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I'm a late starter with 'official' piano lessons and wondered if my learning experience is typical. As I'm sure many do, my piano teacher tells my to practice left and right hands separately. I can often manage to learn that quite easily and play each hand with minimal errors.

However, playing hands-together and all that separate practice seems for nought - my hands won't do what they are told. It's honestly like I have to learn the whole thing from scratch when I use both hands - and my error rate goes way up. I get disheartened because I can't seem to get rid of the errors. It takes me so long to get a piece anywhere near good I'm generally sick to the back teeth of playing it before I get it error free (if I ever do).

Is it like that for everyone?

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    Yes, it is. I'm considered a good piano player, and I can assure you that getting there involves exactly this road. The trick is to remember that while you struggle with hand coordination and feel like you're getting nowhere, you are, in fact, continuously getting somewhere, even if you yourself don't notice yet. – Kilian Foth Feb 23 '17 at 7:42
  • Learn to play hands together, having learned each hand separately is like solving a puzzle. Learn to play hands together, without having learned each hand separately is like solving a puzzle, without the pieces of the puzzle! – nadapez Aug 27 at 2:33
  • One alternative is to learn one hand first and then both hands together. – nadapez Aug 27 at 2:39
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Your experience is quite typical. Playing two hands at the same time is completely different than playing both separately.

But the point of learning parts separately is NOT about making it easier to play both hands together. It's about learning all the "other" stuff (like correct hand position, articulation etc.) without having the distraction of the second hand.

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    The second paragraph here makes this the best answer so far in my view. – Bacs Feb 23 '17 at 8:48
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    @Bacs: Exactly. I'm an amateur, and it's actually easier to learn both hands at once. But that comes at the cost of suboptimal finger usage, hand position etc. Of course, you can correct that, but playing both hands demands more attention, and you might miss your own mistakes. – CamilB Feb 23 '17 at 9:11
  • Yes, this is a good answer. It's easier to ensure good technique by focusing on one hand at a time initially, even though ultimately there will be another learning curve with them together – Brad Thomas Feb 25 '17 at 1:45
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As a piano teacher for more than 50 years I can assure you that you are not alone! Many students have the same experience, though quite a few do not. Of the hundreds I have taught I would say it breaks about 60-40 toward having the problem.

As Brad said in his comment to the original question (a comment which has now strangely disappeared), the secret is to go slow. When you first start putting hands together on a new piece you may find you have to go three to four times more slowly that when you are doing hands separate. Incrase SLOWLY. When you find yourself making lots of mistakes, slow down more. Be patient with yourself. You'll get there.

EDIT: I should add that it's better NOT to try to play through the whole piece at once at first. Break it into "chunks." For most pieces a four-measure 'chunk' is about right. Some pieces 6 or even 8 is better. Let your progress tell you.

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    Yes, going slowly is the key. You should pick a speed at which you can play the passage with no mistakes, even if that is ludicrously slowly. (On note every 5 seconds isn't too slow - there is no 'too slow'.) If necessary concentrate on just a few bars at a time. Gradually increase the speed, always keeping it slow enough that you are not starting to make mistakes again. People who don't slow down enough just end up practising their mistakes, which is counter-productive. – Ian Goldby Feb 23 '17 at 10:46
  • Also if you do scales at all, try practicing them on a two-notes-for-one basis: that is, two scale notes in one hand during one note in the other. By the time one hand has gone one octave the other has gone two. (Obviously if the faster hand is the left you have to start out two octaves apart.) – L3B Feb 23 '17 at 15:35
  • I might perhaps helpfully have added that I have the exact opposite problem. Practicing hands separate does me no good at all and is often counterproductive, making my playing of the piece worse instead of better! Depending on your teacher's personality you might try going against his or her suggestion on this issue! – L3B Feb 26 '17 at 17:04
  • @L3B Hi do you think it helps when i take a piece of a song and i learn to play the chorous for example with two hands repeatidly to absorb the learning of two hands techniq. I mean using only this method for that purpose...i cant read scores proparly. – LoveIsHere Jan 21 '18 at 6:23
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Yes, playing both hands together is quite difficult for beginners, even if you feel like you have mastered each hand separately. You will likely hit another big bump when you move on from playing similar things in both hands (like two octaves of a scale) to playing two different things (like a bass line and a melody). There is yet another big bump when you start playing very different rhythms (like the straight bass and ragged melody of a ragtime piece).

