How Good Is Your Looking Technique?

That’s right, the last two words of this article’s title are not accidentally swapped.  We’re going to talk about the technique of looking.  Most of us are well-aware of the four types of memory available when we memorize music:  audio, visual, kinesthetic, and analytical.  However, I believe that many are not aware of just how important visual memory can be in the performance process.

In graduate school, I took piano ensemble during my last semester.  Just for fun, my piano ensemble partner and I learned Milhaud’s Scaramouche and played it in a music department noon recital.  It was an easy piece, but determined not to be overconfident, I practiced it very diligently anyway.  The time for performance came, and I felt very prepared.  In fact, I felt like I “owned” the piece.  It was a familiar feeling:  I felt confident, and without exception, every time in my life I felt that way before a performance, the performance always went well, as it should. 

This performance did not go well.  This was the first time in my life that my careful, diligent practicing did NOT pay off.  I was confused and jolted by the experience.

Weeks after the performance, I had a revelation.  I realized the bad performance was caused by the simple fact that the music rack on my Young Chang console piano was extremely close to the keyboard.  The music “rack” is actually just a very small flap that opens from inside the keyboard cover once the keyboard cover is open.  The music is so close to the keyboard that my hands (on rare occasion) actually touch the music stand when relocating across the keyboard.  The Steinway concert grand piano I performed on in the recital, by stark contrast, had nearly 12 inches of space between my hands and the music.  I knew right away this was the issue, because I could still remember how uncomfortable I felt during the performance.  The discomfort was, without any doubt in my mind, due to the music being located so far away from where I was used to.  I wasn’t accustomed to having to move my eyes so far in order to follow the music.  What I should have done was either practice on a different piano or put a textbook on my Young Chang’s music rack with the sheet music on top of that (perhaps aided by a heavy box on top of the piano so the music still has something to lean against).

Years later, I have observed many other examples of situations in which practicing where we look determines the difference between success and mediocrity on stage.  As one example, if we unknowingly look at our hands in certain places while practicing an accompaniment or ensemble piece that will not be performed from memory, we’re in for a big surprise when we get on stage and wonder why certain spots felt so strange and “off” that day as we’re forcing ourselves to stare at the music.  We must decide in advance which parts of the music need to be played while looking at hands and be very concscious that we’ll look at our hands in the performance as well.  We should know exactly when we look down and when we look back up, and we should rehearse those spots, sometimes solely for the purpose of “practicing our looking”.

These examples so far have focused on performances that are assumed to be with music.  What about when there is no music?  There are so many times I have caught students looking up at the piano or at the wall when they were playing memorized music for me, either trying to remember what the notes looked like on the page, or just zoning out into a zombie trance, letting their muscles carry them through the performance.  In those cases, I have to point out to the student that no matter where they look when they practice, I guarantee that they will be looking at their hands when they’re on stage, and if they don’t practice doing that at home, they are setting themselves up for an “out of body” experience.  That is, the student plays a piece from memory, and they have this strange sense that they’ve “never played the piece before” – thus it feels like someone else is doing it.  In reality, the student simply doesn’t remember what their own hands look like while playing that piece since it’s the first time they’ve seen their hands. 

Sometimes catching this can be tricky – some students will be in a “daze” while looking at their fingers.  Their eyes aren’t moving in the way I’d expect them to move, so I’ll tell them that they’re looking at their hands but not watching their hands.

Another thing I’ll catch both myself as well as my students doing once in a while is not looking ahead.  With advanced pieces that require a lot of jumping (such as certain Scarlatti sonatas), it is critical to look at the destination before the jumping occurs.  As obvious as it sounds, it’s easy for students to get stuck in a reactive mode of playing, not looking at a note until it’s actually time to play it.  After all, that’s how students often first learn their music:  one note at a time.  Until a student consciously pushes themselves to start looking ahead, they are forever doomed to unintentional coffee breaks while they play, all because of where they are (or aren’t) looking.

I’ve also noticed sometimes that a student is looking at the wrong hand during a difficult passage, or they haven’t worked out an “eyesight pattern” that might be necessary to balance looking between both hands.  And, when playing octaves and other intervals, it’s a good idea to get in the habit of looking at the thumbs of each hand rather than the pinkies, since the distance between thumbs is always the minimum distance between hands in normal playing position.  I myself used to look at my left hand pinky.  I would become uncomfortable if I looked at the left hand thumb while playing an octave.  This low-level mental programming took considerable effort to change.

Students are always blown away by how much it helps to be looking in the right spot, because they don’t realize that where we look is part of our piano technique.  Piano technique is not limited to finger movement, hand position, relaxed arms, or even the movement of the entire body.  Piano technique is, in fact, a lot more mental than one might think.  There have been many times when I’ve told a student to think of a passage in different terms (such as regrouping the starting and ending notes of a pattern in one’s head), and magically, all their stumbles are gone.  I didn’t have them change anything physical, nor did I ask them to change rhythmic or dynamic qualities in the passage:  they only changed their perception of the passage.  I remember a couple of my teachers doing the same with me in my advanced years of study.

As I point out in my Sight-Reading And Memorizing: You Can Do Both article, when we memorize music, audio, kinesthetic and analytical memories don’t change.  Our visual memory, on the other hand, goes through drastic change when we go from looking at music to looking at keys.  Avoidance of this uncomfortable visual change is often the culprit when it comes to students looking at the wrong places at the wrong times.

(c) 2010 Cerebroom

About Chad

Chad is a pianist, composer, piano teacher and blogger with a Masters Degree in Piano Performance. He received the 2005 Nevada Arts Council Fellowship Grant for the composing and performing on his Ostinato CD.
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