Strengthening the Left Hand

Question: Hello Albert,

Since I started playing the piano, I’ve mostly played Romantic-era music, where the left hand is just accompanying. In January I started with playing scales, 20 minutes every morning. And I realised that my left hand feels kind of uncomfortable. I’ve got a teacher since February now, and she gave me Bach’s WTC and a few (I call them) “finger gymnastics.” Since then the left hand works kind of better, but I still feel that there is something missing. It feels like the right hand has got something that the left hand hasn’t got.

I hope for an answer :-).

Once again, thank you for this website!

– Alessandro

Albert’s reply: In principle, the hands should be equally strong and dexterous. In practice, the dominant hand will naturally be more skilled. It is indeed possible to more or less equalize the hands given sufficient training.

One important principle is that the two hands should do equal work. Exercises done by one hand should generally also be performed by the other. Most people are right-handed (pianists are no exception), and most of the piano literature favors the right hand, which only exacerbates the inequality among the hands.

A simple solution is to practice passages intended for the right hand with the left as well. Leopold Godowsky went so far as to arrange nearly all of the Chopin Etudes for the left hand. In many of them, the left hand is tasked with playing the original right hand part, such as in this arrangement of the “Black Keys” study (from a 1998 performance of mine):

Technically speaking, since the hands are mirror images of one another, the left hand should play an inversion of the right hand part, but I cannot recommend this practice except in unusual cases. There are two keys on the piano keyboard on which a mirror could be placed, and the patterns of white and black keys are identical. (Can you find these keys?) Based on these axes of reflection it is possible to invert any right hand passage and play it in perfect symmetry with the left hand. The music is thereby turned upside-down.

The result of inverting technically difficult passages is, however, unmusical nonsense, and hence it cannot be recommended as a long-term practice technique. I’ll use the infamous double notes passage in Liszt’s Transcendental Etude Feux follets to illustrate:

Inverted about the note D, this passage looks like this:

While practicing in this manner would indeed work the left hand identically to the right from a mechanical perspective, it makes zero musical sense to do so. Admittedly, on occasion I do invert passages such as the above, but only when I feel that my hands are very out of balance, and only as a sort of warmup – perhaps “wake up” is the better term – exercise for the other hand. It’s also good exercise for the brain, which in itself makes this occasional practice worthwhile.

A truly excellent piano technique is one in which the fingers are always married to the ear, and a regimen of unmusical exercises played unmusically will almost certainly result in adept fingers, albeit divorced from beautiful sound. Unless you or your teacher have a very specific reason to do otherwise (such as articulating specific joints or achieving accuracy in leaps), piano exercises should be performed like miniature pieces of music. Even Hanon exercises consist of individual musical motives that can be shaped and articulated in various ways.

In addition to practicing piano scales, arpeggios and double notes, practicing the left hand alone in your pieces will do much to strengthen your left hand as well as sharpen your musical ear. This, in fact, is one of the best tips for becoming a better pianist: Practice the left hand in your pieces as though it were the entire piece by itself! You will hear many more details that you had previously ignored, and your left hand will strengthen of its own accord as you articulate the newfound details and strive for ever greater clarity and color.

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