When you play the piano your fingers move across the keys and it seems natural to want to watch them and make sure they are in the right place. On the other hand (!) you need to have your eyes on the music so you know what to play. How can that work?
Comparing beginners at different ages, I notice that young children like to watch their hands and would naturally prefer to have as little as possible to do with sheet music, while adults will have their gaze fixed on the page and will not know what their hands are doing on the keyboard.
Unlike the adult beginners who don't make the connection between the music on the page and the patterns that the fingers are performing on the keyboard, blind pianists can't see their hands but they are fully connected to what they are doing.
Ray Charles and Stevie Wonder are two well known names in a line of many blind pianists of all genres, who manage to play the piano wonderfully without using their eyes.
If they can play piano without seeing anything at all, surely you can play the piano without looking at your hands, one would think. However, many piano players feel they must look down at their hands constantly for fear of losing their place on the keyboard.
Actually, we can learn a great deal from the blind pianists. They navigate their way around the piano using a different sense. Instead of seeing, they feel the distances, experience the movement and rely on their spatial sense.
Today's culture is very much an eye culture with most people finding it difficult to peel themselves away from screens of all sizes. But although it is so dominant , our visual sense is not alone, and when we let go of it we discover that we have other ones to help us too.
When I see student's eyes fixed on their hands I'll surprise them sometimes by sliding a paper or book over their hands to block the sight of their fingers. After the initial disorientation, they soon discover that it is possible to play without constantly checking on the fingers.
The most practical reason to lift up the eyes from the piano is the necessity to read the music. The "hand watchers" develop interesting methods for getting around the music reading. They will learn a little chunk off by heart and then proceed to the next mini bit. This means they can't sight read , can't keep up the flow and can't play with other people before they have memorized what they would like to play. This method may work somehow in the early stages when the pieces are short and use only a few notes. But at some point there comes the moment when it is clear that this has to change.
Here is a link to an interesting video tracking the eye movements of a professional pianist versus a piano student while sight reading or playing without written music.
I find that playing a memorized piece or an improvisation with closed eyes or just looking away from the keyboard is actually quite a freeing sensation. You suddenly realize that you do not depend on your eyes as much as you imagined and allow your ears to take over.
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- Playing by Memory
- Ways to Memorize a Piano Piece
- Why "free playing" at the piano is good
- Interview with Blind Pianist Yair Zoran