Proprioception, sometimes called the sixth sense, is essential for the proper coordination of all our body motions…
Proprioception in Action
Let’s do an experiment:
- Close your eyes and set your hands in your lap.
- 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 right ear.
Unless you are intoxicated or have a genuine neurological disorder, you will discover that you can do this with amazing accuracy and without much thought or effort.
What is Proprioception?
Sensory neurons distributed throughout our bodies respond to expansions and contractions of our muscles and tendons and movements of our joints. This sensory information is sent to our brains where it’s transformed into a sense of where our body parts are located and how they are moving in time and space. This feedback is crucial when we walk, talk, eat, drive, dance, and play piano.
The Role of Visualization
Proprioception enables us to visualize the positions and motions of our body parts in time and space. Such Visualization is not the same thing as seeing with our eyes. Visualization is our capacity to “see” something (an object or event) in our mind’s eye with our eyes closed.
When is comes to piano technique, visualization is much more powerful than vision alone for at least three reasons:
- The most you can see with your eyes is limited by the contents of your visual sensory register (see: How Your Brain Works: Memory Fundamentals). The contents of your visual sensory register are limited to where your eyes are physically pointed, your field of view and depth of focus. Visualization, on the other hand, is not constrained by these physical constraints–enabling you to see many things at once.
- 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. It enables us to “see” what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen.
- Our sense of vision is quite slow–far too slow to respond to the many fast events that are a routine part of all but the slowest and simplest piano music. You can 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. In other words, the hand really is 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 in your mind’s eye.
Implications of Proprioception & Visualization 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 in relation to each other and in relation to your body.
Thus, one component of piano mastery is to mapping the visio-spatial layout of the piano keys into your mind’s eye so that the keyboard becomes an extension of your own body.
To that here are a few piano technique tips to keep in mind:
- Unless you have a compelling reason to do otherwise, center yourself– physically and mentally–on middle D of the keyboard.
- Unnecessary muscle tension masks the many subtle sensations provided by proprioception. Particularly big proprioception-killers are lifting of the shoulders and overreliance on your fingers.
- A fun and confidence-building practice idea is to play scales, chords, and chord progressions 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.
- An incredibly powerful confidence builder is to visualize performing your pieces away from the piano. Imagine hearing the music in your mind’s ear while imagining moving your body in your mind’s eye. Imagine the choreography. Imagine which finger plays each note. Imagine the keys going down or any other detail that requires your attention.