How to Use Your Eyes to Play (and Feel) Better

As crazy as it may sound at first, how you use your eyes can have a dramatic effect on how well you play, how quickly you learn, and how much you enjoy the process.

It’s well-documented that how we use our bodies has powerful effects on our states, feelings, and attitudes.

But let’s focus in on the eyes for a moment (excuse the pun).

How to Use the Eye Method to Relax Your Playing: The Short Version

In short, if you relax the muscles around your eyes and become more aware of your peripheral vision, your face, neck, shoulder, back, and arms also release a bit.

You become more relaxed and more able to see the “whole picture” of your guitar playing and the music.

End results:

  • You play more gracefully and beautifully
  • Your memory works better
  • You’re more comfortable
  • You have a better experience.
  • The Eyes Create Your Reality

Let’s start with the body.

Quick Anatomy Lesson

(Science Alert!  Feel free to skip ahead for the practical application.  Many thanks to Mark Schier for the generous help on this.)

In our eyes, we have rods and cones.   These absorb light and send information down the line. Each has separate functions and affects the brain in different ways.

Rods and Cones in the Eye

The rods are used for night vision at low light levels, while the cones are used for daytime viewing when light levels are high. In bright light, the rods are completely overloaded and switch off.  At low light levels, we become dark-adapted.  This is the realm of the rods.  This is because cones are not sensitive enough to capture light.

More important than the rods and cones for visual processing are the connecting cells (visual ganglion cells).  They process information differently depending on their location in the eye and their pathway to the visual cortex.

Cones in the central parts of the retina connect to midget ganglion cells and then to the parvocellular layer in the lateral geniculate nucleus (usually called P-Cells). These are specialized for fine detail and color: “What is it” cells

Cones further out in the retina are connected to parasol ganglion cells and then to the Magnocellular layer in the Lateral geniculate nucleus (usually called M-Cells). These ones are specialized for movement and contrast, and are monochrome: “Where is it” cells.

P-Cells – “What is it?” cells

To start with, the P-cells in the eyes are primarily used for pinspot vision. This means focusing on a single point.

Where this gets interesting is that in using primarily the P-cells, the “left brain” is more highly activated than the right. The left hemisphere is commonly associated with linear thinking, logic, numbers, and language.

When we are reading a book, or looking at notes on a page, we are using primarily P-cells, and the “left brain”.

The overall vibe of P-cell vision is one of concentration.

M-Cells –“Where is it?” cells

M-cells, on the other hand, are more predominant when taking in the periphery.

If you take a moment right now, look away from your screen, defocus your gaze just a bit, and notice everything at the very edges of your vision on all sides (keeping your eyes forward), you will be switching to an M-cell vision.

M-cells activate the “right brain”, which is more responsible for spatial capabilities, facial recognition, and (here it is…) processing music.

The overall vibe of M-cells vision is one of contemplation.

For a fascinating read, and more on this, including the evolutionary implications on society, read this excerpt

Practical Application: What This Means for Guitar Practice

While we need both to function in the world, one has us concentrating and logically solving problems, while the other has us more contemplative, noticing relationships and connections.

In our music, we’re faced with the need for both. When we’re learning a piece, we have to look at the notes on the page and figure out what needs to happen (P-cells, linear thinking, concentration).

But if we memorize our music (which I am a huge proponent of), we can allow our eyes to de-focus a bit, and bring to bear countless other inner resources (M-cells, big picture, contemplation).

We can connect more emotionally with the music and gain a deeper understanding of larger structures and forms.

And the greatest bonus?  When we bring our attention to the periphery of our vision, we relax.

Muscles Are Connected

We all want to play with freedom in our joints, and with grace and powerful ease in our hands. But most of us play with great “concentration”. This means that even though our goal is to be supple and lithe, we are setting ourselves up for tension and stiffness.

When we relax our eyes, a chain reaction starts that eases tension throughout the body.

We relax the muscles around the eyes, which releases the forehead, which eases tension on the neck, which releases the shoulders and back, which free the arms, which release the hands.

Unsolicited Life-Altering Tip:

If you want to do one thing to drastically improve your daily quality of life, create a habit of taking a moment, several times per day (especially in moments of high stress) to de-focus your eyes.  Notice the periphery and release the muscles around your eyes.

Not only does this feel good, but it can also help with problem-solving, communication, and creativity.

Gaming The System

When we know how our systems work, we can “game the system”. This means we can get the results we want intentionally, from a system that works automatically.

