Hand independence in piano playing
Hand independence is one of the most frustrating aspects of piano playing for beginners. Many students wonder how it will ever become easy to play the piano with two hands doing different things. Furthermore, even advanced students encounter these issues from time to time.
When you have trouble playing your hands independently, you may feel like:
- One hand always seems to want to do whatever the other one is doing.
- The two hands aren’t “lining up”.
- One hand is more flexible and secure than the other one is.
- You can play one hand at a time with no problem, but when you put them together, everything slows way down.
- You are overwhelmed by reading hands together.
Fortunately, playing the piano with both hands at the same time does not need to feel so difficult.
Why you should fix it
The human body is built to have two hands. We are not supposed to get overwhelmed by using both of them. The fact that this happens when you play the piano is an indication that something is not quite right.
Developing hand independence is worth doing because it will lead to the following benefits:
- Physically, it feels better when everything is working in a smooth and integrated way.
- There is a smaller chance of injury when your body moves with itself, rather than against itself.
- Mentally, it is less stressful.
- You will be less distracted, and have more mental energy and attention available for other things.
- Your technique will improve, since your body will become more mechanically efficient.
- Listeners can hear when you are playing in a unified manner, and when you are fighting with yourself.
Wrong ways to fix it
You might be tempted to try improving your hand independence at the piano by using one of the following approaches:
- Strengthening the fingers.
- Stretching the fingers.
- Pushing through it mentally.
These are totally understandable attempts at solving the problem. When the hands aren’t free to move independently, it can easily feel like the result of physical limitations. You may also feel like the problem is only that you aren’t trying hard enough.
However, the problem is not usually physical, but rather mental. And, you probably are already trying really hard. If you are feeling overwhelmed, you need to learn how to simplify things. The struggle is a result of the wrong way you are approaching this.
When great pianists play with independence, they are not struggling.
The root cause of hand independence issues
The fundamental issue is one of impatience. You want to do everything correctly, and you want to do it now. This is completely understandable. However, you aren’t willing to do it at the pace your body needs to go at. So, there’s a traffic jam in your brain.
What would it be like if you simply didn’t try to micromanage it?
Hand independence is not really the goal
Although it seems like pianists need to have both hands moving completely independently of each other, this is not necessarily the best way to look at it. I might even say that both hands actually always do the same thing.
As an example, consider the activity of walking. Both feet move “independently”, and yet the whole body is moving in one direction. It would be a big mistake to have your left foot moving in one direction and the right moving in another.
So it is in piano playing. The whole body is playing the whole piece of music. Both hands are moving to the same beat. The mistake is to strive for independence. What you really want is unification.
There needs to be a structure
Another example: Suppose you are walking and also texting on your phone at the same time. The movements that you use for texting will be dependent on what your feet are doing. Let this happen. Don’t try to fight it.
In piano playing, your hands can never be truly independent. They are connected to the rest of your body, after all. As a result, the hands are limited in their freedom of motion.
Set a priority
A final example: Suppose you are walking with a friend and you have an itch on your face. You will not stop walking to scratch the itch. You will keep walking, because you don’t want to get behind your friend, or make your friend wait for you. The walking is more important than the scratching. Because you have set your priorities, there is no problem doing both at the same time.
When you play the piano, don’t let a difficult spot in one hand throw off the entire rhythm of the music. This is why it feels difficult.
Set a priority for yourself which is as easy as walking, and you will find that the minor details will be much easier to handle.
How to solve your hand independence issues
Any piano piece can be made into an exercise to coordinate the left and right hand.
Your first task is to get both hands doing the same thing. Using a metronome, ensure that both hands are playing at the same time. The beat should be felt throughout your entire body.
Within that framework, work on differentiating the hands. If you ever feel stuck, or like your hands are not cooperating, go back to making sure that the beat is consistent between both hands.
Dynamics: how to play one hand louder than the other
Many students have a hard time playing different dynamic levels between the two hands. This is an essential skill, and if you struggle with it, you should make this a priority.
As always, the beat needs to be the same in both hands. This is usually the problem. The student has no unified sense of beat, and so they are micromanaging each hand independently, which overloads the brain.
So, first ensure that both hands can play together with no problem. That is, you are playing “LH + RH”. Now, experiment with “LH soft + RH loud”. This should be conceived of as a single action. If you find that doing this messes up your beat, you are not conceiving of it as a single action. Likewise, experiment with “LH loud + RH soft”.
Articulation: one hand legato and the other staccato
You should be able to easily play legato in one hand and staccato in the other. If you cannot, follow the instructions above for dynamics.
Both hands play together, but they do not need to follow each other after that initial moment. It is only the beat that needs to be synchronized.
Independence in polyrhythms
If you are playing a piece with polyrhythms, such as 3 against 2, or 11 against 7, or 25 against 8, or whatever, try the same exact strategy. If possible, do not attempt to mathematically calculate how the notes should line up. That is usually not what the composer had in mind.
Instead, decide where the beats are, and make sure that both hands are playing the beats at the same time. Let the other notes fall where they need to.
Let me emphasize that if one hand has 25 notes, and the other has 3, they are both playing at the same tempo! If you don’t see it that way, you will continue to struggle.
Explore the body
It can be very useful to explore the instincts you have about the relationship between your hands. Notice what it feels like to move your torso around, and how that affects what your hands are doing. Do things feel independent, or do they feel tightly wound up?
Play hands in parallel motion and contrary motion, and notice what happens. Play passages where one hand moves and the other doesn’t, and notice where you feel stuck or where you feel one hand trying to pull on the other.
In a passage where one hand is slower than the other, remember that neither is ever actually slower. Feel this energy balanced throughout the body. There must be an constant, internal pulse that governs both hands.
When you have developed this type of awareness, you can easily create your own exercises to help with hand independence at the piano.
Sight-reading both hands independently
It is very common to feel that sight-reading screws up the coordination between the hands. You may feel that you can read each hand independently with no problem, but putting them together causes everything to slow down. Many students feel more confident with one hand than with the other.
Remember that both hands must always move at the same time. You cannot let one hand get ahead of the other.
When you are reading, your brain must process each beat before playing it. Do not think of each hand separately. Do not move each hand separately. The entire beat (left hand plus right hand) is one action.
If you have a more difficult time reading bass clef than treble clef, then your right hand might become impatient waiting for your left hand. However, you must wait for both hands to be ready.
If this is making you impatient, you should ask yourself why that is. Where are you in a hurry to go?
Finally, set your priorities. Decide on which musical elements are the important ones, and let your whole body play those elements. Don’t get trapped into thinking that you need to play everything on the page. Remember that it must all fit into the structure of your body.
Finger independence is basically the same issue as hand independence. Here, the whole hand must be unified. Even if the five fingers are playing different things, the hand as a whole is moving in one direction.
You might try practicing Bach fugues and inventions. They will demand the type of independence that you need. They do not require flexible or strong fingers. The challenge is completely in your mind.
If you struggle with hand independence in your piano playing, this is absolutely a problem you can work on. Be patient with yourself, and with your body. When you let things happen as they must happen, the struggle will resolve itself.