[1.II.25] Hands Together and Mental Play

We can finally start putting the hands together (HT)! Some students encounter the most difficulties here, especially in the first few years of piano lessons. Although the methods presented here should immediately help you to acquire technique faster, it will take about two years to be able to really take advantage of everything that the methods of this book have to offer.

Playing HT is almost like trying to think about two different things at the same time. There is no known, pre-programmed coordination between the two hands like we have between our two eyes (for judging distance), our ears (for determining the direction of oncoming sound) or our legs/arms (for walking). Therefore, learning to coordinate the fingers of the two hands accurately is going to take some work. The preceding HS work makes this coordination much easier to learn because we now only have to concentrate on coordinating, and not coordinating AND developing finger/hand technique at the same time.

The good news is that there is only one primary "secret" for learning HT quickly. That "secret" is adequate HS work, so you already know it! All technique must be acquired HS; don't try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS. By now, the reasons should be obvious. If you try to acquire technique HT, you will run into problems such as (1) developing stress, (2) unbalancing the hands (the RH tends to get stronger), (3) acquiring bad habits, (4) creating speed walls, etc. Note that all speed walls are created; they result from incorrect play or stress. Premature HT practice can create any number of speed walls. Incorrect motions are another major problem; some motions present no problems when played slowly HT but become impossible when speeded up. The best example of this is "thumb under" play (section III.5).

First, you will need some criterion for deciding when you have done adequate HS practice. A good criterion is HS speed. Typically, the maximum HT speed you can play is 50% to 90% of the slower HS speed, either the RH or the LH. Suppose that you can play the RH at speed 10 and the LH at speed 9. Then your maximum HT speed may be 7. The quickest way to raise this HT speed to 9 would be to raise the RH speed to 12 and the LH speed to 11. As a general rule, get the HS speed well above final speed. Therefore, the criterion we were seeking is: if you can play HS at 110% to 150% of final speed, relaxed, and in control, then you are ready for HT practice.

If you still have trouble, use the method of "outlining". Let's assume that you can play HS satisfactorily. Now simplify one or both hands so that you can play them HT easily, then gradually add the deleted material. There are many ways to do this, and you can develop really powerful methods depending on how much music theory you know, so outlining will be discussed in more detail in section III.8. However, you don't need theory to use outlining; one example is the method of "adding notes": take a short segment of the difficult section, then play the more difficult hand HS, repeating the section continuously (this is called cycling, see section III.2); now start adding the easier hand note by note. First add one note and practice until you can play it satisfactorily. Then add another, etc., until the segment is complete. Make sure that, as you add notes, you keep the same fingering as used during HS practice. Very often, the reason why you cannot play HT although you can play HS is that there is an error somewhere. Frequently, this error is in the rhythm. Therefore, as you add notes, try to find out if there is an error in one hand; this is best accomplished by referring back to the music score.

There is a world of difference in how the brain handles tasks in one hand and tasks that require two-hand coordination, which is why it pays to learn them one at a time. HS practice does not tend to form habits not directly controlled by the brain because the brain controls each hand directly. HT motions, on the other hand, can be cultivated only by repetition, creating a reflex habit, which may involve nerve cells outside the brain. One indication of this is the fact that HT motions take longer to learn. Therefore, bad HT habits are the worst because, once formed, they take forever to eliminate. To acquire technique quickly, you must avoid this category of bad habits.

Mental play (MP) is necessary for HT play just as for HS play but HT MP is, of course, more difficult for beginners. Once you become good at MP, HS and HT MP will be equally easy. Since you already know HS mental play (section 12), the main remaining job is to learn it HT. When memorizing MP HS, you should have encountered places in every composition where you had to go back and check it at the piano – you can play it at the piano but not in your mind – those places weren't entirely in your head yet. Those are the places where you could have had blackouts during performances. As a test that you have solid MP, there are 3 things that you should be able to do in your mind: (1) can you start from anywhere in the piece and start playing HT? (2) given any section that you are playing one hand, can you add the other hand? and (3) can you play both hands simultaneously in your head? You should find that if you can do these in your mind, you can easily do them at the piano.

Let us now proceed with real life examples of how to practice HT. I have chosen 3 examples to illustrate HT methods, starting with the easiest, the 1st movement of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata, then Mozart's Rondo Alla Turca, and finally, the challenging Fantaisie-Impromptu (FI) by Chopin. You should choose the one best suited to your skill level. You might also try the Bach Inventions that are covered in detail in section III.6.12 and section III.19. I will leave the Fur Elise, discussed above, for you to try by yourself, as it is fairly short and relatively straightforward. For many pianists, Fur Elise is "too familiar" and often difficult to play; in that case, play it in a subdued way, concentrating on accuracy instead of emotion (no rubato), and let the music speak for itself. It can be quite effective with the right audience. This "detached" play can be useful for popular, familiar music.

The three compositions chosen here present certain challenges. The moonlight requires legato, PP, and the music of Beethoven. The Alla Turca must sound like Mozart, is fairly fast and requires accurate, independent hand control as well as solid octave play. The FI requires the ability to play 4-against-3 and 2-against-3 in the 2 hands, extremely fast RH fingering, and the romanticism of Chopin and accurate pedaling. All three are relatively easy to play HT in the mind because the LH is mostly an accompaniment to the RH; in the Bach Inventions, both hands play major roles and HT MP is more difficult. This demonstrates that Bach probably taught MP and purposely composed challenging pieces for his students. This increased difficulty also explains why, without proper guidance (such as this book), some students find the Inventions extremely difficult to memorize and play at speed.