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.
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