Hands Separate vs. Hands Together

Question: Dear Albert:

I am a beginning piano student and I am curious about something. It is always stressed that one should practice hands separate, then hands together. However, hands separate is ridiculously easy. So much so, that putting hands together is so different that the hands separate practice seems almost irrelevant! Am I wrong here?

If this is so, shouldn’t students be practicing pieces hands separate several levels above what they are doing hands together?

– Neal (Bohol, Philippines)

Albert’s reply: Practicing hands together is not twice as hard as practicing hands separately – it is at least four times as hard. The difficulty grows exponentially, as the task is vastly more complex than one assumes. If you have polyrhythms or different rhythms in different hands, for instance, the complexity multiplies. Another source of difficulty is contrapuntal music such as fugues, with multiple voices; often a voice is spread out among the hands, so hands separate practice will not allow you to play even one voice in toto.

Nonetheless, the complexity of hands together practice does not mean you’re free to ignore hands separate practice! On the contrary, it is of the greatest importance that the memory of each hand be continually reinforced, as this is the only way to ensure that you truly know what each hand is doing. (“Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth” is decidedly unsound advice when it comes to practicing piano!)

Critically, the memory of each hand playing separately is different kinesthetically from that of the hands playing together. Often, when I ask students to play with one hand, they immediately move the other hand over the keys simultaneously. When I call their attention to it, they then place their other hand on their lap and move their fingers as though it were playing as well. In most cases they are completely unaware that they are doing this. When I forbid them from moving the non-playing hand, they are entirely unable to play at all.

When practicing hands separately, it is important to keep the exact same tempo in both hands, even if technical difficulties are only present in one hand. You should be hearing the other hand in your mind’s ear while you practice with one hand. Even if this sort of practice seems boring to you, it is essential to reinforce hand separate practice.

Practicing hands together should only come once you have very thoroughly learned each hand by itself. Even then, make sure you do hands separate practice during each practice session – no matter how well you think you know the piece!

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