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Another question I get asked after many of my performances is how I manage to play piano without looking. This is one of my favorite ones to answer because it’s just something I don’t think too much about, I just kind of do it. Now imagine me trying to explain this to a concert goer off the cuff, I’m not really good at doing that!
So I figured it would be a good idea to write about this, and share my techniques for achieving it. There’s actually plenty of benefits to playing the piano without looking. It’s not just some fancy thing we do to show how superior we are to other pianists, but almost like a musical trance. I’ll list some of the benefits below so you can get an idea of why you should be incorporating this technique into your playing as well. Here’s my top benefits for playing without looking.
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The Benefits Of Playing Piano Without Looking
You’re not dependent on visuals – This means you aren’t tied down to what only you can see and versus you can’t. That’s super important because if you get to a new piano and things don’t look like they do at your normal piano then it can really throw you off. It’s okay to look, just not all the time!
It connects you more to the music – I love the idea of focus when playing the piano, but it’s another thing to be really connected to it. I feel that when I’m not looking at the keys that I can venture off into a musical world. There’s so many levels of color and expression that I’m able to get into that otherwise I wouldn’t be able to if I was so focused on the notes that I can see.
It means you’re comfortable with the keyboard real estate – Closing your eyes and being able to land a middle C each time is really awesome to experience. Now imagine playing entire passages of the Liszt Ballade No. 2 In B minor without needing to look down; definitely awesome! Not having to look at the piano really establishes confidence in you as a player. It really means you know the space you’re using, where to go, and how to do it seemingly without much thought.
Tips On How To Play Piano Without Looking
Okay now that we’ve established some of the benefits of playing piano without looking it’s time to get into exactly how it’s done. Now, my method of doing this might be entirely different than anything you’ve ever been taught. That’s okay!
As pianists we all learn and approach repertoire and technique differently, and that my friend is the beauty of music. I’m hoping that you’ll take some cool ideas away from this post and apply them to your own playing; I really think they’ll help you out. Alright, lets dive into my first tip to help elevate your playing.
Feel The Keys
One of the quickest ways to get to playing the piano without looking at your hands is to get a good feel for the keys. By this I mean memorizing it to the point that you could switch to any piano of any size and pretty much know where you are.
An easy way to do this is to divide the piano up into patterns. For example, the black notes are grouped together in 2’s and 3’s. The first white note before each group of 2 will always be a C, the first note before the group of 3 would be an F and so forth.
Close your eyes and run your hands not just on the white keys, but also push them higher and see if you can guess where your hands are. As you run your hands across from the group of 2 black notes to the group of 3 you’ll clearly feel that large gap of space between the two. That’s an immediate indicator you’re on E and F. Take a couple of minutes each day to do this and then try working in the different octaves.
The Finger Drop Method
Another way to work on your accuracy while playing without looking is to try random note drops. A quick way to do this is to make a chart of a few notes. I like to have a good variety of notes to choose from so try mixing in sharps and flats as well. See if you can hit the note in general no matter what octave it is on the first try.
If you’re not successful after 3 tries, look at where you landed and then asses some ways you can improve your accuracy. Maybe work on feeling where exactly you are, the distance your arm is traveling and more. When you close your eyes it’s a good idea to visualize things as if you were actually looking there.
Always Know Where Middle C Is
The next step would be to try to land your finger on specific notes in various octaves. For this I like to always start with middle C and then i’ll have a firm center to work from. If you can work on establishing where middle C is then the rest of the piano will sort of come together for you mentally.
Other important landmarks you could try to hit are of course the high C at the very end of the keyboard and then the low A at the opposite end. Gradually start working in those octaves from middle C and then work your way out first though.
Memorize Your Scales Without Looking
I like scales because it’s a great chance to apply specific fingering to the notes and it typically follows the same pattern (Here’s a complete guide on how to play piano scales).