You can solve most musical difficulties by playing slowly enough. Very slowly if necessary. As you start to master the basic skills of hand independence, you should be able to pick up new pieces more easily, although each new piece may still challenge you at first. Any time you find yourself making mistakes, go slower. Even after a couple years of adult piano study, I still need quite a bit of hand independence work for each new piece.

  • Oddly, I do not have the same problem with pedal work! I find using the sustain pedal to be quite intuitive, perhaps because I have practiced tapping my foot in time for my whole life (and I drive a manual transmission). – Bradd Szonye Feb 23 '17 at 5:17
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    I agree with both comments. Piano learning is a lifetime journey full of obstacles that need to be conquered. The harder you work through these difficulties, the better you'll be. As all said, slow is the key. Breaking it down is another: sometimes, I practise only a few notes at the time on a piece where there's difficulty. The more you practise your basics, the better foundations. The better foundations, the easier it will be in the future obstacles. Good luck – user33232 Feb 23 '17 at 6:29
  • "You can solve most musical difficulties by playing slowly enough" - slowly and consciously controlling the process of playing. When you find an error: stop, fix it and slowly play without an error several times. Consciousness and slow speed are very important. – user4035 Feb 23 '17 at 17:11
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Different strategies work for different pieces. Learning to play a Bach fugue would of course be quite different from learning a piece where the left hand is just a bunch of chords.

People's brains work differently. I have two kids, both of whom started learning piano at a young age, through the same method. One of them has progressed marvellously. The other one never got the hang of hands-together playing, and eventually gave up. Perhaps the piano is just not the right instrument for him.

That said, there are intermediate steps you can take between hand-separate and hands-together practice:

  • You say you can play hands separately with minimal errors. Are you sure that you can do so in rhythm? If you can't play hands-separate correctly to a metronome, then it's going to be a mess when you put the hands together.

  • Can you play hands separately while not looking (or barely looking) at your fingers? Because you won't have the luxury of looking at both hands — at best, you will be able to look at one.

  • Try humming the tune of one hand while playing the other. Then switch. The idea is to force your brain to think about the hands-together result before you actually try doing it. Your hand signals and your vocal signals go through different neural channels and are less likely to get confounded than signals to your left and right hands.

  • Try pretending to play with both hands on a table. The idea is to get a feel for how the hands fit together and get the rhythm right without worrying about the exact notes.

  • I think this is great advice. When learning to walk bass lines in the left hand and improvise in the right hand, I was told that the left hand must become so automatic that the brain can focus all of its attention on the right hand. I think the first few bullets are great ways to improve the each hand's automaticity. – jdjazz Jan 19 '18 at 14:02
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I think some people have the wrong view about piano, and instruments that are similar, when the issue of "hand independence" is discussed. Cognitive science these days seems to indicate that humans never truly "multitask" in their conscious actions; they simply switch between individual tasks very quickly. While I can imagine a human with an unusual neurological feature (such as a severed corpus callosum) performing true multitasking (such as typing out a history paper while having an unrelated conversation), the overwhelming portion of humans are neurologically incapable of such an action. In fact, it is the hallmark of an unhealthy human that parts of their brain do not fire in a coordinated concert of individual (i.e., singular, sequential) neurological explosions, but instead fire independently of each other, of their own accord. This is actually what you see in the brain of a patient who is having a seizure. All the areas of the malfunctiong brain ignore each other and just fire at their own will; in other words, the areas of their brain act independently of each other.

Therefore, you do not want true "hand independence"; instead, you want hand coordination. Put another way, instrument playing is a conscious action, controlled by our executive function, and we only have one area of the brain that controls the executive function. Thus, homo sapiens's conscious control is, for better or worse, unitary, and we cannot do two independent tasks at once.

The same is true for the piano.

