Playing Piano With Head, Hands, and Heart

Instructor
Yannick Lambrecht
Quick Tip
Level 1
Level 2
Level 3
7:00

Learning Focus
  • Practice Tips
Music Style
  • Fundamentals
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“It is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.” – Chopin

If I had to summarize all of the ideas I’ve collected on learning music into their simplest form, it would boil down to these three words: head, hands, and heart. I believe that the path to reaching your full potential as a musician includes all three, and the solution to helping many frustrated students is to focus on the area that is most neglected. 

By “head”, I’m referring to the activities that have to do with reading, analyzing, and understanding music. By “hands”, I mean the technical execution of what we see and hear. And by “heart”, the emotional connection to what is played. Our goal as well-rounded musicians is to connect all three areas. We want to understand the music, we want to play with confidence, and we want to communicate something meaningful.

 

Of course, my framework is more metaphorical than literal. The brain inside your head is involved in all three aspects. We’re simultaneously synchronizing visual, auditory, and motor skills, while responding in real time to dynamics, articulation, timing. It’s nothing short of miraculous that human beings can play music, considering what it asks of our hardware.

So why is it that so many students get stuck on plateaus and feel dissatisfied with their musical growth over time? A lack of proper guidance can lead a student down one path that largely neglects other areas that are essential for growth. A good place to start would be to define how the imbalances of head, hands, or heart affect our musicianship. 

Head imbalance: You are a master of music theory and can explain all the intellectual concepts, but your technique and ability to execute lags behind your understanding. You may also lack an emotional connection to your playing as you are more attached to the theory labels. … raises hand

Hand imbalance: You have the technical facility to play music, and you may even have a nice repertoire, but you don’t really understand how or why the music works. You depend on sheet music or muscle memory, and as a result you have trouble playing music from memory.

Heart imbalance: You get caught up in the emotion of your playing, but sometimes at the expense of technical accuracy. On the other end, you may be continually “up in your head,” analyzing yourself while you’re playing instead of communicating the emotional experience of the music. 

You may relate most to one category, or you may relate to all three. In any case, don’t lose hope. A problem well defined contains guideposts to the solution, so let’s continue. 

Any given practice session can contain all three categories. The question is, how deliberately are we engaging in each type of practice? Is today more of a “head” practice day or a “hand” day? How can you work more “heart” into your practice session? These are the questions we need to ask ourselves. 

If my focus is more on head, I’m likely to be analyzing the harmonic aspects of a piece, studying the character of the melody, and writing down notes about the form. I’m attaching labels to what I hear and relating it to other pieces that I’ve studied. I find that I focus more on “head” in the early stages of learning a new song because I want to create mental associations to help me commit the song to memory. The sooner I can get off the page, the better. 

Next, the “hands” work takes over. This is where the repetition comes in and where I try to identify my technical weaknesses. That could include fingering and hand coordination challenges, or work on certain techniques that need improvement such as jumps. There’s a big emphasis on hands independent work and on cycling the speed of practice. I work in little bite-size chunks to get things fluent and then put the hands together. All of this mindful repetition helps to get the music into the muscle memory.

Is my brain turned off when I’m doing technical practice? Absolutely not. I’m just as analytical doing technical practice as I am when I’m analyzing the harmony and form of the music, but the focus is different. The focus is on the physical execution of the music.

We might think that “heart” is saved for the end of the learning process after the technical work is done. Not so. It informs us AS we are practicing. This is one of the biggest blindspots I had in my own practice routine. I expected myself to be able to play with feeling during a performance, but if we don’t practice this, it won’t magically happen by itself. We need to practice in that zone. Technical practice should be guided by the feeling you want to create so that we don’t become mechanical. Even harmonic and form analysis can be guided by a feeling… who says it all needs to be logical? Emotional associations are known to create the strongest memories. Perhaps that extended dominant chord in the bridge is the moment when the two lovers finally embrace. That’s more likely to stick, isn’t it?

What I want to impart is that there is a dynamic flow between head, hands, and heart in any given practice session. If we utilize all three, we are going to grow in a much more rounded way. We will memorize the music we are learning, feel more emotionally invested in it, and hopefully enjoy the learning process more. 

I want to conclude with some solutions for how to improve in each of these areas specifically.

Maximize the noggin: Fun fact. Your brain contains approximately 100 billion neurons, each of which can make 10,000 connections. That’s around 1,000 trillion synapses. All that to say, your brain’s storage capacity according to researchers is nearly unlimited. So stop making excuses about how music theory is too difficult. Try to remember that things are not difficult, they’re just unfamiliar. With repeated exposure, you will get familiarized with the terminology of scales, chords, and harmonic functions. The best time to start is now. I like to say, get curious instead of critical. 

Use those hands: Your hands are another outright miracle. No other body part has the same dexterity and muscular intelligence of the hands. It is built from twenty-seven separate bones connected to a complex network of tendons, ligaments, and muscles. Isn’t it incredible what you get to do with this capability? The challenge I’ve observed in myself and many students who struggle with technique is not that they can’t master certain skills, but that they lack consistency. It’s remarkable what happens when you stick to mastering one specific technical challenge for a few weeks. The results will come with consistency of effort. Also, don’t be afraid of the metronome.

Fill the heart: Your heart beats about 100,000 times per day and contains 40,000 of its own neurons that relay information to the brain. It also generates a magnetic field that extends up to 10 feet out from the body. Let that fill you with a deeper appreciation to be more heart centered during your practice. Freely associate the music you’re learning with a time, a place, a memory, or a relationship. Imagine a story about the music and fill it with rich sensory details. You will discover that music can take you to places you never knew were possible. 

We have all been endowed with the miracle of a body and self-directed consciousness. It’s my hope that this little reminder to use your head, hands and heart will bring you deeper fulfillment and growth on your instrument. 

Yannick 

For more thoughts on mindset as it relates to music, Yannick writes at www.musicwithinyou.com

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