This article details a way teachers can help beginning level piano students keep their eyes on the music and avoid looking at their hands to improve music reading continuity.
For beginning piano students, keeping your eyes on the music is a difficult challenge, but necessary to build note reading ability and continuity. For teachers, it can also be a difficult reading technique to teach, as it requires constant reinforcement, persistence, and patience to encourage. So how do we keep our students’ eyes from wandering off the page and down to their hands? First, it’s understanding the reason why students are tempted to look at their hands and why they think it’s helpful to do so, then addressing the ways a teacher can reconnect the dots back to the music with a few easy tips.
Understanding Why It’s Difficult for Students to Look at the Music
I think the best teaching techniques I have developed as an instructor come from understanding the perspective of my students and why certain technique or reading errors occur. The obvious reason for a student looking down at their hands when eyes should be on the music is that they are unsure they are moving the correct finger. The connection that is made is that they see the note, interpret it, look down at hands, and then move the matching finger. Piano instructors understand the issue with this: a student will lose their place in the music if the eyes go back and forth.
However, if we get deeper into the issue, the reason a student feels they need to visually match their finger with what they see notation wise has to do with a lack of confidence in where their hands are placed. A student is looking down, because they can guarantee the correct finger will respond when they tell it to do so.
Reframing the Mindset of Students Looking at Hands and Not the Music
The first step in getting students to keep their eyes on the music is to instill confidence that when their brain tells a finger to move, it will.
The Exercise: Have the student hold their hands up behind their ears so they are out of the student’s range of vision, but in a place where the teacher can see them. The teacher can copy to make the exercise more fun. Then, one by one, have the student wiggle different fingers you call out. I like to end with, “You got them all right! You see, you can move the exact finger I called out without looking at the fingers at all! You can do the same thing while on the piano in a hand position.”
The second step is reinforcing good technique. Basically, this is always a work in progress with beginner students, but if a student is not able to independently move their fingers or avoid moving out of a set hand position, some preliminary work on technique fundamentals is needed. A student won’t be able to keep their eyes on the music and not look down if the hand positioning does not remain stable.
Guiding the Student Through the Music – Focus Points are Great!
The exercise I share with teachers to try, after framing the perspective of the student, is to then guide the student through a song with a pencil pointing to each note on the page. Literally, it’s as simple as counting off and pointing to each note as it should be played. I tell students to keep their eyes on the pencil and not let their visual focus break. After 2 or 3 repetitions, I then tell the student to play through while imagining the pencil is still there, pointing to every note.
I have experienced great success with this exercise. It should be repeated as often as is necessary in lessons, and over time, as a teacher you will see great note reading habits being developed!
The “Blind Playing” Exercise
I will preface this one with a slight disclaimer: if the student is sensitive or very easily frustrated, I wouldn’t emphasize this exercise too much. It’s a great tool, but it can be overwhelming for students who may feel disoriented upon first attempt.
Another way you can keep a student’s eyes on the music is to cover their hands with another book. Simply let them find the hand position and get comfortable, then cover their hands with the book, leaving enough room for their fingers to move without hitting it. They won’t be able to see their fingers, and this can also reinforce good technique habits, as they will have to keep their fingers in a consistent position.
Spoken Encouragement: “Keep Your Eyes On the Music!” As Said by a Piano Teacher
Sometimes, it’s just a simple, persistent reminder that works best. Once a student has a better feel for keeping their eyes on the music through the aforementioned exercises, it’s easy just to keep giving gentle spoken reminders when working on a piece. I tell the student in advance that I’m watching out for them looking down at their hands, and when I see it, I’m going to tell them to look up. This could mean that I say it while they play the whole piece one time to ten times. However, this voice and reminder stays with a student, and soon, they do not need the help of their teacher to remember.
Helping a student keep their eyes on the music is a process they have to learn. It doesn’t happen over night, but finding creative ways to build a good habit is the goal. First, understand the mindset of your students, and then use your creativity as a teacher to make reinforcement fun and constant.