Should You Look at Your Hands When You Play From Memory on the Piano?

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about whether you should look at your hands when you play from memory on the piano. This is a really insightful question that someone asked me recently. There are two distinctly different ways of playing the piano. One is playing from memory and the other is reading the music.

When playing with the music, you should strive to keep your eyes on the score the entire time.

You only want to have brief glances at the keys. When you do look at the keys, it must be just your eyes moving. If you play the piano and you are looking at the music ,you can’t look away. You can’t read what you’re not looking at! When playing from the score, you absolutely must keep your eyes on the music.

What About Playing From Memory?

Oftentimes I have students memorize music. At the very first lesson I show my students how to memorize. This is something that almost nobody ever teaches. You think it’s magic that pianists could assimilate all this music. Are pianists some kind of geniuses? No. You just have to know how to memorize. You have to take little chunks of music and build the whole composition bit by bit. When you hear somebody play, it seems like a miracle. But really, if you see what’s behind the curtain, it’s just a lot of little steps that go into it.

I have my students play from memory. The first time they do it, a lot of times they’ll be looking up into space. I always tell them to look at their hands. One of the reasons to memorize music is so that you can look at your hands! When you have leaps, how are you supposed to land in the right place without looking at your hands? Having said that, there are some blind pianists who defy all reason bouncing all over the keyboard. They don’t rely upon looking. That’s great for them. But for everyone else, you have your eyes to utilize so you might as well take advantage!

Looking at your hands is another way to reinforce your memory.

By looking at your hands you see the connections of the keys. You know where to look if there are leaps. A lot of times what you want to do when you’re playing the piano is look at your thumbs rather than the extreme outside fingers. The thumbs can line up everything and they’re close together. When you have leaps, you tend to want to look at the inner part of your hand. That’s one little tip for you.

Does this mean that you should never try to play without looking?

No. The time for that is when you memorize a piece of music. That doesn’t mean you’re done with the score. Far from it. It’s exactly the opposite! The way I learn music, and the way I teach my students to learn music is to read through it a couple of times the first day, then get down to work and start memorizing. The first thing you do is memorize your music, instead of the last thing. Then what do you do? You go back to the score and reinforce the memory by reading the score and keeping your eyes on the music. That’s the time for not looking at your hands. Read from the score to see all the little details that maybe you didn’t catch the first time. Maybe you forgot where a slur ends or a crescendo begins, or the voicing of a chord. You have to constantly go back and reinforce your memory.

Interestingly, you can play the piano without any instrument or anything visual at all.

I have a video about playing the piano from your mind. You can just sit in a chair and play through your music mentally, thinking through every nuance of sound and touch. That is the ultimate practice. You can try it with a piece you know really well. You want to make sure you reinforce that memory. There is no better practice. You don’t have the benefit of finger memory. You don’t have the keyboard to look at or the sound to go by. It’s all in your head. Interestingly, there have been tests of people playing the piano while having their brains scanned. Then they get people to think about playing the piano while doing the same brain scan on the same people. There is zero difference in the brain whether you are playing the piano or thinking about playing the piano. Now, what does this reveal? It tells you that you can practice away from the piano effectively and get all the benefits. You can reinforce the score just using your mind.

How Do You Play the Piano with Your Mind?

I hope this has been enlightening for you! Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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Contact me if you are interested in private lessons. I have many resources for you! Robert@LivingPianos.com

6 thoughts on “Should You Look at Your Hands When You Play From Memory on the Piano?”


 
 

  1. Hi Robert,
    I have a very accomplished friend wh plays only by memory. She always looks at her hands all the time when playing and has been playing for 40 yrs. She has completely lost her ability to sight read as she cannot play without constantly glancing down at her hands. Obviously this up and down head bobbing doesn’t work with sight reading. Comments? Steve Unger

    1. There are 3 independent skills in piano playing: memorization, sightreading, and improvisation. You can become highly skilled in one or two of these macro skills, and be lacking in the others. Each one necessitates unique practice techniques. I teach students how to develop all 3 of these skillsets.

  2. Recognize KEYS (looking) WHILE READING…. OPTICAL vs. TACTILE… BOTH ARE NEURO, They operate independently. But to do both. smoothly, THEY MUST BE Correlated.

    Hindrance to memorization. ? arrangements difficult to read, out of focus, facsimiles (copies).

    Memorizing the story, movements, phrases in the piece, adds another dimension. It’s easier to tell a story than to speak sentences. (phrases_)

    Barenboim forever looking at keys. Lang Lang, looks away at keys sometimes.
    Look at Schiff play Goldberg.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MHFuaaGpGKQ

    How is masterfully playing this. ? He knows each phrase /story completely. Not hunting for it. Embedded in his mind and spirit.

    In early students, this is accomplished easier. Young students can memorize 3 to 4 times faster than older pianists.

    Chords and scales are boring, but if you play scales as variations, much easier.

    1. While children have great plasticity to their brains fostering learning new things, the experience that comes from years of studying music can foster great efficiency in the learning process that can far outweigh the benefits of youth. I can memorize music much more quickly now than I could decades ago and I am not alone in this.

  3. Hi Robert, in the early part of your video you mentioned that if you are reading from the score you cannot look at your hands as you will lose the place. However for those of us who find it difficult to memorize, how do we negotiate leaps and tricky passages? We need to look at our hands then? I guess in the early practice phase we should look at our hands a lot until we are good enough to then mainly just play with occasional re-enforcement from looking less at the page.
    Leigh

    1. If you are working on a piece that you are not memorizing, but there are some large leaps, you may try memorizing at least these small sections so you can negotiate the leaps.

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