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Looking at Your Hands

Question: Hi Albert,

Excellent performance for the Japanese earthquake program. I noticed that you kept your eyes glued to the keyboard. My music teacher (about 100 years ago) told me to not look at my hands or the keyboard. Was she wrong? (Instruction methods may have changed in the last 100 years.) Thanks.

– Willard Crawford (Llano, California, USA)

Albert’s reply: Thanks very much for your kind words. I completely agree with your teacher. Wherever possible, we should practice without looking at the keyboard or our hands. In the case of the Chopin nocturne, the left hand in particular is spread out over much of the keyboard, changing positions so often that it is better to look at the keyboard. There is certainly no harm in doing so in performance, and it is often necessary. (The awe-inspiring jazz pianist Art Tatum, however, was blind in one eye and nearly blind in the other yet could hit whole series of rapid leaps with perfect accuracy.)

There are several reasons to practice looking away from your hands. First, in passages not involving rapid changes of hand position it can actually improve accuracy, since you will acquire much deeper familiarity with the piano keyboard.

Second, a performance situation is usually unfamiliar to us. We are playing a different piano in a different room with a different acoustic and different lighting. It is all too easy for any one of these factors to throw us off. Being able to play our music blind greatly increases our confidence in performance.

Third, as we work we should keep our eyes on the score. Doing so continually reinforces both the written music itself and our visual memory of the score.

On the other hand, there is a technical reason for looking at the keys: It is better, for reasons of both sound and security, not to prepare the fingers in advance by placing them on the keys, as blind playing would generally necessitate when changing hand positions. Instead, it is better to think the next note and play it immediately, aiming straight for it both mentally and physically.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to play everything blind, at least not all the time. I play the Arietta of Beethoven’s last piano sonata, Op. 111, mostly with my eyes closed, for instance.

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