Piano Technique: Proprioception & Visualization

Let’s do an experiment: Close your eyes and set your hands in your lap…

Next, with your eyes still closed, lift your left hand and touch your left index finger to the tip of your nose. Then lift your right hand and stick the tip of your right pinkie into your left ear. Unless you are intoxicated or have a genuine neurological disorder, you will discover that you can do this to some degree of precision.
We accomplish such tasks using something called Proprioception (not to be confused with the sense of touch).
Proprioception is a two-stage process:

  1. Sensory neurons that are distributed throughout our bodies respond to expansions and contractions and movements of our movable body parts: muscles, tendons, and joints.
  2. This sensory information is sent to our brains where it is decoded and integrated and transformed into a sense of where our body parts are located with respect to each other and how they are moving in time and space. We use this crucial feedback in order to make adjustments to our movements when we walk, eat, drive, dance, and play piano.

The Role of Visualization

In a nutshell, Proprioception is the integration of feelings that enable us to visualize the positions and motions of our body parts in time and space. Visualization is not the same thing as the sense of vision (seeing with our eyes). To visualize something (an object or event) is to imagine it purely in your mind’s eye, with your eyes closed. When playing the piano, visualization is infinitely more powerful than vision alone for at least three reasons:
The most you can see with your eyes alone is limited by the contents or your visual sensory register (see: How Your Brain Works). The contents of your visual sensory register are limited by where your eyes are physically pointed, their field of view, and their depth of focus. Visualization, on the other hand, is not contrained at all by these physical constraints. Visualization enables us to see many things at once, more than vision alone.
The contents of your visual sensory register are limited to what is happening now, at this very moment, a singular and fleeting point in time. Visualization, on the other hand, is not constrained at to just the present. Visualization enables us to “see” what has already happened, what is happening now, and to quickly project imaginings into the future.
The sense of vision is relatively slow. In practical terms, vision is too slow to respond to so many faster events that are a routine part of all but the simplest piano music. Prove this to yourself by moving your hands left and right across the keyboard. Even at moderate speeds, notice that your hands are just a blur. The hand is indeed faster than the eye. Vision is not useless, but vision alone is not fast enough to guide our playing. Visualization, on the other hand, enables you to “see” things as fast as you can imagine them happening.

Implications for Playing Piano

When it comes to playing the piano, it is not enough know where your body parts are located. You must also know where the piano is – specifically where the keys are. Thus, one component of piano mastery is to map the visio-spatial layout of the piano keys into your mind’s eye so that the keyboard becomes an extension of one’s own body. Here are a few tidbits to keep in mind:

  • Where to Sit: Center yourself — physically and mentally — on middle D of the keyboard.
  • Proprioception and Tension. Unnecessary muscle tension masks the many subtle sensations provided by proprioception. A particularly big proprioception-killer is the always unnecessary lifting of the the shoulders.
  • Study-Practice Idea: Play intervals and scales and chords and chord progressions blindfolded (or at least with your eyes closed). This forces you to visualize the locations of the keys with respect to each other and with respect to your body. Such practice can be fun and builds enormous confidence at the piano.
  • Study-Practice Idea: Visualize performing your pieces away from the piano. Imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear. In your mind’s eye, imagine your body moving through space, imagine which finger plays each note, and imagine the keys going down. The fruit of such disciplined preparation is supremely confident, masterful performance.
  • Relation to Other Concepts: Visualization enables you to imagine an entire musical phrase at once and proprioception provides feedback required for expert execution of that phrase. Do you see how proprioception and visualization and not playing one note at a time and patterns and mental chunking and physical continuity all dovetail so nicely together?
  • Using Your Other Senses: Proprioception is not the only way to know where your body parts are. You can also be guided by visual input from your eyes and tactile inputs from your fingertips. Allow all three senses to complement each other as needed in order to provide something far deeper and valuable than mere hand-eye coordination.
  • What are the Limits of Visualization? The only constraint is your imagination… an enormous, untapped resource. Enjoy using this powerful, unexplored part of your brain!