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At my piano lesson yesterday, my playing was OK hands together, but when directed to play hands separately to improve my playing (of course), I didn't know it well enough, and I have struggled today and feel less confident. Is this normal? My teacher is excellent. I started piano aged 56 just over 3 years ago, and I love it.

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  • By "separately" do you mean "with a far distance apart", or do you mean "independently of each other" (out of sync)? If you mean the latter, I can tell you it's pretty darn normal for kids too.
    – user541686
    Mar 29 at 4:06
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    @user541686 I understood "separately" as "playing only one hand, then only the other hand".
    – Arsak
    Mar 29 at 9:33
  • I gave up after a few months trying piano but still, struggling to play hands separately sounds exactly what you should expect. In this respect, playing any instrument is like most others, or driving a car… however comfortable either hand is by itself, or both together, any change should be expected to make everything more difficult. Luckily, once that difficulty is overcome, go back and the original combination should be more comfortable; perhaps much more… Mar 29 at 18:46
  • Perhaps your teacher was trying to make the point that you should learn the parts for each hand independently before putting them together. Mar 30 at 1:41
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    I can walk using both legs together but not separately...
    – TonyK
    Mar 30 at 10:35
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When learning a piece on piano, our bodies -- especially our fingers, hands, and arms -- learn the "feel" of the piece. This is called "muscle memory".

It sounds like your muscle memory relies on both hands being played together. So, when you tried to play hands separately, that disrupted your memory, and the piece did not "feel" right to your body.

One common strategy for practicing the piano is to intentionally disrupt our muscle memory, which reinforces our overall understanding of the music. Playing hands separately can be one way to do this. It's also common to change the rhythm of the music when practicing. I sometimes like to play hands separately, but reverse the hands: so, my right hand plays the left-hand part, and then separately, my left hand plays the right-hand part. Transposing a piece to a different key is another, often very challenging, way to disrupt our muscle memory.

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Your teacher isn't likely to have broken it down to separate hands just to polish the performance. I guess you weren't playing it THAT 'OK' hands together! Sounds like you were getting through it, but with some elements missing.

Perhaps you needed to go back to actually READING the music. I know the feeling!

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I’ve recently begun to think that the direction to “play together, then play hands separately” can more often be odd and mistaken than helpful. To be sure, it can be helpful, but without proper context, it’s just… confusing. After all, isn’t most piano music written to assume that the musician will be using both hands?

So, while I would not discount your teacher’s advice altogether, I would say, take the instruction to practice hands separately with at least a little grain of salt.

Now, how can you become better with practicing “hands separately”? Is it normal to feel discouraged when messing up while trying it? It can be normal, sure. It’s a human reaction. But one good way to not feel discouraged is — you guessed it — practicing at becoming better! So again: how can you become better?

At least one way is to trick yourself (temporarily) into believing that piano music is only for one hand or the other. For instance, you could try this:

Initial easy rhythm, LH alone

Easy enough left hand pattern. You could practice this several times until you feel comfortable enough to do it in your sleep. Next, add a right-hand pat to your leg, or to the top of your piano, or somewhere:

Adding a RH constant rhythm

Again, it’s a constant rhythm in your right hand here just to keep some balance between hands. Your left hand doesn’t change at all — it still sounds the same as it did in the earlier example. You just have added something for your right hand to do. Finally, you could turn that “(pat)” into a chord:

Making both hands play music

So as you have noticed, this is somewhat going in reverse from your question: it’s taking two hands separately and working them back into playing together. However, there’s nothing stopping you from attempting something like this by starting with a piece for two hands and dropping one out:

Now, dropping LH to only RH

And, finally, once you are comfortable with the pat in the left hand and the chord in the right, you can remove the left hand entirely:

Now, right hand only

At this point, hopefully you’re used to the idea (and feeling) that you can play something on the piano with just one hand.

Obviously, this is a pretty simple example, and piano music can become much more complicated. But practicing the concept of playing hands alone or hands separately need not be so complex. There is plenty of excellent musical room for excelling at both hands working together as one fluid motion (say, Romantic era) and for excelling at one hand churning along as its own machine while the other does its own thing (say, ragtime).

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  • I think in difficult passages, the conscious brain has to focus, usually on the technically hardest part (e.g. the fast runs in the right hand). But by practicing a passage a lot, you're also practicing where to focus-- so it will be VERY hard to shift your focus. I try to break this up in a variety of ways-- separating hands, but ALSO: looking around the room, singing the alphabet song, focusing on my breathing instead of my hands, etc. etc. etc. Mar 29 at 11:15
  • Violinists often learn to hold the bow alone before touching the instrument, and beyond the beginner stages, often practice bowstrokes separately from fingerings. Brass and woodwind players practice their embouchure. Physical isolation aids in mastery. Besides that, there can be musical reasons to separate the hands, for example to learn the independent voices in contrapuntal textures. Mar 30 at 21:41
  • I like -- and use -- the approach. But, FYI, trumpet players routinely practice mouthpiece only.
    – Aaron
    Mar 31 at 4:57
  • Thanks for the input. I updated the answer to remove the section that was ancillary and not cogent.
    – Neal
    Mar 31 at 11:16
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Learning is context-related. For example, if you study in your bedroom with music on, then go do the test, it's possible that you might have a hard time remembering.

Playing hands-separate is unusual for pianists. It seems your brain is taking timing and other memory cues from both hands together.

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    Playing separate hands is very common when learning a piece. Mar 30 at 12:01
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Learning how to practice effectively is an important part of learning an instrument.

So many people just play through a piece of music as best they can and hope that they will get better with repetition. But if you do this then you are just 'practicing your mistakes'.

To get better you need to avoid making those mistakes in the first place.

This probably sounds impossible to achieve, but there are a few things that you can do:

  1. Find a speed slow enough that you have time to think about everything you are playing and can avoid all mistakes. Sometimes this seems ludicrously slow, but as you practice you will gradually be able to speed it up and still make no mistakes.
  2. (On piano) play just one hand at a time so that you have less to think about. This seems to be what your teacher is suggesting.
  3. Break the piece down into short sections and practice them separately.

Like Laurence said in another answer, you probably weren't playing all that accurately, which is why your teacher suggested hands separately.

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