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Thread: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

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    Default Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Is it a worthwhile goal to try to spend less time looking at my hands while I play? I watch a lot of videos and I notice the great players often spend a lot of time looking at their hands, but it's not universal. Generally they only look away if they have to sing at the same time as they play, apparently.

    I occasionally practice deliberately trying not to watch my fretting hand and I can get fairly good as long as I'm using the same mandolin for an extended period of time. If I switch mandolins of course I make mistakes since there are slight spacing differences (esp. between my Breedlove Crossover and more traditional width fretboards.) Is it just something you do when doing really complex or unfamiliar pieces?

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I play from sheet music a lot of the time, so can't look at my hands that much as I lose my place. Same appllies if you are trying to read the chords off a guitarist or notes off a fiddler or another mandolinist. I do get problems going between the mando and the OM/Banjo and need to look when working on technique, so time and place I suppose.

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    Registered User SincereCorgi's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Mandolin frets are such a small targets that it doesn't hurt to look when you're playing hard stuff, especially if you're making shifts, and I think in the upper parts of the neck it's almost a necessity. I wouldn't sweat it, though. If you practice playing from music, this is one of those things that will take care of itself.

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I am frequently looking at my fretting hand when playing fast melody (which involves long shifts up/down the neck) so I hit the frets as precisely as possible.

    But there comes a time when I force myself to look away, because my eyes are more connected to declarative memory (not procedural memory which is doing the playing), and the optical input from the fretboard can gain too much control in two ways:
    - speed - my fingers move faster than my eyes can see, and looking too hard slows them down.
    - navigation - my eyes try to read the fretboard like a map and find out where to fret next; of course, that information is not there on the fretboard, and the attempt leads to trainwreck.
    When I feel that VV* coming, I look away or close my eyes for a moment, and all is well again. Such moments can even make it into posterity: see what happens in this video at 0:54.

    * VV = Virtuosity Vertigo
    Last edited by Bertram Henze; Feb-26-2015 at 5:36am. Reason: typo
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    Oval holes are cool David Lewis's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I can do alright playing without looking on the lower end of the fretboard, but rely on looking for the higher positions. There is a place I play at where there are bright lights shining at us from the front and no light from above. I do ok there (feels like I'm playing blind) except I keep missing B chop chords, I toats rely on my eyes for that sucker.

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I agree that there is no rule that says you can't look at your hand. It's inconvenient to always be dependent on it, though. Your hand can learn to find the notes. Practicing while standing helped me to get away from constantly staring at my hand. No point in agonizing over it though. Just keep practicing and having fun with it.

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    It is hard to take a fast solo without looking at my hands, but the rest of the time its a lot more useful to be watching my bandmates or smiling vaguely towards the audience.

    I played off sheet music enough so that looking at my hands is only needed for shifts or going up the neck. There is so much group dynamic that you miss if your eyes are constantly glued to your fretboard.

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I also find it a back and forth thing. Being in the early stages of learning I do often need to play with a book in front of me while studying scales and various pieces so I have to look at the book and rely on muscle memory. Also like Bertram I do get occasionally confused if I focus too much on looking at my fingers, it's as if the visual information is interfering with the muscle's memory. It's like the fingers are saying to the eyes, "hey, leave us alone, we know what we're doing ... shouldn't you be looking at the book?"

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    but that's just me Bertram Henze's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrus View Post
    ...it's as if the visual information is interfering with the muscle's memory.
    I think that is exactly what is happening. It's interfering with acoustic information which is the very feedback muscle memory is trained to use: Visual information is much more complex and takes more time to process than audio, so the syncronicity problems alone are severe.
    When you watch your own video, for instance, to check if your timing is right, you'd better look away as well, because looking on can give you a false temporal impression.
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    Mandolin Botherer Shelagh Moore's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I have a habit of trying not to look at my hands whilst playing for the reasons others have already mentioned but occasionally take a peek if it's an unfamiliar passage. I think in a performance or ensemble situation it's nice to be able to engage with the audience or other players.

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    Registered User Fred Keller's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    First, everyone does it at some point. It's not a BAD thing per se but I laud you for thinking about trying to pull the eyes away.

    Here's an interesting exercise before I move on. Instead of looking at your fretting hand, try looking at your picking hand from time to time. The real music--speed, expression, attack, rhythm--is in the picking hand. It's also where more of the tension starts. If you can watch that hand you can sometimes give yourself the biofeedback you need to relax or play more expressively.

    Ok, here's why I think we all should attempt to look away some. Again, it's nearly impossible to avoid looking and it's not wrong in any sense of the word. BUT, music is about communication with others. If you're jamming and you're too focused on your fretboard you can't participate in the group communication as well. For example, it's often eye-contact that kicks the solo from you to the next person. You should be able to look up and do that.

    If you're performing, you can't communicate with the audience if you're locked on. It's the same reason why I try my best to avoid the "I'm-so-into-it" eyes closed thing. The audience wants you to look up, smile at em, and show you're engaged with THEM as much as they want to hear what you're playing. It helps create a connection if you can look at them and smile.

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    F5G & MD305 Astro's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Funny, I'm usually looking at other peoples hands. I don't know that many songs at jams so I'm trying to read the guitar players chord progressions as we play. I am just now getting to the point where sometimes on simple songs I can quit starring at them after the first verse or two. I think the guitar guy thinks I got a thing for him.
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Another exercise, but just for checking if you really have your music down, beyond being able to play without looking:
    Stand in front of a mirror and play. Look at your fretboard in the mirror. When you can do that, your muscle memory can play on even after your head has been chopped off (aka playing in Klaus Störtebeker mode).
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    If you're jamming and you're too focused on your fretboard you can't participate in the group communication as well. For example, it's often eye-contact that kicks the solo from you to the next person. You should be able to look up and do that.
    This is probably the most important reason to be able to play without looking at your hands. Jam dynamics involve a lot of visual cues which require you to have 'situational awareness' outside your own instrument. I am as guilty as anyone of staring at my fretboard while playing a break, and I find it very difficult to give someone else the nod as I get close to the end, because it feels like I'll just come apart if I do.

