Many piano teachers find that their beginning piano students have a difficult time splitting their focus between watching their hands vs. watching their sheet music. And their playing ends up like this… “duh duh..pause…look up…duh duh duh…pause..look up…”. A piece that should take three minutes takes seven. A piano teacher who usually has boundless patience is digging her fingernails into her palm. It’s not a great situation for anyone involved. But the remedy requires more than a repeated “Eyes on the page please!”. Because to them, their eyes ARE on the page… just not all of the time. Here’s how to break “Watch-My-Hands William” of this habit.
Piano Students Who Watch Their Hands
Not only do Watch-My-Hands Williams drive their piano teachers crazy, but they are also doing a disservice to themselves. Students with this habit have a difficult time developing fluency and musicality in their playing. They are often uncomfortable with note reading, and once you move them out of their comfort-zone hand positions, they run for the hills. Oddly enough, it is these unwanted byproducts of chronic hand-watching that are often the root of the problem in the first place! You need to break the vicious cycle.
Keyboard Awareness 101
The term Keyboard Awareness may mean many things to many people, but to me, it means having a level of comfort on the piano that enables you to feel your way through a piece rather than watch your way through a piece. This comfort level comes from three things: 1) Practice – you won’t develop keyboard awareness if you spend no time on the keyboard 2) The ability to predict – your fingers need to be one step ahead of your eyes. 3) Awareness of hand shape – your hands need to know what the various intervals feel like to be able to judge the correct distance they need to either stretch or shrink.
These three things do not often come naturally to a young beginning piano student. But, they can be taught!
Teaching Interval Recognition As A Tool
You won’t find any good boys deserving fudge or all cows eating grass… or even green bananas that don’t feed apes in my studio. I’ve never been one for the mnemonics that are used to help students read notes on the staff. “Every Good Boy Deserves Fudge” has been around since the dawn of time, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best teaching practice for all students.
So how do I teach students to read music? That is a whole new blog post, but for the purposes of Watch-My-Hands William I’ll sum it up quickly: guide notes and interval recognition. This then translates easily to the concept of keyboard awareness. If students are able to instantly recognize the distance of a 6th, their hands are more likely to remember how it feels to play one. When advanced pianists play, they are not thinking of notes as individual entities. Instead, they are continually aware of the relationship between notes. This then translates to hands that move with ease on the keyboard and do not need visual assistance.
Provide Opportunities For Fluency
Once you have your Watch-My-Hands William finding a new sense of comfort on the keys you also need to provide him with opportunities to discover what it feels like to play without stopping. Watch-My-Hands William is likely to become a disinterested piano student without intervention. After all, who wants to listen to themselves play a halting rendition of a piano piece over and over? The joy of piano lessons comes from the end product of beautiful or exciting music. Give your William the opportunity to play with musicality by both encouraging memorization of his pieces once learned, and by occasionally teaching him pieces by rote. Breaking free from the book to learn to chord and how to figure out a melody line by ear will do nothing but good for his keyboard awareness and musicality; he’ll learn to listen while he plays rather than simply watch. Read more about developing fluency here.
Teach Split Vision
I’ll end with a fun game I play with my piano students who are tempted to become hand-watchers. It requires them to keep their eyes on both the music and the keys using the “split vision” that comes naturally to you and I. All you need is a tiny button or toy. I have a very small ladybug that we call Harriet. I don’t know why 🙂 As your piano student plays while watching their music, sneak your “Harriet” onto any one of the piano keys. As they continue to play, they need to say the name of the key Harriet is resting on aloud without looking down. They’re not allowed to stop playing, and they’re not allowed to take their eyes off their music. It’s simple, but it shows them that they CAN, in fact, see both at the same time. This gives them the security they need when playing “out of position”. Find more strategies for teaching “dual vision” here.
Piano students who learn to play without watching their hands are the ones you immediately pick out of the crowd in a performance setting as being “good”; they play with musicality and self-awareness that just makes them stand out. Freed from the struggle between page vs. hands they have the ability to truly be in the moment as they play. And it is pianists like these who have the greatest effect on their audiences.