Final post about handedness and keyboard technique
Depending on one’s handedness, the preparation of continuo bass lines and continuo chords calls for different approaches. Obviously, continuo is about harmonies and bass line phrasing, but in terms of performance, it is first and foremost about being together. One could describe the ideal state of mind of a continuo player as ‘being part of the music’ to the extreme. Continuo playing is not about waiting and reacting, it is about anticipating, participating and breathing. No matter what her or his handedness, if the continuo player worries about the poor performance of her or his non-dominant hand, this will likely prevent the directness (I keep wanting to write “flow,” but to be honest, I do not know very much about flow) and spontaneity necessary for a good performance.
For the right-handed player, the unanimous continuo teachers’ chorus “listen to the bass” is, hence, not very edifying. Well, of course one needs to consider the bass. For a musical person, the proper phrasing of most bass lines can be worked out sitting in a chair. Preparing (or sight-reading) thoroughbass is – again – a matter of getting secure in the dominant hand in the first place. Granted, if we, for example, consider the jumpier sections of Bach’s cello or gamba arias from the Passions, there are certainly good reasons for practicing the left hand too. These pieces are extremely exposed, and the gamba players will be grateful if they can concentrate on their performance without having to eclipse the bloopers from the organist. But it will be difficult to achieve true togetherness in this music – as opposed to merely wanting to be together – if one does not pay special attention to the timing of the chords in the dominant hand.
Left-handed continuo beginners usually have quite some difficulties in getting their chords together, and they tend to concentrate too much on their right hand for that reason – especially when they engage in competition with the right-handed fellow students, who soon learn to produce sonorous melody lines in their successions of ninth chords or to dissolve their Handelian continuo figures into merry twiddles and harpings. The left-handed continuo player has the task of getting secure in her or his left hand, which grants the opportunity of getting extra good at breathing together with the music, but which is, at the beginning, a bit disappointing. From my own experience, I guarantee that the twiddling, trilling and harping will become fully accessible even to the left-handed player if one first tries to be patient and constructive. Unfortunately I have also had the experience that conservatory committees tend to be impatient in this respect. There is so much one would like to say about conservatory committees.
George Bland, the tragic hero in W. Somerset Maugham’s short story The Alien Corn, studies piano for two years in Munich and, after returning to London, plays for Lea Markart, “the greatest women pianist in Europe.” The narrator gives his impression of George’s playing, “I felt that he missed what to me is the peculiar charm of Chopin…and again I had the vague sensation, so slight that it almost escaped me, that the two hands did not quite synchronize.” Asked whether she thought that George could become a concert pianist, Lea Markart answers, “not in a thousand years.” George shoots himself.
I always found this story fascinating but lacking in crucial detail. Has Somerset Maugham heard someone play the piano who had coordination problems, or did he invent these details in order to add verisimilitude to his plot? Naturally, if you have coordination issues, you may indeed arrive at interpretations that are lacking in “peculiar charm” as well – but is it truly not possible ‘in a thousand years’ to improve these things? Is it really likely that the great pianist would not offer any advice to help young George to overcome these problems? Of course there is a story behind my interest in this mini drama: after a few lessons, one of my earlier teachers commented – in a beautiful lack of logical consistency – on the imperfect coordination of my hands: in his long teaching practice he had never encountered a problem like this, he said, and according to his long experience, this particular technical imperfection could never be solved.
It is certainly possible to improve the coordination between the hands. The first skill to develop is, naturally, to be able to hear what’s wrong (since we tend to get accustomed to our shortcomings, this is no easy task, but not my main topic here). Then we can begin to analyze those moments where the coordination is imperfect. These are most likely spots where one hand has to join the other; where one hand plays a dotted rhythm against fast notes in the other hand; where one hand has embellishments and the other a regular figuration; where both hands have a movement in the same note values but very different figurations, such as a melody against an Alberti bass; polyrhythmic passages.
The problem of polyrhythmics is special, and I will not discuss it here (one trick is to listen to the compound rhythm instead of listening horizontally). I am interested in those figurations where one hand must react to what the other hand just did, or join the other hand, or where one hand makes movements that distract the other hand.
Consider, for example, the gigue of the first partita by J.S. Bach. The triplet figurations throughout the piece are divided into a downbeat quarter played by one hand, and two pick-up eights played by the other. To judge from the stem up – stem down notation it is clear that Bach intended the right hand to play the strong beats and the left hand to play the pick-up eighths. Curiously, the fingering in the well-known edition that I am using inverts this distribution – a good opportunity to test which of the two feels better. You will notice that it feels more natural to let your dominant hand, whichever it is, play the strong beats and to let the non dominant hand play the pickup notes. You will have an easier time achieving a regular exchange and the piece will feel technically less awkward. In other words, the coordination between the hands (in this example: their exchange) is easier to achieve when the dominant hand leads.
The true problem arises when there is no such choice, or when the non dominant hand for some reason tries to take over the responsibility. In my experience this happens typically when the dominant hand has pickup notes or second offbeat entries or is otherwise, for musical reasons, soft or subdued. Turned around, these can be passages where the non dominant hand has to perform strong rhythmic impulses, a technically challenging part or a very exposed melody.
My solution for such instances is to think of the dominant hand with its fragmented, subdued or offbeat part as second violin or viola player in an orchestra. It is a matter of professional pride and dedication for these players to give accompanying voices the very character they require, even if this character should be soft and, in the hierarchy of the score, secondary. The dominant hand must learn to perform such secondary tasks with true authority – not loud and belligerently, but precisely according to specifications. In this fashion we (“we” being, of course, our dominant hand) can learn to jump in onto an ongoing line in the non-dominant hand with utter precision, yet without making the slightest accent. In this fashion, we can leisurely but precisely accompany the virtuosic stunts of our non-dominant hand, rather than as brain dead and clunky followers. Most coordination issues are nothing else than a failure to acknowledge the importance of the dominant hand even in moments where it, as we tend to think, “has nothing to do.”