Tag Archives: Johann Sebastian Bach

hand independence exercise based on Ainu canon

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:

  1. learning the melody in the right hand;
  2. 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);
  3. adding an accompanying foot pattern on the upbeats to the right and left hand melodies (optional);
  4. 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];
  5. 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…


Sheet music (PDF) available here:


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“meditative practicing” technique

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.


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cantabile style playing: practicing both legato and staccato

I’ve recently been working on most of Johann Sebastian Bach’s Two-Part Inventions as a kind of warm-up for the fingers and the ears (I learn them by heart and usually go through several first thing in the morning or at the beginning of each of my piano practice sessions). As I was playing No. 3 (D major) today, I realized I mostly was using legato phrasing and decided to venture into a staccato rendition of the piece. With the change of expression (staccato versus the former legato phrasing), I found myself much less self-assured: my memory failed me and I had to refer to the music on a couple of occasions. This, to me, was an indicator that I wasn’t hearing the melodic lines as clearly as I thought I was able to. Indeed, I don’t think my memory would have been caught off guard in that manner if a had been hearing them strong. So in addition to being a useful technical exercise, practicing cantabile style playing using both legato and staccato phrasing seems to be yet another great way to strengthen one’s inner hearing, and thus a very musical exercise. Highly recommended!


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