Is hands together practice your least favorite part of learning to play piano?
Tired of hearing just the vague instruction to "practice slowly!"?
You're in the right place. Over the years I've taught piano, I've discovered some techniques that truly help my students avoid hands-together agony -- especially when practicing hands together on a song for the first time.
I'll teach you how to break down a song and and allow yourself to process the information bit-by-bit.
Learning to do this will transform hands together practice from drudgery to ease.
You can know, with confidence, that you'll reach your playing goals!
If you're interested in why playing with both hands is so hard in the first place, check this out.
It explains why hands together practice is so tricky, even after you can play each hand's part perfectly on its own.
Four practice techniques to start using today!
#1: Five minutes of FOCUSED techinique.
First, let's talk about building your mental muscles. Learning to control your hands and fingers independently of each other, at the same time, is something you can always get stronger at.
Think of hands together practice like weight training for your brain!
So, set a timer for 5 minutes and play some technique exercises. Hanon, Tune-A-Day, or scales will work.
If you're a beginner, running up and down your fingers in unison in any 5-finger hand position will work as well.
Play with no hurry. You're not trying to break speed records! You're trying to teach your hands to work independently. In order to do that, you need to learn to be mentally aware of the sensations in your hands as you play. You have to stay in the moment and feel what's happening as you practice.
Play slowly enough that you don't make mistakes! Focus on the feeling of playing in unison, of working toward controlling each finger so that it plays at the right time, with the right dynamic.
Enjoy yourself! This is a stress-free exercise: no expectations. Slow and steady. The only goal is simply to play for 5 minutes.
The secret here is the focus. Many students work on technique as a sprint, or simply rely on muscle memory and let their minds wander.
5 minutes of focused, relaxed playing will do absolute wonders for your hands together practice.
Trust me on this!
#2: Take the music out of it.
Next, I want you to forget that you're playing a song.
Yep, you read that right! I want you to forget you're playing a song.
Why? So that you look at the process of reading and playing the written music as a series of instructions with corresponding physical motion.
Let's take the first two measures of Bach's Minuet in G:
On beat one, you have to play D in your right hand, and B and G in your left hand. Fine. Think about those notes. Put your hands on the piano, and press down the keys.
And freeze! Notice how your hands feel, and notice the shapes they are making. Notice what it feels like to play that particular combination of fingers. Check to see whether your hands are relaxed.
Got it? Good. Now let's play beat two. Your left hand stays where it is, and you have two eighth notes to play in your right hand on G and A. Again, notice what your body and hands are physically doing. Think about the feeling of those passing eighth notes, and moving your fingers.
It's important that you're doing this mental work as you play. Why? You are building a mental "map" of exactly what your arms, hands, and fingers need to do to play this piece. A step-by-step pathway in your mind.
It's also important that you do this very slowly. Your brain doesn't know or care whether you played the right notes -- it will try to build the map either way. You don't want to build in your mistakes! If you go slowly enough just a few times, slowly enough to be mistake-free, you will have built a clear, concise song map in your head.
Each repetition makes your mental song map clearer and stronger. And your hands together practice will quickly feel easier and more fun!
Look! More Practice Goodness!
#3: Recognize the Patterns.
Sit with the score away from the piano and look for patterns. Repeated scale-like runs starting progressively lower? Perhaps a melody that repeats in different octaves? A left-hand rhythmic pattern?
In the Bach Minuet above, the rhythmic pattern of a quarter note followed by four eighths is repeated in many variations, with both hands!
Our brains are pattern-seeking by nature. We learn best by repetition and routine, over time. Any patterns you can seek out in your music will help you use the way you learn naturally to your advantage!
TIP #4: Speed is a function of time and repetition.
My students who take my word on this progress almost astonishingly quickly. Hands together practice is just a natural progression, not something frustrating. Students who don't learn the hard way, and come around eventually! ;-)
If you follow the steps I've outlined above, you may find that initially you're dissatisfied.
You're playing too slowly to actually get the satisfaction of hearing the song! Instead, what you're playing sounds like just a hodgepodge of notes, all disconnected from one another.
You may despair that you'll ever play the piece at full speed!
I understand. Really.
But the truth is you can't will yourself to be able to play at full speed any more than you can will yourself the ability to run a marathon if you've never jogged down the street.
Time + Repetition = Speed. Trying your hardest to play faster just doesn't work.
The fastest path to playing at full tempo is to play mistake-free, slowly, over and over. By slowly, I mean as slowly as you need to in order to think about each step before you push your fingers down. You're training yourself to play the song, instead of just trying and hoping it comes out OK!
Imperceptibly, without you actually intending to, your speed will increase. As you focus on playing correctly, you'll be repeating and repeating, and that song map will get stronger and stronger.
One day you'll sit at the piano and discover that this song is at the speed you want it at -- comfortably, and without nagging mistakes.
Even better, you'll find that there are no "scary spots". No places where you always make a mistake. Those repeated mistakes are simply patterns that your brain put into the song map. You learned them in! If you don't put them there at the beginning, they won't exist.
Soon, that song will reach a level of effortlessness that makes playing pure pleasure. You can confidently sit down and play, knowing you can do it easily and without mistakes. Further, you've probably got it memorized.
There's a surprise bonus to using these hands together practice tips!
This method of hands together practice takes care of the mechanics of learning a song. You build a complete mental map, which, along with your muscle memory, allows you to play even intricate music without worry.
What's the hidden bonus? You will be -- maybe for the first time -- completely free in your playing!
Imagine: knowing that playing the music you've learned will be effortless. Like tying your shoes, or riding a bike. You'll find yourself experimenting with tempo, articulation, pedaling, dynamics... just because it's fun.
That freedom in playing, the joy of creating music, is what we're all after.
Because, suddenly, you have free mental space to think about all those things -- while you're playing. No worries about mistakes or tripping over that "hard" section of the music.
I wish I could convey to you, reading this right now, just how amazing that feeling of freedom is. To truly express yourself as you play the piano is pure joy.
You can do it!
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