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As a new piano player I find the entire concept of doing two separate things at once massively challenging. Even when both parts are incredibly simple and I can sight-read both lines mentally easily, I start playing and my hands just "lock up". Even playing a simple 3 note repeating pattern (like a chord triad 1-2-3-1-2-3) with my left hand, the moment I try and play any different rhythm with my right, it all falls apart. As someone who is used to learning stuff easily, this is a strange concept. I can almost stand outside my own brain and watch all the gears grind to a halt at the simplest thing.

This isn't a question about how to get better at playing but about how it works. Does my brain really learn how to do two things at once or as I learn piano, does my brain understand how both hands are not doing separate things, but are actually working together? e.g. does a good pianist look at a complex piece of music when sight-reading and see two separate lines, or one thing which happens to be shared between their hands?

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    Practice,practice, practice. Just like any other physical motions, repetition leads to the neurological ability to perform tasks without going thru the conscious effort paths. You probably want to migrate this question to a neurology or biology forum. – Carl Witthoft Dec 9 '14 at 13:01
  • I was rather hoping we might find a musician who knows a bit about those things. And the part of the question "does a pianist see it as two separate lines or one overall composition" is quite piano-specific. – Mr. Boy Dec 9 '14 at 13:51
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    You might ask a drummer - they call it limb-independance. once you have one body-part well rehearsed, you only have to actually concentrate on the other… then the third, eventually none of them, they're all automatic. Your brain doesn't have time to think, it only has time to 'do'. Try it with the simple but effective 'pat head, rub tummy' - then swap hands. Took me about 3 weeks of practise to be able to swap, now I don't even have to think about it, swap, swap, swap, no probs. – Tetsujin Dec 9 '14 at 19:29
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    There are other skills that require this sort of coordination between the hands. Juggling, for instance. Eating with a knife and fork. Cutting hair, with a comb in one hand and scissors in the other. – Mark Lutton Dec 9 '14 at 22:59
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    He he. Try learning drums, or the pipe organ - it's like this, only 50% harder. No worries, you will get there; it requires a lot of tedious practice that seems to achieve nothing, but actually does. – Kilian Foth Dec 10 '14 at 7:51

11 Answers 11

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It depends on the individual, but I'm going to talk about my own experience.

Two things to note:

  • It's not really true that each hand is doing something different. Both hands are working together to create a piece of music.
  • Although at first glance it's "special" to have one hand playing one aspect of a piece while the other hand plays a different aspect -- if you think about it, the challenge is no different to, say, a guitarist singing while playing.

Going back to the first point, it's common to learn the left-hand part on its own, then the right-hand part, then put them together. However when you put them together, it's not really a case of disassociating one hand's job from the other's and setting them off independently.

Let's take as an example the first few bars of the melody section of "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy", in a simple arrangement.

Part of Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy

I might try out the left hand part then the right hand part -- to work out the fingering -- but to put them together I would not try to set my left hand off playing E, B, E, C, etc. while independently the right hand plays the melody.

Instead I would note that the order of things is:

  • LH E
  • LH E and RH G
  • RH E
  • LH E and RH G
  • LH C and RH F#

... and so on, a linear sequence of single notes and chords, played by a combination hands.

The difficulty of playing with both hands is seeing the order of events as they're shared between the hands -- does my left hand do something before the next right hand event, or do I play a right hand note first, or am I playing the next combination of notes with both hands at the same time?

Just like learning to read, when you're a beginner, you have to think about every step. I find it useful to try playing with both hands very slowly and with no regard to a consistent tempo -- just get the notes in the right order. With experience, this gets easier, and if you do it a lot, you'll find that you can do it without thinking -- again, just like reading.


Another mode of piano playing is improvising an accompaniment, perhaps by playing some chord rolls you've learned while playing the melody with the right hand. In this case, learning where the beats are in the roll, and therefore where a melody fits around it, is part of learning the roll. Practice is everything.

7

I've played the piano for over 40 years.

Something to remember is that it's music, not a set of sequentially formatted computer instructions. ;) So, there are several possible ways that any one brain might approach playing a two-handed piece, and for any two brains, there might be at least one or two more.

Let's say, as an example, I have a piece with an "oompah" accompaniment, played via the LH, and a single-line melody in the RH.

The most likely thought and practice paradigm for that situation is to learn the "oompah" and melody separately, and be able to play the "oompah" quite automatically by itself and then just really enjoying the processing of playing the song to its nearly-automated accompaniment. It should come together fairly easily if I've got the parts down pat.

On the other hand, if I have a Bach two-part (or three-part, or a dang Fugue) invention, it's quite likely that I see more of an overall composition with this hand doing this at this time, and that hand doing this at another time, and then they're both together and I'd better really work those four measures, and so on....

Finally, let's just suppose that I can keep track of what 10 fingers are supposed to do at any given moment in time. Then a composition becomes simply a matter of remembering (in time) what to do with each of those fingers and doing it. That didn't come to me overnight, though ...

A few suggestions. Whatever you do with the RH, do it also with the LH for practice's sake. Mirror things.

Do things backwards. If you can sight-read a single line with the RH, sight-read it backwards. Then do the same line with the LH and then do it backwards with the LH. You're not only training hands, you're creating neural pathways.

