balance of the hands IV

Part IV of V about handedness and keyboard technique

3) Learning complex passages in two hands

How do we practice a complex passage that involves both hands? I am thinking of technical writing such as in bars 60-64 in the Gigue of Bach’s fifth partita. Trying to approach such passages while comfortably relying on our dominant hand will lead us nowhere. I prepare this kind of music by first establishing in detail how both hands have to interact and trying to practice away any jerky or panicky arm or finger movement at about half tempo. Now I make extra sure that my dominant hand knows exactly where it has to go and what it has to do – increasing the security here can be compared with establishing anchor points, with memorizing the moments when the balance within the hand is perfect or, in short, with giving that hand extra authority. Now I can begin to work with the non-dominant hand, focussing on two things: agility and coordination. By first ‘grounding’ the dominant hand, I give freedom to the non-dominant hand, and eventually the passage emerges as secure and repeatable.

This concept of creating a technical center is especially helpful if one has concentration issues in performance, because it helps to focus the mind on concrete matters. We don’t stumble into a passage with the music and the choreography only vaguely in our head; we have formulated and practiced a precise manner of focusing on our movement.

4 ) Learning passages where the non-dominant hand has most of the work

The idea that the dominant hand needs to serve as a technical center does not necessarily mean that it needs to have a high level of activity. A typical moment where, for a right-handed person, the dominant hand can act as a technical anchor to enable the non-dominant left hand to do its virtuoso stuff is the beginning of the finale of Bach’s fifth Brandenburg concerto. Of course, the left hand has to be coaxed into being able to play those runs a tempo, and this is likely to take some time and energy. Nevertheless, the whole set of passages gains considerably in stability if one works out the right, dominant, hand in overly meticulous detail, so that it can serve as a source of security throughout. Given the nature of much of the repertoire, left-handed players encounter such instances – where they have to make the left hand the center while the right hand does ‘all the work’ – much more frequently than right-handed players. It is worth every minute to devise a useful personal strategy for these cases.

5) Learning passages where the dominant hand rests while the non-dominant hand has all the work.

One of the stupidest blunders – for left-handed pianists – in the history of music editing was when the continuo lines were taken out of the solo parts of classical piano concertos. All of a sudden, Mozart’s concertos became a predominantly right-handed enterprise; whole lines have to be played right-hand-only, with the left hand suspended in mid air, making geeky and hapless conducting movements. Fortunately, modern critical editions have corrected this madness. There nevertheless exist many moments in the literature where one hand gets to do all the work while the other one is resting.

If the non-dominant hand has such a solo, what should one do? Evidently, the only sensible basic solution is to practice until the problem is mastered; but in doing this we have to observe our approach especially closely. If we try to convince our non-dominant hand to do something demanding, it is, for example, not a good idea at all to become impatient. I am left-handed, and I have performed Mozart concertos – I know very well what I am talking about. As soon as you try to force yourself with the non-dominant hand through a fiddly problem passage, you prepare yourself for an inevitable crash in concert. There are three main strategies to prevent this to happen. The first is, obviously, utter patience. The second is to try to divide a non-dominant-hand-passage as much as possible between the hands. Many of Bach’s concertos, for example, contain runs that can be divided in this fashion. The third method is to let the dominant hand be the teacher.

The key word here is mirroring. The keyboard’s layout is, as everyone knows, symmetrical at two points, d and a-flat. By observing these two points, the dominant hand can technically mirror a complex passage of the non-dominant hand, and teach the latter how to move most effectively, where to rest, pivot and balance, and how to speed the passage up. To be sure, such exercises are no pleasure to listen to, but they are highly effective and have solved many problems for me.

All these examples are intended as no more than a sketch of why handedness needs to be taken into account by the player, and how handedness can be exploited in a constructive way in keyboard practicing. In Western pedagogy we are trained to try to run at barriers head-first. When we notice that using our non-dominant hand at the keyboard creates an uneasy feeling, we automatically try harder to conquer the very thing that causes the insecurity. Keyboard playing doesn’t work that way; it should instead be based on the realization that it is unnatural to make the non-dominant hand a leader and that it is nonsense to believe that it can make a good leader. To believe otherwise would be against nature and it would obstruct our very goal: a flexible and secure playing technique.

Why? Because hand dominance is nature’s solution to the problem that two equally dominant brain halves would, in an emergency where quick and precise reactions are required, risk giving conflicting commands, thus effectively slowing down the execution of either of these commands. One clear command is followed up quicker than two conflicting ones. If we aim at equalizing and balancing the performance of our hands, we should not give up this given command structure in our head, or our access to smart technical solutions will slow down.

Performing a concert is often some kind of ’emergency’. We produce an extra dose of adrenaline, to a certain extent we are afraid and we try to solve our problems while we, so to speak, are running. This is the one typical situation where the quickness and precision of our reactions is most appreciated. It would be utterly stupid to cast away the brain’s natural manner of dealing with such a situation.



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