Voyeuristic Practice?! How watching other performers can make you a better player.

I was watching a TV program last week called “Test your brain“, a series developed by National Geographic Channel which explores how the mind works.

The first episode was all about memory (interesting enough for musicians), but the second episode entitled, “You won’t believe your eyes”, really got me thinking about the effect of visual perception on musical performance and practice.

There is no doubt that we feel, in a physiologically measurable way, things that we see happening to other people. It’s why we get emotional in movies, it’s why we wince when someone else hurts themselves (think of your reaction to some of the painful accidents on the Funniest Home Video Show!) and it’s why we can get angry when we see injustice towards others.

It’s also why we can get so much from watching other people performing. The great thing about our brains is that it has a hard time realising the difference between watching something happening and doing it yourself. Watching makes your brain thinks it’s actually doing.

We know that music has a measurable effect on the brain: Music Leaves its Mark on the Brain and Do Musicians Have Better Brains? are just good articles on the topic. However, have you read the research about how seeing someone else’s pain affects your own brain?

Here’s a quick explanation from The Brain from Top to Bottom:

At a first level of analysis, many studies have shown that simply looking at someone else’s facial expression causes us to adopt a similar facial expression, often without even realizing it. Thus, underlying our social interactions and our shared emotions, there seems to be a mimicry that is usually unconscious and automatic. And this direct linkage between our perceptions and our actions makes us “resonate” with the person whom we are observing, whether we want to or not.

Other studies have shown the very real psychological effects that such a resonance can have. For example, people who observe other people being disgusted by a bad smell will experience a sense of disgust themselves. And we all know how unpleasant it is to see someone else cut themselves badly with a sharp blade.

Around the year 2000, brain-imaging studies began to show that when we see someone else who is disgusted or in pain, it activates, in our own brains, certain parts of the neural network that is normally active when we are actually experiencing disgust or pain ourselves. Around this same time, the gradual discovery of the existence of mirror neurons opened new avenues to study what many neuroscientists now refer to as our “shared neural networks”. Because mirror neurons are activated both when we make a certain movement ourselves and when we see someone else make it, researchers came to regard them as a highly likely substrate for this sharing process.

Although I’m not talking about shared pain in this article, the TV show made a strong connection between these “shared neural networks” and the effect of watching other musicians performing. Put simply, if you are studying an instrument and you watch a skilled performer performing at a high level, the mere act of watching can fire neurons in your brain that would fire if you yourself were performing.

Of course, I’m not a neuroscientist, so I’m only going on the research I’ve found, but in my experience this is true. In the last two years, I’ve attended as many masterclasses, lectures, lessons and performances as I’ve been able, in order to improve my own playing. There is no doubt that I get a buzz from watching stellar performances and, if my teachers’ comments are anything to go by, some of it seems to be rubbing off!

I guess we can also extrapolate to the positive effect of watching other good teachers teaching. This is something else I really enjoy doing on YouTube (even if I don’t always agree with the methods) and another great reason for attending masterclasses. Wouldn’t it be great if we could do more of this in our profession, much like classroom teacher observations?

Do you encourage your students to attend as many performances as possible to improve their own playing? Have you found that watching others performing/teaching has helped your own skills?

Of course, you are not going to learn to play the piano just by watching someone else – there’s no side-stepping good tuition and comprehensive, deliberate practice . However, if you are learning an instrument and trying to improve your performance skills, somewhere deep in your brain the right neurons are firing when you watch others playing. Sounds too good to be true!

So, sit back and enjoy your next voyeuristic practice session!

Most unusual places to record piano?

Wish I could practice my piano in some of these locations!!

On a salt lake:


Top of a mountain:


By a waterfall:


The Tower Bridge in London:


At the beach:


As you can see, the PianoGuys feature highly in the above list… check out their YouTube channel if you haven’t already – they have some pretty impressive recordings :)

What’s your ultimate practice location?

Looking for good masterclass videos?

No doubt you send your students to masterclasses and have perhaps even participated in or conducted one yourself in the past. There are many fantastic masterclass videos on YouTube which I won’t worry about listing here (just search for whatever piece you’re looking for + “masterclass”), but there is a great channel called MMF Masterclass to which you might like to subscribe.

The Masterclass Media Foundation features masterclasses with the likes of Boris Berman, Steven Kovacevich and plenty more on a variety of instruments and different works. Unfortunately, the videos are only excerpts of the full masterclasses which can be ordered on DVD, but the clips remain a great reference nonetheless and give you a good idea of whether it’s worth ordering the full version.

Here’s a list of all their masterclasses with links to the clips. Worth checking out.

Devlin’s Angle: The difference between teaching and instruction

Good to know that music teachers, unlike mathematics teachers it seems, have the right idea about how to teach! I have also taught classroom maths in the past and this article is spot-on about the (wrong) way that subjects like maths, science and history, is taught in schools… A useful article for all teachers.

Devlin’s Angle: The difference between teaching and instruction.

Is 30 minutes enough?

“Enough for what?” you might ask.

If I asked how many of you find it hard to find the time to incorporate aural, theory, sight-reading, general knowledge, composition, harmony and improvisation studies into your students’ 30 minute lessons, would you put up your hand?

