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Although I've noticed a huge improvement in my ability to sight read recently, I'm also noticing that I really have to look at my hands every bar or so to get the hand position correct. As long as I'm going slowly this is ok, but I want to be able to sight read at speed. I'm not sure if the reason I can't is because of my need to look at my hands, or just a general need for more experience at the keyboard.

So I have two questions:

  1. How much is too much? Would, for example, a pro just sit down and never look at their hands, or is there some glancing involved?
  2. Is it a good strategy to just open a simple piece that I'm familiar with and try to play by touch? Should I instead try to do this at all times, even though it may lead to very wrong notes at times?
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    Well, I expect the less the better. I sometimes practise in the dark to avoid the temptation. – badjohn May 15 '17 at 12:42
  • Something that can help is to sing the melody along in your head, and your fingers might actually follow. – cfcief May 15 '17 at 13:27
  • Unless the music stand is in a crazy position, you can probably see your hands in your peripheral vision anyway. If you have to look to "get your hand positions correct" in every bar, that seems too much. On the other hand, actively trying not to look may be just as distracting, mentally, as looking! – user19146 May 15 '17 at 15:11
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I'm still trying to improve in this area myself so while I can't offer advice as a 'master' I would like to share a few thoughts.

Clearly there are pros who can play brilliantly and don't need to look at their hands (but of course they do look, they just don't need to all the time.)

I wouldn't necessarily link keyboard mastery (in the sense of fingers getting to the right keys without look at your hands) with sight reading. They are not exactly the same thing.

Two things I have done which I think have helped me play better without looking at my hands are:

  1. Play basic patterns like scales in contrary motion, rule of the octave, cadences, etc. with your eyes closed or averted from the keyboard. Speed isn't important here, getting the tactile feel of hand movements is the goal.

  2. Repeat patterns through each octave of the keyboard. The point is to rapidly and accurately relocate your hands in the next octave. If playing within one octave is mostly a matter of finger independence, then to some degree the challenge is to reposition your hands. Silently exchanging fingers 1 and 5 is one technique for this octave repositioning. Another is playing full four-note chords in both hands moving up and down by octave. Of course the octave isn't the only interval at which the hands get repositioned, but as a practice method it seemed to make the keyboard feel 'smaller.' I felt like I could get anywhere on the keyboard with more ease and accuracy.

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Learning to sight read is mostly about two things: keeping your eyes on the dots, and not stopping. It's about trusting your hands not to go off on their own adventure and it's about developing confidence. It's not really about sounding good; that comes later. It's a slippery slope once you start to look, because each time you look you're wasting valuable trust and confidence-building opportunities while feeding your filthy peeping habit. You're probably going to execute some stinkingly dodgy fingerings, but so be it: press on, press on! The best sight readers scour the chart for dangerous sections before they start to play. Yes it is a very good idea to go through simple pieces without looking at your hands. It's also a good idea to only go through a piece a couple of times and then 'chuck it away' and attack a new piece. You are not trying to learn the piece or memorise it. You are simply reading it: learning to process dots.

  • I'm glad to see your 'not stopping' advice. My feeling has been hitting a wrong note is forgivable, but stopping is a sin! Better to miss a note than stop the music altogether. – Michael Curtis May 15 '17 at 17:19
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There are, and have been, some great blind pianists. I say this in an answer to point out that they don't look at the keys. No, they don't look at the dots either, but that's another matter! Generally the next note/s you're going to play after the one/s you're on will be less than an octave away. So, familiarise yourself with how much of a stretch a 6th is, or which finger will play a 3rd above the note your index finger is already on.

The more you sightread, the less you'll need to look at fingers and keys. A nice little practice idea is to play a note with a particular finger/thumb, then check which other notes are within easy reach, and make a mental note of how each gets played. Start with diatonics, for ease. And one hand at a time is not cheating with more tricky pieces, and slowly of course, but keeping in time, which is the other half of sightreading.

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