GUEST FEATURE • by DOUG HANVEY
Have you ever had (or been) a piano student who struggles to learn good technique, or to retrain poor technique previously learned?
I certainly have! As a piano teacher specializing in adult learners, many of whom have studied in the past, it’s not uncommon that I must help a student improve or even completely overhaul their technique…
For example, there’s Monique, my 60-year-old student who last studied as a child. Try as she might, Monique has continued to struggle with flying pinkies and collapsing wrists.
Even students with relatively good technique may need improvements. For example, I’ve studied and teach the fundamentals of the Taubman technique. Bringing awareness to the many subtle movements involved such as forearm rotation, in-and-out movements and “shaping” can be challenging for any student.
How might teachers and self-learning students facilitate the learning or retraining of technique?
Perhaps it’s first worth asking: are there any prerequisites for learning or retraining technique?
One very important prerequisite is body awareness. Both teachers and students may assume that enough body awareness is present for changing motions or learning new movements. Yet my experience suggests that it is actually quite common for adults to be lacking in body awareness. Children often have more natural awareness of their bodies than adults.
Why is body awareness important?
Say you’re at the gym and attempting to improve your form while lifting weights in order to avoid injury. Obviously, doing so requires paying attention to how you move, and how it feels inside to move that way, until it becomes a habit.
Improving piano technique is much the same. In order to move differently – for after all, how we move is the essence of technique – I must have an awareness of how I currently move and what the new movement looks and more importantly feels like as I do it.
This is where practicing mindfulness – the intentional present-moment awareness of one’s experience – can be particularly useful.
Mindfulness and Concentration
Frequently, the focus of mindfulness practice is on the body – breathing, body sensations, etc. (This makes the term itself rather ironic. Perhaps a more accurate word for mindfulness would be “bodyfulness!”)
Mindfulness may also, and in fact usually does, entail improving one’s concentration in order to stay focused on the object of the present moment. (An “object” may be a sensation such as breathing, an emotion, or the activity of the mind. Or in this case, the sensations of the arms and fingers as they move.)
Obviously, improving one’s concentration is a useful byproduct when it comes to practicing piano.
By deliberately bringing attention to one’s kinesthetic experience – to the simple sensations of the body and its movements – we can begin to change the habitual orientation of our attention, which (particularly for adults) is usually absorbed in mental processes (i.e. thoughts).
Minding the Body
A session of mindfulness focused on the body is called body scanning. I also like to call it “minding the body.”
To “mind” something means to give it our attention. Increasing our awareness of body sensations and body movements via simple mindfulness practices is a constructive foundation for the work necessary to acquire or retrain piano technique.
At a practice session, or in a lesson, attention can be deliberately brought to one’s sensory and somatic experience and habitual movements.
Sometimes I’ll ask a student to intentionally move in the “wrong way” in order to feel how much better the “right way” feels. I ask them to keep paying attention as they rehearse and repeat the new movement. Sometimes closing their eyes is helpful, though it may also be useful to watch the new movement.
Paying attention to habitual movements in this way is not unlike unlearning mistakes in repertoire. We must often repeat the correct way many times, avoiding the old habit, in order to establish a new habit.
Mindfulness is potentially a powerful practice for piano teachers and students and has multiple applications.
Using mindfulness to enhance technique is one – albeit a very important – application of mindfulness that interested teachers and students may want to learn more about.
You can find out more by reading Doug’s previous article for Pianodao, Is Mindfulness Relevant to Piano Playing?
Doug Hanvey’s Creative Keyboardist website and email newsletter offer powerful keyboard tips and techniques as well as virtual/online instruction for adult piano students.
Doug holds a master’s degree in adult education and is the author of The Creative Keyboardist method for adult learners. He is a member of Music Teachers National Association in the U.S.