When I was just starting out as a pianist, nothing terrified me more than looking up while I was playing. In classical I kept my gaze down, and in jazz and rock I could never even glance at the other players without losing it. Many years later, having learned to look up and out, I thought I had discovered all the benefits, but last week I discovered another one, possibly the most important.
Here are the ones I knew: Looking up, and even better, having the freedom to look around, makes a lot more movement available to my whole body. My fingers move more easily because my head and shoulders are not locked in place.
Being able to focus my eyes in different places, and at different distances while I play, opens up my mind to corresponding textures in the music. Before, I would just keep my eyes at the distance of the keys and it was very hard for me even to imagine some of the ideas my teachers suggested: sinking into the keys, getting a better sound out of the piano, playing “through” the keyboard. So unlocking my gaze also unlocked my conception of physical gestures that revealed increased musical textures.
Finally, I found that when I watched the other players I locked into their playing far more effectively. My jazz comping ideas were better aligned with the drummer’s patterns when I watched the sticks. I found the same kinds of benefit watching the guitarists move their fingers on the fretboard: a wonderful locking in of my playing with theirs.
So, having fully explored, so I thought, the value of looking up, I decided on a recent jazz gig that it was time to only look up, never look down at all, and see what happened. What happened was that the musicians as a whole seemed to really like that I was looking at them! Perhaps they felt confident that I was listening to them, and that we were actually in a room in real time making music together.
So now not only did my playing improve, but the others played better too, and we all made each other sound good! In fact, this is how a mediocre musician who looks up can create a more satisfying performance than a brilliant one who doesn’t. By being engaged visually with the other members of the ensemble, not only do musicians excite one another, but they’re so much fun to watch they excite the audience too!
If you’re not a musician, you can still benefit from this idea. Do you look at the people you are working with? Do you engage them with your eyes during conversations? If you’re problem-solving in a conference, you might be surprised at the change in the quality of the discourse, and even in thinking, that can result when you just start looking around the room.
There are even equivalents to looking around the room in writing. The best writers seem to “notice you” in their writing, so that you feel a part of the story. Still others are masters at engaging their colleagues and audience in public, which generates a lot of energy for their fanbase.
In this blog, I always want you have the sense that I am talking directly to you, and looking at you as I write. The better I do that, the more comments I tend to get! How am I doing?