    For those who are addicted to looking at their fretting hand while playing, it's probably a good transitional step to turn your mandolin so it's more front-facing where you can only see the side of the neck, and use the fret markers on the side for visual cues. Then slowly learn to look away for short periods while playing, with the goal of weaning yourself off of it entirely. With some effort, it is quite achievable in first position. Playing up the neck, though, is still going to require some reference glances during shifting.

    When I switch over to rhythm guitar, I do find myself looking at my right hand more than my left.

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Odd. Just been thumbing through a 25 cent book I bought at Goodwill that addresses this very subject -- The Art of Practicing. Its geared toward classical musicians on all instruments. One chapter advocates practicing with eyes closed or at least looking away from your hands. Some quotes: '...in the midst of our struggles to read the score, execute arpeggios, and shape phrases, we lose touch with the skin that touches the instrument and the energy that flows through the body when we move.'

    'The vision-oriented player is like a dancer who relies on chalk marks on the floor to know where to step. He moves awkwardly instead of easily and fluidly. Smooth, confident movement can occur only if his whole body knows the steps, so he is free to dance without keeping track of every spot his body has to touch.'

    Not sure I buy this entirely, but I think it does make sense to practice without looking at your hands at times, so when you are in a jam or on stage, you can summon up the memory of body movement and feeling.

    Something to think about.....

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    Registered User Timbofood's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    How nicely put! People simply do not exercise the art of beauty in speech these days, and now that Stan Jay is no longer providing florid descriptions of instruments the world is just a little more "clinical". The "Eloquence" proffered in your book makes me happy.
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Quote Originally Posted by twilson View Post
    Smooth, confident movement can occur only if his whole body knows the steps, so he is free to dance without keeping track of every spot his body has to touch.'
    That is great. I agree. But I think it happens with practice.

    I have had no success deliberately trying to avoid peeking - but what I have done is deliberately try to catch all the musicians eyes while playing, or the audience. That is what matters anyway. Working on doing a positive rather than avoiding a negative.

    If I can be engaged with the other musicians, or the audience, or the sheet music, and the music sounds good, well I really don't care if I am peeking or not. I probably am, but so what.
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Back when I was playing upright bass full time I learned to play with my eyes closed and rely on my ears. At first it was an experiment just to see if I could do it.

    As for mandolin I am no where good enough yet to play with my eyes closed or even not looking at the fingerboard.
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    There's is a problem I notice when I am looking down and that's one of introspection. I'm less engaged with others much less likely to feed off their signals or deliver interaction to people playing with me. Playing in the orchestra helped that because of looking up to the conductor or ther sections for cues, similarly playing in our trio the body language is something we really need to get really tight, but I'm still likely to slip into it if I'm in a jam not leading a song or jamming to an unfamiliar tune. I keep telling myself the notes are exactly where I left them and they're not going anywhere else, but I suspect it's possibly a defensive move like you see in subordinate members of other primate groups too. Definitely increases my feeling of being more confident when I look up.
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    Default LOOK, then DON'T LOOK

    "Look > Don't Look" - especially effective when practicing shifting exercises. When you do visually monitor your hand, knowing that you have to repeat the passage without it makes you shift your attention to the tactile dimension of how it feels to move your hand just the right distance up or down the neck while you are looking.

    Also, to go DEEPER into the zone, it helps to shut down all extraneous neural programs so you can devote more brain resources to what you are playing. Look at almost every monster guitarist when they are really nailing it - SRV, Carlos Santana, Hendrix...... their eyes roll up, glaze over, or the lids come down, ending any visual distractions. When these guys trance out, the eyes are almost invariably closed. (If there is a visual input, the brain has to process it.)

    There are plenty of instruments which are non-visual (for the player): violin/viola, horns, saxes, woodwinds. There is probably a long-term advantage of not having a visual crutch to become overly reliant upon.

    When I would do some really complicated stuff on mandolin/organ bass pedals/drums, I would have to shut down the visuals so I could handle 3 different instruments at the same time. (You think I'm BSing? There are people on the Café that have seen me on "the rig") When you are the entire rhythm section at the same time, you finally start to understand grooves and how the parts fit together.

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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Most of the time i don't look, might have something to do with starting on classical violin , sometimes i play with the lights off , most of the jam rooms i have played in with my bands are kept pretty dark and if your on stage sometimes you can't see you fretboard
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    two t's and one hyphen fatt-dad's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Quote Originally Posted by Petrus View Post
    <snip>. . .it's as if the visual information is interfering with the muscle's memory.
    I know Bertram called this out too. I just really agree with this statement. Sometimes I look at my fingers so if I later see what I'm doing (i.e., when practicing with others) I'm not surprised into a mistake.

    I look at my picking hand too and that's an interesting exercize. It can provide better accuracy when learning and some confusion on the "Chestnuts."

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    Registered User John Garcia's Avatar
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    I have found that almost always when it's a difficult part of a tune, that my right hand is more important. So, if I look anywhere, it will be at the right hand, maybe checking on the pick direction. I do use the dots on the neck when I have to get my fretting hand in the correct position, too. I like being able to look around at the other players in a jam.
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    Default Re: Looking at your hands while playing -- opinions?

    Bertram is right on the target. Visual processing is extremely slow, and since the frets don't move finger movements guided by a combination of proprioception and memory is plenty accurate, if you practice it. The all-too-convenient existence proof among flatpickers is obvious.

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