This article is designed to give parents and students a better understanding of what the piano student needs to think about to successfully perform a piece of music and is not meant to be an in depth discussion of the complex workings of the inner mind and how the different areas of the brain work together when playing music.
The bigger picture is rather more complex and involves understanding how the brains neural-processors store and send information to different areas of the brain.
For a more in depth discussion I would recommend the book “This is your brain on music” by Daniel J. Levitin. This article does however attempt to present the “mile high” view of this topic in a way that may help students approach their piano practice in a more efficient manner and help them the understand the importance of certain core principals and “best practices” in their approach to studying the piano. ' We have already taken a look at the bigger picture of how students should be thinking as they progress through the course of their studies over a number of years. Continuing on from this understanding let’s now take a look at how students should be thinking about each individual piece of music they study in order to ensure progress is optimized to the maximum amount the student is capable of achieving.
What does the student need to think about when he is playing a piece of piano music?
As any student practices a piece of music there are certain things the brain needs to think about all at the same time. You could think of this type of work as the best training your child will ever receive in the art of multitasking! Some of the tasks that need to be performed when studying a piece of music include;
- Playing the notes
- Reading the notes from the sheet music
- Feeling the pulse of the music (this could be externalized by tapping a foot)
- Listening to the music as they play (this involves all the cognitive processes involved with processing the musical information and converting this information into a form the brain recognizes as music)
- Monitoring the success of the performance (this is different from listening and includes checking the performance in real time for accuracy against a mental “picture” of how the music should sound)
- Navigation i.e. remembering where to go next in the music
- Special technical challenges i.e. sudden large jumps and hand position changes
- Control of the dynamics
- Control of the tempo
- Controlling the musical “interpretation” – this is the essential musical skill that turns a lifeless robotic performance into a musical performance that “sounds good”.
- Using the pedal
Let’s consider just a few of these items that must be simultaneously processed by the brain in order for the student to successfully produce music.
An important part of most piano students experience is reading musical notes from their tutor books. A certain amount of the students brain processing power is required to read the music on the page and convert the written signs and symbols into a form the mind can further process.
1. This line represents the amount of the student’s attention that must be given to this task in order for the task to be completed successfully.
2a. The student must use part of his brains “processing power” to read the notes in his music books. When the student has “enough brain power” to dedicate to the task of reading the music notes he will be able to successfully play the music. The task of note reading involves processing all the musical information contained on the sheet music in his mind and converting this information into the correct “playing signals” to be sent down the arms to the fingers.
2b. If the brain is too pre-occupied thinking about “other things” during the performance of a piece of music there may not be enough of the students “attention” left to process reading all the notes contained in a piece of music and the students ability to process all this information will fail, causing errors in the performance. This will result in the inability to “read” the notes when attempting to play a piece of music even though the student may actually have no trouble recognizing and remembering the names of all the notes when he is not trying to perform the music. The student will experience difficulty playing all the notes in the music unless he is able to dedicate enough of his “thinking” mind to the task.
If I know all the names of the notes why can’t I read the music?
Let’s take a look at why a student may not have enough brain power available to read the notes when performing a piece of music. We will consider the actions a student should take that will lead to a successful performance and the factors that may contribute to the breakdown of a musical performance. To “free up” more of the brains available processing power and make it available for the task of reading the notes students can work on “strengthening” other tasks that need to completed simultaneously.
Elements of a successful performance
The below graph represents some of the tasks a student needs to think about as he plays piano. This graph demonstrates that this student is giving each necessary task the correct amount of thought. When the student is thinking in this way the most likely outcome is a successful performance of the music. The chart shows the combined processing power of both the conscious and subconscious brain. We can see that this student is multitasking very efficiently. He is giving just the right amount of thought to each aspect of the performance.