So...what you need to do is to try to not beat yourself up too much, and simply accept the fact that when you do hands-together play you really are learning a different skill. You cannot simply focus on the movement of one arm, wrist, hand and finger in isolation from any other. If you can't play it with hands together, go back, define every individual action you must take, treating both hands as a single mental unit, put them in sequence, practice them over and over again until you can do them in sequence, in time, perfectly, and then speed it up. Do not try to skip this simple process because you want your hands to "be independent", because you cannot neurologically do such a thing.

  • So what you are saying is that it is good to go dirctly to practice hands together and not seperately when i am studying a part? – LoveIsHere Jan 21 '18 at 6:36
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    Good question. Hands together is for practicing PERFORMANCE, but hands separate is for LEARNING the music. Once you've learned each hand, then you're ready to learn how to merge them into one mental unit. You do want to move to hands together as quickly as possible, but you cannot do so until you can at least do each hand independently for whatever the target phrase is. Additionally, continuously practicing each individual hand will allow you, when you are practicing hands together, to focus on the coordination of both hands, rather than one hand or the other. – superdog797 Jan 21 '18 at 18:15
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I'm a late-intermediate-level piano player, coming from playing clarinet for about a decade. Take my opinion for what it's worth.

The thing about piano, unlike any other instrument that I've played, is that learning it requires isolation and precision of every little movement you're making. Not doing this could lead to you developing bad habits.

At this point in my piano playing, I've gotten to the point where I can sightread with both hands a lot of simple things without struggle, but I run into points where I need to practice more extensively. The brain is terrible at learning many new actions in parallel. The reason why you need to isolate your hands-together playing to hands-separate playing is that your brain needs to separately learn what both hands are doing well so that it's easier to execute both hands' actions in parallel.

When going from hands-separate to hands-together, make sure you're playing with a metronome at a very, very slow speed, and build the speed up.

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Music comes from the mind, not just the fingers. Since you are able to play separately, you probably don't have motoric problems. Try this exercise: take a short fragment (one or a few bars), and carefully read the music. Try to be observative about everything, the harmony, the rithms, the shape of the melody. If possible, imagin how you think it will sound. Then play each hand separately, from memory. If you make errors, don't worry, just go back to the score, and look carefully at the places where you made a mistake. Try to find the source of the mistake. Was it a wrong finger? A wrong harmony? If this goes well, do the same for both hands together. First read the score, observe which notes go together, how both hands relate to each other (is one hand accompaniment? Does it play chords? What are the chords? Are the chords broken? Perhaps the melody is in the left hand, and the accompaniment in the right). Then try to play both hands together from memory. If you make a mistake, don't worry, just go back to the score. Try short fragments at first, then take longer fragments as you progress. Don't forget to check with the score regularly, so you don't learn wrong notes! Try this method, and you will find you progress much faster!

Also a note of caution: simply playing slow doesn't mean are learning anything. The secret is understanding. Each note doesn't have a meaning on itself. You must be aware of its meaning in the melody (or harmony). You must be aware of where it comes from, and where it goes to. Listen to what happens in the music. Don't just play articulations because you have to, but understand why they are there. If your mind is confused, it will be still confused when playing slowly! The reason for practicing slowly is not because you have to create automatic reflexes, it's because you want your mind to be clear and open to the music, to fully understand it, so you can master the music, not your reflexes mastering you. If you allow yourself to be overwhelmed by the complexity, then you cannot master the music. Find clarity and meaning, and everything goes easy!

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That is quite normal since you underestimate how much effort it is to practice one hand until it occupies at most a third of your attention (you need another third for the other hand, and yet another third for the synchronization).

Basically, playing smoothly while paying some attention to the score rarely occupies less than a third of an attention when you are not used to it, and it is hard to simulate the distraction of the other hand and of putting things together without actually doing so.

So in the long run you need to realign how much focus a single hand may take with your way of practising. It's like being able to run at a solid pace does only moderately prepare you for getting at maximum speed through a chest-deep mud pit. Yes, you have trained for that in some manner, but in some manner you didn't yet.

At some point of time you'll be even able to afford the third of your focus needed for being aware of the audience.

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