Do you tend to look down at the keys when playing the piano? Want to learn how to play without looking at your hands so you can sight-read more fluently? Then read on to learn tips to play without looking down.
If I could only give you ONE tip to improve your sight-reading, and your overall playing, it would be this one: avoid looking at your hands. Sight-reading, as the name implies, involves sight. It involves your eyes and the eyes have to be on the music so that you can keep looking ahead and maintain the flow of the music. The moment you look down at your hands, you’re interrupting the flow of the music. And worse of all, you might not be able to find where you were when you look back at the score.
What if you didn’t look down at all? Have you tried it?
I know, it’s scary. It’s like asking you to walk out the door blindfolded. And the temptation to look down at the keys is there – the keys are laid out right in front of you! How can you not look down!?
In this article, I’m going to give you tips and exercises (see form below) to develop your tactile awareness of the keyboard so that you’ll have the confidence to play and sight-read without looking down.
Tip#1: Always sit in the same position
Make sure you always sit at the piano in the same position, at the same distance away from the piano and at the same height. Always sit in the centre of the piano facing middle C. Your body will learn the distances between the keys and across the keyboard much faster if your sitting position is consistent.
Try playing while sitting in a different position or standing up and you’ll see how different it feels!
Tip #2 Practise without looking down
Practise your scales (major, minor and chromatic), arpeggios, chords and pieces without looking down, either by looking straight in front of you, eyes closed or in the dark. Do so regardless of whether you’re playing from memory or reading. As you play, try to visualise the layout of the white and black keys of the piano. The better you can visualise the keyboard, the easier it will be to find your way around the keys.
Tip #3 Use the black keys to guide you
As I’ve mentioned in How to Handle Leaps When Sight-Reading, using the two and three black keys of the piano helps you navigate around the keys. When feeling the two black keys, you should be able to find notes C, D and E and when feeling the three black keys, notes F, G A and B.
As an exercise, try playing the treble C’s with the RH thumb starting with middle C. Feel for the two black keys with fingers 2 and 3.
Now try finding the bass E’s with the LH thumb starting with the E above middle C. Again, feel for the two black keys with fingers 2 and 3.
To get 13 pages of FREE exercises like this to help you develop keyboard awareness and find any notes as well as exercises to practise hand position changes, intervals, and so on, fill in the form below:
Tip #4 Know your accidentals
When you see a sharp or a flat before a note, you should immediately know which key it is. In other words, you shouldn’t need to look down. Keep in mind that notes are enharmonic, meaning that they can be written differently on the staff but represent the same pitch.
To give you an example, all the black keys can be written with a sharp or a flat. So, C sharp is the same as D flat. We say they are enharmonic equivalents. Both are played with the same key on the piano. Similarly, D sharp = E flat, F sharp = G flat, G sharp = A flat, and A sharp = B flat.
Note that there are no black keys between E and F and B and C, so E sharp = F, F flat = E. And B sharp = C, C flat = B.
Tip #5 Know your intervals
Learn to identify the intervals as well as the sound and feel of each interval. You should be able to play any interval (at least up to an octave) by feel alone. If you’re home, have a go now. Take a seat at the piano and think of an interval, say a fifth, and try to play a fifth without looking. Now try a different interval. Try with either hand.
Tip #6 Develop your ear
One of the reasons why pianists look down at their hands is to check whether they are playing the right notes. Instead of checking, develop your aural skills so that you can hear intervals and detect wrong notes. When looking at a score, a useful skill to have is to be able to hear what it’s going to sound like. This skill is called “audition”, which I will discuss in another article. You can develop this skill with ear training and sight singing (such as solfège) although bear in mind that this skill takes a long time to acquire.
Tip #7 Work on your leaps
If you look down whenever there are leaps then read How to Handle Leaps When Sight-Reading where I give further tips on how to play leaps without looking down.
Playing without looking at the keys is not as scary as it sounds. Allow your body and mind to learn the tactile sense of the keys by playing without looking at your hands as often as possible. In fact, aim to play and sight-read without looking at all times. Only allow yourself to look down if there’s a particularly difficult leap, when you can’t afford to miss notes (in a performance, for example). when learning a new concept or technique, or when working out fingering.
To get you started, next time you’re at the piano, try playing five-finger scales or one-octave scales without looking at the keys, then try chords and arpeggios. You’ll soon discover that you can play without looking down. You just need to trust yourself and go for it!
And if you want specific exercises to develop keyboard awareness, then grab the free exercises (see form above).