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10/04/2018

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Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.

Should you start to learn a new piece hands separately or straight away hands together? This might be a controversial topic and I would be interested in your thoughts, so leave a comment below how you usually practice.

Why hands separately practice is unhelpful.


Obviously it is easier to work on one hand alone, but is it really beneficial? With my own students, I try to get them to put hands together as soon as possible, OK one play through of a section with one hand is acceptable, to familiarize oneself with the notes, but more than this is not helpful. I will explain why and feel free to disagree with me in the comments.

As soon as we start repeating a physical action over and over, we develop muscle memory. When we start a piece hands separately, continuing to practice like this for a period of time, we will develop two distinct muscle memories. When eventually we come to putting these two memories together, it's like we are starting from scratch. You can't add two separate memories together to make a new memory. All the time you have been practicing separately has been effectively a waste of time. It's like you are learning a completely new piece.

This is very obviously noticeable when moving from Grade 1 ABRSM piano to Grade 2. One of the biggest hurdles I have found with my students, jumping from the first Grade to the second is putting scales hands together. They may well have been able to play a single hand G major with each hand, one at a time, perfectly. However, as soon as I ask them to try it hands together for the first time, the muscle memory they developed previously - single-handed - completely falls apart. Fingering goes right out the window. Usually one hand tends to copy the other (incorrectly) and they now need to develop a completely NEW muscle memory.

On this point, it is interesting to note, that in ABRSM piano exams, students generally prepare scales hands together only, from Grade 2 and above. However the syllabus requires that you can play them separately as well. You might think, "well that is easy, if I can play hands together a certain scale, of course I could do it with just one hand" and so you might tend to not practice it such. However, it has been known, that a student has been asked for a one handed scale in an exam and that has completely thrown them off, because they have never practiced it single handedly, resulting in a very poorly executed scale. It all comes back to muscle memory.

Let me know if you agree with my theory, maybe before you practiced otherwise and something today has made you think. Or maybe, you're not convinced. All polite thoughts on either side of the coin are appreciated.

4 comments:

  1. That sounds logical and might explain the problems I've been having with some tricky Grade Five pieces where either hand alone is fine but put the two together and it all falls apart. There's a case for work on separate hands for short passages, I think, to instil it into the memory, and, as you say, for scales it's downright necessary. I also found I had to learn some contrary motion minor scales a hand at a time. Food for thought!

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  2. Thank you Ruth for your comment.

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  3. I tend to agree. Good point about muscle memory.
    I had the idea hands separate practice isn't really done after about grade 2, ie is kiddie stuff �� I don't really do it, maybe play through a few times separately and work on any tricky sections. It depends on the piece, something with a lot of counterpoint or interplay between the hands doesn't make sense hands separately, but something with a pretty melody and simple chord or Alberti bass accompaniment I might practice the melody separately more to get it sounding as I want it to, get fingering correct, it sounding expressive etc.
    I think the same applies to ornaments - much practice without them is wasted time.
    I can do scales hands separately without practicing if I know them together though. Maybe muscle memory can be taken apart.

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    Replies
    1. You make some good points. I especially like what you say about ornaments

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