“I’m surprised your hands haven’t fallen off, ” my college keyboard instructor said sardonically.
“Why?” I asked as I played a piece with octaves and four-note chords.
“Your wrists: they’re tight as a harp string! Relax!” He took my wrist in his hand and bowed it up and down. But in practice, I found that I was missing too many notes, and I did not have the patience to relearn octave playing. Six years later, the necessity of wrist pain has forced me to relearn octaves. I am relearning many piano habits that have made piano playing, an otherwise creative and therapeutic source, painful.
Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is well-known among those who do repetitive motion with their wrists such as typing, machine work, and piano playing. With the traditional methods of visual learning and repetitive physical practicing, students may find back pain, TMJ, arthritis and other muscular ailments par for the course. This limits creativity and passion for playing the piano. Thus, it is important for us as teachers to recognize physical patterns that are damaging to our students. Even our pliable six-year olds will someday be susceptible to adult maladies.
This article focuses on alternative ways of learning music that avoid tension, as well as opportunities for letting loose the creative soul. Using the ideas of Julie Lyonn Leiberman, I will introduce six-fold memory, and discuss breathing and body awareness. It is important to note that these concepts are new to me, and I have just started to incorporate them into my teaching. So know that I am sharing as I am learning.
The concepts and exercises in this article probably are foreign to your student. The bottom line is that your student must be willing to learn new ways to use their body. A new student may be more willing go along with your teaching, but both new and seasoned students bring negative habits from life to the keyboard, and as the cliche goes, old habits- and ways of thinking- die-hard. So emotional intelligence is an important part of the equation- not just in this technique, but in learning piano altogether. Emotional intelligence, as defined by Daniel Goleman, includes being able to motivate oneself (see Goleman’s ground-breaking work for other qualities of emotional intelligence). A person who can motivate him/herself uses optimism and self-control to achieve goals, and is able to overcome barriers with creativity and mastery of skills. (Emotional Intelligence, p. 43). Motivation cannot be taught, but if you have a student who is open-minded, willing, and optimistic, the opportunities to create art in the form of music are endless.
Studies in psychology have discovered left and right-brain ways of functioning. While right-brain thinking focuses on creativity, images, and music (audio), the left-brain’s focus is on the verbal, rational, and linear (how to get from here to there). Most of our formal education emphasizes left-brained learning, including music education (an interesting fact, considering that musical understanding comes from the right brain!). Julie Lyonn Leiberman, a musician, composer, and educator has been successful in relieving the tension and ailments of musicians.
She argues that using a left-brain approach to music opens up the potential for injury because, in a nutshell, visual memory (seeing the music) deadens sensory awareness, which alerts us to tension and incorrect use of the body; the body is unable to relax and be sensitive to the music, and breath is shallow, and ultimately, the body is unable to restore itself (You are Your Instrument, p. 20-21). Instead, she encourages a six-fold way of learning music (six-fold memory), which integrates left and right-brain learning. Six-fold memory uses visual, analytical, and auditory skills, as well as visualization, imagery, and muscle memory to learn music.
The most common way of learning music is visual. This skill is necessary, since much of music is learned from a written score. Visual memory is literally seeing the music—the written page—in the mind. It is an important, but overdeveloped skill in many musicians, and, when overused, discourages sensory and auditory awareness. It is a left-brain process. Analytical memory is also a basic part of learning a piece of music. I prepare my students by asking “What is the key signature? time signature? What are the dynamics?” and so on, based on theory concepts they have learned. During some lessons, I alter this thinking by asking them, “what should you look for in this piece of music? What do you see that will help learn this music?”
Let us now concentrate on ways of learning music which use the right brain. Auditory memory is hearing music in your mind: the “inner ear.” Auditory skill, while underused, is very important. A student who lacks an “inner ear,” is thinking about proper body moves or translating symbols from paper to movement. Hands trained through rigorous repetition to move automatically in a sequential pattern take over. The effect is the same: the musician is hearing the sound after the fact, rather than before (Instrument, p. 28).
Assign a piece which a student must learn from listening. Have the student tape him/herself slowly playing a piece. Then have them learn from the tape, without the score (when first doing the exercise, have them learn a piece which is a few levels behind their current performance level). Prepare the piece with them, using analyzing skills based on their level. I had one student learn a piece that was a I-IV-V-I Chord Progression by playing by ear and analyzing the chord progression.
During the lesson, have the student begin a piece slowly. Stop them a few measures late, then instruct them to continue playing after a few measures. Continue this pattern (varying the length of measures they play and stop) through the piece. Explain to the student…