Friday, February 24, 2006

Seeing Through Closed Eyes

I was teaching a lesson the other day when I had one of those great moments that make teaching really fun. I teach a nine-year old boy named Sam. Sam cracks me up. He's the biggest Star Wars fan I have ever met in my life and he makes absolutely NO secret of the fact that he just hates piano lessons. Sam's been taking lessons for a year now, and he's actually doing really well. It amuses me no end to see him sitting at the piano in his baseball uniform, looking totally dejected about being inside the house, heaving a heavy sigh with every note he plays.

This week, Sam was having trouble with his rhythm plus he's also developing a bad habit of looking at his hands when he plays. I mean, it's not bad to look at your hands sometimes but if you're not careful it becomes something of a crutch. It's much like typing--looking at your hands just slows you down. I had a teacher who would often make me play blindfolded in order to learn to trust my hands. Plus, I'm pretty sure it gave him a chance to take a nap during the lesson.

The problem during Sam's lesson was that the boy would stop between every note, sigh heavily, look at his hands, find the note, then look back up at the music by which point he had completely lost his place. It's a fairly common problem. Most people instinctively trust only what their eyes can see, not realizing that the other senses can be trusted as well. So I decided to do a little extra work to teach Sam to trust his hands.

In order to help with the rhythm problems, I got out the metronome again. For those who have been spared this experience, a metronome is a torture device used to help ensure even rhythm by making a loud ticking sound at regular intervals. Sam is NOT a fan of the metronome. He tries to watch the pendulum swing back and forth while he sort of lunges toward the keyboard in a desperate attempt to anticipate the ticking. Now, I feel his pain here. I do. I have absolutely no sense of rhythm myself. It's something I have to work really hard for since it does not come naturally to me. In fact my teacher once observed, "You know, you don't even WALK rhythmically." This was a very creepy observation, I thought. I have lots of hatred of and a grudging appreciation for the metronome. Like Sam, I always wanted to watch it, trying to anticipate the clicks. It's really a frustrating thing to learn, if you're not naturally inclined. I once threw a metronome across the room and broke it into many tiny pieces. It was about that time that I learned that some metronomes are extremely expensive. Oops.

I could see that Sam was getting frustrated and upset, so I backed off for a few minutes. After all, the feelings of a young boy are fragile and so is my metronome. A few minutes later I came back to it. I said, "Okay Sam, here's what I want you to do. I want you to just relax. This is no big deal. It's not a competition, it's not a performance. If you make a mistake no one's going to hear it and no one's going to care. This is just an experiment. Okay? Now, I want you to close your eyes and just put your hands on the keys. Keep your eyes closed and then just touch the keys. Feel the sets of two black keys and the sets of three. Take your time. Just get used to how the keys feel under your fingers. Feel how far apart they are. Notice how far you have to move your fingers to reach from one key to the next. Can you feel the difference between the way the black keys and the white keys feel? Very good. Now, keeping your eyes closed I want you to find all the D's on the keyboard." (That's really easy because D is the note between every set of two black keys.) "Good, now find all the G's. Excellent work, Sam. You're doing great. Now find the A's." (Again, easy because those are the notes inside the sets of three black keys.) "Great job Sam, now I want you to keep your eyes closed and go back to C. Good. Now I want you to play the C major scale." He did it perfectly. "Sam, I'm so proud of you, you're doing so well. Now I'm going to set the metronome. Don't play anything, just listen to it. Can you hear it? Can you tap your foot along with it? Great. Okay, when your ready, play the scale again, one note with each click, but keep your eyes closed. You know where the notes are. You can feel them. You don't need to see them. Trust your fingers to find them. And you can hear the clicks of the metronome. You don't need to watch it move back and forth. Just listen. Take your time, just listen to the clicks. When you're ready, play."

He did it PERFECTLY.

I said, "Sam! You did it! I knew you could! Do you understand now?"

And then he smiled this little crooked half-smile and said, "Well, yeah. You mean you just want me to use the Force when I play, right?"

You realize what this means. Someday when he gets nominated for a Grammy, he's totally going to thank George Lucas.


Ronni said...

But we'll know it's really you!

Anonymous said...

Ah, brings back memories of my old piano lesson days. If only Yoda had been around back then!


loretta said...

I could anticipate that punch line, but it was really funny just the same.

I have an electronic metronome that you can have "pulse" with light instead of the clicking sound. It also has a volume control.

I wish I had a dime for every hour I had to use it, because I (like a lot of instrumentalists) tend to rush the passages that have a lot of notes, and slow down the passages that have fewer notes.

With flute music, there's always a lot of sixteenth notes. Metronomes are a must.

My mother's metronome was sort of cockeyed after awhile, with an uneven tick TICK tick TICK tick TICk, that made a limping sound.

My electronic metronome also has a concert (440) A built in.

It's really slick.

It also takes a licking and keeps on ticking. I have never thrown it, but it's fallen and been dropped a number of times!