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.

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