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I started taking piano lessons about 7 years ago, and stopped about 2 years ago when my teacher (the one and only piano teacher I've had) quit.

In all honesty, my piano has been severely neglected without the obligation to practice during the past 2 years. I'd love to be able to sit down at a piano and freeze everyone in a room (who wouldn't?), but I have a big problem with limb/hand independence.

Essentially, I can play swift arpeggios and all kinds of fancy stuff with my right hand alone. The same is true of my left hand, but with a slight drop in speed and accuracy. If you give me a one-stave track, I can have it down in no time. Have me play hands together, and we've got a massive, and I mean massive problem.

I have no hand independence at all. I can't play quarter notes on my left hand while playing an eighth note melody with occasional rests on my right hand - whatever my right hand is doing, my left hand has to be relevant to - and the unfortunate part is, a good 80% of music (100% of the level of songs I'd like to learn) doesn't give me that luxury.

How can I improve this skill quickly and/or efficiently? I'd love to get back up on my feet again and learn new pieces, but this is inhibiting me terribly. Thanks!

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I'm afraid there's no quick fix to this problem. It only comes through hard training. But there are of course certain things you should pay attention to. Also, if you think that just having independence of the hands is enough, think again, you should aim at having independence of every single finger. –  Raskolnikov Jun 17 '11 at 9:52
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Have you thought about finding a new teacher? –  rshallit Jun 17 '11 at 14:39
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7 Answers

up vote 28 down vote accepted

Try Bach's Two Part Inventions. They were titled by Bach: "Honest method, by which the amateurs of the keyboard – especially, however, those desirous of learning – are shown a clear way not only (1) to learn to play cleanly in two parts, but also, after further progress, (2) to handle three obligate parts correctly and well; and along with this not only to obtain good inventions (ideas) but to develop the same well; above all, however, to achieve a cantabile style in playing and at the same time acquire a strong foretaste of composition." There are fifteen 2 part inventions and 15 three part inventions. In working through the two part inventions, myself, I found that I had developed hand indepence and learned some beatiful songs in the process. You can get the scores at IMSLP. Good luck.

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Thanks for the answer and the great resource, I'll check it out –  Dalton A. Jun 17 '11 at 20:30
    
That's awesome. –  Matthew Read Jun 17 '11 at 23:14
    
+1, this is a great answer. –  Joseph Weissman Jun 18 '11 at 17:45
    
I've been teaching myself piano recently and started trying the Inventions. Good to know I'm on the right track. –  Rei Miyasaka Jun 23 '11 at 19:24
    
You've hit the bull's eye! +1 for inventions and also go on and learn the sinfonias. Great answer! –  gigahari Jul 29 '12 at 11:27
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I have found that learning to play polyrhythms such as 7 over 5, etc. allowed me to gain independence of hands. But it took me several years to achieve it. I am able to quite easily do rubato passages and improvise as well.

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The issue you're describing is one of the most challenging and important aspects of learning to play the Piano: the differentiation of the hands.

At the root, this is a brain/coordination issue and it's directly related to the type and amount (think: throughput) of coordination the brain has to 'process.' Consider how difficult most people find it to do the old "pat your head while you rub your tummy" (and then SWAP the two actions) routine. I still find that coordination brain-teaser hard to do!

It's true that greater playing experience over time helps generally, but most of us need something more specific and concrete than that. What I usually recommend is to tackle a challenging hand-differentiation task by breaking it down into smaller, intermediate steps first, and then combining those smaller steps slowly and systematically until the larger, composite hand-differentiation skill is built up and achieved. The secret is breaking down the composite task into SMALL ENOUGH sub-tasks and practicing just those first, until the brain can manage them individually.

College music majors typically do exercises in their sight-singing/ear training classes wherein one aspect of musical performance is isolated from all the other aspects—i.e., they perform an intermediate step that easier to achieve. For example, students will perform or transcribe rhythm patterns without any pitch involved. They will also sing or notate arhythmic pitch patterns that are divorced from any sort of meter or regular rhythmic patterning. Leaving out either pitch or rhythm cuts the job down to about half for the brain.

As a Pianist, you already know that you can practice the hands separately, and you can also temporarily make the tempo as slow as you wish during practice in order to consciously sort out the hand (and occasionally foot) maneuvers required for a piece. What I'd suggest here is trimming down the playing of a difficult passage in some piece to INDIVIDUAL hand maneuvers (as necessary), or to PAIRS of Left/Right hand maneuevers, in isolation from the rest of the piece. If necessary, don't even worry about trying to do the rhythm—just the correct SEQUENCE of the hand maneuvers is what matters initially, and not their timing in a rhythmic context.

