Pkaying while looking down


Well-known member
Dec 31, 2010
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Tampa Bay, FL
I used to play looking at my hands. It seemed ok for singing and chording, but I could easily lose my place on the sheet of an unfamiliar piece.
Now that I am playing in a 3 piece orchestral group, I find that I am getting lost in the piece way too often.
So, my voice coach, who plays in this ensemble (she is also a Classical guitar instructor) told me to stop looking at my hands.
I found out quickly that I do not know where my strings and frets are!
So I am basically starting over!
It's frustrating to need to do this after 8+ years of playing. I see so many pro players watching their hands....
Has anyone else had this dilemma?
How did you cope?
Try not to think about where your fingers and strings are. Just look away and keep playing with your attention elsewhere like maybe the song sheet. Your ears will confirm that after 8+ years of playing, your fingers don't need you to tell them where the chords are anymore.
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This is interesting - I look at my hands sometimes... usually when I'm playing just a melody - but often have issues when I do that, so I tried something else, and I'm a little mystified...

When I get a little fumble-fingered playing up and down, I close my eyes, and have a lot less trouble. I don't know why, but often (not always) my ears know where my fingers should go, even if my eyes don't.

On the other hand, I don't read tab or notation - I look at the names of the chords over the words, and if I can hear the song in my head, I can usually play it. Which may be one of the reasons I don't use a capo ion a uke... although I wish I could put a capo on my vocal chords, sometimes...

I did (and sometimes still do) have this dilemma. When I got my first uke I also purchased Ukulele Aerobics. I resisted using it for some time, like everyone else, I just wanted to play, but once I realized that it is an excellent "warm up" primer, I began to use its exercises before my practice sessions. Still do. Used on a regular basis, it has helped my hands acquire the muscle memory to find the intervals on the fret board with just an occasional glance down.

Have I got that totally locked down? Nope, but I strive for progress.

I played piano for 12 years, and I never loved scales. I played swing piano, so I wasn't doing many runs anyway so I got by. I do like scales and arpeggio workouts on the ukulele. Just a few minutes a day before settling into regular play is sufficient. You don't need to buy Ukulele Aerobics, although it's a solid exercise book and has additional licks and tricks included. There are plenty of other free online resources.

Funny - looking at my fretting hand seldom helps. I'll do it for an unfamiliar chord - until it becomes familiar - but I'm always surprised that so many pros look at their fretting fingers. I find that looking at my fingers is distracting.

I asked a good player in our group why pros often do that, and he said that it might be to isolate them from the audience - avoid the distraction of the audience.
I think that looking at your fingers helps in learning the chords. You get the visual feedback whilst you hear the chord and the individual notes. When you are comfortable with those easy beginners chords, it's helpful to sometimes close your eyes or practise in the dark to consolidate that your fingers know where they are going. As long as I stick to first position I'll probably manage. However, if I try voicings up the neck I have to check where I am.

I think that many professional players don't use or need sheet music. They know the chord progression and the melody. They can just watch their fingers. We still have to make the choice in learning the play without the sheet or without looking down.
Nickie is a pro and she knows the deal: each of us is excellent at what we practice. So she should practice not looking while she plays. I can pick up my ukulele, throw the strap over my head, and go directly to the 11th fret without looking because that's what I practice. However, I cannot form elementary first position chords, like the F minor, without looking because I don't practice it.
piggy-backing off what Ubulele said, I also play in the dark. A friend of mine who is a professional guitarist played in a closet to practice this skill. That seemed too weird to me, so playing in crepuscular shadows was my compromise. I also started using a strap because the angle of the dangle precludes me from seeing the fretboard. Another practical exercise are "fly-aways." In a Mike Lynch video he advocated focusing on a chord (I think he used F) and without looking form the chord, strum, then let your hand fly away, and then repeat. In five minutes you could probably amass fifty or so iterations--thereby solidifying that chord in your memory. I actually used this for the G chord. Once I became proficient with the G. I moved the shape up the fretboard (muting the G string) to practice this shape in creating other major triads.
Thanks so much, everyone for this input.
My issue isn't the chords, unless I find a new one. I don't even have a bother with diminished chords anymore.
The orchestral pieces we are working on contain single notes, and a few double stops. Whole notes, rests, half notes, quarter notes, 8th notes, even some 16th notes. The trick is when I have to go from a double stop of 0 1 0 5 up to a note at the tenth fret, stuff like that.
But, armed with your kind advice and sheer determination, I will succeed!
Nickie, I agree with many, that looking down is, in general, a bad habit. If I’m not singing but just playing lead, I do it on occasion though. I find that I do it most commonly when I switch from one scale instrument to another (soprano uke, to bari, to mandolin, to guitar. The change in scale can throw me off for a bit and I think glancing down can help keep me on track. On the shorter scale, I rarely have to look cuz I often have a “plant” on the root. But the longer the scale, you have to freely float up the neck and for that I find myself looking much more often. If you stayed with one scale instrument, I think it would be a bad habit that you would want to develop.
Playing while looking at the fretboard is fine, but as you've noticed, you can't look at the fretboard while looking at the music :)

So, you'll have to compromise and become somewhat familiar with the music where you just need to look at the music every few measures to remind yourself; then you can look at the fretboard all you want without needing to "compose" music on the fly.
I'm mostly a fingerstyle player and I usually don't look at my hand/fingers as long as I don't go above the fifth fret. Once I get onto the dusty end of the fretboard I need to use my eyes to locate the proper frets. I have been trying to use just the side dots as positioners, but sometimes I cheat and tip the neck so I can see the big markers!
Thanks everybody! We did a show yesterday, and I never looked down until I had to play a lead. I know it, but I think I was nervous. The room was warm, I was covered in perspiration, making it hard to hold the damn uke.
I always play with a strap. I sweat like a horse when I play in a too warm room.
Nickie, you play well, I remember your Coconut Grove video from when I first joined this forum.
Thank you. We hope to put some new videos up soon, we should be doing some recording next week.
This is a great reminder to us newbies to try and stop watching our fingers :)

I find bad habits so much easier to acquire than good habits (hides the leftover Christmas biscuits)
I didn't know how much I looked at my hads and strings until I went from white strings to black strings, took awhile ti get used to not seeing the strings. You'll get there. You will be surprised how you can go to almost all finger memory on the left hand. I also try to memorize music i like, but I don't think that is practical with what you are playing. I would like to see some video of orchestra uke group.
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