The 6th Sense of Playing the Piano

As musicians, we have the unique opportunity to exercise all of our senses as we’re playing an instrument or singing a song.  (Ok, maybe not smell, unless you’re using this bacon guitar). It’s not just about listening. It’s about envisioning the notes, exploring the physical movements involved, and of course, feeling the music inside of you – that elusive 6th sense.

For some, the ability to really lose yourself in the music and start feeling it takes time.  With practice, you can hone your musician’s intuition and learn to trust yourself. And working on refining your other senses in regard to your music is a great way to help develop that skill.

For the typical pianist, memorizing music is one activity in particular that requires using several different senses – sight, hearing and touch. Each of these senses translates to a certain type of memory, and recognizing the importance of each will definitely improve your next performance. The three memory types involved are:

– Visual Memory – enables you to visualize the sheet music in your head, even if it’s not in front of you.
– Auditory Memory – one of the most important types of memories for musicians, and often the easiest once you’ve had a good amount of ear training. With the combination of visual and kinesthetic, your ears can guide you through your memory as if you are feeling and hearing the score outright. Should you play the wrong note, in most cases your auditory memory would pick this up.
– Kinesthetic Memory – allows you to internalize movements in your feet, arms, individual fingers and more. All physical activity calls on kinesthetic memory to perform (e.g. remembering how to ride a bike). The more you practice, the more effective your muscle memory will be when you perform.

Once you understand these three types of memories, you can move on to certain exercises that will get your brain and senses working overtime. Here are some ways to really heighten your senses and strengthen your playing:

– Focus on the sensations you feel during particular sections – the excitement of a group of staccato notes, the sense of calm created by a legato phrase, or the build-up of moving from pianissimo to forte.
– Create a story that goes along with emotions of the piece.  Close your eyes and imagine the storyline with all of your senses, right before starting to play.
– Close your eyes and practice finding certain keys on the piano solely by touch.
– Run through practice strategies and visualization techniques when you’re away from the piano.
– Mark certain passages with distinctive symbols, different colors or sticky notes to help it stand out when you’re visualizing the score
– Once you’ve memorized the music well enough, make sure you’re looking at your fingers.  By ingraining this visual into your mind, you’ll be able to visually anticipate where your hands should go next.
– Run through the piece very slowly and concentrate on the sounds. What types of intervals or chords are used? Where do they fit in, and why did the composer place them there?
– Enhance your auditory memory even further by singing through the score several times. Don’t forget to listen, of course!

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