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    Interesting. Mirroring is actually (relatively) easy. By contrast the absolute hardest is improvisation - I have yet to find anything so simple I can play a repetitive left hand that doesn't screw up the moment I start using my right hand :) – Mr. Boy Dec 11 '14 at 21:44
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    I might agree with you on improvisation. I play some "jazz" from time to time, but I've never really gotten good at "comping" like the greats do (typically a LH thing). Of course, I'm not sure I've really dedicated much time to trying to learn it (I actually play much, much less than I did 10 or 20 years ago, so I'm afraid I'm not growing in this area, just continuing to play what I learned in the last century ...) – Kevin_Kinsey Dec 12 '14 at 17:36
  • And, something you might notice even with the 'greats' in jazz, is that for many of them, the comp chord hits during a rest from the soloing hand fairly often ... which means it's not totally effortless for them either ... ;-) – Kevin_Kinsey Dec 7 '18 at 23:15
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As an encouragement, you might want to think about the different movements involved in driving a car. (Especially if you have driven a stick shift before.) You had to practice before you could get all the movements down correctly. Once you did, you did them without thinking about them. So it is with the piano. Visualize what needs to be done and do it. What isn't easy now becomes simple with repetition.

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I think it depends on how you learn a piece.

Sometimes you might learn a piece by learning all the particular movements related to each other. Playing these and these notes on these beats and so on.

However, most of the time, pianists will learn one hand, then the other. Ultimately they will try to learn one well enough, so playing that part almost becomes subconscious. Then they can add the other hand on, without having to think about the first hand. However, once both hands are sorted, the piece is held together in your mind as one whole bunch of particular muscle movements, and you can tell when you make a mistake with either hand and can eventually concentrate on both.

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Your brain always does several things at once, walking/talking, chewing gum, etc. .. Your ability to do it on the piano depends partly on practice and partly on natural ability. When a pianist sees a written score, they see a single thing that is shared between two hands.

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Human brain has left and right sides. Left side is primarily responsible for the right hand, and right side for the left hand, but also there is a good coordination in between. Hence there is no any reason to assume that brain would have difficulties in using both hands for a complex work.

  • Now explain how a church organists manages to play with his feet as well! – Laurence Payne Mar 13 '16 at 11:20
  • Left hand and left feet are controlled by one side, right hand and feet by another. But this should be more difficult. – h22 Mar 16 '16 at 20:46
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As a drummer for over 12 years I can answer this partially, when I play now I don't think what I'm doing at the time just what's coming next. It isn't the action that I need to think of, it's the sound needed for the next piece. However to show you the concept of thinking about it, many times I have fought myself thinking about what I was actually doing (action) and like you originally discussed, I too have grinding wrists and fingers...they just get fought up in my mental process. As soon as I stop thinking about the action and allow my own body's ability to remember the action without need top for thought, it occurs without thought. So yes...practice practice practice until like driving a car, you accelerate, clutch, steal change gears and look in many different directions, talk to passengers and think nothing of it....when you were learning you struggled to just change gear.....

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Lots of really great answers here, I'll just add my small thoughts. Don't think of it as "left hand" and "right hand", but just think of it as one piece of music and your body is working together to produce something... like when you're typing on the computer. You don't think "the c is on the left side of the computer, so left hand" and then "the k is the right side, so right hand".

I am sure lots of piano teachers will cringe, but since you are a new piano player, perhaps force yourself to play together without any regard to phrasing or tempo or dynamics or whatever. Just play the notes together as they are written. Keep practicing. Once you have the notes down, you can start to focus on the other things.

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It may be hepful to think not so much of your brain learning to do two things at once as your FINGERS learning to. Just as you don't think "right leg forward, left leg forward" - you think "I want something out of the refrigerator" and your body takes you there. Practice each hand slowly, practice each hand CORRECTLY - a stumble here will never go away. Trust us, it will come. Not instant gratification, but it will come. If it was easy, why would I be making all this money as a piano player? :-)

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For me, it was easier when I counted the beats the note fell on when I played. Basically I worked out what notes the fingers would press together and then it all seemed to come together...? Sorry for the weird explanation I self taught myself to learn the piano, so I, not exactly classically trained or able to give professional advice. Hope you find this helpful!

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It is interesting that I had almost exactly the same question as you do, when I started to learn to play the piano as an adult, that is, instead of how to do it I wanted to know how does my brain do it when it comes to two-hands playing. My secret wish was, if I understood this, then I could train my brain, and through that become better at piano.

Being an engineer, not a cognitive scientist / neurologist, the cognitive aspects were utterly fascinating to me. This is not a response to your question as much as it is sharing my experience. Only a trained neurologist can verify my understanding.

In general our brain is doing multiple (?) things: for example, you're moving your left arm forward while the right arm is moving backward, and then vice-versa as you walk or run. Similarly moving your legs happen at the same time as moving your arms. Yet running is considered a single activity. From this perspective, our brain is able to coordinate multiple little activities in order to accomplish what we perceive to be a single macro activity such as running or playing polyphonic music with two hands! Or as a pianist put it, I have 10 fingers, so I can play 10 independent lines of music!!

In this sense, the musician sees only one piece even for polyphonic music. Our brain is able to process this single piece, and is able to provide independent motor controls to different fingers. Of course, consistent practice with correct techniques makes the necessary neural connections towards this goal. Eventually we develop muscle memory which is typically long-term in nature and it gets better with practice.

You may want to read about procedural and declarative memories, both of which play a roles in learning music.

Disclaimer: I am not sure my curiosity made me better at piano, but it did help me practice a lot!

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