A keyboard rolling like the sea

24th September 2014 | Daily Life | 5 comments

I have a new pair of glasses with varifocal lenses. How can glasses have become so expensive! Every few years, one seems to need new glasses, and economising on the choice of frame is neither here nor there when the lenses themselves cost hundreds of pounds.

Since my last pair of glasses, lens technology has improved, and there are now more things ‘factored in’. For example, there’s an area of the lens meant to make reading music more comfortable. The music desk of a piano is a bit further away than where you’d naturally hold a book or newspaper. The same would be true of an orchestral player’s music stand. Therefore musicians often need an intermediate reading distance as well as a ‘book-reading’ distance. Many musicians have a special pair of glasses for reading music. That’s in addition to their ordinary reading glasses, of course. I know lots of musicians whose lives are a merry-go-round of different glasses.

When I sit at the piano wearing my new varifocals, the keyboard appears to have a subtle curve to it. This is a weird feeling, because obviously I know that the keyboard is a straight line. My eyes are telling me one thing, while my brain tells me another.

Furthermore, if I sweep my gaze from left to right of the piano keyboard, or from right to left – as one constantly does when playing piano music – the whole keyboard seems to roll, like a gentle swell on the sea.

No doubt my brain and my hands will find a way to ‘ignore’ these effects, but in the meantime the sight of the gently rolling keyboard is a novel and slightly sickening distraction.


  1. Paul Austen

    Hello Susan,

    I’ve been there too!! Several years ago my optician made varifocal lens glasses for me and I put up with them for about a fortnight till I went back and changed them for bi-focals. I couldn’t manage what I was looking at going out of focus as soon as my head moved slightly. Going up and down stairs was a nightmare. And like you I couldn’t use them to play the organ. Trying to read of course three staves, one of them was always out of focus and if I tried to look down at my hands or feet (though my organ teacher used to hold a music book so I couldn’t see my feet and told me I should be using the spaces to find the notes!!) or to look for a stop to change, the music was out of focus when I looked back at it until I had my head at the right angle!! Of course the music desk on an organ is even further away so I have a special pair for playing.

    It was rather amusing when I started playing timpani again as I was torn between using my ordinary bi-focals or my organ glasses. If I used the latter it was fine for seeing the music but the conductor looked distinctly fuzzy!! Conversely if I used my bi-focals I could see the conductor perfectly but reading the music was a bit of a strain!!

    I sometimes wonder how organists on really large instruments manage – not only with reading the music in focus but having arms long enough to turn the page without falling off the organ bench!! I’ve never managed to visit the tribune at St. Sulpice but from photos of the console with 5 manuals the music desk is just about at the limit of one’s reach. No wonder Marcel Dupre played all Bach’s organ works from memory and maybe it explains why French organists excel at improvisation!!

    Best Wishes


  2. Mary

    I have strong prisms in my lenses which create the illusion that keyboards are not flat but apparently slope down towards the back of the piano! I have got used to this, but rolling like a sea sounds worse!

  3. Ruth

    Have you tried contact lenses? Instead of bifocals the optician prescribed a distance lense in my dominant eye and a reading one in the weaker eye. It was odd for about 10 minutes and then my brain just seemed to manage it for me….. I have since found quite a few friends with the same arrangement. Mind you, I don’t play the piano!

  4. Frances Wilson

    I was prescribed varifocals last year, in part because my all-purpose glasses did not meet the requirements for driving. My optician assured me that I would be able to read music with them, but clearly had no understanding of the pianist’s posture at the piano, for in order to read music with the lower part of the lens (the stronger section) I have to tip my head back, creating unneccessary tension in the back and neck. I also found the feelings of nausea when wearing these glasses very distracting and switched back to my regular reading glasses for reading music. Occasionally, I “forget” which glasses I am wearing and go to practise with my varifocals on: the effect is somewhat akin to when you play from a different edition of a score of a familiar piece…..

    • Susan Tomes

      I totally agree. I noticed that my optician had prescribed a certain lens ‘for VDU or music’ (VDU being a computer, I later realised). But the two are not identical: you basically look across or down at a monitor screen, and up at piano music on a music desk. Thus, as you point out, with varifocals you have to tip your head back to read music when sitting at the piano. I too have resorted to single-vision reading glasses for reading piano music.


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