Eyes on the Brain

A neurobiologist explores the amazing capacity of the brain to rewire itself at any age

Piano Practice Can Have Far-Reaching Effects.

Did piano practice help me see in a new way?

From my very first months, my parents knew something was wrong with my vision. I was cross-eyed, but the pediatrician told them to wait to see if I would outgrow the condition. When my eyes remained crossed past my second birthday, my parents took me to an ophthalmologist. After three childhood surgeries, my eyes looked more or less straight, but I still saw like a cross-eyed person, looking with one eye and turning in the other. After the operations, however, the eye turn was more subtle so most people didn’t notice it.

Yet, my parents knew something was still wrong with my vision. I had a hard time learning to do everyday activities from sewing, to riding a bike, to driving a car. My best sport was swimming which, unlike softball or tennis, doesn’t require good vision or eye-hand coordination. I was slow and deliberate in almost all ways.

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The worst and most humiliating problems revolved around school. I was put in remedial classes in grade school and would have remained there without my mother’s intervention. She taught me how to read when the schools gave up on me. After I learned to read and study well, my parents probably figured they had done all they could. They had sought out the best interventions that standard medical practice had to offer and filled in the rest with their attention and guidance. It wasn’t until my late forties that I discovered optometric vision therapy which taught me how to use my two eyes together and see in 3D. My parents may not have steered me toward vision therapy, but my father provided me with something in childhood that helped me to succeed later with the therapy - he gave me piano lessons.

Learning to play an instrument was inevitable in my family. My father was a talented and skilled musician. Every night, all through my childhood, my dad played his violin. When my sister and I were too agitated to sleep, he would come into our bedroom and play us to sleep. During my mother's last decade, my father played for her every night which calmed her Parkinson's tremors and allowed her to drift into slumber. Not surprisingly, he insisted that each of his three children learn to play an instrument. For me, that meant piano lessons.

I enjoyed the piano most of the time, but not when my father could hear me. From the far reaches of the house, he would shout “F sharp” or “B flat” if I missed the keys. (To this day, my sister and I sometimes greet each other with “B flat!”) My dad often insisted that I play a piece perfectly three times in a row before I could get up from the piano bench. While this kind of discipline may have been excessive, it did teach me how to practice.

I learned to break the difficult passages in the music down into smaller parts, work on each, and then put them back together again into a musical whole. Much later in life, I used the same strategy with vision therapy techniques. Since playing the piano requires using the two hands simultaneously, I learned to pay attention to both sides of my body at the same time. Careful attention to how I was seeing and moving and to balancing the right and left side helped me progress through vision therapy. What’s more, playing the piano developed my sense of rhythm, a useful skill for many vision therapy procedures. I used a metronome, for example, to help perfect my ability to move my eyes quickly and accurately. Most importantly, I learned that I could get better with practice, a concept that we all have been told but don’t always embrace. Just like playing the piano, I could get better at seeing if I paid attention and practiced. Looking back, I realize that my experience with the piano gave me the confidence and skills to teach myself how to see in a new way. This was the special gift that my father gave me.

 

Susan R. Barry, Ph.D., is a professor of neurobiology in the Department of Biological Sciences at Mount Holyoke College and the author of Fixing My Gaze (June, 2009).

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