Making the most of our different senses when learning

How we use a particular sense without questioning whether it’s the most appropriate.

With my youngest student last week, she was having real difficulty sight-reading (on the piano at this point, but applies to both piano and harp), and I came to the conclusion it was mainly lack of confidence. I know this because when she first sees a piece of new music, she pretty much always put her hands on the right strings, and then moves to another string as the conscious thought-process kicks in about whether she’s got it “right” or not. Last week, she felt obliged to look at her hands while sight-reading (whether on the piano or the harp) and while doing that, couldn’t of course look at the music.

I asked her how she typed on the computer, and she mimed it, and I noticed she again looked at her hands, so I asked her to get the family’s laptop and type me something without looking. She said she couldn’t do it, but would have a go anyway. She surprised herself when she discovered she could type perfectly well without looking at the keys. I explained that if there’s no good reason not to look at our hands, we just naturally do it. Then I asked her how she would know if she mistyped something, and of course she said she’d see it on the screen. So I asked her to type some more and then correct any mistakes, again without looking at the keyboard (and yes, she found the delete key first time!). So she realised she could work quite quickly by looking at the screen to see if the letters were correct, and then we made the connection with how you know if you play the wrong note – which of course you’d hear.

That really seemed to unlock something for her – she was delighted at the typing thing and equally delighted to discover she could play at sight perfectly well – while I held something over the keyboard to stop her looking. Finally we had a conversation about our habits of looking just because that’s what we normally do. So her homework was to learn a new piece each on the piano and harp, and do some touch-typing. We’ll see this week what she makes of it.

She’s amazingly capable: if I play some odd intervals on the harp (for example a tritone) she can reproduce that on the piano without now looking at either the harp or the piano keyboard. For me that’s excellent for a someone who’s just turned nine, but I think all of the above are ways of encouraging us to bring our other senses into play.

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