Here’s a silly question – if you’re not going to look at the score when you play, where should you look? Vocalists typically look out at the audience, as do many instrumental soloists. Pianists (and a few others – cellists, guitarists, etc.) are in a slightly unusual position because they can easily look at their fingers, where all the work is happening, and indeed many do stare at their fingers throughout a recital. But recently I’ve started to wonder if this is really such a good thing. Why do we do it? Apart from large jumps or passages with complicated finger-work, is it really necessary? Surely it must move some of our mental focus away from the quality of the sound and towards the alarming acts of speed and dexterity required?
I always memorise, and I always look at my fingers when I play. Knowing what the hand patterns look like on the keyboard forms a key part of my visual memory of the piece. When I practice away from the keyboard, I can more easily visualise my hands moving over the black and white keys than I can recall the score. When I play in the dark, I focus on what I know my hands look like on the keyboard. I’ve always thought this visual memory useful, providing an extra link between my motor memory and cognitive knowledge of the notes. But is that true? I wonder if focusing on the physical mechanics of sound production and ‘getting all the notes right’ means I am too focused on each individual note or chord, and not sufficiently in tune with the interpretation and phrasing. Would I express the emotional content of the music better if I didn’t focus on my hands to the exclusion of all else, but only glanced down when necessary and concentrated instead on softening my gaze and listening to the sounds?
Ever the experimentalist, I decided to try this out with a new piece – Scarlatti’s wonderful B minor sonata (K.87). The piece is quite fugal in nature, with multiple different voices and very few jumps or large intervals. The hands are often close together but are busily doing different things. Like all of Scarlatti’s astonishing 555 keyboard sonatas, the piece is a single short movement divided into two approximately equal (repeated) halves. Despite its formal Baroque elements and complicated counterpoint, the piece is quite heart-breakingly beautiful. Here’s the wonderful Horowitz playing the piece with his usual aplomb:
This seemed like the perfect piece to investigate playing without staring at my hands. So I’ve spent the last week or so memorising the piece, and can now play it all without looking at my hands no problem (though so far I haven’t tried it in front of anyone else!). I have to say that I love the freedom of playing and really listening to what’s going on, only focusing on my fingers when I know I need to. I feel more connected with the sound, with the shape of the phrases, and feel more able to bring out different voices. However, at the same time, I feel strangely disconnected from my fingers (until a wrong note brings me crashing back to reality!). I don’t visualise my hands when I’m play, and having memorised it this way, I find it almost distracting to look down and watch my hands meandering over the keyboard! Playing with my eyes shut is wonderful, but I’ve been warned previously that we perceive sound differently when we shut our eyes, and I feel even less connected with the physical action of actually playing the notes. Somewhat ironically, I often find myself looking straight ahead towards the score – though on closer inspection, it usually turns out to be the score of a different piece that I’m completely ignoring! It’s actually nice not to look at anything in particular while playing.
I don’t think I would want to dispense with the visual memory of my hands at the keyboard for most pieces or for performances. But I would like to try to incorporate more freedom into my playing – to eliminate the need to focus on my hands and allow me to concentrate more on shaping the sound. Perhaps this is the first step in that direction.