Have you ever had a student play a piece with frequent hesitations throughout, even though you know they can play much better than that? This phenomenon can occur with all ages/levels of students. Why does this happen? What is going on when this happens? This article will examine possible causes of and solutions for a lack of fluency.
A lack of fluency could be caused by a number of things:
- A lack of the proper technique required for the executing the piece;
- A lack of familiarity of the notes of the piece;
- A tempo that is too fast for the student’s ability at that moment; or,
- A lack of mentally “chunking” the information on the page properly. The analogy I use to refer to Number 4 is that the students feels like they are wearing horse blinders, or are mentally experiencing tunnel vision.
It is fairly easy to tell when Number 1 (lack of technique) is the cause of a lack of fluency: the student will be making inefficient gestures when trying to execute the passage. Number 2 (lack of familiarity with the notes) and 3 (tempo that is too fast) are fairly self-explanatory, essentially boiling down to a lack of practice. Number 4 (the presence of horse blinders or tunnel vision) is the one I’d like to discuss today. It’s a less obvious fix than the others and deserves some discussion.
How do you know if a student is experiencing tunnel vision?
- You know they can play the piece better than that! Perhaps you’ve actually heard them play the piece better before too.
- The student know s/he can play the piece much better than that.
- You’ve eliminated Numbers 1, 2, and 3 from the list above: you know they have the chops to play the piece, you know they know enough to play the notes well and can tell the student’s been practicing, and you feel that the tempo the student chose is appropriate. When technique and practice is not the problem, then it must be a problem in how the student is perceiving the music — process of elimination.
- The student seems to be focusing on only one or two notes at a time, instead of thinking about the big picture.
How to help the student remove their blinders and break out of tunnel vision:
- First, explain to the student that you suspect s/he is wearing blinders and/or experiencing tunnel vision.
- Encourage and help them see the big picture. Examine the music together to look for the overall shape of the melodic line, any patterns in the music, and any larger “chunks” of information they can create for the brain. Mark these elements in the music together with a pencil. Rather than focusing on only one note at a time in the line, encourage the student to allow their eyes to scan the whole line freely as needed, both ahead and behind.
- Ask the student to play the piece again.
- Evaluate: Was it a more fluent performance? Did it “feel” better now that the blinders are off? The student should feel a sense of ease and pride as they play the piece more fluently than before!