3 Strategies for Left Hand Fluency

I used to envy harpists who were left handed.

I figured that being left handed would mean your left hand would be more coordinated at the harp. As it turns out, I was wrong.

Harp playing requires dexterity in both hands, but the more we play, the more our hands become specialists. Our right hand specializes in playing melodies fluidly and evenly. The right thumb learns to dominate when needed to project the melody notes. The right hand often encounters convoluted passages with intricate fingering and over time learns to negotiate them fluently.

Our left hand develops the strength and dependability we need for solid, steady bass lines and accompaniments. Where the right hand fingers often play close together, the left hand plays wider spacings like octaves or tenths. The left fourth finger becomes quite strong from playing the thicker strings with clarity and depth. Our left hands stretch and strum; our right hands are more nimble and flexible.

The division of musical labor between the hands works well 90% of the time.  For the other 10%, the times when your left hand has to play the melody or keep up with the right hand’s technical ability, we feel the lack of left hand facility. We tend to blame our left hand for being uncoordinated, but it’s really just a matter of training.

A sluggish left hand will hold you back technically and musically. You may find it difficult to get your pieces up to tempo, for example. A more agile left hand will give you more fingering options, help your hands sound more equal and open a world of more musically interesting pieces to you. In fact, developing your left hand facility is one way to move your skills up a level.

I recommend three simple strategies for stepping up your left hand fluency. All of them use the same simple principle: have your left hand play the same things as your right hand.

  1.  Play your scales and arpeggios with each hand separately. Hands together technical practice is efficient and time-saving but hands separately practice will show you where the weaknesses are. When you see it or hear it or feel it, you can fix it. 
  2.       Make sure your daily exercises or etudes work both hands equally. Many exercise books, particularly those written by the nineteenth century masters, tend to emphasize developing the right hand. Even modern books often write the exercises in treble clef only with a footnote reminder to play them also in your left hand one octave lower. Carl Swanson addresses this problem with his book Bochsa Revisited, extending some of Bochsa’s famous etudes to work the hands more equally. I also am a fan of the Warm Ups in Yolanda KJondonassis’s book On Playing the Harp.
  3.       Play the right hand line with your left hand. Why should your right hand have all the fun? Choose any right hand melody passage. Play it first hands together, with your left hand playing the same thing as your right hand but one octave lower. Then play the melody with your left hand alone. Try to make your left hand as melodic and smooth as your right hand would be. You may even find that your right hand will improve too as it models “good behavior” for your left hand.  

By the way, I still envy left handed harpists just a little. They don’t have to put the harp down to mark their music!


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