision gives us information about what is above, below and to our sides. Driving a car safely depends on reliable peripheral vision.

Binocular (two-eyed) vision creates depth perception. It is this part of the visual system that gets fooled by colored 3-D glasses in movie theaters.

All of these systems feed the development of memories of images and movements. The whole visual system works with our senses of touch, hearing and kinesthesia (movement) in learning how to play piano music. When we take away the ability to see the keyboard, we rely on the memories stored by repetition of movements and the sense of touch. This is similar to the way blind people learn to negotiate in well-traveled locations. Their visual cortex is overtaken by memories of spaces and movements related to those spaces.

Limiting visual fields through whatever means does require the student to ramp up attention to the sensations related to movement. This can be helpful if used wisely.

However, in the very moment of choosing movement, the quality of movement is enhanced or limited by the size of the visual field. When the visual system perceives the space available for movement to be equal to the size of note heads, it tends to constrict the range of movement. The notion that looking down is taboo may cause a student to develop visual habits that block awareness of the lower quadrant of peripheral vision. This is the space where the hands are actually playing, so the student is losing valuable information about the topography of the piano and how to move across it. In a way, it is like the physical tension experienced when walking through dark, unknown territory without a light source.

While we may be very aware of other kinds of habits that our students exhibit, we may be less aware that they are developing limiting visual habits. The give-away is often stiff, narrow movement schemes and loss of fluency. To help students experience their peripheral vision and other aspects of sensory learning, check out my easy-to-use workbook, Sensory Tune-ups:a guided journal of sensory experiences for performers of all ages.  Available from www.allsensepress.com.

Then move on to Part Three for more help on developing healthy visual habits.


Tuesday, October 8, 2013

To Look or Not To Look, Part One

Many years ago I happened upon a method book that included a large paper apron. It was designed so that one end would fit under the music desk on the piano and the other end would wrap around the student's neck.  It was somewhat like a lobster bib in size and shape. The purpose was obvious to seasoned teachers - to cover the keys in the center of piano to prevent students from watching their hands while playing.

This is not the only strategy for accomplishing this goal. Some teachers put cardboard under the music desk, some use towels, and some put stickers or Post-Its on the backs of students' hands. We are a creative bunch, after all.

Just as I investigated the thorny question of putting weight into the keys, I began to investigate this approach. 1. Does it work? 2. Do we need to do it? 3. Does it match how our eyes work in conjunction with movement?

1. Does it work?  Often enough, I would wager, based on the students I've met who seem to live in horror of the potential outcome of a downward glance, no matter how brief.

2. Do we need to do it?  Here I will waffle with a "depends on the student" response. I rarely tell my students not to watch their hands, thanks to the reading I've done on eye movements. However, there are some students who need some help in developing both tracking and spatial and touch memory. I don't usually block out the keys but instead place comical stickers on the backs of their hands. It is more of an awareness exercise than a blocking exercise. I always prefer awareness over blocking as it is easier for the brain to process.

3. Does it match how our eyes work in conjunction with movement? Not entirely. This is not a waffle, by the way. It is an accurate answer IF we include the visual cortex as part of the process we call hand-eye coordination. Yes, a little bit of anatomy and physiology can go a long way.

What I like about this graphic is that the young man has the same desire for coffee that I do, and that I get to practice my fledgling Spanish when I study it.  It is also a very simple way to understand that eyes are receivers of light. Each eye has its own visual field and sends its perceptions to the visual cortex in the back of the brain. There the brain puts the images together and interprets them based on its memory of objects seen before.

This is why we find success with flash cards when teaching note recognition. The more times we see an image and identify it, the more likely it is to trigger rapid identification.

Because the visual cortex stores not only whole images but parts of images, it can take the brain a bit of time to recognize what is being seen. For this reason, vision is a relatively slow sense. This is why students who look at the keys for every note tend to play slowly, and it is one of the problems we try to remedy by advising them to watch the music.

It is also one of the reasons why eye-witness reports often do not match. The visual cortex may fill in the blanks with familiar things rather than with the actual objects on hand. We experience this when students assume that all notes with one ledger line through them are C's, for example, because they have usually spent a long time looking at Middle C before they learn high and low ledger notes.

Vision is not limited to object recognition, however. Vision helps us determine these elements related to movement: distance, depth, size, shape, trajectory and space. All of these movement elements are critical to playing the piano. Look ahead to Part Two to learn more about vision and movement.