Why Hands Together Doesn’t Work

practicing technique Jul 24, 2016

Playing hands together instead of hands separately is always a challenge. But why should it be so much more difficult? And what are the best strategies to use to make it work?

Picture the best multi-tasker you know.

This is the person who never says “no” to a project or a request, appearing to keep all the balls miraculously in the air, juggling phone calls, emails, family obligations and committee meetings with magical dexterity. He or she makes fund-raising calls while riding the exercise bike at the gym and learns Chinese while driving the car pool.

Of course, we have learned that true multi-tasking is a myth.  We don’t do those tasks at the same time; we actually switch between them, sometimes at a freakishly fast tempo. According to Guy Winch, Ph.D, the author of Emotional First Aid, our brains only have so much attention and focus that can be assigned at one time.

And what is true for multi-tasking is similarly true for hands together playing. (Note: I am discussing hands together playing as it applies to harpists and keyboard instrument players, but other musicians are welcome to listen in.) It’s less about doing so many things at once as it is about putting your attention in the proper place at the proper time.

Playing one hand, one line of music by itself involves a lot of mental processing. We read the notes, recognize the rhythms, attend to the other information on the page, and then we translate that into movement and sound, while responding to what we hear and adapting our movements accordingly. And that’s just for starters.

Add another hand with the same types of considerations and you don’t merely double the workload. You also add a third layer of complexity, one that corresponds to the balance between the hands in terms of timing, coordination, volume and expression.

This added complication will reveal any weakness you have in the two critical areas of music learning: technique and musicianship. Your technical strength or weakness will show particularly in the independence of your hands and fingers. Your musicianship is tested in your note reading skills, requiring equal fluency in treble and bass clefs, and your rhythm skills.

While this seems a rather daunting level of skill to attain, the good news is that working on hands together playing will actually help you develop the skills you need to improve both of these areas, provided that you utilize a practice plan that allows you to stay clear and concentrated on four specific areas: fingers, reading, attention and focus. When you are attempting to put a passage hands together and having difficulty, these are the areas to investigate. Exactly where are the challenges in that passage? What skills will require extra effort and practice time to make that passage work?

The practice suggestions below are most effective if you work in sections of no more than four bars at a time. Try them out on a tricky hands together passage.

Hands Together: Fingers

This is the first area to investigate. Your fingers must be able to play the notes with the correct fingering at the proper speed. Start by making certain that you can play each hand fairly well on its own. Any technical difficulties you are having hands separately will be magnified when you put hands together.

Try to achieve some speed with each hand alone. How close to your goal tempo can you get? You won’t be able to play hands together faster than you can play each hand alone.

You don’t need to achieve total security with each hand before you put hands together. In fact, I always recommend doing some hands together work from the very beginning of learning a piece. Working only hands separately and then beginning hands together work is too long and slow a process. Hands together helps you move faster toward playing the music.

Hands Together: Reading

Do you know the notes you are trying to play? The best practice technique I know to help with hands together learning is to say one, play one: say the names of the notes of the right hand line while playing the left hand alone and vice versa. This technique also is a powerful intermediate step between playing hands separately and playing hands together.

If that is too difficult at first, try saying the names of the notes as you do your hands separately practice. Play the right hand alone and name the notes as you play; repeat the process with the left hand. It’s worth the effort – I promise.

Hands Together: Attention

Hands together is in part knowing where to look and when to look there. Try playing hands together slowly, reading each beat from the bottom up, in other words, left hand before right hand. Then reverse the process, reading right hand before left hand. Notice where you need to remind yourself of important things, for instance, which finger to place where or which pedal to push. This is one way to decide what will work fairly automatically and what still needs your conscious attention.

Hands Together: Focus

Don’t just play your passage repeatedly, hoping for improvement. Focus on exactly where the problems are. Play your passage in chunks of two beats at a time. Learning the passage in these discrete chunks will help you discern the gaps in your knowledge or technical proficiency. Then you can try three beats at a time, or combine your chunks of two beats together into four beat sections.

Lastly, remember that this process, like most others, is not an “accidental” one. With mental focus and attention in your practice, you can achieve the results you want: to play the music well so you can enjoy it. So while your practice may be focused on the nitty gritty details, keep your ears and your imagination fixed on the musical whole.

Let your fingers do the multitasking; let your music be your focus.

Note: I have a YouTube video which covers some of these aspects of hands together playing in a different way. You will find it on my YouTube Channel. (And I would appreciate it if you would subscribe to my channel while you're there - thanks!)


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