My Own Performance Experience and Observations

On a personal note, I have repeatedly noticed that in my best performances, my eyes are slightly de-focused. Nothing major, simply nothing is in absolute focus.

My internal dialog (left brain/logic) is quiet(er). And I seem to be operating from a “level up”, overseeing all the details and movements, but somehow detached from them and more connected to the music as a whole.

Therefore, one of my goals prior to performing is to activate my right brain as much as possible by becoming more aware of my peripheral vision. I do this by keeping my gaze forward and taking stock of what lies at the edges of my vision on all sides.

As you do this yourself, you may also notice that when you de-focus and notice the periphery, many of the muscles in your face also release. The overall effect is very relaxing.

Smooth Eyebrows and Half Smile

This may sound a bit “woo-woo” or new-age, but again, Mr. Science says….

The half-smile is another powerful tool in our chest of human resources.

When we release the muscles around our eyes, smooth our eyebrows (no “eagle glare”) and put on a gentle “half-smile”, the effects are pretty amazing.

(A “half-smile” is just what it sounds like: no teeth, face soft, tips of the mouth slightly raised. You can also think of the outside corners of your eyes rising slightly as well, one big peaceful half-smiling face. Thanks, Tara!)

When we do this, it sends a message to our brain saying that everything is fine. It triggers our parasympathetic nervous system (homeostasis, “everything is cool”).

And it turns off and suppresses our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight, perceived threats, “everything is not cool”).

We immediately begin to feel more of a sense of well-being, and all the symptoms of adrenaline and anxiety start to fade.

As you can imagine, practicing this and being able to cause this effect on cue can be enormously helpful.

Performance Tip:  If you’re struggling in any way with performance anxiety, stage fright or nerves, this should be part of your plan (along with over-preparation of your pieces!).

Bonus Tip: The Tongue

While this post is about the eyes, I simply must mention the tongue.

I ran across this fun fact about the tongue in Anna Wise’s The High-Performance Mind.

Our internal vocalizations (talking to ourselves) is directly linked to the tongue. In fact, when we talk to ourselves, our tongue moves slightly.

What is fascinating (to me) is the inverse is true as well: If you still the tongue, you quiet the internal voice.  This can be a game-changer.

Try this:

First, allow your tongue to spread widely over your back teeth. Let it relax as much as possible.  A soft exhale through the mouth may help.

Then notice that there may be a very slight “tugging” sensation at the very back of your tongue. This is the spot you’re looking for.  It’s subtle, so give it a minute.

If you use any “sub-vocalization” (if you talk to yourself), this tugging will increase. If you are fully wrapped up in mental dialog, your tongue will be fully active and tense.

When you gently release this “tugging”, it quiets your internal voice. At first, you may only be able to stop it for a second at a time, but with practice, you can increase that time.

Note: If you have never experienced freedom from this internal voice, it can be uncomfortable, and you may feel the urgent need to use words.  Just start over and repeat as many times as you’re willing.

When our tongue stops moving, and our inner chatter (left brain) subsides, we are more apt to either think in images (right brain), or not think at all.

This momentary space that’s created by stilling the tongue, softening the eyes, and quieting the inner voice fosters feelings of calm, contentment, and inner peace.  This is a wonderful state in which to practice guitar.

(And just in case you’re thinking it: None of this has anything to do with religion or belief. It’s simply the way your body and mind work. )


I hope that this has been some food for thought and that you actually take the time to practice these techniques. They make life (and your guitar study) much better.

To recap:

  • Take a moment to bring your attention to the outside edges of your vision (with eyes remaining forward).
  • This activates more of your inner resources.
  • Release the muscles around your eyes, and let that relaxation spread.
  • Softening the eyes and putting on a half-smile sends a message to the brain that everything is alright.
  • When we still the tongue (and the “tugging” at the very back of it) we quiet the internal voice and creates mental space.
  • Have fun!


Allen Mathews

Hi, I’m Allen Mathews. 

I started as a folk guitarist, then fell in love with classical guitar in my 20’s. Despite a lot of practice and schooling, I still couldn’t get my music to flow well. I struggled with excess tension. My music sounded forced. And my hands and body were often sore. I got frustrated, and couldn’t see the way forward. Then, over the next decade, I studied with two other stellar teachers – one focused on the technical movements, and one on the musical (he was a concert pianist). In time, I came to discover a new set of formulas and movements. These brought new life and vitality to my practice. Now I help guitarists find more comfort and flow in their music, so they play more beautifully.
Click here for a sample formula.

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