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Helping Students Disconnect through Piano | Hamlet’s Blackberry

By Tim Topham | Teens and Adults

Apr 09 2012

piano students disconnectI’m currently holidaying in Bali and have really enjoyed reading “Hamlets Blackberry” by William Powers.

This book argues how our insatiable desire to be connected and ever-attached to our “screens” (his generic term for anything digital connected to the Internet: phones, emails, computers, iPads, etc.) is actually causing far more harm and personal disconnection than we realise.

The point isn’t that the screen is bad. The screen is, in fact, very good. The point is the lack of proportion, the abandonment of all else, and the strange and absent-present state of mind this compulsion produces…We [are] living for the screen and through the screen, rather than for and through each other.

Interestingly, this book was recommended to me by my childhood piano teacher – one of the few people I know who don’t have an iPhone or iPad, but who also found it fascinating. Although I’m far from addicted and, I believe, much more measured in my screen use than many of my friends, it still got me thinking about how much I use my devices and whether they are actually helping or hindering me in life and work.

Most importantly, it has backed up what I’ve already begun to witness in people around me: screen addiction is getting out of hand. People can’t wait in any kind of queue for more than a few seconds without getting out their screens (I have to stop myself sometimes). People bring them out at dinner tables, sometimes in mid-conversation. Kids are wired to Facebook 24/7. One of my travel companions just mentioned that he often unlocks his phone without any idea of what he needs to do on it, and if it’s not in his hand, he feels like he’s missing out on something! Why parents let their children chat and surf the net while trying to do their homework or while sharing time as a family is utterly beyond me, but it’s all too common.

To make his case for less connection in the book, Powers studies the theories and ideas about connection espoused by seven famous philosophers, inventors, writers and poets of the past and relates these, with surprising efficacy, to today’s hyper-connected world. Without going into too much depth, the author eventually surmises that:

Whenever I open a gap between myself and my screens, good things happen. Such gaps allow our awareness to return to the physical world. I’m not just a brain, a pair of eyes, and typing fingers. I’m a person with a living body that moves through space and time. In letting screens run my life, I discount the rest of my existence, effectively renouncing my wholeness. I live a lesser life and give less back to the world.

He also talks about how these gaps in connection allow us to find that ultimate state of self-connection to our work: “flow“. You can’t get flow while flipping between YouTube, messenger, Facebook and your school assignment. You won’t experience flow in your practice if you keep checking your phone every couple of minutes or watch tv out of the corner of your eye.

This is when I started thinking about how piano playing can be a great opportunity for disconnection in ourselves and our students, something which Powers’ book strongly argues. You can really switch off and enjoy your physical presence and the world around you when you play piano (as long as you put your phone on silent while practising, and avoid the temptation to look at it).

Powers’ other main recommendations are to limit your screen activity to one thing at a time: if you’re watching a YouTube clip, don’t get distracted by all the other links on the page. Just focus and listen to one thing at a time. Turn off all email notifications. In fact, turn of as many notifications on your devices as you can; don’t let machines constantly interrupt you! Even, heaven forbid, turn off the wireless in your house every so often.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for using “screen” technology in my teaching. I’m a complete convert to the iPad (guess what I’m writing this article on now!) and have found it extremely valuable in my studio. I encourage students to bring their smart phones to lessons because they are great for recording things quickly that they can refer to at home. I use YouTube regularly for my own practice and I encourage my students to do the same.

We just have to keep perspective in our screen use and make sure that screens aren’t running our lives. They should be one of many tools used in our teaching and our lives in general, but not at the loss of personal connection and quality face time. Look for the gaps that you can find in your screen time and you’ll be a much more productive, conscious and present friend, family member, parent or partner. And whenever you can, by your actions and words, help children realise that the screen isn’t the only place where the action is!

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Tim Topham

About the Author

Tim Topham is the founder and director of TopMusic. Tim hosts the popular TopCast show, blogs regularly at topmusic.co and speaks at local and international conferences on topics such as pedagogy, business, marketing and entrepreneurship. Tim has been featured in American Music Teacher, The Piano Teacher Magazine, California Music Teacher and EPTA Piano Professional. Tim holds an MBA in Educational Leadership, BMus, DipEd and AMusA.

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