balance of the hands II

Part II of V about handedness and keyboard technique

The ideal of balance between the hands of a keyboard player was clearly not at all the most likely historical cause of why the standard keyboard developed as it did, with the treble at the right-hand side. To be sure, speaking as a historian, that cause can never be definitely stated. The development of keyboard instruments took a long period and most of the remainders of its early stages are lost. And even if they were not – surviving artifacts rarely disclose their most important secret: why their inventors made them as they did.

The only valid statement about the mechanics behind the development of the modern keyboard layout is, hence, one about correlations: the majority of people is right-handed; keyboard instruments have the treble at the right-hand side. This layout enables musicians of a statistically dominant group to create music especially well that features one specific important musical element: melody lines in a well-carrying register.

In spite of this likely reason for the treble being at the right-hand side of the keyboard, keyboard composers from very early on (such as Byrd, Bull, Sweelinck or Frescobaldi, to name but a few) were apparently especially interested in exploiting the virtuosic potential of both hands. In the polyphonic tradition, an equal share of responsibility of the voices is a prerequisite in any case. In real music, the keyboard’s lopsided layout turned out not to be its most important feature at all. On the contrary, it was the potential of allowing for a wide range of playing approaches that became characteristic of the keyboard. One can use the keyboard in an ambidextrous manner if one chooses to; one can emphasize a virtuosic left hand passage; one can lose oneself in expressive right-hand melodies. So this is how we arrive at the requirement of balance.

The fact that human handedness, unlike the many possible uses of the potential of the keyboard, is not a matter of choice informs our techniques of learning to gain a balance between the hands. As said before, balance is a learned skill; it might overlay the natural handedness but it does not replace it; some people learn it better than others.

Learning is greatly helped by a stress-free environment and by positive motivation. This implies that bullying the non-dominant piano hand into the limelight is not an appropriate strategy. In this light, it is doubtful whether the existence of special studies for the left hand, like the ones by Brahms and Godowsky, are very helpful tools for the average (that is: right-handed) pianist at all. My idea is that one has to fully accept and to understand one’s handedness as much as possible in order to arrive at practicing strategies that help the non-dominant hand to do a good job. Paradoxically, balance between the hands requires that we accept one hand as the boss and the other as the follower.


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