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.

No comments:

Post a Comment