As each area of the performance is receiving the right amount of his attention this student is able to;
- Read the notes from the sheet music
- Control the physical movements required to play the notes
- Feel the pulse of the music and maintain a steady beat
- Listen to the music
- Monitor the success of the performance
- Remember the Navigation
- Manage large jumps and hand position changes
- Control the dynamics of the music
- Control the tempo of the music
- Control the musical “interpretation”
- Control the accurate movement of the foot for correct pedaling
This is the mental balance any music student should be able to achieve with any piece of music they study; however, regular practice is required to achieve this. Giving each aspect of the performance the right amount of attention is quite a balancing act and requires the student to develop advanced multi-tasking skills that are not required for most other areas of academic study. To be able to divide up his thinking and give each area of the music the right amount of his attention the student needs to practice until many of these cognitive processes can be automated. The conscious mind alone may be able to manage to process all this information for relatively simple pieces of music but is unlikely to be able to fully control all these tasks for more complex pieces of music without the assistance of the subconscious mind controlling tasks that have been automated through repeated practice. As we discovered in the previous two articles the successful performance of more complex pieces of music depends on the student using the correct balance of both the conscious and subconscious brain. Most students will not be able to achieve this level of competence in all the required areas without developing the ability to use their subconscious brain to support the performance by automating various tasks that need to be completed during the performance. If enough practice is not completed on a piece of music the chart showing how the brain is being used when playing a piece of music may look something similar to the below.
In this example the student has not practiced the music enough for any of the cognitive processes to become automated. The student is trying to rely solely on the conscious brain to process all the required musical information. As we can see there is not enough processing power available to successfully process all the information required to play this piece of music available in the conscious “thinking” part of the brain. The amount of available conscious thinking power is unlikely to increase very much while practicing a single piece of music however with practice more of the subconscious mind may be used to contribute to the performance. In the above example the student is fully in control of certain aspects of the music, i.e. the student is reading the notes very well, however there is not enough available conscious brain power to be able to fully control all the tasks that need to be simultaneously completed. If the student redirects some of his available brain power to other areas of the performance the amount of brain processing power being used to read the notes will decrease. The gap between the top of each bar and the line representing the required level of ability for each area is the shortfall. In order to produce a successful piece of music each of these areas needs to improve to the point where the bar meets the line.
How can we give each area of the performance more thought if there is not enough conscious brain power available for all the necessary tasks to be simultaneously completed?
After the student has practiced this piece of music and he has “got to know it” a little better many of the tasks that need to be completed will become automated and therefore be controlled by the subconscious brain. It is by involving the assistance of the subconscious mind that the student manages to reach the required level in all the different tasks.
In the above chart the conscious brain has not increased in its overall capacity to handle the musical information contained in the piece of music however the student can successfully now play this music because he has practiced it. By practicing the music important areas of the performance have been automated and are now being controlled by the subconscious brain. The student “knows the music” and is not still trying to “figure it out” as he goes along, (a process that relies solely on the conscious brain). The more the student practices this piece of music the more areas of the performance become “automated” and the more the subconscious brain is able to contribute towards the performance. The below graph shows the same piece of music after the correct amount of practice has been completed.
As you can see the students ability to successfully think about each area of the performance has increased by practicing the music to a higher standard. Because the subconscious brain is contributing to a higher level the student now has “spare capacity” in his thinking conscious mind (shown by the bars above the line). Everything above the line in the chart is spare brain capacity in the conscious “thinking mind” When the student has this level of “spare” thinking capacity the music will seem to be played effortlessly by the student. (It takes a lot of work to appear effortless!). This piece of music has been thoroughly learned. By pushing his ability to be able to play this piece of music “effortlessly” he has expanded his subconscious minds ability to assist with processing the required musical information (shown by a larger area of green). This expanded capacity will be required later on to play more advanced pieces of music that necessitate more musical information to be processed by the brain. With the assistance of the subconscious mind, achieved by automating important aspects of the performance, the student is able to achieve the required level of thought in all the important areas of performance. All aspects of the performance are completely under control. With the assistance of the subconscious mind automating much of the performance this piece of music will be played strongly and confidently.
What causes mistakes to happen during a performance?
