Proprioception, Peripheral Vision, and Playing the Piano

When I was a child, my mother often would often say to me, “Lift up your feet when you walk!” or, “Pay attention! Look where you’re going!” I’ve never had great proprioception. I veered while I walked until I was dating my now-husband and learned to not run him off the sidewalk when we walked together. I am still very clumsy and hit my head while getting into the car, walk into the corners of furniture, bang my hands against the doorknobs while walking down the hall, and spill, drop, and knock things over almost daily. While it is not debilitating, this somewhat diminished sense of my body in space can be an aggravation.

Interestingly, I don’t have this issue at the piano. Perhaps it is because I have spent more time sitting in one spot at the piano than I have in any other singular space? Perhaps it is because piano practice involves more focused attention and detailed training? I’m not sure. But when it comes to the piano, I always know where my fingers are. When sitting in a normal position at the piano, I can find all the octaves of the piano, without looking, based on the feel of the distance between my elbow and my waist and the angle of my arm and shoulder. From there, I can find all the individual notes based on the span between my fingers.

All musicians use some sort of proprioception to play their instruments. The way their hands are shaped, their arms are held, the location of their feet and knees, or the angle of their torsos all affect what note or sound is produced. But piano is still a little different because, unlike many other instruments, there are not multiple options to play at least some of the notes. There is only one Middle C. There is also only one key for playing every single other pitch. All eighty-eight of them. The keyboard is large; any note can be played by any finger, right or left hand, depending on the music. Sometimes I must lean my entire body towards the uppermost part of the keyboard; less often, I must lean my entire body towards the lowermost part of the keyboard.

When I play my saxophone, I can’t look at my fingers and see where to place them. This is true for many instruments. However, while the keyboard is in front of me, that doesn’t mean I get to look at my hands unless I have the piece memorized. Moving my head up and down too much while reading music increases the chances that I will lose my place on the paper. Imagine if you had to keep turning away from a book and then find the exact word you were on when you turn your eyes back. It’s like that, except I’m also moving my hands and fingers at the same time, trying to maintain a continuity of music.

Being able to read a piece of music quickly without looking at one’s hands is a necessary component of sight-reading piano music. My first official piano teacher began teaching me how to do that when I was about six years old. She would put music in front of me to play for the first time, and I was not allowed to look at my hands. She made me rely on sensing the location of the piano keys. I got started very early on with becoming intimately familiar with the the piano keyboard.

My use of proprioception at the piano doesn’t mean I don’t use my eyes. I didn’t really understand how much I actually do “look” at the piano keyboard while I play until the COVID-19 pandemic began and I started to use a mask while playing the piano at church. All of a sudden, I couldn’t see my hands while playing! I thought I didn’t look at them, but it turns out I do – using peripheral vision. I had previously associated peripheral vision with the corners of my eyes, but apparently I use downward peripheral vision as well. Now, that is blocked by a mask. I got around it. Since I was playing familiar hymns that didn’t require a lot of fast movement across the keyboard, I could rely 100% on proprioception.

My new bifocals have caused greater problems. The eye doctor gave me the option of getting two pairs of glasses – one for distance, and one for reading – or bifocals; I opted for the bifocals. I figured I could get used to them without much trouble. For regular reading, they work great. They cause difficulty when reading music at the piano.

I know other musicians who read music with bifocals, but they are not pianists. They can adjust their head or their stand a little bit to accommodate the necessary angle required by the bifocals. I can’t. I must look at the piano music straight-on at eye level. While wearing bifocals, that causes me to look through the distance portion of the lens, which makes the music even smaller, or straight through the line that divides the lens, which makes everything blurry. When I tilt my head back slightly to read the music through the bottom portion of my bifocals, all my peripheral vision of the keyboard is gone. I can’t see any of the keys to the left or right out of the corner of my eyes; I can’t even see the mask!

I can get away with using proprioception alone when playing music that doesn’t require too much movement up and down the keyboard. But, when playing something that is all over the keyboard, I rely heavily on my peripheral vision to anticipate where my fingers will land. Wearing bifocals has forced me to move my head when playing more complicated pieces. Moving my head more has meant I’ve had to find my place in the music when looking back at it – except now I experience wavy lines of music, a second of blurriness from the line dead-center in the lens and a moment of adjusting as I tilt my head up once again. I can take my mask off when I’m practicing, unlike playing at church. But I can’t take off my glasses if I’m going to be able to read the music.

(If you’re a pianist and you need reading glasses, learn from me. Perhaps bifocals will be suitable for most activities, but separate reading glasses for the piano are a must.)

I used to think I relied solely on proprioception when playing the piano, but the changes in my fields of vision over the last few months have made me aware of how much I do depend on my eyes. If I had enough time to learn a piece and was more skilled in memorizing, I might be able to get away with using proprioception alone. However, my work as a collaborative pianist, and the speed at which I need to learn new music, necessitates the use of peripheral vision which enables me to simultaneously look at the music and guide my hands across the keyboard even when I am not looking directly at them, in addition to being able to look at a conductor or other musicians for cues. Proprioception and peripheral vision are both important aspects of playing the piano.

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