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

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


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