balance of the hands III

Part III of V about handedness and keyboard technique

I came to acknowledge the potential of my dominant hand in keyboard playing through an accident. I am posting all this partly so that others won’t need to repeat the trick I played on myself. One day, early on in my studies, in a period where I fought to overcome some invisible technical barriers through a fierce practicing routine, I got up at six in the morning and fetched breakfast. The idea was to start with my exercises at seven sharp, together with the wakeup chorus of Czerny and Clementi produced by the pianists elsewhere in the dormitory. At a quarter past six, I tried to cut the crust off a bit of elderly Gouda cheese, using a cheese plane. At 6:15:30 I was running for my medicine box: the plane had slipped and I had chipped off two of my finger tops – moderately enough not to need a doctor; thoroughly enough – as it turned out – not to be able to play with that hand – my non-dominant hand – for a month (I will stick to the terms dominant hand and non-dominant hand in order to make it easy for both right-handed and left-handed readers to wade through my text). I stopped the blood flow and kept myself from fainting, cleaned up the mess, had a quiet hour of self-contemplation, canceled my harpsichord lesson and returned to eating cheese. There is nothing so upsetting as an interrupted routine.

Suddenly I was faced with a period of not being able to practice as I thought I should. Quite a frustrating prospect really. I threw myself at all my pieces and doggedly practiced only one hand: my dominant hand.

Couperin (L’Art de toucher Le Clavecin p. 13) observes that the hand that does most of the daily work is less supple (as well as the hands of people who do a lot of work with their hands). However, as I soon learned, the dominant hand is great at finding its way about the keyboard; at musical expression; at rhythm. It serves as a secure base for sight-reading and it is faster at learning. Its, let’s call it ‘intelligence’ outweighs its possible stiffness by far. My single-handed practice period soon became a phase of joy. I was able to sit down at the keyboard any time without that dull feeling of having to drag a drowsy giant along a beach of knuckle-deep soft sand that a normal morning of technical study otherwise induced. No trace of my usual urge for a coffee break after five, and a hot shower after ten minutes. None of the fiddly unrest of the mind when I failed to solve a tricky passage, or when I started messing up my five-finger-exercises after the seventh chromatic shift.

I came out of this experience with a few technical issues solidly solved and a greatly improved overall technical security. However, it took me many more years to realize what I had done during these weeks, and why it had been so successful – this brought me belatedly to a re-organization of my daily practice routine and, hence, to writing some posts about all this.

So what was new – what had I done wrong earlier?
– One of the common characteristics of any of the exercises that any of my teachers had given me to that date is that they are to be performed with both hands simultaneously. Some were built up so that the hands moved mirrored, most of them would send the hands across the keyboard in parallel movement.
– Many of the pieces of music that my teachers deemed to be best suited for my technical development were, small wonder, taken out of the educational bucket of Bach’s output. One of the common characteristics of these pieces is that they ask for an equal level of activity in all the voices.

I was using this material according to specifications: as a massive program for exercising the hands together. In other words, I tried to work my way towards the goal of technical achievement by taking the balance of the hands as a point of departure. This is wrong: it denies the actual nature of handedness. The balance has first to be achieved; it stands at the end of a development.

I am taking care in this description to avoid blaming my teachers. Why? Because our mis-interpretation of what handedness can do happens not at the assignment level, but when we try to realize the assignments: in the practice studio. It is our own responsibility, or chance, to make use of our handedness in an appropriate fashion. Let’s give some examples.

1) The beginning of a practice day.

To be sure, if you are truly comfortable beginning your daily study with both hands, there is no call for special attention here. It is, however, likely that you are not. The typical feeling  of plodding along until the first break is a clear sign that something is amiss. Physically, to sit behind a keyboard instrument and move one’s fingers isn’t all that demanding, so what plods here is actually our brains.

I want to begin my practice day with an open and friction-free mind. I begin by playing a few exercises only with my dominant hand. Sometimes I warm up in this fashion for only a few minutes, sometimes I would play half an hour or more with this one hand only – this greatly depends on my mood. You can test the difference yourself. Begin one practice day in the fashion I just described and write down how you experience your mood, your concentration and your playing on that occasion. Begin the next practice day with your non-dominant hand, and take care to do the same kind of exercises for the same length of time. You will very probably have a higher level of restlessness and unease, be more irritable and at the end you will not have the feeling of truly being warmed up for the rest of your practicing day.

After this introduction of playing around with my ‘good’ hand, I proceed to two-hand exercises, such as five-finger exercises, scales or broken chords. Usually, the dominant hand guides the non-dominant hand along well enough. Sometimes, if something feels awkward at first, I might relapse into the previous single-hand mode. Sometimes, too, I risk sorting out a specific awkwardness or problem with the non-dominant hand alone. What is paramount in all this is that, while I try to guide my non-dominant hand so it performs everything just as well as the dominant one, I do not try to change its basic character. In all two-hand exercises, I try to realize two main things: regularity and freedom of movement in both hands, and the clear manifestation (great term here) that my dominant hand is the mentor – the stronger character, so to speak – of the two.

2) Preparing new pieces.

I begin new pieces by working out a complete fingering of the complex moments. I don’t want to waste time later on with major revisions, and it makes my learning a lot easier all the way along. I admit that I have a quick intuition for harmony and structure, so I usually spend little time analyzing a piece.

There are many pieces where I now can break down the action by attacking more difficult passages in bits and putting the whole together again later. One maddening exception that tends to frustrate this approach is the two-part- or three-part-invention-type of piece or passage. Absurdly easy to listen to in most cases (in comparison to the difficulty of playing it), this sort of structure forces the player to listen horizontally most of the time, and it typically employs the same kind of material in both hands. In such pieces I practice one hand at a time during the first day or two. This may seem silly, but it gives a lot of extra security later on. I have heard some of the absolutely foremost pianists of our time get muddled in the two-part pieces of Bach’s c-minor and a minor partitas. No practicing approach that effectively helps to reduce such a risk can be called too basic.

I begin by working out the whole piece with my dominant hand, then I practice the other hand. When putting the parts together I constantly make sure that my attention does not totally get absorbed by the problems my non-dominant hand might have. Most of the time, the technical problems of one line alone are anyway not too hair-raising. It is the coordination of the parts that takes sorting out.


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