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I've started to teach myself how to play the piano, and one of the difficulties I've found is trying to get both hands to do things at once. I either forget one hand entirely, or have one hand trying to mimic the other.

This reminded me of many years ago when I was taught to play the viola. For many weeks, we did not use the bow, instead focusing on getting the left hand to do the things it was supposed to, and learning to read music. In hindsight, this makes sense to me, as it's often important to get used to some fundamentals before attempting to do everything at once.

So I was wondering, when learning the piano, is it better to learn each hand on their own, or muddle through the difficulties of synchronizing them from the beginning? Or, if there are arguments for both methods, what are the pros/cons of each? What problems may develop, or what difficulties might be avoided? Or is there perhaps a happy medium that has proven the most successful?

For my personal musical background, I have about nine years' experience with the viola, though I haven't played it in about five years (stopped after high school). I also play the guitar, but never learned to read music for it.

  • 12
    Whether or not you practice the hands separately, you must slow down to the point where you can play correctly when playing together. Never practice a muddled confused mishmash, as doing so only makes you get better at getting it wrong. – Matthew Read Dec 1 '15 at 23:29

12 Answers 12

16

The mantra in learning piano is: "start slowly." How slow is slow? So slow you are unable to make mistakes, and then a little slower than that. Invariably when I have to choose a speed at which I think I can't make a mistake, at first I think: "come on, this is ridiculous!, of course I can't make a mistake"... and then I make a mistake.

As for the specific problem of hand coördination: In the very beginning it helped me to practice away from the piano at first with my hands on my knees. For every note in my left hand I slapped my hand on my left knee and vice versa. When I could do that, I played the right hand on the piano and simultaneously moved my left hand in the air (or slapped it on my knee). After that I switched roles. The next step was playing with both hands at the same time, slowly.

After several weeks this kind of exercise wasn't needed anymore, but in the beginning I found it helpful to 'rewire my brain' so to speak.

Concerning hands separate versus hands together:

For any piece 'at your level' beginning with practising hands separate is needed. It's being used to tackle problems of reading, fingering, dynamics,..., before adding the extra complexity of having two hands to control.

But what I experience is that playing hands together after having practiced hands separate can feel as starting completely over. What I mean is that passages that were comfortable hands separate, are feeling clumsy again when starting hands together. Sometimes it is like having to learn the piece all over again. So the need to start slowly (and even slower than that) is there again but now hands together. Because of that in my experience it is not efficient to practice towards 'perfection' hands separate before beginning hands together.

Of course the process of practicing hands together is greatly shortened (or even possible), because of the knowledge you gained from the practice hands separate, and that's what I use it for: orientation, experimentation and planning. But really learning the piece only starts with hands together.

24

When I was taking piano lessons I learned each piece three times: Once with the right hand, once with the left hand, and the third time putting both together. After a while, the third "learning" came a lot more quickly, and after a few years I would start to slowly sight read both parts together.

Today I will still practice the hard pieces one handed from time to time, especially when the timing is really disconnected between the two hands and I need at least one to go on automatic pilot. There are some pieces (Leyenda by Albeniz comes to mind) where the two parts are so intertwined it never makes sense to try to learn them alone. Usually that's clear from the beginning when it's the case.

16

There are actually two "schools of thought" about this. One (not so common these days, I think) that does not recommend practising one hand at a time, and the other uses "hands separate" a lot for learning purposes.

Personally, I have found hands-separate practice essential for learning pieces that I find difficult, although, as Todd rightly explains, there are some pieces where it doesn't work well because the piece doesn't really make much sense when playing only one hand.

I have a great belief in the teaching value of many of Bach's keyboard music, and read somewhere that in the first 2-part invention that he wrote (can be found on IMSLP) the fact that the individual hands take turns in playing the main theme is a sort of endorsement by Bach of the value of playing hands separately; almost as if he is suggesting that really is the best way to practice the piece.

5

It's very normal to have issues playing with both hands at first, but if you're finding yourself completely unable to do so at all, then maybe you're attempting to play music that's too hard for you. This is a common problem for people that have significant experience on one instrument and then start another. It feels embarrassing to go all the way back to basics and play stuff that you feel like is meant for 5-year-olds, but it really has to be done. You're gonna play some Mary Had A Little Lamb, with the melody in the right hand, and single whole notes in the left. There are some method books out there that have slightly more dignified music, if that helps.

Some struggle is good (it's the only way to grow), but hitting a wall isn't productive.

2

When I first started learning piano I also used to practice one hand at a time. I think it is important because then in the end it's all about coordination and if you want your hands to be well coordinated you first need each hand to know what it has to do. Putting it all together is then a completely different story, you'll have to focus on the coordination and not on the single hand anymore plus you'll have to read 2 staff at a time (which might be tricky for someone which is not used to that), but indeed the practice that you gained playing with separate hands will help. With experience and practice you'll do that more quickly and start putting it all together soon, however I still give a shot at each hand separately, I think it helps a lot. Of course with increasing difficulty of the piece you want to play you'll spend much more time practicing with two hands together. At times you'll have to focus on a small amount of bars when you'll have some difficult phrase (and then there are many ways which might help studying a single piece depending on the technique involved), which is also recommended when there are some particularly difficult parts in the piece (but I think this applies to the viola as well).

