Do you have students who constantly feel ‘the need to look’ at their hands when sight reading and learning music on the piano? Perhaps they try to memorise the music quickly before they have learnt it sufficiently, then make many mistakes when playing it because they have forgotten what is actually in the music?
Do these students also regularly lose their place in the music and therefore get annoyed with their playing? The answer would be “Oh yes they do” in my experience.
I needed a solution that works well for me and my students in order to stop ‘the need to look’ at their hands.
Transfer students who come to my studio from other teachers for lessons, often cannot sight read music well despite many years of lessons. They also sometimes resist learning to read, wanting me to play the music for them first before they try so they know what it sounds like. These students then try to memorise at the first opportunity while learning the piece of music.
There was a need to find a way to stop those piano students from relying on looking at their hands so they could concentrate on reading the music successfully and produce a much more successful playing experience with greater accuracy longer term.
Based on experience, I usually include a sight-reading segment in all of my music lessons right from the start, requiring students to play music they haven’t seen before. Often I find that transfer students have listened to their teacher playing the music first so they know what it should sound like (so there was no real need to learn to read music).
These students can get a little frustrated with me not playing new music for them as they feel they should have someone ‘show them’ first. They feel much more nervous with new pieces and are often unable to play new music successfully even when the music is really quite easy compared to their level of expertise at playing music they have learnt well. Students who have tried to learn to play from lessons on the internet generally come to lessons with the same frustrations and some don’t even want to learn to read music at all!
All teachers surely want their students be self-sufficient so they learn the skills and don’t need us to ‘hold their hand’. For me, in order to learn to sightread music successfully, we start with music that is easier until they can sightread well. But I found I needed something to help the process move along more quickly.
This is a way that has worked for me, so I am sharing this so it may help you and your students also.
As students try to look at their hands to see where their fingers are going, my students’ fingers are now covered with an ‘Obscurer’ (one of my students named this prop for me). This is a little more successful than covering their hands with a book or something similar as that would mean that there was a need for me to always be there. The ‘Obscurer’ stands alone to ensure that, once the fingers are placed in position to start the piece, the students can’t see their fingers.
The student leans back a little (just to ensure their fingers are in the correct position to start the piece), then once they have seen that they don’t need to look at their hands as they listen more to the sound their fingers are making. It ensures that they look more carefully at the music which produces a much better sight-reading result, less mistakes and more of the music instructions included as they play.
My students know that the music is only played for them once they have successfully read it for themselves. We discuss the music in great detail and this method has been found to be very successful. My students sight-read new music very successfully without looking at their hands.
A student’s hands are re-covered with my ‘Obscurer’ if they don’t remember by themselves to keep looking at the music score instead of their hands. Often just the action of my reaching for it, reminds them…! We use this method with a light-hearted, happy attitude to see ‘how well they can do it’. Treating this like a game also ensures that it is accepted by the student more easily.
The Obscurer can be made from a piece of art board (thick enough to not bend, but very lightweight) that covers around 4 octaves across the width of the piano. The depth is the same as a white piano key. I support it each end with empty video boxes which are the same as the depth of the white piano keys and fit well between the set of 2 and set of 3 black keys. The size of four octaves is useful as it is only usually used for students who haven’t mastered more than 4 octaves anyway.
I now have several simple Obscurers that I lend to students and the photo shown here is of one of my students enjoying practising with it too (his mum says he loves the challenge to see how much he can play ‘without looking’ so she took this picture to show me – he was now proud to be able to ‘not look’).
So as you can see, this works for me and my studio and is only generally used for a couple of lessons/practice until students are convinced that it is more successful to look at the music than at their hands, making less mistakes, until they have mastered the technique. They do ‘get it’ quite quickly and are surprised to see how much better they play when they don’t take their eyes off the music to look at their hands.
For the Obscurer I use in the studio:
(i) I did glue fabric on. I leave the option for the student to drape fabric over for the one they take home to practice with.
(ii) I didn’t glue the video cases on. I used one part of a strip of velcro across the spine of the video case and the other part on the board. This allows for flexibly changing the number of notes covered.
(iii) I put elastic bands around the board and video cases when transporting them so this keeps them all together.
(iv) I think that is a good idea to cover the bottom of the video case with a strip of felt to help stop scratches on the keys.
Have you have found other ways to help your students ‘not to look’ at their fingers when learning to read music?