Can someone comment on how I can develop the muscle memory necessary to play the left hand of the second section of The Entertainer on piano? This is the "oompah bass" section in which the entire left arm literally goes back and forth on each beat - so it's about arm muscles even more than finger muscles.

I've practiced this for months and still play mostly mistakes. Is it ok to look at the keyboard while I'm developing this muscle memory? Because while playing the actual piece, I assume I'm not supposed to be looking at the keys at all.

I've tried developing very short repetitive exercises, played slowly, but even this isn't working...

I'm a beginner (just finished "adult book 2") with three years of playing, and I realize this is an "intermediate piece", but I don't think anything is really stopping me from developing muscle memory on this one section, in one hand, which is just about 12 bars or so.

4 Answers 4


Play slowly, left hand alone. Play the lower notes, releasing toward the higher chord. Your movement should make a single, smooth arc (a parabola). If you find yourself adjusting your arm position in mid-air, or if you need to adjust your finger position as you approach the chord, then your direction of movement is not yet efficient enough to make the leap accurately.

When you can consistently "draw" a smooth arc without "adjustments", then practice the same left-hand exercise but now accompanied by the right hand.

Reverse the exercise to get from a chord to the next low note(s).

As pairs of chords become comfortable, then practice in groups of three (low-high-low and high-low-high), four, etc. Left hand alone first to ensure smooth arcs; then hands together.

It's fine, even encouraged, to watch the keys and/or your hand(s). The more different ways you understand what you're playing, the better.

  • Thank you all for your responses - very helpful. Hopefully, I'll have progress to report in the coming weeks (months?). I guess there's no ... book(?) containing exercises specifically for developing muscle memory for movements requiring continuous hand position changes, and everybody just ... "powers through it" with "brute force" as you describe? Unfortunately, it's just not enjoyable doing so much repetition of short phrases.
    – j03y_
    Commented Sep 27, 2020 at 17:37
  • I see many youtube videos showing how to "play" a piece of music, yet all they really do is show you where to put your fingers and when, which is redundant with the sheet music. I haven't found anything that shows you how to progress from the knowledge of where to put your fingers - and when - to being able to actually play a piece in time.
    – j03y_
    Commented Sep 27, 2020 at 17:42
  • Muscle memory is something that develops over time. But each piece you play carries over to the next. And you're also correct that videos often show the mechanical part of playing, but not the musical part. That's typically the role of a good teacher, because the path is different for each pianist. It's good you have musicality in mind as you learn. You might be interested to know that Scott Joplin wrote a "School of Ragtime". It's for rhythm practice, but can help with muscle memory, too.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 27, 2020 at 18:25
  • @Aaron, regarding technique for complex jazz/soul chords; how do you do the arc/parabola when repositioning hands in such situations? The chords in my case has 4-5 tones per hand, and when I try to get it right it's definitely not an arc, it's as if I work with lego. Should there be "air"/vertical distance? It would be beneficial I think, but it feels like I don't have time, maybe it should be very fast arcs?
    – Frans
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 19:56
  • @Frans The "arc" practice should be done at a very slow tempo and with plenty of "air". It's to train the entire arm, from shoulder to fingertips, to recognize the distance and "shape" of the notes on either side of the arc. With the "arc method" (to coin a phrase), you're no longer practicing the music per se, you're practicing the "choreography" outside the musical context.
    – Aaron
    Commented Aug 2, 2021 at 20:03

Nothing at all wrong with looking at your hand/s while playing. If you've learned the piece from the music, and don't need to reference it any more, what else should you look at? The audience, maybe, but you still need to check at least from time to time, with a jumping left hand.

Practise the l.h. by itself, slowly, and get it used to how far it needs to travel between bass and chords. Take each pair separately, and work on the sweep of your arm. Then put a whole bar together, to get used to not only going up from bass to chord, but down for the next bass note in the sequence.

Keep it all in time, maybe even with a metronome, quite slowly. If mistakes occur, slow it some more. Graually put one bar with its neighbour, so there's a two bar sequence.

When you're happy with three or four bars, try not looking constantly. Just check once a bar. And repetition is really the only answer. You coud put an object so it blocks the key on the left of the lowest note, to help initially.

Don't bother with both hands until you can play at least four bars without error with l.h. all in time.


with all these kinds of lh leaps it’s useful to practice just the thumb of the ‘oom-octave’ and the lowest note of the ‘pah-chord’ - fingering might end up being something like 1-4-1-5-1-3 etc. the intervals between these notes are rarely as much as an octave and it helps you to realise that the total amount of arm movement is not so much.

  • Interesting! I've always done the lowest "oom" note to the highest "pah" note. I'm going to try this....
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 8:04
  • Why would one play the lowest note (l.h.) with the thumb?
    – Tim
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 8:13
  • tim: the thumb is the highest note of the octave in the left hand
    – user71850
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 10:10
  • of course if the oom is a single note this wouldn't apply. Either way, thinking the jumps to the lowest note of the chord rather than the highest is often helpful.
    – user71850
    Commented Sep 24, 2020 at 10:17

Thanks to all who responded - very helpful.

I think my main error, that you corrected, is that I was under the mistaken impression that my eyes must be locked on the sheet music while I play. I now know that's wrong. Since then, I've been looking at the keys themselves, hopefully judiciously and reasonably, instead of the sheet music, after having learned (in my mind, if not my muscles) the fourth and final section of The Entertainer. I can play this section slowly, and correctly. I plan to just slowly increase the speed while further developing the muscle memory, without looking at the sheet music at all (since it's no longer necessary, except perhaps for further study of musical structure), and then perhaps I can repeat the process for the other, earlier sections.


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