Scales are also something you’ll likely play on a daily basis for warming up, so it’s a good way to get a feel for the piano. As you work up and down switching between your thumb and doing your finger crosses think about how that feels to you.
Begin with a simple five finger pattern and then work in the scales. I would start by playing once by looking and then playing it without looking. It’s okay if you mess up a couple of times; just slow things down and try again a couple of more times! The more you do it the more natural it’ll feel and you’ll be breezing through this.
Since most of the repertoire we play is focused on some principle of the scale some passages will become second nature to you. Especially if you’re diving into some Mozart or Haydn you’re bound to see some sections that you’ve already got firmly in your fingers!
Get The Fingering Right
As you work through different musical passages you’re bound to com across some tough sections. It’s in those sections where at least for me you wouldn’t want to catch yourself staring at the keys. What happens usually is that if you over-focus on a section then you’ll end up messing your concentration up for the sections surrounding it. That leads to mistakes!
One of the best ways to fix this is to establish solid fingering. If you can memorize the fingering of the passage then you can actually end up playing those notes without ever looking. There’s a degree of muscle memory involved here, so if you can perfect your fingering that’s going to help you out in the long run.
Play Hands Separately
One of the best way to lock down your fingering is by playing the hands separately. I’ve mentioned the idea of chunking measures before, and this basically follows the same method. First i’ll take a couple of measures in the right hand and play them slowly while staring at my hands.
Then i’ll look up and try doing the same thing; one note at a time. Once I get that hand solid at a slowly then i”ll do the same for the other hand. After I feel that my grip on both hands is pretty solid, then i’ll gradually speed things up! It’s a good idea to do this maybe 15 – 20 times per day and then let it sink in and come back to it later.
Sing The Tune
If you can lock your ear on certain melodies and harmonies then you can actually sing your way through the piece. Sometimes that’s what you need to get you from one measure to the next; not necessarily staring your hands down. While it’s okay to look at your hands periodically you don’t want to get caught staring them down. Singing through the music is a great way to get by.
Close Your Eyes
A cool way to play without without looking is to simply close your eyes and try to play. I like doing this at times because it’s awkward to look around at random things sometimes. A lot of times pianists think they have to focus on something very specific or a certain object in the room, but I find that to be even more distracting.
Closing your eyes you can kind of really get immersed in the music. Allow yourself to move around a little bit as you do it and feel those harmonies as you progress through the piece. Also think about what you’re feeling in your hands and the rest will come.
A lot of beginner pianists get caught up in the flashy side of playing at times. There’s always a place for it, and I really enjoy it myself. Especially those moves where you throw your arms into the air while playing a super fast descending chromatic scale!
The problem is that it takes a lot of practice and control to do something like that. Personally I wouldn’t do something like that without having at least practiced to see if I could handle it; especially with closed eyes!
For starters you should try to keep your hands at close to the keyboard as possible. As you become more comfortable with the piece then start experimenting with raising your arms and adding some showmanship in there. Practice those moves with your eyes open and analyze how much of a gesture you’re making when doing it. It’s okay to alter it, and in practice this is the time to iron all of this out.
99% of the time people stare their hands down while playing because they don’t trust themselves. Sometimes that’s because they know deep down they havn’t practiced enough, but often times they’re afraid to take a risk.
Piano performance is all about risk taking!
If you implement some of the techniques I’ve shared with you here you’ll be well on your way to playing the piano without looking at your hands. The big development you have to make is mental. That’s why many of my suggestions here focus on connecting to the piece not just physically with your hands, but also understanding the melodies, harmonies and knowing what’s coming next.
Take some time each day to really drill in your memory on certain sections of your repertoire. Don’t try to jam it all into your brain in one day; that rarely works. If you get things right the first time then the odds of you experiencing a major hiccup when you do look away are greatly reduced. With that said you should really take your time engraving this all into your mind and into your muscle memory.
If you need some more guidance I’ll be glad to help you out with your piano playing. Just drop me a comment and we can work through it to get your playing where you want it to be! Good luck!