Don't Look at the Keys
Every once in a while, you “discover” something so banal that it’s become a cliche, and yet it still feels like some deep insight. It’s a strangely humbling experience.
I had one such moment a few weeks ago when I was practicing piano while home from school on break. I was trying to work out a passage in a Bach Prelude, but couldn’t quite get my hands to reliably play the correct sequences. I was sitting there, staring intently at my hands as they were tripping over a passage that was causing me trouble.
For whatever reason, I had the idea to force myself to stare at the sheet music, causing my fingers to play the sequence from muscle memory instead of by visually placing them in the correct positions. And it worked. I was surprised how quickly I was able to pick up the correct patterns, now easily playing the portions I’d been struggling with.
Only later did I realize that this is such an obvious, common thing to do that I’d been taught it by my first piano teacher when I was around 6 years old. I have a distinct memory of her placing a manilla folder above my hands on the keyboard so I’d be forced to sight read without using my eyes to position my fingers.
Piano, like many activities, has a cloud of common pieces of advice that become so commonplace as to almost become platitudes.
“Practice each hand’s part separately”. “Break pieces into smaller sections and drill each section independently”. “Don’t always start at the beginning of the piece, because you’ll be less practiced in the later parts”.
And, of course, there’s a reason that these pieces of advice have become so common: they work.
However, there’s a danger in accepting advice like this without internalizing why it works. If you don’t understand why a practice is useful, or you understand why it could be useful but don’t internalize its use, you don’t stick to it and the idea fades. I was told “Don’t look at the keys”, but unfortunately it didn’t stick until, years later, I accidentally “rediscovered” the utility of this.
I’m a piano amateur. I haven’t taken lessons since high school, so I don’t really have someone keeping me accountable for the “less fun” parts of playing piano. Sight-reading new pieces and playing through old pieces is fun. Drilling a challenging passage over-and-over until you can play it mistake-free? Not so fun.
But, eventually you want to put the effort in. You want to push past the “not fun” part to get back to the fun of playing through a new piece (and not sounding terrible while doing so). I think this is where the more valuable insights start to be made. When intrinsic motivation meets frustration and the recognition that, “surely, there’s a more disciplined way of accomplishing what I’m trying to do”, you’re open to start internalizing the challenging-but-useful bits of common advice that linger in the back of your head.
And so, I’ve added “don’t look at the keys” to my tool set for practicing piano, despite it being something that I’d already been taught many years ago.