One of the biggest issues piano students struggle with when their hands have to jump more than a few keys, is finding their location on the keyboard without losing their place in their sheet music. In Chopin’s Waltz in A minor, the left hand has to leap to get from the single note to the chord in each bass staff measure:
All but the most experienced pianists must constantly look down at their hands in order to hit the correct bass notes in passages like this, and that can cause the student to lose their tempo as well as their place on the page.
There are a few things we can do to improve our geographical sense on the keyboard. But before I talk about strategies, I would like you to consider that the spatial aspect of playing the piano provides one of its greatest brain benefits.
While all instrumentalists get a brain boost from the multi-sensory experience of playing their instruments — integrating the visual (seeing), auditory (hearing), and tactile (touching) senses with rhythmic awareness, pattern perception, memory and emotions — a piano player develops the broadest spatial intelligence, which means developing an instinct for how far to move one’s hand to play the intended keys. Brain scans reveal that because of this additional challenge, playing the piano activates the most widespread portions of the brain, improving brain structure and cognitive functioning, by increasing the number and health of brain cells and neural connections. So let’s view piano key leaps as a good thing! 😉💡👏
In a book I think of as my learning science bible called, Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning, the authors recount interesting scientific data they call the “Beanbag Study.” In the study, two groups of children practiced throwing beanbags into a bucket; one group tossing from three feet away, the other tossing from both two and four feet away. After twelve weeks, both groups were tested on tossing into a bucket three feet away. Surprisingly, “the kids who did the best by far were those who’d practiced on two- and four-foot buckets” even though they had never tried the three- foot buckets! (Make It Stick, p.46.) This is because varied practice (such as tossing beanbags from mixed distances) gives you a deeper understanding of how you need to move your body to learn a visual/spatial skill. You can adapt these findings when practicing piano key leaps by doing the following exercises :
Keep your eyes forward, then practice moving each of your hands in octaves (from one C to a higher or lower C) and other intervals (G up to E, D down to F; B up to A, C down to D, etc.) by taking just a quick glance at your hand as it approaches the second key.
Practice moving each of your hands in octaves and other intervals up and down, with your eyes closed, seeing how close you can get to your intended key. You can graze the tops of the black keys with your fingers to guide you; that’s how blind pianists learn to play.
In the same way, work up to finding intervals greater than an octave (nine keys or more) with just a quick glance down, and later with your eyes closed.
Finding notes with your eyes closed is a great exercise!
By developing an intuition for distances between keys, we reduce the need for constantly looking down from our music, or we reduce the length of time we need to look down, to a quick glance. If you do need to look down at your hands for a piece such as Chopin’s Waltz in A minor (above), you can do the following to help keep your place in the music:
Don’t let yourself look down until you make a mental note of where you are on the page, even though that will interrupt your tempo.
If you notice that you consistently get lost in a particular measure, get out some colored pencils and make a mark above that measure. If there is more than one, number each measure in which you get lost, so that when you need to look down, your brain quickly registers red 1, blue 2, green 3, etc. When you look back up you will quickly find the red 1 your eyes just left a moment ago.
Sometimes you lose your place because you have memorized part of your music, but not all of it. For that issue as well, use colored numbers above the measures in which you consistently lose your place. Once you stop losing your place, you can erase the markings, as well as other penciled markings on your page that you no longer need.
Give these practice strategies a try and leave us a comment to let us know how it went. As with all new skills, you will get better with time and practice, so don’t get discouraged if the exercises doesn’t work too well for you at the beginning.
FYI- You only have a few more days to print Auld Lang Syne from the FREE SHEET MUSIC page of my website, before last JANUARY’s arrangement disappears. Everyone loves to sing that song at the stroke of midnight on New Year’s Eve, even if they don’t know exactly what the lyrics mean 😆
I hope you find your way to the 🎹 bench amidst the holiday rush; playing the piano is a great way to relax and re-center yourself. Happy Holidays! Thanks so much for joining our community. With love and music, Gaili