Piano: Dealing with Information Overload

Ever feel like your head might explode with an information overload? This is how someone (particularly a child just starting out) feels when they sit down to play a piece they haven’t learned.

There’s just a lot to look at.

So much to see. So much to do.

So much to translate.

Seriously. There’s so many symbols on the page that even a simple song can make your eyes cross.

Information overload. How do you deal with it? Glancing up at the page, the student struggles to know what to look at. Are they supposed to look at everything at the same time? How do they translate all these symbols into something that sounds beautiful?

It’s kind of overwhelming, and many have been known to shed a few tears over it.

(This may be why there has been so much psychological research done on it. Many have noticed this general issue. Did you know there is an Information Overload Research Group? Crazy.)

Anyway, not only does the music page look like Greek, but their hands aren’t cooperating and just won’t play it right.

This combination = “I stink at piano.”

Sidebar – Know Yourself

If you’ve felt this pressure before, you know what I’m talking about. It can make you want to quit.

Incidentally, this is where some wonderful character training can come into play. If you are a parent, how do you handle this? If you are the parent trying to learn in front of your kids, how do you handle it? God is interested in every nook and cranny of your heart.

It is very important to know yourself. In this case, know how you tend to respond to pressure, anxiety, frustration, and the like when you practice your musical instrument.

If you can take a breath and slow yourself down, you have won most of the battle.

It’s like looking at a map

My wife thinks quite a lot about education and homeschooling. She was working with a child yesterday who was supposed to trace a map of the world, but didn’t know what he was even supposed to trace.

There was so much there! He didn’t know what to look at. He didn’t know what the important lines were.

She led his eyes to the primary outline of the continents and had him trace those. She told me later that it would have been better to have a world map with only the outlines of the continents. That way there would be no question what to trace.

With piano music, it’s hard to simplify. You can’t just erase everything but the outline, so to speak.

That’s why looking at sheet music can be like looking at a map with lots of detail. Where do you start?

Dealing with Information Overload

Because of this issue, there’s a couple things I’d like to say.

First, remember that the more you look at something, the more familiar it gets. Be patient. Give it time.

Second, it is possible to help focus the eyes on some primary elements without feeling completely overwhelmed.

Here are a few ideas:

  1. There are typically numbers used in the Suzuki method. These numbers are a guide to help remind you of which fingers you should play. Try highlighting the numbers.
  2. The songs in the book usually have musical phrases written in (the arches above the staff lines). Try seeing the phrase arches like hats over different heads, or covers over different boxes. Play one box at a time.
  3. Shorten the song even more by playing one or two measures at a time. Only work on a small number of measures at a time, and master it before trying to do the whole thing.
  4. Take sticky notes and actually cover everything else on the page you don’t want to work on, to give your eyes a focused section to look at. Keep moving and removing the sticky notes until the whole song is played with ease. (Credit to my wife for this one!)

Keep listening to the songs on the CD! Your ear will do a lot of correction for you, and can help translate what your eyes see. Think of the difference between learning to play a song you’ve already heard, versus a song that you’ve never heard.

Information overload is a real thing. In our day of immediacy, sitting still while working hard is a lesson that is getting harder and harder to learn. It is much easier to give up and try something else.

Well, this is not a restaurant you can abandon if your food is taking too long, or a channel you can change if you don’t like what you see.

It is worthwhile to keep working at something you don’t get at first. Everyone can relate to this. We just happen to be talking about practicing piano presently.

It’s like life – you listen to someone else play their song, and then you play it as much like they do as possible. Only then can you begin to make it your own and create new melodies.

Observation of what’s important is key. But it can take time to train your eyes to see it.

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