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Reader Question: Focusing the Mind

July 2, 2014

I have an intermediate student who has a very good ear for music but tends to let her ear “mindlessly” guide her fingers while playing.  This results in mistakes and sloppy work.  How can she learn to fully focus her mind on the music and use her ear to aid her mind?

This is a very interesting question!  Obviously, I don’t know the student, and knowing this particular student would be quite helpful.  I have not personally encountered a student whose good ear for music has a direct negative impact on accuracy.  But I wonder if what you are saying is that not all of the senses are involved in playing.


Is she fully experiencing the technique she is using to produce the sounds she wants?  Is she actively listening to the harmonies created between the hands?  Is she truly using her vision to not only actively look at the notes in the score, but picture the look on the keys?


Also, an accurate first performance will go a long way to establish an experience whereby accuracy is the only thing she knows.  Unfortunately, with many students, accuracy isn’t as exciting to them as it is to us.  Recently, a transfer student of mine played completely accurately and I exclaimed, “LISTEN to that accuracy!  Isn’t it beautiful?”  She may have thought I was nuts.  I don’t explain often enough that accuracy is the pathway to freeing ourselves to focus in on the music.  Perhaps you can get this student excited about trying out some new strategies over the summer.  These should all be tried out in a brand new piece.  The key is practicing with the student the new piece in the lesson.


1)     Memory game:  The student learns a portion of a new piece and memorizes right away.  This requires great concentration.  The assignment might be to memorize 8 measures and practice only 8 measures.  First, build up the excitement:  “You have such a strong memory, I have a challenge for you this week.”


Second, have her study the first four measures.  She can report about the time signature, key signature, any measures that repeat, and so on.  She should then tap and count the rhythm.  Next, have her “play” on the piano lid.  Did she notice any occasions where the same fingers played at the same time?  Circle those occasions in the music.  Look at the music once again.  Any occasions where both hands play the same note?  She will draw a line between the notes that are the same.  Have her trace the piece on the keys without making any sound (hands together is preferable).


Next, she will play the first four measures.  You might set the slow tempo by counting off.  She might play hands separate once before putting it hands together.  Hopefully, it’s accurate, and if so, praise exorbitantly.  The instruction is to play again, listening intently for the harmonies created between the hands.  She will play again, feeling what fingers play together.  Again now, looking at the keys:  notice the intervals created between the hands, the combination of white and black keys, etc.  I prefer actually thinking in very elementary ways:  the bottom note of the two black keys, for example.  Finally, she will play slowly from memory.  Praise her excellent memorization skills.  Repeat this process with the next four measures.  I’d advise choosing a shorter piece for this activity.  For example, if the piece is twenty four measures long, she will only need three weeks to memorize it.


This memorization activity “forces” students to concentrate.  I have a feeling that concentration might be an issue with your student.


2)   Mix it up!:  With a current piece, the student will have several starting points, numbered in the music.  She will play these numbers out of order.  I often will ask students to draw from a bowl of numbered pieces of paper and play the section with that number.


Another way of mixing it up is copying, cutting and pasting a section of a new piece.  The student learns that section (again, working it out in the lesson).  The next week, they receive a different section.  Eventually, the student sees the piece in its entirety.


3)  Technique boost:  With a new piece, demonstrate the technique for each hand that will bring about the sound of the piece.  For example, demonstrate the right hand alone with beautiful physical shaping, have the student copy after watching you several times (her good ear can be exploited here).  I have found that a focus on technique can actually boost reading skills, as the student later will determine what technique is required for a particular passage.


As I write these suggestions, I’m mindful of their time-consuming nature.  How can you afford to spend all of this time in the lesson?  One way is to hear review repertoire, but not comment much.  You already know the futile nature of trying to correct mistakes that are ingrained.  If you approach this new “experiment” with great enthusiasm, your student and you will likely discover fun and effective new ways of learning together.


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This site is created by the faculty of the New School for Music Study, a division of the Frances Clark Center for Keyboard Pedagogy.

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