Hands Separate Practice: Acquiring Technique

Essentially 100% of technique development is accomplished by practicing hands separately (HS). Do not try to develop finger/hand technique hands together (HT) as that is much more difficult, time consuming, and dangerous, as explained in detail later.

Start practicing any difficult passage HS. Choose two short passages, one each for the right hand (RH) and the left hand (LH). Practice the RH until it begins to tire, then switch to the LH. Switch every 5 to 15 seconds, before either the resting hand cools and becomes sluggish, or the working hand becomes tired. If you choose the rest interval just right, you will find that the rested hand is eager to perform. Don't practice when the hand is tired, because that will lead to stress and bad habits. Those unfamiliar with HS practice will generally have a weaker LH. In that case, give the LH more work. In this scheme, you can practice hard 100% of the time, but you never practice with fatigued hands!

For the two difficult sections of Fur Elise, practice them HS until each hand becomes very comfortable, up to speeds much faster than final speed, before putting the hands together. This may take from a few days to several weeks depending on your level of play. As soon as you can play HS reasonably well, try HT to check that the fingering works. It is best to try to use similar fingerings (or closely related fingerings) in the two hands; this will make the task of playing HT simpler. Don't worry at this point if you can't play it satisfactorily, you just need to make sure that there are no conflicts or better fingerings.

It should be emphasized that the HS practice is only for difficult passages that you cannot play. If you can play the passage adequately HT, by all means, skip the HS part! The ultimate objective of this book is for you to be able to quickly play HT with practically no HS practice after you become proficient. The objective is not to cultivate a dependence on HS practice. Use HS only when necessary and try to reduce its use gradually as your technique advances. However, you will be able to play HT with little HS practice only after you have become pretty advanced -- most students will be dependent on HS practice for 5 to 10 years, and will never completely abandon its use. The reason for this is that all technique is most quickly acquired HS. There is one exception to this rule on avoiding HS practice whenever possible. That is memorizing; you should memorize everything HS for several important reasons (see "Memorizing" in section III).

Beginning students should practice HS all the time for all pieces so as to master this critically important method as quickly as possible. However, once the HS method is mastered, the student should start to explore the possibility of playing HT without using HS. Beginner students should be able to master the HS methods in two to three years. The HS method is not just separating the hands. What we will learn below are the myriad of learning tricks you can use once the hands are separated.

HS practice is valuable long after you have learned a piece. You can push your technique much further HS than HT. And it is a lot of fun! You can really exercise the fingers/hands/arms. It is superior to anything Hanon or other exercises can provide. This is when you can figure out "incredible ways" to play that piece. This is when you can really improve your technique. The initial learning of the composition only serves to familiarize your fingers with the music. The amount of time spent playing pieces you have completely learned is what separates the accomplished pianist from the amateur. This is why accomplished pianists can perform but most amateurs can only play for themselves.

Finally, it should be understood that all finger technique is acquired HS because there is no method that is more efficient. If you can play HT immediately, there is no need for HS practice. However, if you can't quite play HT, how do you tell if you can skip HS practice? There is a clear test for that -- you can skip HS practice only if you can play HS comfortably, relaxed, and accurately at faster than final speed. It is usually best to bring the HS speed up to at least 1.5 times final speed. That is usually not difficult, and can be a lot of fun, because you can see the rapid improvement in your skill level. For this reason, you might find yourself practicing HS a lot more than is absolutely necessary, and will certainly use it all your life. Each hand must eventually learn its own set of skills independently of the other (you certainly don't want one hand to depend on the other). The quickest way to acquire these skills is to learn them separately. Each alone is difficult enough; trying to learn them together will be much more difficult and time consuming. In HS practice, you acquire finger/hand technique; then in HT practice you only need to learn how to coordinate the two hands.