Playing Without Looking at One's Hands

Question: How does a pianist learn to play the piano without always having to look at his hands as he plays as well as make those octave leaps on the piano without having to look at where his fingers are going?

I would appreciate any tips or suggestions.

– Antwane (Amherst, New York, USA)

Albert’s reply: Antwane, thanks for the excellent question. Keyboard geography is a matter of proprioception, the “sixth sense” in which the brain knows where the body is in space. Athletes and dancers have extremely highly developed proprioception, and pianists need to develop it as well. Much advanced repertoire demands it, in fact, as the eyes can only focus on one part of the keyboard at once. Chamber music and song accompaniment demands it as well since they are usually played from the score rather than from memory.

Sight reading music regularly is one of the best techniques for developing proprioception. It is essential to keep one’s eyes on the page and to resist the temptation to look down too frequently. With practice, the hands will learn where to go on the keyboard and you will no longer be dependent on your eyes. When sight reading, make sure you do not use music you’re practicing or wish to learn, as the brain also learns any mistakes along the way and these must be avoided! Music for performance may be sight read only the very first time you pick up the piece; from then on it must be slowly and carefully worked out in practice.

I sometimes place a long sheet of cardboard above the keyboard to block the student’s view of the keys when they practice sight reading. This eliminates even peripheral vision and forces the hands to find the right keys by themselves.

I also sometimes hold a pencil at the far end of the piano and have the student focus on it while playing, as I move it around slowly.

Another practice technique is to try playing your music with your eyes closed altogether. Blind pianists are able to find their way on the piano keyboard by feeling the groups of black keys. Art Tatum, famous for his peerless technique, could improvise rapid leaps back and forth so perfectly that people thought there were two pianists playing… and he was blind! I describe this exercise on the black keys in more details in the article on reading music, under the headline “Develop proprioception.”

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