Practicing Piano Without the Keys

Did you realize that you can practice piano without touching the keys? You read that right. Whether you can’t physically practice as much as you’d like, are on vacation without your instrument, or simply can't think about piano while at the office, we have 6 tips for how to practice piano without having your piano or keyboard around.

1. Practice Hand Shape

Each time you play piano your hands perform a distinct sort of exercise. Like any muscle exercise, if you don’t keep at it, the muscles will retract to their original, less-flexible state. If you'd like to duplicate the hand movement you experience while practicing piano, all you need is a round object (like a tangerine, ping pong ball, or tennis ball) and a pen. First, roll the ball around your palm and stretch out the inside of your hand. Next, take your hand off the ball and gently massage each palm and finger. After you’re all loosened up, place your hand on top of the ball with the pen about half an inch in front of it. Your exercise challenge for the day is to keep your hand poised over the ball and stretch your fingers to roll the pen back and forth. The goal is to strengthen the finger muscles while your hand is in the correct, rounded form.  An extra challenge is to practice moving the pen with only one finger at a time. You can also practice hand shape by using the same activity but with the pen placed farther away.

2. Practice Mentally

An excellent tip for practicing off the keys is to go through the piece in your mind and mime the movements with your fingers. It might look funny to others who see you playing the “air piano” but push through feeling silly and you can make serious progress in your piano playing. When you challenge your brain to think about the music while playing through it without your piano or keyboard, you’re testing two things: (1) your memory of the piece, and (2) your hand's muscle memory. If playing the piano without an instrument seems too abstract for you, perhaps you're a visual learner, you can try looking at the music while you mime the movements or drawing a 2-D piano keyboard and practicing on that. More often than not, students are amazed to find themselves making mistakes even when they practice without an instrument. You can’t exactly play a wrong note when it’s all in your head. But even in your imagination, you’re likely to find the same mistakes you make when you play on a real piano. These mistakes are a fantastic hint as to where you need to focus your physical practice next time you’re in front of a piano. For added difficulty, try this activity with your eyes closed. And for a serious challenge, practice with your eyes closed and the metronome ticking.

3. Listen to the Piece

An all-too-often overlooked practicing tip is simply listening to a recording of the piece of music you’re currently working on. When you listen to the piece you’ve been practicing, it helps you remember that you’re not alone in learning and performing this wonderful piece. Try listening to as many different performers as you can and take notice that everyone has their own artistic style while playing. Some performers might add elements you like that you want to try yourself, while others may do something that horrifies you. Those are both helpful. They both help you determine what you need to work on. While you’re at it, watch videos of pianists performing the piece live. Notice when they seem to make mistakes, or when their style changes or they seem particularly flawless. Once you’ve observed other people being affected by the adrenaline of stage performance you can look back on your own recordings and notice your own habits. Additionally, try meditating and imagining a story while you listen to the piece. Lay down and listen with your eyes closed and see what images come to mind.  When you have a visual representation of a piece it can add more emotion and passion to your playing.

4. Clap or Play the Rhythm

When we learn a piece of music, most of us start to add little rhythmic mistakes without noticing as we get further into practice. Every once and a while, whether you’re near the piano or not, look at your music and clap the rhythm of each hand. Be sure to do it with a metronome and record yourself while clapping. Once you finish, play back the recording while reviewing the sheet music. You’ll likely notice sections you weren’t playing correctly. Do this with both the right and the left-hand melodies separately. Then, tapping or using simple instruments like egg shakers, play both rhythms at the same time. If you have a musical family, turn this into a game with two or more people assigning each person a section to tap or shake when it’s their turn.

5. Draw the Piece

Once you’re really familiar with the piece, try doing two drawing activities to test your memory. First, take a sheet (or sheets) of paper and try to draw the melody of each hand. When you’re finished, it should look like two abstract lines that go up and down on the page. Once you’ve finished your line drawings, take a different color pen or marker and put a recording of the piece on and draw what you hear. This exercise will show you if you’re forgetting certain sections of the music, or if you’re closer to memorization than you’d thought.

6. Practice Pedaling

A great way to mentally practice your music without touching the keys is to sit down and play the piece while only practicing the pedal. Give yourself the opportunity to develop muscle memory in your foot while also reviewing the rhythm and phrasing of the piece. If you’re not interested in sitting at a desk for this activity, switch it up and practice lying on the floor with your foot pressing against the wall. Whatever you do, just don’t practice this exercise while driving.

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