Keep Your Eyes on the Music! – Teaching Tips for Piano Teachers

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.

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Keep Your Eyes On The Music!

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.
In Conclusion
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.

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5 thoughts on “Keep Your Eyes on the Music! – Teaching Tips for Piano Teachers

  1. I have been trying to teach my daughter how to play piano, and she has been hating it. I distinctly remember my own detest for the piano until I eventually came to absolutely adore it. Do you have any input on how to get a student to this point? Thank you for such a detailed article and advice on how to help a student to learn this instrument, I will be using many of your tips!

  2. Hi Natalie, my first suggestion, especially in the subject of the article on helping kids keep their eyes on the music is to keep it short.
    If you’re working with your daughter and want this to be a goal, don’t make the goal success in doing it but rather a short period of time when she does it. Let’s say, 3 minutes of not looking down when she plays. I like the place a book over their hands so when they look down they can’t see their hands.
    My second suggestion would be to after you try it without looking down to try it without looking up! I think this will put a smile on your daughters face. Laugh when she can’t remember what is going to happen next. Let her look up, try to remember, then don’t let her look up anymore. Another 2-3 minutes on this and then try to drop this from a constant focus.
    Lots of positive reinforcement which believe me is tough to do with your own children. I am the most patience teacher in the world with other peoples children but for some reason, i have a hard time teaching my own. I’m embarrassed to say, but I have a member of our teaching staff teaching my children their piano lessons because I get to frustrated so I’ve just told myself it’s best to be “just the dad”.

  3. Hi Natalie–Thanks for your feedback and question! You know, I remember being there too and going through a phase when I did not like piano as well and then learning to love it. When I think back, it’s not so much that I hated the instrument, though. I didn’t like having challenging assignments that were difficult and took focus and concentration. There is no real easy answer to getting a student to fall in love with the scales, technique exercises, music theory, etc. However, teachers learn how to make it easy to process for students through simplification, so my first suggestion with learning weekly assignments and songs is to work in small groups and master small components before putting everything together.
    As an added note, one way my parents got me to love the instrument and spark my initial interest was to encourage me to play all the time, no matter what I played. As a 5 year old, my mom would ask me to make something up and keep playing for her while she cooked (our piano was right next to the kitchen). Even if I was just making up a song and playing what surmounts to nonsense (lol), she always told me she loved it and wanted to hear more. Constantly keeping a repertoire of songs (whatever the level) for a student to play and be proud of is the key, as far as formal learning goes, but as an added exercise that may be fun for your daughter, try just asking her to create something or simply PLAY–no matter if it is “right” or “wrong”. It’s very true that simple and frequent interaction with an instrument goes a long way 🙂
    I hope this helps, Natalie! Keep encouraging your daughter, and even though there may be growing pains along the way, the gift of music is something she will always appreciate down the road!

  4. Thanks for explaining that it’s important for beginning piano players to keep their eyes on the music because it’s vital to building note reading ability and continuity. My daughter is interested in learning to play piano, so my husband and I need to find a good local piano teacher for her. I’m glad I read your article because now I can look for a teacher that prioritizes keeping students’ eyes on the music!

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