If you’ve ever watched a professional pianist perform, you may have been amazed at how they are able to harness the power of all 88 keys with what looks like relative ease. You may wonder: how is it possible that pianists are able to keep track of all of those keys? Do pianists look at the keys while they play?
The short answer to that last question is: YES! It’s perfectly acceptable and normal for a pianist to look at their hands while they play.
An important part of the design of any musical instrument is the necessary range of movement for the player in order to produce sound. A simple principle here is: the smaller the range of movement – the less important it is to watch your hands, and vice versa.
Musical instruments from different families work in many different ways depending on how the sound is being produced; therefore, the range of movement is different on each instrument. For example, with woodwind and brass instruments, players blow in their instruments and press the keys/holes to change the pitch; stringed instrument players use a bow and strike the strings with one hand while pressing the strings on the fingerboard with the other hand; and with percussion, players hit various surfaces with sticks or their hands.
Depending upon the design of the instrument, it is sometimes possible and sometimes impossible to look at your hands while playing.
If you play violin, cello, guitar, or another stringed instrument, it’s quite easy to look at your hands while playing. For many wind instruments (such as flute, saxophone, and other woodwinds/brass), it’s much more difficult or impossible to look at your hands. Percussionists always have the ability to look at their hands while playing!
Why is this? Going back to flutes and saxophones, all the keys are placed very close together and are within short reach for the player’s fingers. After enough practicing, the player will have all of the possible movements stored in the muscle memory. Visual control is simply not necessary. With stringed instruments (such as violin, viola, cello, guitar, etc), the range of hand/arm movement is usually larger. A guitar player, for example, can commit all the simple chords to the muscle memory and play those without looking, but might need to look at their fingers while playing the more complicated passages with more movement.
Percussion players, as a rule, move around the most; therefore, percussionists look at their hands a lot! If you play a marimba you really have to focus and look at which plates you are hitting as they are quite far apart.
That brings us to the piano, which is also a member of the percussion family. Pianos have 88 keys that span 4 feet in width. It’s a large and complex instrument and the issue of looking at your hands can be very complicated here, so here we go:
When a piano player moves their hands across the 4 feet of the keyboard length, there are generally two types of movement happening, and the way you handle them depends upon the distance between the notes. This distance between notes is referred to as an “interval” in music.
The first type of movement happens when the interval between one note and another is on the smaller side. This would be when you are able to reach from the current key to the next key without having to pick up your hand. This occurs when notes are not very far apart horizontally on the keyboard: usually the distances of less than 7 keys away are within reach for an average sized pianist’s hand. In this case, the pianist memorizes the specific distance (called an “interval”) between two notes. A proficient pianist can extend their hand (or compress their hand) to those closer intervals without looking.
The second type of movement requires that the line is broken: the next note cannot simple be reached by stretching or extending your hand. In this case, the pianist must lift their hand up and move it to a different location. It’s important to be able to see where to land, so the pianist will often look down at their hand in this case.
A piano score can have a lot of variety. How often the notes are “out of reach” would affect how often a pianist looks at their hands while they play.
Baroque keyboard music, such as a Bach Fugues or Inventions, tend not to have a lot of large skips in the melody. This means that a pianist could potentially get away with looking at their hands less often because it requires less position changes.
On the other hand, music from the Romantic period – such as music written by Chopin or Liszt – often has much larger leaps in both hands. This requires the pianist to look down much more often to ensure accuracy!
Remember, there are also two hands to watch at the same time! This can complicate things a lot. If you play the lowest piano key with your left hand and look at it, you will not be able to see the keys in the middle and high register, and chances are that your right hand needs to be playing there at the same time.
There are several solutions:
Here is a really cool video that tracks a pianist’s eye while they play. You’ll notice, the yellow dot moves around quite a bit, so the pianist is not focusing on only one hand at a time, but rather, splitting their attention between the two when it is necessary!
So it’s clear, that pianists DO look at the piano keys when they play! Sometimes less and sometimes more but there will never be a situation where they don’t look AT ALL.
If you are playing the piano and singing at the same time or if you are playing while looking at the music score, then it’s very helpful to know how to play without watching constantly, but you will still have to look sometimes.
And when piano players perform solo and without music, they look at their hands nearly all the time! This provides security for the piano technique and an overall sense of being in control during performances.