The Myths and Miracles of Multitasking

We live in a world that tells us to multitask. Between our smart phones interrupting meetings and our need to make phone calls or listen to informative podcasts while on our work commutes to the pressure to learn a new language while washing the dishes, we are almost required to do more than one thing at a time. But the research is clear: multitasking does not improve productivity. This knowledge is not new: as far back as the 1740s, Lord Chesterfield was advising his son to focus on only one thing at time (see Christine Rosen, “The Myth of Multitasking,” in The New Atlantis). Psychiatrist Edward Hallowell even goes as far as saying that multitasking is a “mythical activity” (ibid).

And yet, as pianists….

How often we are asked to play our instrument while also following a conductor.

Or conduct with a hand or our head while playing (this is especially true in the worlds of church music and opera)

Or play a complicated chamber music score while also watching for visual and aural cues from our playing partners

Or play the piano part to a choral or opera score while also highlighting notes from the vocal parts that may need correcting.

Or sing while playing.

Or transpose from a lead sheet.

Or sight read from open score while following a conductor and listening to the vocalists.

Imagine the scene from Whiplash. You know the one near the end where the film rapidly cross cuts between the protagonist playing the drums, to his own view of his music stand, to his view of the conductor, to his view of his hands. This is all of us during a musical performance that involves more than ourselves. The high energy, the rapid eye movement, the multitasking.

A musician too focused on their own playing will be unable to cope in these practical musical contexts. Their tunnel vision will trip them up. Conversely, a player too distracted by the conductor or the 4th staff, or the need to throw cues will play poorly at best, leaving much of the composer’s intentions unrealized. So, then, the need is for a balance between extreme focus and multitasking. Nothing major really – only the requirement of doing two conflicting things simultaneously.

This multitasking is often an afterthought in lessons. Really, there’s just too much to cover in a 30- or 60-minute lesson. We’ve got to make sure they’re playing scales correctly, releasing their arm weight into the keys, learning their repertoire accurately, developing the ability to make a phrase. And, yet, many of these things are all but useless if they have tunnel vision, if they can’t get outside of their own visual and mental field long enough to notice what’s going on around them.

Simultaneously, we want to teach focus. It’s a weird dichotomy, isn’t it? We know that being mentally “somewhere else,” inhibits quality practice and can definitely derail an otherwise beautiful performance. We need to teach our students to be where they are while practicing and performing, to not be distracted by the mental “to-do” list that our hyper-busy modern culture ingrains in our psyche.

How do we manage to instill a profound sense of focus, a real knack for being present in the moment of practicing and performance in our students without leading them into the dangerous place of tunnel vision? In other words, how do we teach them to focus and multitask simultaneously? I have a few thoughts that I’m learning to introduce in my lessons. I think these ideas can be adapted for any age or development level.

1. Offer students a way out of the running mental lists. I often do this myself during practicing. It’s a habit I learned from a meditation class years ago. Keep a notebook on the piano and when you’re being distracted from practicing because of an urgent task, such as “remember to switch the laundry from the washer to the dryer when you’re done,” or “I have to finish my English paper and I’ve just had the best idea for an introduction,” or “I forgot to send an email to so and so,” just write it down quickly and return to practicing. The quickest way to be not distracted is to get what’s in your mind on paper. This can be especially helpful for either high school students who are over-scheduled or the working adults whose practice time is often interrupted by real life. I’ve learned to just keep a notebook or a pad of sticky notes on the piano for this task. I think it’s important to note that electronic note-taking is distracting and should be avoided. The moment you pick up your smart phone to note something to get “undistracted,” you see a text message and all focus is gone.

2. Be aware of when/how you interrupt a student during a lesson. Especially as you approach a performance, it’s important to not stop a student in the middle of a run-through of a piece. Now, once the student has had the chance to get all the way through it, by all means do a lot of stopping and starting. However, we’ve all had the experience in group settings (choirs and orchestras, etc.) where the performance day arrives and you realize that you’ve only rarely gone through the piece without stopping. We must cultivate continuity and the focus it requires in lessons.

3. Involve parents in the process. Make sure that parents know the importance of keeping the practice space and time free of electronic distractions. If they’re willing to pay for piano lessons, they should also be willing to keep the streaming tablet out of the practice space for the allotted time each day.