1

From my experience, beginning players (who start from not knowing how to read music at all) will play hands separately and then put them together. After you've gotten over some of the initial difficulty of just reading the music, I believe it's encouraged universally to learn/practice both at once. Of course, you can play separately to suss out some details, but on the whole, both hands should be played together. The faster you get used to playing and reading both lines-- difficult at first-- the better you will be equipped to handle more pieces that come your way. There is only a very tiny amount of piano works that are written for one hand, so really, it's in your best interest to just dive in.

The happy medium, in my opinion, is a 90-10 split. You start out playing with both hands (and pedal, don't forget those feet!). Then from playing, you figure out what you need to work on and separate as needed. This should mostly be from the technical standpoint, because to work on the overall interpretation, you really need all the parts together and playing each part individually isn't really going to help you much in the long run. I suppose, if you were working on a piece that was in the outer reaches of your technique, the split might become more even, but even then I don't think it should reach more than 60-40.

I'm originally a pianist, and then I got to the carillon, where similar to the organ, your feet move around a lot. It was hard for me learning an extra "line" (my feet), and it was always tempting to just practice the feet separately because it was so difficult for me and it slowed down my playing greatly. However, you move differently depending on what your hands AND feet are doing, so I became resigned to the fact that yes, no matter how excruciating, I need to play everything at once (and I do, so I'm intermediate sight-reader now). It's okay to play one at first to figure out what the melody is doing and what things you should emphasize, and just figure out the overall placement, but again, the piece is most improved when you play the entire piece, no matter how slowly at first, with all its parts and trappings.

1

I have never heard of one-handed practice actually being harmful for any piece of music, nor that it might teach you something you would later have to unlearn.

Slow practice and one-handed practice have both been essential to me on the piano, (although separating the limbs doesn't seem to help me on drums, interestingly), and one thing that helps very much in combination with them is dividing a bar up into a larger number of sub-beats, to understand it.

Imagine trying to tap out 2 beats per bar evenly on one hand, and 3 beats per bar evenly on your other hand.

If you subdivide the bar into 6 then one hand takes beats 1 and 4 while the other takes beats 1, 3 and 5. Many rhythms can be understood more easily that way, and practiced more slowly, on pretty much any instrument.

Large books full of short, graded exercises will not only strengthen your little fingers but prepare you for all sorts of confusingly counterpointed melodies.

0

I cannot gauge your piano level very well, but if you are having difficulties playing both hands at the same time, then the piece is may be too difficult for your level.

For piano players that are beyond the elementary level, I believe most players usually start learning the song both hands at the same time. This does help you get to learn the timing of the right and left hand right from the get go, instead of having to piece them together later on. Learning each separately and then piecing together later may actually be slower (depends on the piece) because of complex interweaving melodies, etc...

However, the practice is often done separately as needed. My piano teacher used to say if you cannot play the one hand alone, you definitely cannot play it properly with two hands. When practicing one-handedly, it will often reveal mistakes that you don't really notice while playing with two hands.

For elementary players, (at least from my experience), usually the learning process is just:

  • right handed songs;
  • primarily right handed songs with some added notes on the bass clef
  • more difficult songs with a more involved bass line for the left hand

That's why as I said earlier, perhaps if you are having difficulties of left and right handed songs, then maybe you are playing songs with a bass line that is too difficult at the moment for you.

One thing you can do to improve independent motor control with your hands is practice your left and right brain. The left brain controls the right hand and right brain for left hand. One exercise I was taught is to try rubbing your right hand on your thigh in a forward and backward motion (relative to a sitting position), and with your left hand do a upward and downward motion in a fist. Switch it up to have right hand as a fist, and left hand doing the rubbing. I know it sounds and looks retarded, but some people actually have difficulty because it involves independent directional motion.

0

I generally only practice certain passages one hand at a time, typically when I'm having trouble with something in one of the hands. The more general rule is to isolate technical difficulties and work on them, which sometimes means working only one hand. I especially do this when I'm working out what fingering to use on a passage.

I also find that, as I'm right-handed, I have to put more time into the left hand. So, I often work with just the left hand. Chopin Nocturnes are a good example, because there are lots of leaps in the left hand that I tend to get sloppy with if I'm paying attention to the melody.

I wouldn't recommend going over just one hand in a really long passage all at once, though. It's easy to lose your sense of the music, which can make the final result sound mechanical.

0

There are some beginning piano books that help one get the hang of integrating the two hands. Here's what a piece in such a book might look like:

A melody is presented that straddles middle C. (The hands are in the basic position where both thumbs play middle C.) As the melody goes above middle C, the right hand becomes active, but the left hand stays in position, at the ready. Within a couple of bars, the melody passes to the left hand, while the right hand rests.

There are other ways for the two hands to take turns, that was just an example.

As you progress with this approach, things will get gradually more complex.

I don't think you need to confine yourself to working with a book of this type, but it can be helpful to work with such a book alongside whatever other material you're working with. It's a relatively painless way to get both hands working together towards a common cause.

You can find books that take this approach by browsing through the beginning piano books in a music shop.

0

That depends on the piece sometimes. My old teacher used to say practice one separately until you've got it down then "see" them together. Honestly, I'd recommend practicing one measure at a time by repeating one until you've got it and then move on. Lastly, play from the beginning after a few measures to smooth over any rough spots :)

0

Independence of both hands can be practiced by exercises of kinesiology e.g. cross-crawl.

There are many helpful links:

https://www.holistic-reflexology.co.uk/cross-crawl.html

A good exercise will also be to tap with one hand on your head while drawing circles with the other hand on your breast.

Every rhythm practice on your knees will also be beneficial.

Start two hands Piano playing with prelude no. 1 by Bach.

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