Out of the words I say to beginning organ students, I think the words that I use the most often are “Don’t look! Don’t look at your feet! You need to find the pedals without looking!” It’s such a temptation to look down, especially when there is such a bright light on the pedalboard as there is at the Beckerath organ at the Lutheran Church of Honolulu.
In the last few years, though, I have noticed another habit of beginners which I mention to them, and that is the practice of looking at the music, then looking immediately down at their hands on the keyboard. I call it the “Bobble Head Doll” syndrome in which students’ heads are constantly moving up and down between the score and the keyboard.
Why? Because organ music is frequently within a narrow range (notes within the grand staff —yes, “I don’t read leger lines!”), I tell them that there is no need to look at your hands. This is unlike piano music, where your hands are constantly jumping all over the keyboard which is a lot larger and wider (The piano keyboard has 88 keys, vs. 61 or less for the organ keyboard.) The act of looking up and down between the music and the keyboard is a good way to “get lost” in the music. As in reading words, in music you have to keep your eyes moving ahead, moving forward.
I even sometimes use a large piece of paper and hold it underneath a student’s chin so they can’t see the pedals or the keyboard when they’re playing. Oh, I know, I’m a meanie!
Organists are also constantly having to sightread, unlike many other musicians, because of the sheer volume of literature that must be learned, the constant weekly deadline of hymns, anthem accompaniments and organ voluntary literature that must be consumed. “Like grinding out so many sausages every week” is a phrase my college theory professor used to say.
I found a fascinating article on the whole business of eye movement on Wikipedia, where you can read
“Eye movement in music reading is an extremely complex phenomenon that involves a number of unresolved issues in psychology, and which requires intricate experimental conditions to produce meaningful data. Despite some 30 studies in this area over the past 70 years, little is known about the underlying patterns of eye movement in music reading.”
So you can see why I found the following video so interesting— it shows the difference of eyetracking between students and professionals—the experienced musicians focus more on looking at the score in addition to faster, quicker motions in looking at the keyboard—especially when sightreading.
In the Wikipedia article, the correlation to eye tracking and sight reading makes me want to look for further studies:
“(A) critical difference between reading music and reading language is the role of skill. Most people become reasonably efficient at language reading by adulthood, even though almost all language reading is sight reading. By contrast, some musicians regard themselves as poor sight readers of music even after years of study. Thus, the improvement of music sight reading and the differences between skilled and unskilled readers have always been of prime importance to research into eye movement in music reading, whereas research into eye movement in language reading has been more concerned with the development of a unified psychological model of the reading process. It is therefore unsurprising that most research into eye movement in music reading has aimed to compare the eye movement patterns of the skilled and the unskilled.”
Remember, keep your eyes GLUED to the music!