It’s Independence Day in America, and I thought it opportune to post a special workout for pianists focusing on… hand independence, with a global twist!
The song we’ll use as the basis for this exercise is an Ainu canon (the Ainu are a people from Northern Japan and the Russian Far East), which involves call and response between a lead singer and a group of singers.
Although it may seem simple on the surface level, we’ll see that the mental and muscular processes involved in order to produce an acceptable rendition of it on the piano are in fact rather intricate…
To achieve this, I suggest we break down the practice into the five following steps:
learning the melody in the right hand;
learning the (same) melody in the left hand (the song being a canon, the hands are indeed essentially playing the same melody, two beats apart);
adding an accompanying foot pattern on the upbeats to the right and left hand melodies (optional);
putting it all together with the right hand playing the role of the lead singer (call) and the left hand responding [letter A in the sheet music below];
doing the same exercise again, but this time, reversing the hands: the left hand is now playing the lead part (call) and the right the chorus’ part (response) [letter B].
As you will see when you try this at home, although the result sounds simple and the melody is made up of only 3 notes ﹣ a tritonic scale roughly comprised of E, F#, and B (the tuning is not exact) ﹣ it does require some patient practice to really internalize this canon and play it accurately on the piano. For instance, particular attention should be given to the proper feel and articulation (when playing the legato and staccato notes in particular).
Have fun working on your hand independence with this song! It’s a great warm-up before tackling a Bach Invention or Sinfonia for example…
It goes without saying that the benefits of practicing really short passages of music, very slowly, and repeating them a great number of times, are prodigious (languages are also learnt more efficiently in that fashion). Imitation, repetition, and using an incremental process (starting out with a small bit of information and later adding other small bits, step by step) are key practice habits when it comes to your musical success.
These habits will help you “get into the zone,” or in other words will lull you into a soft meditative state conducive to deeply internalizing the music, feeling it in your whole being, sometimes to the point where you can almost sense that someone — or something — is playing the music through you, and you are just relaxing and observing… But I digress a little!1
The point is: this blissful state of “non-doing” in music can be reached by any of us, whether collectively within an ensemble, or when playing/practicing alone at your instrument. And in the latter case, a nifty little loop can come in quite handy! Playing to a click track/metronome is of course also a tried-and-tested method, particularly when aiming for steady tempo, solid groove, and genuine feel2. But there’s nothing like an audio loop to enjoy the added benefits provided by the external musical stimulation, and the inspiration that arises from it (short of playing with other live musicians!)
What’s in a good loop?
In my experience, both with students and in my own practice, the loops that have yielded the best results present the following characteristics:
they are relatively short in length (1 to 8 measures or a section of a tune at most);
focused on a challenging (though not insurmountable), or, to use another term, unfamiliar passage of music (trust me, after repeating it for a while it will become familiar, and that’s exactly what we want);
set to an adequate tempo, most likely on the slower end of the spectrum (one of my professors at Berklee had some words of wisdom about that: “if you bulls#*t slow, you’ll bulls%$t fast!”)
In my lessons, I make a point of detecting specific passages of music students may have difficulties with. I then prepare loopable audio files (in WAV format, because converting to MP3 tends to add undesirable gaps of silence to the tracks, which in turn makes the loops lopsided) corresponding to these passages for them to practice with. All that is needed then, on the student’s end, is a simple app if they’re going to use their phone for playback (Loop Player does a great job on Android), or a piece of software if they’d rather use a computer. In the latter case, I thoroughly recommend familiarizing oneself with Audacity.
Getting started with Audacity
Audacity is a great little piece of software that will enable you to set a tempo you are comfortable with and play the file back as many times as needed, at the same pace and with no interruptions. So before you delve into the blissful state of non-doing in music, let’s take a closer look at a few simple, technical steps that will get you started in no time:
opening an audio file with Audacity;
setting the track’s tempo to your practicing needs;
2. To load a specific audio file in Audacity, just drag it into the empty blue/grey area (a white “+” sign in a green circle will appear as you hover over that region). A warning will then pop up prompting you to choose an import method. You can select “Make a copy of the files before editing (safer)” so that if you make changes and save them, the original file will remain available as well.
3. Select the whole audio file (on Mac, hit cmd + A) and go to Effect > Change Tempo…. The “Change Tempo” box appears providing you with three alternatives: Percent Change, Beats per minute (good if you know the original bpm of the track, which you can also figure out using http://a.bestmetronome.com/), or Length (seconds). Don’t forget to tick the box in front of “Use high quality stretching (slow)” for better results.
4. Finally, choose Transport > Play > Loop Play (or hit shift + space) to launch the play-along.
As Kenny Werner reminds us: don’t forget to stop playing when you feel you’re loosing focus and concentration. Take your hands off/put down your instrument, take a deep breath, get back into the space, and try again!
Enjoy and see you online at your next lesson 😉
1 If you’re interested in digging deeper into the subtle spiritual realm of musical practice, you can read a whole lot more about it in Kenny Werner’s classic book Effortless Mastery.
2 If you’d like to learn about the different types of metronomes (and the key features to look out for when choosing one), this exhaustive deep dive on the topic will definitely do the trick!
The following “meditative practicing” technique comes in really handy when far away from your instrument.
All you have to do is choose a notated piece of music that you’ve got memorized and try and play it in your mind as precisely as possible, hearing it, and even feeling the touch of the piano (this also works if you play another instrument: just mentally recall the feeling you experience when playing your particular instrument). For pianists, Bach’s Inventions work well because they consist of two contrapuntal parts, which are already challenging enough to hear simultaneously with the mind’s ear. But you can choose virtually any piece of music. When a passage seems unclear, go back and “replay” it again, slower if necessary (just as you would when you practice on your instrument) until you’re able to hear each note, as well as each item of expression attached to each note, with utmost precision.
This technique certainly requires sharp concentration and thus works best in a calm environment. But if practiced correctly, its benefits are certainly to be felt as soon as you return to the piano (the following day for example – it’s always good to allow the mental exercise to fully sink in during the night…): overall, your knowledge of the piece will have been considerably strengthened; your memory won’t fail you and you’ll be able to concentrate on musicality right off the bat.
To improve rhythmic independence? Of course. But also:
it might lead you to use different voicings than the ones you usually use for comping. Sometimes a voicing might be too low and sound muddy when played with the left hand in the lower part of the keyboard, but the same voicing played higher up will sound OK due to the absence of low interval limit restrictions;
the left hand is generally weaker and slower than the right hand. Such technical restriction forces you to rely more on musicality, inner hearing and singing when improvising with the left hand. When you then go back to improvising with the right hand, it feels a lot easier! Musicality is now right at your fingertips, with the greater technical ability of your strong hand available to serve it.