In order to provide our students with a holistic musical education (and prepare them successfully for exams), we know that we should be including all these things in our lessons right from the start of the year. However for many teachers, it’s hard to know where to find the time and as a consequence, aural, sight reading and general knowledge practice sometimes gets crammed (usually unsuccessfully) into the last two weeks before an exam.

So how can you fit all that into a lesson and still have time to work on students’ pieces?

The solution isn’t really about time at all; rather, it’s about finding connections and working smarter. Paul Harris, in his book “The Virtuoso Teacher” really got me thinking about this recently. In it, he discusses his concept of Simultaneous Learning where content from all areas of music (theory, aural, etc) are taught in a connected way during a lesson rather than compartmentalised and segmented into chunks at the end.

Put simply, if you separate all the above aspects of your lesson, you’ll never have time to do it all. Instead, Harris recommends finding connections between things students know and their new material and helping them to discover these connections by writing, playing, clapping and singing as a regular part of teaching (not just part of aural/sight reading tests). Harris’ ABRSM article “Simultaneous Learning: Teaching Pupils to Think Musically” is a great place to start your research into this topic.

Personally, “Teaching my students to think musically” has revolutionised the way I approach lessons.

One of the most important changes to my teaching is the way I introduce new pieces. Often, this was something I did near the end of a lesson: I’d play through some options for a student, ask him/her to choose a favourite and suggest that they have a look through it and try playing some of it during the week. If I had time, I might discuss the key, form and maybe have time to get started on learning the beginning.

Now, my approach is completely different. I’m much more likely to make this one of the first things I do in a lesson. Why? Because helping students find the connections between what they already know and the challenges in a new piece should be one of our main jobs! It’s also something that takes both time and preparation to do well.

Harris talks about “finding the ingredients” in a piece and helping students understand these well before they set foot in the music, a little bit like a SWAT team preparing for a raid: “What’s the goal? What’s the terrain? Who’s going to be there? Do we know what they look like? Is there anything new about the place? What tools/weapons do we need? Do we need any new skills? Have we got a map?”.

Ingredients are things like recurrent rhythms, ornaments, chords, patterns – whatever it is that forms the building blocks of the piece. Perhaps it’s full of G major triads and arpeggios. Rather than reading these slowly from the music, Harris encourages us to connect students to knowledge they already have: do they know the C major triad? Can they play it? What’s the similarity with G major? Can they arpeggiate it? What does it look like on the music stave? Can they write it on blank manuscript – as semibreves/quavers correctly grouped either melodically or harmonically? Can they sing the notes up and down? What does it look like on different clefs/in different octaves? What’s important about the G major arpeggio given the key of the piece? What other arpeggios are likely to come up in a piece of music in the key of G? Can they play the G major scale as well? Is the use of arpeggios like this a stylistic convention common to music of this genre? Can they play it from memory?

The connections are endless when you start digging and I’ve found that preparing for teaching in this way is a really exciting process that really gets you thinking. The best thing is that teaching through Simultaneous Learning becomes far less reactive when students return the following week because of all the groundwork has been laid and the connections made. As a result, I have found that my students are having far more success in their practice and need less reactive correction when they return the following week.

It is only by helping students see, understand and experience the connections between different aspects of music that we can develop more integrated, self-directed musicians. With continued drilling, students can start to make these connections themselves which will help their future studies immeasurably. Even better, this process covers theory, harmony, aural, general knowledge, performance skills, sight reading, etc., all in a connected, positive and relevant way that is much more likely to stick in students’ minds than the dreaded, “OK let’s do some aural tests”!

This week, if you find yourself singing a melody line to help a student, ask them to sing it with you and perhaps write it down as well. If they are starting a new piece in 6/8 time, get them to do lots of clapping and writing of the most common rhythmic patterns in 6/8 well before they look at the music. If they are learning about key signatures, get them to write their own key signatures as well as recognise them. Getting students to write music is one of the best (and simplest) changes you can make.

These are just some of the ways you can incorporate Simultaneous Learning in your teaching this week. I just about guarantee positive results!

Article published in the Victorian Music Teachers’ Association journal, August 2012.

Who does Mock Exams? | Poll

At this time of the year, I tend to start arranging mock exams for students who are sitting their exam in the October season here in Australia. I normally get students to sit at least one mock exam, preferably two, prior to their actual exam and I generally use my own teacher and/or friends who are teachers to conduct them.

I find that mock exams are beneficial for a number of reasons:

  • Students have the experience of performing under pressure for a stranger in an unfamiliar environment (just like an exam)
  • Students get feedback from an alternate perspective
  • Preparing for a mock exam a few weeks out from their actual exam date means that students are prepared well in advance
  • It gives the teacher time to fix up any issues well before the exam date
  • It’s a double-check that you’ve prepared your student thoroughly

The process got me wondering: How many other teachers do this for their students? Do you believe it’s important? If you use them, who runs them for you? I also recently had a parent question the need for a mock exam as their child’s previous teacher(s) had never done them. I was brought up with them when I was learning and I continue to run my studio in the same way.

What about you?

For what level students do you request mock exams? ie. do you do it for all exam grades or just advanced students? Personally, I do it for any student sitting any level exam.

I generally ask my teacher to run mock exams for my students. Who do you use?

Looking forward to your feedback!

ps. You can view the results of each poll by clicking “view results” at the bottom of each box.