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Is playing without being able to look at what you're doing a useful practice technique for instruments like guitar and piano?

Learning to play without needing to look at your instrument is good of course but what about forcing that strictly either by having a dark room or a blindfold, for some portion of your practice - so you can't keep sneaking a look every time you hit the wrong note?

Sensible or stupid?

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    Well, I've being able to play by memory a complex melodies from Super Mario Brothers and classic music laying in completely dark bedroom and with a guitar in my hands, which I never being able to do at a day light. But I think it's more connected with concentration issues neither absense of video signal. Also I play scales don't looking at guitar fretboard but watching some stuff on my PC monitor.
    – PaulD
    Jan 10 '15 at 13:10
  • Not necessarily blindfolded, but forcing yourself to look off into the distance can definitely help you 'flow' with the music. I do this on the 'cello when I feel myself getting overly rigid, losing the phrasing or melodiousness of the part. Jan 10 '15 at 13:25
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    Try playing in front of a mirror and looking yourself in the eye the whole time. This will be practice for playing in front of an audience. You should make eye contact with the audience from time to time when you perform.
    – user1044
    Jan 10 '15 at 20:09
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    I've never seen a professional pianist look up and right to look at the audience. They get absorbed in their music. They do seem to be looking at their hands, but mainly they focus on the sound and feeling of the music.
    – Justin
    Jan 11 '15 at 6:26
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    It's very helpful to be able to play without looking at fretboard or keys - but if you practice in the dark, be sure you learn to play the piece correctly first and only play bind what you can play correctly. Otherwise your muscle memory will lock in on the wrong notes. Jan 16 '15 at 23:28
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Blindfolding might be taking it a bit too far, but I guess it can't hurt. I personally like to play in the dark. :)

I find it helps in several respects:

  • Obviously, it's going to help you learn to play automatically, without any crutches, and reinforce your muscle memory.
  • I've also found that it helps you focus your attention on your sound and execution: Less visual noise, so your brain is more focused on the sound. You will notice things about your playing that you might not notice with all that visual noise distracting you.
  • For the same reason, if you're playing, not just practicing, cutting down on visual noise helps your musical creativity. I think most of us prefer low lighting when we're playing, and I don't think it's an accident that some of our greatest, most naturally talented musicians - people like Stevie Wonder, Ray Charles and Roland Kirk - were/are blind. The brain tries to focus on all the sensory inputs that are delivered to it - cut down on one, more attention can be dedicated to others.
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  • To reinforce what you said about cutting out visual noise, I often close my eyes when performing live to eliminate visual distractions. In live setting I find this really improves my performance. Feb 11 '15 at 19:12
  • @RockinCowboy - when you close your eyes, you see the music... :)
    – Stinkfoot
    Feb 11 '15 at 23:17
  • Moreover, training yourself not to have to look at the keys is essential for sight reading! Nov 3 '18 at 11:16
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It's good to play with others who do not have their heads down all the time. You can communicate with them, have a laugh, guess what they're thinking.And there's often lots of interesting things going on on the dance floor that you'd otherwise miss.

Apart - yes, it's a good idea. Maybe not the blindfold or paper bag, but certainly looking away for periods of time.Most pieces will not have great leaps of hand position , so there's no real need to look. My piano teacher would hold a book above my hands, so I couldn't see the keys. On guitar, muscle memory will aid finding the right fret - try it - a barre A on 5th fret, take hand away, try again. 8/10 is pretty good! Once in the box, most of what you need will be underneath your fingers. There's also the danger, if you're reading, that you'll lose your place. My students have the dots/charts just where the guitar head is pointing - eyes up and down a little, rather than watching a tennis match. Who came up with putting the music in front of a guitarist. (Yes, I know, it usually makes them play very quietly...)

And if you do hit a wrong note, pno or gtr, try to hit the correct one WITHOUT LOOKING.

Addendum - with the guitar neck, on the opposite edge to where little dots are sometimes seen, thus on the blind side, little blobs could be put, which would be felt by the inside of fingers. Maybe not on all marked frets, but, say, 5,7 and 12.

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  • Actually, big leaps of hand position is one thing I'd love to do without looking!
    – Mr. Boy
    Jan 10 '15 at 23:11
  • @Mr Boy - muscle memory - but it's not cheating to look on occasions like that!
    – Tim
    Jan 10 '15 at 23:24
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    I know a very talented professional guitarist who teach's and plays as a professional studio musician and in multiple bands and plays bass, classical, electric lead and acoustic guitar. He is a full time musician and plays every day either practicing or performing. And he actually puts big orange round stickers on all of his performance guitars where the little fret markers are located. Might be cheating - but it works for him. Feb 11 '15 at 19:09
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I a not a musician. But, I just asked myself this same question, after seeing a drummer with hair over his eyes.

