Inside the Piano Pedagogy Research Lab

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Inside the Piano Pedagogy Research Lab

Mikael Swirp, Research Associate, and Gilles Comeau, Founding Director, The Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, Canada


Director Gilles Comeau alongside a research participant wearing motion-tracking markers. Photo: University of Ottawa.

For all its rewards, learning music is a special challenge. Few activities require such an array of motor, cognitive, auditory, and expressive skills. If you are a music educator, it’s likely that you have seen those challenges play out on the faces and in the actions of your students as they work to reach their artistic potential. Often, these difficulties become deterrents, leading to decreased motivation, frustration, tired eyes, and practice-induced pain. That is why we founded the Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory at the University of Ottawa, Canada: to learn how piano skills develop and to help music students and teachers surmount the challenges of their shared musical journey.

The brainchild of Creator/Director Gilles Comeau, the Piano Pedagogy Research Laboratory—Piano Lab for short—has been probing the fundamentals of music playing for nearly 20 years. Our approach marries art and science in a convergence that is not always straightforward; our multidisciplinary framework brings together musicians who are interested in research and researchers who are interested in music. Cognitive psychologists, health scientists, neuroscientists, engineers, and musicians all contribute to our lab in some form or function.

The Piano Lab does not look like your typical research laboratory. We want visitors to feel welcome and creative; as piano virtuoso Jon Kimura Parker said after visiting, “The first thing that hits you when you walk in is how inviting and colorful and friendly it is here.” Two acoustic grand pianos serve as the Lab’s focal point, each integrated with measurement equipment. The room is filled with many research tools—heart monitors, breathing belts, EMG sensors, pressure sensors, hearing perception equipment, recording equipment, and more.

Our research can be divided into three focus areas: music learning, music playing, and music teaching. While it is a piano lab, much of the research applies to general music learning and teaching, irrespective of instrument.

Music Learning

Gilles Comeau with a student and his mother during research on motivation and parental influence. Photo: University of Ottawa.

In recognizing a need for quantitative data collection, we quickly discovered that measurement tools were few. So we created our own—developing, validating, and publishing the first tool for measuring motivation indices in piano students: the Motivation for Learning Music (MLM) questionnaire. We have since developed a battery of music reading tests and a Music Reading Scale that enables us to evaluate sight-reading performance and to identify, for example, students who might be suffering from dysmusia (a form of music dyslexia).

Across several studies, our MLM questionnaire has revealed that exams, group classes, and practice-driven rewards can negatively influence motivation. In fact, the method of instruction has little relationship with motivation: we compared students taught using four methods (Suzuki, Yamaha, the conventional exam-driven approach, and a local private school’s method) and found no difference among group motivation levels. Strong positive influences instead included parental involvement—helping with practice, sitting in on lessons—and starting before age seven.

Another study investigated the effects of illustrations in beginner method books. We analyzed young students’ eye movements when previewing a piece for performance and when sight-reading that piece. Results indicated that students divide their cognitive attention between the musical signs and the illustrations—but focus their full attention on the music when illustrations are removed. This brings into question the use of illustrations in beginner method books; while appealing, they might also inhibit music reading.

Music Playing

There is a critical need for research on musicians’ physical, mental, and social health, as physical pain and performance anxiety are prevalent among student and professional musicians alike. Our lab has brought together experts in medicine, health sciences, kinesiology, rehabilitation, computer science, and biomechanics to develop rehabilitation programs and intervention tactics.

As more teachers turn to somatic approaches for improving posture and tone quality and avoiding music-related injuries, we studied their results over time. Interestingly, we observed no change after a workshop or short training period, but clear changes in posture after a ten-week training period. Smaller changes were observable even four weeks after the end of the training period.

Using an eye-tracking device to study music reading. Photo: Piano Lab.

To research music performance anxiety, we measured anxiety levels (using a validated anxiety inventory scale) and brain imaging (using fMRI neuroimaging) before and after several mindfulness sessions. We found that groups who received mindfulness training experienced a decrease in anxiety compared to those who did not receive such training, as well as strengthened mindful attention and emotion-regulation networks. This suggests that mindfulness training has a significant positive impact on the cognitive experience of music performance.

Music Teaching

It is important to us that our research ultimately benefits music students, so we make sure to engage in dialogue with other stakeholders—educators, students, parents—to stay informed on the needs and experiences of students and teachers.

The Piano Lab’s colorful main research studio. Photo: Piano Lab.

Some of our research directly examines teaching strategy. For instance, given the plenitude of method books out there, we have undertaken a large analysis of commonly used beginner books to identify hidden differences among them. We have found a surprising amount of variability. Some books introduce one new idea per page, while others do so every five pages. Some books teach five notes per hand while others quickly expand to over two octaves. Some neglect the weaker 4 and 5 fingers; others require a more even distribution.

Research also focuses on access and opportunity. Even before the pandemic, we were interested in remote learning as a tool for students without access, witnessing amazing results in a group of Inuit students from the Canadian Far North as they took videoconference piano lessons over four years. We’ve also explored teaching music to deaf and hard-of-hearing students, finding that even children with cochlear implants can learn music and feel the joy of playing piano. We are currently measuring the effects of piano instruction on the central auditory system by examining changes in brain wave patterns.

Twenty years ago, piano pedagogy was still largely based on the tradition and practice of the great masters. Today, the Lab’s innovative and rigorous approach has helped us establish music pedagogy on solid scientific foundations, challenging many widely held notions in the music community and providing empirical data on best practices. Thanks to ever-expanding partnerships and genuine interest from the field, we will continue our research in pursuit of a music education field that empowers and reflects the needs of young people everywhere.


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