What Is Gestalt Therapy And How Does It Relate To Piano Lessons?

8 November, 2022

Gestalt Therapy is a form of psychotherapy that is practised in the way you might imagine a typical therapy session: with a therapist and client sitting in chairs opposite one another. However, the focus of Gestalt Therapy is on developing awareness of one’s own psychological process, rather than analysing the content of what is being said. 

Psychoanalysis (developed by Freud in the 1890s) is a form of therapy where the therapist helps the client interpret their symptoms, fears and dreams - usually through the lens of early childhood attachments and culturally common themes. Gestalt Therapy was founded by Fritz Perls and Laura Perls in the 1940s as an alternative to psychoanalysis. It is a humanistic form of therapy that focuses on an individual’s unique perceptions and growth potential, rather than focussing on their behaviour and pathology. 

I was introduced to Gestalt Therapy in 2015 by my psychologist, Hank, who trained as a Gestalt therapist after finishing his clinical psychology degree. Even though I wasn’t a mental health professional, he encouraged me to sign up for the training program at the Gestalt Institute of WA because he thought it would benefit me personally and professionally. I resisted at first, but after three years of gentle nudging, I finally took the plunge and was accepted into their four year training program.

To say that Gestalt Therapy has changed my life feels like an understatement. I often struggle to find the words to describe what I’ve learned and experienced through my training, but I’m going to attempt to give an overview of some of the main principles how I’ve integrated them to my life and work.


Awareness is the foundation of Gestalt therapy. It is the means through which we fully awaken to the experience of being alive in this world, in our own bodies, and in relation to others. It is the experience of what is happening here and now - a process that is not about thinking, reflecting or self-monitoring. It is a state of consciousness, openness, readiness, attention and flow. When awareness is limited by habitual ways of thinking or behaving, our responses become rigid or we feel that we are lacking vitality. On the other end of the spectrum, when we are at full contact, or peak experience, we orient ourselves towards self-knowledge, growth, spontaneity, creativity, healing and connectedness. 

I believe that awareness is the most essential part of cultivating a new skill. When you learn how to play piano, you also learn how to hone your awareness and attention. Your brain and body need to function as a whole to control your hands, to listen to the sounds you’re producing, to receive tactile feedback from the keys, to remember a sequence, to recall what notes will sound good over a certain chord, to constantly monitor, maintain and adjust on the fly. This is the main reason why people seek a piano teacher: to outsource the work of awareness and attention!

Phenomenological Inquiry 

Phenomenological inquiry involves noticing and commenting on what is present in the 'here and now' with curiosity and openness (before drawing conclusions and inferring meaning, which our brains do so readily). Adopting this approach in my teaching has been revolutionary. Students are more engaged, they take more responsibility for their learning and their progress is so much deeper and pervasive across all areas. Instead of merely delivering instruction and giving qualitative feedback, as is the tradition in Western classical music pedagogy (e.g. “hold your wrist higher” or “your staccato was good”), I ask students to offer their ideas, to recall what has worked for them in the past, to try something different, encouraging them to stay in their bodies and to notice what they are feeling, hearing, wanting to express, and so on.

Creative Adjustment, Experimentation and Spontaneity

As a musician and a teacher I have found the concept of creative adjustment fascinating. In Gestalt Therapy, all contact that a person makes (either with another person or something else in the field) is a process of creative adjustment in which healthy individuals spontaneously take in what is nourishing and interesting in the environment. Unhealthy individuals who are more ‘fixed’ in their ways and less able to contact the environment are inhibited in their growth and their ability to get higher order needs met. Gestalt therapists believe that the process of continually negotiating between the novel and the routine leads to assimilation and growth, which is necessary for curative insight.

A few years ago I decided to take jazz piano lessons. I’d been classically trained for most of my life, and had tried to teach myself jazz but didn’t get very far. Luckily I found a great teacher who was incredibly encouraging, knowledgeable and process-oriented like me. When I first started lessons I was terrified of improvising and daunted by everything I needed to learn. After decades of piano training and a music degree under my belt, I felt like a fraud. I couldn't turn off the voice in my head that criticise everything I played as lame, unoriginal and poorly executed. 

A turning point for me was adopting a stance of 'creative indifference': I would sit down at the piano, press record, and play for at least three minutes every day. Eventually I stopped judging myself and became curious about what flowed forth from my unconscious. I noticed that the more I was able to be present – with my bodily sensations and mood, with my intuition – the more I could enjoy the spontaneity and freedom of improvising. I started to share my musical ‘sketches’ with people, and they seemed to connect on a far deeper level than pieces I had written in a much more traditional, intellectual way. 

Dialogue and Feedback

In Gestalt Therapy, the therapist and client form a ‘dialogic relationship’ in which two people genuinely hear, feel, sense and experience one another as people rather than objects. This sort of relationship requires a commitment from both parties to be present, open, aware and willing to co-create or share something with one another. Many humanistic therapies believe that this is what heals clients, and not so much the various therapeutic techniques which look different on the outside but have the same deeper goal. 

How does this relate to piano lessons? An engaging piano lesson has a lot of back and forth. The student will play something and the teacher will respond. In the traditional pedagogic method, the teacher mostly tells the student what to do and, after listening to them play, tells them what to do to make it ‘better’. This is why most people get bored of piano lessons; they’re just being told what to do and made to feel like they can never do it well enough. So instead of saying to the student: “well done”, or “try again”, I'll say things like:

  • What did you notice as you were playing?
  • What happened to the sound when you did x?
  • What mood is being evoked by the music at this moment? How can you bring this to life
  • I noticed you made an adjustment there. Tell me about that.
  • I started to feel tense when you sped up in that passage. What happened there?

Through this process of dialogue and feedback students become engaged and start to take responsibility for their own playing, and – on an interpersonal level – they feel more seen, more attended to, which helps in building trust and mutual respect. Many people, particularly adults, have so many preconceived beliefs about their own musical abilities that can interfere with a healthy learning process. I believe we need to take the judgement and ‘problem solving’ mentality out of music education in order to help students grow to their full potential.

Experience first, then theory

The way that GTIWA runs their training program is very immersive and experiential. We train for four years in groups of 12-14 with one or two facilitators leading the group. Most of the training is done in workshops where we observe and participate in one-on-one therapy sessions in front of the group. In the first year of training we are told to just experience what happens in the group, as clients and observers. In the second year we start engaging with the theory and in the third and fourth years we start practising as therapists and assimilating more Gestalt Therapy theory.

I personally love this approach to learning, and it’s how I like to teach piano - especially to beginners. There is simply too much to learn when you’re first starting out. And people become overwhelmed by how much information there is ‘out there’ about how to play the piano. We learn first through our senses, and through our bodies, so that’s where I begin with my teaching. I start with sound, touch, visual perception and bodily coordination. Then, what usually happens is students become curious and they start to ask questions. That’s when I like to bring in the theory. This is a very different approach to conventional piano teaching methods, which are designed so that publishing companies can sell you a never-ending series of graded books. 

Tiffany Ha

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