Sensitivity Training and Feedback Loops


Here's an element of piano playing that I think many people are unaware of. To develop a really refined technique, you need to be very sensitive to the *feel* of your hands on the keys. This means, the the tactile sensation of your fingertips, the weight of the keys, the motion of the key going down and how that motion *feels* in your fingers and hands.

Maybe this seems obvious, but a surprising number of people become extremely mechanical the instant they put their hands to the piano.

Why is this important? Really good piano practice, and piano playing,  involves setting up a "feedback" loop. It goes like this:

1) Sound concept -> 2) Attempted Sound Production ->  3) Result -> 4) Analysis of Result -> 5) Adjustment of Desired Sound/Attempt

(Sorry for the clumsy presentation, but you get the idea.)

The result of these steps 1 and 2 is a sound 3 that either matches the "Sound Concept" or not. Steps 4 and 5 can lead to an adjustment of the first two steps, which starts the process over again. This is a feedback loop. 

Many people fail in their practice because they don't really understand Step 2. In fact, most people focus almost exclusively on Step 3 to the exclusion of everything else! Of course this is very ineffective practice. Getting a desired result is worth very little if you don't know how you got it. Piano teachers are fond of saying "slow down". What we really mean is: "Slow down so that you can think about the results you are getting in comparison to the sound you want to produce and your attempt at producing it, and make adjustments as necessary while carefully thinking ahead." That's just a mouthful so we don't say it.

One note about step 2: like any non-habitual action, it involves 2 parts: a "foresight" or "pre-visualization" of the action, and the action itself. For instance if you decide to raise your hand above your head, you first visualize that action on some level and then you do it. For habitual actions, this visualization seems to scope out to larger levels. For instance, because typing is so habitual to me, I don't need to think ahead about pressing the keys of the keyboard, but I do need to think about what words to type. 

Too much information? Bear with me. Just remember, when you DO something (step 2) you have to "visualize" it and then do it. So step 2 has two parts.

Now, in piano playing, there are many elements to Step 2, such as note-reading, finger dexterity, hand position, fingering, and on and on. I want to focus here on one element that is almost universally ignored: the *feel* of playing. 

 When I ask people to visualize playing a certain passage, they often have no trouble understanding that they can visualize the correct key and the correct sound before playing. When you say "think ahead while you play", its somewhat obvious that you would think ahead about what notes to play and what those notes should sound like. It's less obvious to think ahead about what playing will *feel* like.

As an example, when I'm about to play a five finger pattern, I don't just have an image of the keys, but also a feel in my fingers of what it will feel like to produce that sound. This "feel" is a mixture of kinesthetic awareness (the feeling of my hands and their motion) as well as an awareness of how the keys feel on my fingertips and their movement up and down. 

OK This is enough of the details, so the end of part I. 

I'll continue this article in a second part with an exercise or two to help develop kinesthetic awareness and strong feedback-loops in practicing.

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