By: Hellene Hiner
A Sad Little Story With a Happy Ending.
Because you go to a gym and use a stationary bicycle for cardiac exercise, does it mean that you can ride a real bike? Of course not! Because riding a bicycle involves a complex set of skills. You do not learn how to balance on a stationary bicycle, yet this is a missing but necessary link in training to ride a real one.
What would happen if you try to ride a real bike after training on a stationary bike? If you are an athletic type with a good sense of balance and coordination, it is less likely that you would be afraid of getting hurt if you fall off. Someone less skilled, however, could be afraid of falling, or fearful of even trying.
This is exactly what has happened for many centuries with piano learning, because there is a missing but necessary link in music education, just as there is in the example of training for a race on a stationary bike. This link is the visual perception of score and keys.
Learning a complex set of skills requires that all the components be developed together from the very start to build a strong, unified network. Losing any of the separate parts of the network, even for a short time, complicates the learning process for many students, except perhaps the most structured players.
Piano playing is about the relationship between the piano keys and musical notes – with plenty of looking and little actual seeing.
What is the difference between looking and seeing? For a moment, imagine yourself for the first time looking at a sheet of piano music and knowing that it is in a language that you do not know. Or imagine yourself standing in someone else’s kitchen looking for the saltshaker among all the spices on the shelf, but you are unable to see what the hostess could find with closed eyes.
When a student of any age first stares at the piano keys and a music score, he/she is blind in the same way you would be looking for the salt among all the spices on the shelf. When a person cannot see, he/she needs to develop the skill to see, not the textbook knowledge about how to see things.
Most piano students are constrained by music education that keeps them blind. Many well-known schools try to deal with problem of music blindness differently, but all the approaches have the same foundation – bondage on muscle memory. This is exactly how we teach blind people. How do the blind learn? They learn by touch. They also need assistance.
Russian music educators deal with blindness by endlessly playing scales and finger exercises and studies. Method books creators all over the world deal with blindness by offering 'hand position' curriculum, when hands and fingers are fastened to certain keys.
Some schools have declared that reading music is not necessary at the beginning, and that playing “by ear” is a more fruitful approach. Some schools present beginners' sheets with finger numbers. Some inventors create systems of training muscles by blindly chasing lit keys or moving colorful objects on a monitor screen. Some inventors use interactive computer programs to try to teach the eyes the knowledge of what they need to see.
These methods are like the stationary bicycle! They all overlook one important component of the complex skill to play piano: visual/spatial integration. Therefore, if we want to make piano lessons more effective, our duty is to let people SEE the music notes and their relationship to the piano keys from the very first steps.
How to do it? It is not as hard as one might think! I can be accomplished in the same way that we do it in day-to-day life. When we deal with something that we have trouble seeing, we MARK it, underline it, or we add highlights and labels! This helps our eyes to see. But it is not enough to use colorful markers and color music notes. We have to do it in a logical and organized way, in a way that makes sense for our students!
When we classify similar looking things, we have to consider their outstanding features in order to add visual support for eyesight. Look at shelves of spices in grocery stores! There are hundreds of the same looking jars, but they are organized in a way to help our eyes to get what we want: each jar has a name on it, a picture of the spice and they are placed in alphabetical order.