balance of the hands I

Part I of V about handedness and keyboard technique

In one of the interviews presented in Bruno Monsaingeon’s monumental video documentary Richter, the Enigma, Sviatoslav Richter mentions his belief that the right and left hands of a pianist need to be in balance. The video clips of Richter on this DVD (and any one of those available on YouTube) show impressively what he means by balance: the independence between the hands and, as it would seem to an observer, a lack of subordination of either of them. But the call for balance on an instrument played by both hands using the same set of basic techniques is, by itself, not very earth-shattering. Much more interesting is how the effect of balance is achieved, and at what costs. The following posts are about this topic.

To pave the way for explaining my view on keyboard technique and balance between the hands, I will, however, have to supply an introduction containing disclaimers, myth-destroyers, definitions and denials. Why? Because this is about handedness. I have heard very smart people say searingly stupid things about handedness.

For example, I once got drawn into an anti-Lefty e-mail quibble. I had sent a short message to the contact page of a private but voluminous and well-informed Beethoven website which contained a passage about how Beethoven was not a left-hander (this refutes one typical unsupported claim found on many Lefty websites). I admit that I was in a precise mood that day: I pointed out that, whereas Beethoven very clearly wrote with his right hand as all his autographs show, one can, in a culture where children were forbidden to write with their left hand, never be sure about his actual handedness. That was all.

This was perhaps an unnecessary and nitpicky comment, but to my excuse it should be said that I made it in a friendly spirit, and that I was using rather few, well-chosen words. I even wrote in the native language of the author of the site. I was clearly prepared for the possibility of some manner of disagreement, but the avalanche of incoherent e-babble that came streaming into my inbox in response took me by surprise. After a day-long lopsided exchange consisting of several incoming multiple-screen-length messages and my sporadic replies of a few lines at a time, I was presented with a direct question: could it perhaps be, my opponent wrote, that I myself was a Lefty? Determined to let things fully unfold while we were about it I took the bait: yes, as a matter of fact, I am left handed. Wow. So there, I learned, was the true root for my obsession – I had my own ax to grind! That explained it all, and she had somehow sensed it all the time. In the eyes of this person, the fact of one’s own handedness obviously excludes the possibility that one can make rational statements about anything that has to do with handedness in general. The only group excluded from this rule is, naturally, the right-handers. It was at this point that I pitched the whole exchange into the trash can, which I then emptied.

In fact, both the irrational and the obsessive about this issue have nothing to do with my faint voice in the modern e-jungle. Rather the opposite is true. I was being naive, thinking that I would actually be able to reason about such matters. Instead, the irrational treatment of handedness is too deeply ingrained in most human cultures to allow for such a light-hearted approach. We are dealing here with religious issues and ideology, matters of psychological denial and of other personal agendas. In taking up this topic, I have to face a century-old cabbage stew of prejudice, which no Prussian sharp-edged intellectuality helps to avoid. So let’s get over the central question. Do I have any skeletons in my assorted closets that have to do with my handedness? Answer: no. I fetched them all out of there years ago, and now they are neatly lined up in my study and grin at me every time I try to tickle them.

Before I proceed to explaining my strategies for bringing handedness and keyboard balance into agreement, I will have to make a few statements. I am not a neurologist, and what I have read about the nature of handedness is hence, of necessity, limited. A few concepts, based on the findings of relatively new research about the topic are, however, helpful for understanding my arguments:

- Handedness, no matter which variety, is a matter of life. As such, it is not a condition that has to be dealt with in any special manner at all. It is innate; it cannot be changed; we live with it (it can, however, be denied, but that is another matter). It only gets attention here because the piano keyboard is not, in the same fashion, automatically and inevitably divided into a more preferred and a less preferred side.

- Ambidexterity is today, in contrast, understood as a learned skill. It overlays one’s natural handedness (again: whichever that may be). Some learn certain skills better or quicker than others. So some individuals have a special talent for developing ambidextrous behavior, others don’t. In this context, I am especially baffled by the art of the Canadian pianist Marc André Hamelin (also present on YouTube).
Some people have so much talent that they fool themselves and others into believing that they are right-handed while they are, in fact, left-handed. In this corner most issues of self-denial lurk. My topic here is, however, keyboard technique and not turned-around left handers, so be assured: I will not take this matter any further.

- There is no complete consensus about how problematic it is to teach one’s non-dominant keyboard hand to become more accomplished. In view of my idea of varying talents, pointed out above, this consensus is not likely to come in the future. It is, however, an established fact that an intricate action such as writing by hand, which stimulates a lot of diverse brain activity, should be carried out with the dominant hand: to use the wrong hand when writing can generate severe difficulties for the individual that substantially transcend issues such as the readability of one’s handwriting or other niceties.

If we put these bits of information together we get some idea of what can, in rough terms, be done on a keyboard instrument and what can’t:

It is absolutely possible to develop a balanced or even ambidextrous behavior at the keyboard. This would, however, require one to know and accept one’s natural handedness, in order to avoid over-exercising the non-dominant hand: just as it is problematic to write with the wrong hand, it would be problematic to bully the non-dominant piano hand into a leading role.

…continued

If you, after reading this, have an overpowering urge to click into the “leave a reply” window and to post a quick witty remark about my sinister approach or anything else that contains more than one pair of scare quotes, think again. This post wasn’t written quickly either.

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2 Responses to “balance of the hands I”

  1. BOLECHETTE Says:

    If you want to know something new about handedness please read my blog : bolechette.blogspot.com both in French and English

  2. The Hands of a Harpsichordist Says:

    [for those visitors unfamiliar with the so-called pingback format, here's one: another blogger and harpsichordist, quoting, commenting upon, and linking to parts of my posting above. Thanks.]

    [...] while back, I came to appreciate my hands just a little more after coming across a five part series of blog posts entitled “Balance of the Hands,” written by Tilman Skowroneck, a professional harpsichordist and fortepianist. The gist of the [...]

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