This is, again, primarily a matter of brain-training of coordination. For example, many Pianists have trouble making a (phrase or other articulative) 'break' with one hand while playing legato (no break) in the other hand. This is because our brains naturally want to MATCH what both hands are doing rather than DIFFERENTIATING them to do separate tasks. Most of us fail to conquer at least some of these coordination difficulties because we overdrive our brain's ability to 'sort it all out' in real time as we try to read and play the music (over and over again). So, again, I suggest: Simplify the task to the point where you can't get it wrong! That way you'll end up practicing complete success rather than just partial success.

For example: If, say, your Right Hand has to lift off a note at the end of a phrase to create the proper phrase break but your Left Hand has to continue playing legato (no lift/no break) you're faced with a 'pat the head but rub the tummy' sort of problem. To let your brain FEEL what the proper hand maneuvers are for that passage so that it can discern them by 'feel' and replicate them later (correctly) when you replay the same passage again next time, you have to be KIND to your brain and simplify the task down to its most basic challenge. For me, this often means: DISCARD THE RHYTHM ENTIRELY! And it also often means: Don't bother playing the entire BEGINNING of the phrase—which consumes some of your brainpower and attention—because the problem occurs at the END of the phrase, where the Right Hand has to lift off the keys to create the phrase break but the Left Hand has to remain down on its key(s).

And so what you do is: (1) Forgetting about rhythm temporarily, play the notes in both hands at that particular spot and then do JUST THIS ONE THING: (2) Lift the Right Hand off its final phrase note and hold it up off the key(s) while the Left Hand stays down on its key(s). Then (3) FREEZE and HOLD that position for a moment so your brain can 'record' the sensation of the proper hand being up while the other hand remains down. Then do the same thing 1-3 more times until you're comfortable with the maneuver. When that maneuver is comfortable, then tack on JUST ONE previous note in either hand so that your brain feels the transition from the previous note to the newly learned maneuver. It's not important yet to play everything in proper rhythm, but only to practice the proper sequence of correct hand maneuvers.

Eventually, tack on the NEXT note in each hand—but only one hand at a time—so that you 'attach' the newly learned maneuver to the notes both immediately preceding and immediately following it. In this way you can gradually 'stitch' the difficult maneuver back into its original musical context and play the music, successfully, in rhythm. Just reinstate the rhythm in small enough increments that you can cope with it on top of the maneuver sequence you've been been practicing.

The key to everything is: CONSTRUCT INTERMEDIATE STEPS that are small enough that you CAN'T GET IT WRONG, and practice those first. Then 'glue' those steps back together into the larger musical context. Remember that you can temporarily jettison rhythm and dynamics altogether if you need to while you work on the basic 'Right Hand goes UP while Left Hand STAYS DOWN' maneuver. Find the reduced level of complication where your brain CAN sort out everything it has to do correctly and then practice THAT sequence of maneuvers a few times before tacking on more music before/after the troublesome spot.

In the long run you should end up spending LESS practice time learning a piece this way, because you're practicing SUCCESS rather than hit-and-miss-through-brute-repetition. Bottom line: Just BE KIND TO YOUR BRAIN.

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You mentioned mixing quarter notes one one hand with 16ths on the other, but not in a constant stream. When I started learning drums I found a similar issue to this, where my mind was using the consistant 8ths on the hi hat as the driving rhythm, so slipping in 16ths on kick or snare made everything go wibbly. The trick to that was counting in 16ths (1 e and a 2 e and a...) so that the tricky notes were easy to hit and the pulse of the tune was not actually counting it. Something like that may help, at least until you mix in triplets ;)

Combine this with playing slow and building up speed as mentioned by Matthew Read's post. Getting it right is always more important than getting it quick. Speed comes with practice, practice it wrong and you'll get really fast at playing wrong.

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My piano teacher made me play scales unisono with both hands over two octaves forward and backward, but with a twist: play one hand straight and the other one syncopated. Then the other way around. In itself it may seem boring but at the time it was a real challenge.

Also, we used Bartok's Mikrokosmos mainly. Many pieces in it seem to be targeted at excercising independence of left and right hand. Listen here and esp. the first two pieces here from the beginner level book II. Mikrokosmos is fun to play and it's great music, too.

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I'll check it out, thanks for sharing your experiences and examples. –  Dalton A. Jun 17 '11 at 20:28
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Another method is to slow the piece way down. Anyone and everyone can play independently if it's slow enough. Hammer it into your brain at a slow speed, and then gradually speed up. When you run into problems, back up to where you had none.

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I like that concept. Thanks for the tip! –  Dalton A. Jun 17 '11 at 20:31
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+1 This is how I do it. In fact since I don't read music, that's how I learn most difficult parts. –  Lee Kowalkowski Mar 11 at 14:13
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One exercise that my jazz teacher had advised us to do in order to develop independence was to try and play something using either hand, and slowly moving your other hand at the same time (not in order to play, but just moving it up and down the keyboard, moving things around you, ...). This can be useful on its own, but also when trying to master new pieces -- learning a bass line until you no longer have to pay attention to what you are doing, for instance.

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Thanks for the tip! –  Dalton A. Jun 17 '11 at 20:30
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