Since it looks like other musicians are asking this question, I want to mention something auditory related that people may want to consider:

I used to metal detect at night, with no light. The more I did it, the more my ears and mind became attuned to sound - pure sound. From the sound my mind learned to distinguish many things about the target - shape, size, density, etc. It became more than just a "beep". Sound can have an edge, a clarity, a lack of clarity, length, strength, etc. After much practice, I realized that it was easier for me to work in absolute darkness, than with a light, or with my eye on a gauge. Seeing became a distraction. I just needed to hear pure sound, and nothing more.

I would be willing to bet that if musicians practiced performing in absolute darkness, the musician's mind would began to focus exclusively on pure sound, in a very nuanced manner. It might take weeks and months of practice. But, I bet that the person's mind would learn to "parse" and analyze the quality of sound in a very focused manner, with no other competing sensory distractions.

I hope this helps someone. By the way, I never did better in metal detecting than when I learned to operate purely off of sound.

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Not exactly blindfold but playing in the dark or very low light increases the detail in my hearing. I find it a very useful method especially for acquiring a good sound and interpretation rather than technique.

An other suggestion may be to play all transposes of the song from the hearth after memorizing the piece in the original key. This exercise breaks the dependence to the muscle memory and instrument-wise limitations and help you to comprehend the piece conceptually independent from the instrument.

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Not literally blindfolded. That would be annoying and inconvenient. Obviously you can just shut your eyes.

Playing without looking certainly displays a level of mastery with an instrument, but a listener can't really ear that. You might ask more meaningfully why you want to be able to play without looking. For me personally, the reason is to be able to read music while playing. Another reason is it demonstrates good fingering technique, at least on piano and guitar. A lot of fingering techniques allow you to place fingers and reposition the hand without looking. So, playing without looking helps train/test good fingering technique.

Having said that, I think it's good to develop a "mental picture" of the instrument. I try to do this on piano. Deliberately looking at your hands on the instrument is a way to build that mental picture. Then when you close your eyes you can mentally imagine your movements. You sort of replay mentally what you had watching yourself do. The difference is looking, because it's the only way you can hit the right notes, versus looking to train in a mental picture.

When I do this I make a point of focusing on different areas, right hand or left hand, or following the various harmonic voices, for example playing four part harmony then focusing in turn on the soprano, then the alto, the tenor, and the bass. It's not looking at just the tricky note to reach, but looking at everything so you know mental where everything moves.

I think the point is not to simply to "not look" - to play blindfolded - but to make looking a more deliberate and active part of training to build your proprioceptive sense and mental picture. Then playing without looking becomes the next level of that training.

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    It's also incredibily important, when playing with others, to have more than occasional eye contact with them. So being able to play your instrument without continually looking at the keys/fretboard/dots is an incredibly important part of playing in an ensemble.
    – Tim
    May 5 at 17:52
  • I was thinking that playing without looking also means you are playing without thinking, which would allow more freedom. Well not "without thinking" but without thinking "what note goes next". Knowing how to play what you want without thinking how to do it is a huge gain I'd suggest?
    – Mr. Boy
    May 6 at 23:33
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    @Mr.Boy, I agree. I think of as playing reflexively. I'm an amateur and still working toward that goal. Sometimes while practicing my conscious mind will think "wait, what am I doing?" but my hands will just keep playing the practice pattern. The really weird part is feeling it's going to happen, not freezing up, and willing myself to "just don't stop." That's when it works. Those moments are accidents. The only way I can seem to recreate the effect for regular practice it count the beat aloud. Something to distract the conscious mind from the reflexive hands. May 7 at 12:53
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    Count the beat aloud, and just don't stop the rhythm. Even if I just plop my fingers on the keys in rhythm until I get back on the right keys. Just don't stop. (Of course I try to not make those mistakes.) Usually this is the signal to practice slower! The point is to not stop the rhythm, not consciously stop the hand movements. The conscious "mistake/stop" reflex seems to me the killer for beneficial practice. May 7 at 12:59
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This question makes me think of Ray Charles, Jose Feliciano and Ronnie Milsap. They had to learn to play without being able to look at their hands and they each play with incredible expression and soul. Perhaps forcing yourself to have to learn that way does have its advantages. An interesting aspect about learning almost anything is realizing there is more than one way to "skin a cat". Also actually performing blindfolded might be an interesting gimmick.

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