A friend decided to learn to hang glide and offered one of the top pieces of advice the instructor gave: don’t look at the obstacles. She reported watching other novices who ended up in trees and on fences because they were so wary of crashing into them. These hang gliders learned the hard way that your vision determines the way your body leans.
I learned this also in my attempt to become a horse rider. My teacher’s frequent reminder: your eyes are your commitment. The same thing happens on a horse that happens on a hang glider. Your weight shifts according to the direction you look, and the horse responds to the shift. If you are shifting toward an obstacle, chances are your horse will head in that direction as well.
Our visual systems like to find a point of focus. Staring into space is an action that we tend to consider a negative. It’s something that teachers notice when a student seems not to be paying attention, not being focused, in both the visual and the mental senses of the word. Those of us who went to school in buildings with very large windows will remember teachers catching us “daydreaming” by looking outside.
But clearly there are times when it is advantageous to take in the larger view. both literally and metaphorically. Standing on a high point is a great opportunity to see far into the distance and notice what comes into view. If you do this with a friend, you may be surprised at your different aspects of attention. The wider scope provides a different perspective from a directed focus, even though a point of focus may come into awareness during the experience.
And so it is with our teaching. It is quite easy to apply narrow focus on what seems to matter the most. For some teachers it is fingering, for some phrasing, for me – counting! We may begin assessing the quality of performance from that one point, the apparent obstacle to success.
What happens when we instead soften the focus and let our attention open? What comes into view?
I’ve been considering focus in relation to transfer students. Sometimes a transfer student comes in with excellent preparation, the kind that allows us to move forward with ease. But sometimes all I see and hear are obstacles, and they are not obstacles that can be ignored if there is to be forward progress. There are multiple fences to get hung up on, and passing over one treetop only leads to landing in the next.
This is the time to sit back and find a little clearing. What is working well for the student? Sometimes it’s the student’s desire to play the piano. The student wants to learn and wants to improve. Building on desire helps to put the details in order and gives a frame of reference for the focus on the details at hand.
Finding appropriate repertoire is the next best step, and possibly the biggest challenge. The music needs to be simple enough to allow attention to the obstacles without being either frustrating or boring. This can be a tall order, but luckily there are many collections of teaching literature available.
Notice also the physical tensions that may be interfering with overcoming obstacles. A chicken/egg phenomenon for sure, but physical tension is often the outcome of being unable to decipher notes and rhythms. Tension can be due to visual issues, a possible learning challenge, or some confusion remaining from previous study. If your larger view of the student includes physical tension, encourage more freedom. This can be done at the piano through approaches such as Body Mapping® or it can be done away from the piano through whole body movement. Playing catch is one of my favorite ways to get a student to experience whole body movement, especially if you emphasize that dropping the ball is allowed.
Perhaps the most important way to look for open spaces is to avoid mentally labeling the student. Thinking of the student as the one who can’t count, uses bad fingering, has an attitude – whatever that means – sets up the likelihood of predicting obstacles rather than looking into open spaces. Every student can surprise by doing something unexpectedly well, even if briefly. Be open to the delight of these changes as they come into focus.
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