4. Training the eyes to be “soft.” Ellen Burmeister writes, in her book Keyboard Sightreading (Mountain View, CA: Mayfield, 1991), “When reading, the eyes are the body’s initial contact with the music. It is important, therefore, to be aware of their movement so that you can use your eyes to their fullest advantage. To do so, it is fundamental to explore the concept of ‘soft eyes.’” This visual flexibility is one of the keys to preventing tunnel vision. Burmeister gives several practical suggestions of ways to keep the eyes, in her words, “tethered” to the music, while also allowing them the freedom to move around (hence be able to see a conductor or vocalist or a 3rd or 4th staff).

Burmeister suggests that we have our students play unfamiliar pieces while doing a second activity as part of their sight-reading regiment. Options for the second activity can include:

- Reading a poem set on the music rack next to the music

- Describing in detail a picture across the room

- Marking an “X” on the opposing page of music and keeping it in your field of vision while you sight read from the main page.

5. A very basic way to improve students’ peripheral vision while they play is to conduct them. Stand in a place where they can see over the top of their music and conduct them while they play (the piece can be memorized or not for this task). Many students will find this extremely difficult at first, as they are used to setting their own tempo (or deriving it from an aural cue – metronome – instead of a visual one – a conductor).

6. Have them play and sing simple songs from a 3-staff score. For many students this will be unnatural, and will take a bit of practice, but it will immediately open their field of vision.

7. Then, of course, the obvious possibility: assign chamber music and vocal accompanying to your students. The reason I suggest this last is that the logistics of this can be difficult. It’s hard enough to organize the schedule of one student, much less two or three at a time. But the coordination pays off in great ways. The repertoire can be simple at first – think simple American Folk Songs for a piano/vocal duet or something like Frank Bridge’s Meditation for Cello and Piano for a string/piano partnership. The important thing is, once you go to the trouble of finding repertoire and coordinating schedules, actually use the time to help the musicians broaden their visual awareness. Make them cue each other (and watch the cues of their partners).

I’m sure there are more options than these to open our students up to the contradictory world of focus and multitasking, but these will give you a start on this journey. Happy practicing and fruitful teaching to you and yours!

New Year, New Goals

It’s that time of year again. The time when we all set goals for the coming year, knowing full well we probably won’t keep all of them. Maybe we will and our life will be like a chapter out of The Happiness Project. Probably not.

But it is important to set and make progress towards goals, even if we know we won’t do it perfectly. After all, becoming a better sight-reader, or learning to play our scales more fluidly is better than making no progress, right?

I think it’s imperative that we set goals with our students and then assist them in moving towards these goals. In the last year, I have begun asking my students what their goals are. Even those who are studying mostly because of parental pressure seem to respond when they are given ownership of the style of music or the particular technical skills we focus on. In the process of asking students about their goals, I have discovered that some students are very interested in learning to compose. Others are fascinated by harmonization, chord progressions, and improvisation. And still others have proffered such simple requests as “I would like to learn more shorter pieces rather than fewer longer ones,” or “I want to learn to read music more quickly.” I believe that trusting our students’ own musical curiosities is an imperative in the goal-setting process.

So, what goals are you setting with your students in the new year? This school year, my whole studio has been learning to sight read better. Every lesson concludes with sight reading. The fact we’ve been consistent with this was revealed a few weeks ago, when one of my students, upon seeing the sight-reading book in my hand asked “is the lesson almost over already? I know we always do that last.” Perhaps one of my goals should be to vary lesson structure a bit more…

In addition to our continued focus on sight reading, we will begin to work on harmonization this spring. Even my beginning students can learn to use tonic and dominant pedal notes underneath simple melodies. I know on the front end that this will be a lot of work. And finding time in lessons already crowded with sight reading and theory, technique, and, of course, repertoire, will be difficult. But, as I write this, I feel a sense of excitement about my students learning to add harmony to simple melodies, about their ability to see and recognize chords more accurately through this process.

So, what are you goals? And what are your students’ goals? And how are you going to encourage them towards progress?

Happy New Year!

Sight Reading with Patricia Carter

I had the great honor of meeting Patricia Carter (Zagorski) during the 2010-2011 school year, when I invited myself to observe some of her class piano teaching. Her enthusiastic style and expertise at teaching sight reading had become known to me through a few mutual friends and I was excited to see her in action. During the two days I was with her, Professor Carter exhibited more energy than most teachers half her age, as well as a keen desire to see her students succeed.

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