[1.III.6.12.2] Quiet Hands

Many teachers justifiably stress "quiet hands" as a desirable objective. In this mode, the fingers do most of the playing, with the hands moving very little. Quiet hands is the litmus test for technique acquisition. The elimination of unnecessary motions not only allows faster play, but also increases control. Many of Bach's music were designed for practicing quiet hands. Some of the unexpected fingerings indicated on the music score were chosen so as to be compatible with, or facilitate, quiet hands play. Some teachers impose quiet hand playing on all students at all times, even for beginners, but such an approach is counter-productive because you can't play quiet hands slowly so there is no way to teach it at slow speed. The student feels nothing and wonders why it is any good. When playing slowly, or if the student does not have sufficient technique, some extra motion is unavoidable, and is appropriate. To force the hands to be motionless under those conditions would only make it more difficult to play and create stress. Those who already have quiet hands technique can add a lot of motion without detriment when playing slowly or fast. Some teachers try to teach quiet hands by placing a coin on the hand to see if it is quiet enough so that the coin will not fall off. This method certainly demonstrates the teacher's recognition of the importance of quiet hands, but it does nothing for the student. If you are playing Bach at full speed using quiet hands, a coin placed on your hand will immediately fly off. Only when playing beyond a certain speed does quiet hands become obvious to the pianist, and necessary. When you acquire quiet hands for the first time, it is absolutely unmistakable, so don't worry about missing it. The best time to teach the student what quiet hands means, is when playing sufficiently fast so that you can feel the quiet hands. Once you have it, you can then apply it to slow play; you should now feel that you have much more control and a lot more free time between notes. Thus quiet hands is not any specific motion of the hand but a feeling of control and the near total absence of speed walls.

In the case of the Bach pieces discussed here, the quiet hands become necessary at speeds close to final speed; obviously, the speeds were chosen with quiet hands in mind. Without it, you will start to hit speed walls at the recommended speeds. HS practice is important for quiet hands because it is much easier to acquire and feel it in your hands when played HS, and because HS play allows you to get to quiet hands speed more quickly than HT. In fact, it is best not to start HT until you can play in the quiet hands mode with both hands because this will reduce the chances of locking in bad habits. That is, HT with or without quiet hands is different, so that you don't want to get into the habit of playing HT without quiet hands. Those with insufficient technique may take too long a time to attain quiet hands, so that such students may have to start HT without quiet hands; they can then gradually acquire quiet hands at a later time, by using more HS practice. This explains why those with sufficient technique can learn these inventions so much faster than those without. Such difficulties are some of the reasons for not trying to learn pieces that are too difficult for you, and provide useful tests for whether the composition is too difficult or appropriate for your skill level. Those with insufficient technique will certainly risk building up speed walls. Although some people claim that the Bach Inventions can be played "at any speed", that is true only for their musical content; these compositions need to be played at their recommended speeds in order to take full advantage of the technical lessons that Bach had in mind. There is an over-emphasis on speed in this section because of the need to demonstrate/achieve quiet hands; however, do not practice speed for speed's sake since that will not work because of stress and bad habits; musical play is still the best way to increase speed -- see section III.7.9.

For those with stronger RHs, quiet hands will come first with the RH; once you know the feel, you can transfer it to the LH more quickly. Once it kicks in, you will suddenly find that playing fast becomes easier. This is why HT practice doesn't work for learning new Bach pieces -- there is no way to get to quiet hands quickly HT.

Bach wrote these Inventions for technical development. Thus he gave both hands equally difficult material; this provides more challenges for the LH because the bass hammers and strings are heavier. Bach would have been mortified to see exercises such as the Hanon series because he knew that exercises without music would be a waste of time, as demonstrated by the effort he put into these compositions to incorporate music. The amount of technical material he crammed into these compositions is incredible: finger independence (quiet hands, control, speed), coordination as well as independence of the two hands (multiple voices, staccato vs legato, colliding hands, ornaments), harmony, making music, strengthening the LH as well as the weaker fingers (fingers 4 and 5), all major parallel sets, uses of the thumb, standard fingerings, etc. Note that the ornamentals are parallel set exercises; they are not just musical ornaments but are an integral part of technical development. Using the ornaments, Bach asks you to practice parallel sets with one hand while simultaneously playing another part with the other hand, and producing music with this combination!

Be careful not to play Bach too loud, even where F is indicated. Instruments of his time produced much less sound than modern pianos so that Bach had to write music that is filled with sound, and with few breaks. One of the purposes of the numerous ornaments and trills used in Bach's time was to fill in the sound. Thus his music tends to have too much sound if played loudly on modern pianos. Especially with Inventions and Sinfonias, in which the student is trying to bring out all the competing melodies, there is a tendency to play each succeeding melody louder, ending up in loud music. The different melodies must compete on the basis of musical concept, not loudness. Playing more softly will also help to achieve total relaxation and true finger independence.