Piano: Dealing with Information Overload

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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Guitar Tip: Lead fingers and Pivot fingers

Playing chords on the guitar is not too bad. Even the difficult ones can be played without much trouble…as long as you’re not playing it in the middle of a song.

With a little effort it’s easy to put your fingers in the right place and make the chord sound decent.

The trouble is switching to the chord from another chord – in time. In other words, going from chord to chord at the speed of the song is not as easy as it seems.

Here’s something to think about that might help. When switching from chord to chord there are a couple of things you can watch for. Learning how to play guitar is largely about teaching your own fingers to move how and where you want them.

Here’s the secret: they have natural tendencies.

Pivot Fingers

Pay attention to where your fingers are. A prime example of a pivot finger is when going from the D chord to the G chord. Most people play the G Chord like this (numbers represent fingers, starting with pointer finger #1):

g-chord

When you look at the D chord, the ring finger (#3) is in the same position as it is in the G chord:

d-chord

The 3 finger (ring finger) becomes the pivot finger. Like a dancer rotates her body on a single foot, a guitar player can (more or less) rotate his hand on a single finger.

So, when going from the D-chord to the G-chord, you can keep your 3 finger in place. Don’t lift it.

Many beginning players let their whole hand off the neck to switch chords, but it’s not necessary. Leaving the 3 finger in place allows the hand to quickly and easily pivot around to play the G-chord without looking.

Playing chords without looking is actually an important goal for a player. One of the methods to get there is to utilize pivot fingers when you find them.

Here’s a video about it:

Lead Fingers

Before trying to play chords without looking, feel free to look. In fact, be very observant. Using the same chords as above, when going from the D-chord to the G-chord, something else natural happens: there’s a leader.

Yes, watch closely. One of your fingers will usually get there first. My lead finger going from D to G is my middle finger (#2). It gets there first every time.

Why is this important?

Here’s a principle everyone needs to know: A leader has followers.

Interestingly, the same applies to your fingers. Sounds strange, but if you’ve spent even a small amount of time teaching your fingers where they should go for a particular chord, you start to see this happen. Your non-lead fingers will naturally fall into their place.

g-chord

For instance, if my lead finger is my 2 finger to the G-chord, and I utilize my pivot finger (#3), my other two will go right to their positions.

Fingers 1 and 4 know right where to go.

And this is just an example. This even works for bar chords, and other irregular chords. In fact, this principle is so important, you may not be able to switch effectively without it.

The reason is of the alternative: flyaway fingers. The closer your fingers can stay to the strings the better.

Utilizing Pivot Fingers and Lead Fingers will allow you to play more and more efficiently. Watch your fingers – try not to let them pull out and move more than necessary. In no time, you will be able to go from chord to chord at the speed of the song, and do it with fluidity.

Lead Fingers Video:

Keep at it!

Getting over the Blank Canvas

Getting over the Blank Canvas

Sometimes playing music can start with as much of a blank canvas as painting. Even if there is a sheet of paper with notes or chords on it in front of you, players or groups still get this familiar sense: “Where do I start?”

For instance, a guitar player, bassist, drummer and a singer get together to play. If there is no set songs to play, it’s worse, but even if there are songs that have been chosen, they still must decide how to start.

Or, when a beginning guitar player picks up his or her guitar to play, they play around on chords, but how do you put them together? How should they strum?

A large part of this blog is to help get over this hurdle. I hope to offer tips that help get over this “blank canvas” feeling.

I enjoy the visual arts as well and have felt this many times. It comes with the territory…and you don’t realize how tall that mountain is until you get right up next to it. In other words, until you pick up your pencil, brush, guitar pick, drum sticks or get together as a band and begin to play, you don’t realize that the squatty thing in the distance was Mt. Kilimanjaro.

Every artist must learn to overcome this feeling. And you can too.

So here’s the first tip: Imitate

One of the best principles I’ve found for learning anything is to try to copy what someone else has done.

This is called “mimesis” in classical education circles. It’s why God wanted Moses to write the song in Deuteronomy 31-32. It’s why Jesus asked those men to follow Him. It’s why Paul and the other apostles told the churches to imitate God and Christ in love (cf. Eph 5:1-2). It’s why the apostles not only told the churches to imitate them (2 Thess 3:7-9), but to also consider the outcome of the way of life of their leaders and imitate them (Heb 13:7).

Back to music. This is fairly easy to do these days with guitar. Find a song. Find the chords. Play along.

(Simply type in the name of the song in google with “lyrics and chords” next to it and you should find something.)

I have led worship music for much of my life and these types of songs are wonderful to use.

Number two: Consistent and Simple is Best

Secondly, remember that it is more important to be consistent with something simple than to try to do too much. If you’re by yourself, it’s better to work yourself up to the more complex thing. If you’re with a band, the same applies – it’s better to work up to the more complex thing than try something too complicated…even if one person can do it so easily.

It’s a trap.

Just work on being consistent with something simple – on your skill level – first.

For instance, as a band, try this. Strip the chords to their bare bones by only playing the chords shown at major places (like the down beats – or maybe even just the 1 count).

As a beginner guitarist, try this: play a D chord until you have mastered it, and don’t move on until you can close your eyes and put your hand in the right place. Or if you’ve mastered the D chord, try using the D to practice switching to a chord you don’t know as well, and go back and forth. Master that.

Work on being consistent with something simple.

I know there are many things going on that can cause a musician to freeze up, quit in frustration, or simply get bored. Remember you are training yourself (even as a band), to hear well and play well. It’s ear training as well as muscle memory training.

Stay the course!

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