It is often the case that a student will be able to play a piece of music generally very will but there may be certain places in the music that are “less confident” than others. At this point in the music there is an aspect of the performance that demands “more of the student’s attention”. An example of this may be when there is a large hand position movement is required. i.e. a hand position “jump”. If the hand position jump has not been practiced enough the student will need to use more of their conscious brain to complete this task during the performance. This will cause a temporary spike in the amount of brain processing power required for the jump. As the student has only a limited amount of available processing power the brain must temporarily use resources that are being used elsewhere.
Unless the student has plenty of available “spare brain power” the brain power required for the hand position jump just must be borrowed another area of the performance causing a dip in the student’s ability to maintain that particular task at this point in the music. In the above example we see what happens in bar 22 of a piece of music. In bar 22 there is a large hand position jump. The student has not practiced this jump enough and is still unsure where their fingers should go at the end of the jump. Because they have not learned this yet (i.e. practiced the jump until it has become automated) extra processing is required by the conscious brain to think about where the hand should go at this point. This extra brain power must come from somewhere and in this example it is borrowed from the area of the brain that is controlling the regular beat of the music. Because of this there is a shortfall in the brains capacity to keep the regular beat of the music going at this point and the performance will fail. This usually happens in the form of a “gap” in the music while the student stops to think about what to do for the hand position jump or the student may end up playing more or less than the correct amount of beats in the measure. The student will not know that this measure now does not contain the correct amount of beats because at this point in the music his attention is always directed toward the hand position move. There is not enough brain power left over for controlling the beats. There is also not enough brain power for listening and not enough brain power for monitoring the success of the performance and checking if it is correct or not. The student will be totally unaware of the errors he is making in the performance. By practicing the hand position jump so that it is learned thoroughly (i.e. automated using the subconscious brain) the conscious brain will not need to redirect its resources away from the task of keeping the pulse of the music flowing at this point in the music anymore and the student will be able to play this passage of music while keeping the beat, listening to the music and monitoring the performance successfully.
Why does it matter if the brain needs to occasionally redirect its available processing power?
It may seem that it would not be an issue if the brain resources occasionally need to be re-directed in this way however this type of redirection may happen many times during a piece of music if enough practice has not been done. The brains resources may need to be redirected away from critical areas of the performance many times during a performance. There could be hundreds of re-directions required in a single piece of music which will leave the student struggling to play it. Under these circumstances the student will be unable to keep any kind of a beat, unable to listen to anything he plays and unable to monitor the music which means they will not know when they are playing the music incorrectly. Unless the student has practiced the music enough so that they have “spare brain capacity” during the performance it could also mean that the simple task of adding the pedal would pull too much available brain processing power away from other areas of the performance causing it to fail. In many cases it is a good approach to learn the music to a high standard before attempting to add the pedal. This allows the subconscious brain to control the notes so the music does not fail when adding the pedal. If the student adds pedal when they are still using their conscious brain power to play the notes, redirecting the student’s attention to the pedal may cause the student to struggle. Various strategies used to achieve this could include practicing each hand separately with the pedal reducing the amount of information that the brain has to process while adding the pedal.
Why is regular piano practice necessary to ensure the student is thinking in the right way?
In order to be able to divide the minds attention correctly between all the different tasks that need to be completed regular thoughtful practice is required. In the early stages of musical progress a good teacher will give the student extra things to think about during their practice to help develop these essential multitasking skills including, counting beats out loud, saying note names as they play and saying out loud the number of the finger they are using to press each note.
Why is it important to study each piece of music to a high standard?
When students have fully mastered a piece of music they will have automated as much of the performance as possible. This means that the subconscious brain is handling more of the workload having the positive knock-on effect of allowing the performance to happen with spare capacity available in the conscious brain. Now if the student needs to temporarily draw on the conscious brains resources to complete an unexpected task in the music he has enough spare capacity to do this without detracting from other important areas.
How learning musical “skills” contributes to this process
By strengthening the student’s musical skills we are assisting the student to make additional areas of the performance happen automatically and therefore relieve the pressure in the conscious area of the brain during a performance. If lessons are approached in the right way emphasis will be placed on developing music skills. The skills developed while studying one piece of music may then be applied to all the pieces of music the student studies in the future making the music easier to play and take less time to learn.
An example of how learning a musical skill contributes to improving the students ability to learn a piece of music
Let’s look at how developing the skill of keeping a regular beat has a positive benefit for the student for every piece of music they subsequently learn. For this example we will consider the student has not fully developed his “timing” skills to be able to “automatically” keep a beat. He can successfully keep a regular beat but he has to think about it quite hard during the performance and the beat is likely to falter if other areas of the music temporarily need more attention. This student spends extra time developing his “timing” skills over a period of several months. He focuses on getting the timing right by doing extra games and exercises designed to strengthen this ability. Eventually with enough time spent developing this skill the student finds he can keep the beat “automatically” as he plays. This ability to keep a regular beat is now controlled by the subconscious mind. This frees up the conscious mind to focus on other areas of the performance. The beat is also less likely to go wrong if the student has to temporarily draw on his available conscious resources as this is being controlled entirely subconsciously. By developing this skill he has made every piece of music he subsequently plays easier. He has more available conscious brain power to apply to other tasks making it easier for him to learn them.
How to ensure that every student reaches their full potential
When you see a musician perform a complex piece of music you are not seeing “talent”. You are seeing the results of a student who has worked hard, studied thoughtfully and pushed his skills and abilities to ever higher levels consistently over a long period of time. There is a common feeling amongst teachers that every student has the ability to reach a certain level when playing a musical instrument but advanced playing skills will only be achieved by a relatively small number of students compared with the number of students that begin taking lessons on an instrument. In the absence of any other “learning disabilities” I believe any student should be able to reach an advanced level if their studies are approached in the correct way and they do the recommended amount of practice during their entire course of lessons. The main reason students reach a level beyond which they can progress no further is that they have not been trained to use the correct balance of the conscious and subconscious brain or they have not practiced for enough time to ensure that important cognitive processes have been automated. Relying too heavily on the conscious brain can be achieved in the lower musical grades but will only take the student so far. To be successful at higher musical grades students must approach practice in the correct way from the beginning, which is why it is a mistake for parents to think it is OK to start with a lesser teacher as a beginner and progress on to a more qualified teacher later on.
If you would like your child to do better in school give them the opportunity to study the piano
Bottom line – By practicing each piece of music thoroughly the student will ensure he is able to control all the necessary aspects of a performance by using a combination of the conscious mind and the subconscious mind. Each piece of music practiced in this way will help to grow the subconscious minds ability to handle larger amounts of information. By neglecting to practice a piece of music until large portions of the music have become automated the subconscious mind will not grow in its capacity to handle larger amounts of musical information. The student will rely too heavily on the conscious mind alone and will be unprepared to move on to more complex music. Working in this way expands the capacity of the subconscious mind to handle large amounts of information. Students increase their ability to manage and manipulate large amounts of information in their minds by pushing their abilities to a higher level with each piece of music they play. This ability then becomes a transferable skill that may be used to handle other types of information making them better at studying other subjects. This is one of the reasons that studying a musical instrument has been empirically proven to increase test scores in other academic subjects. A good teacher will identify the areas of a performance that need more work to become correctly automated and encourage the student to concentrate more on these particular areas. The areas that need to be focused on the most will be different for every student. When students try to learn without the watchful eye of an experienced teacher they are unlikely to spot areas of the performance that need further development and as a result of this they are likely to rely too much on their conscious minds resulting in slow progress and ultimately a belief that playing the piano is “too difficult” for them. There are many more areas of musical ability to consider that have not been addressed in this article. A good teacher will constantly spot opportunities to strengthen a student’s ability in many more areas than have been covered in this discussion however the principles mentioned in this article may be applied universally to almost all aspects of studying the piano. The Legends Piano Studio offers piano lessons by Skype to students located anywhere in the world.