Tag Archives: Two-Part Inventions

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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musical meditation technique: how to strengthen the heart’s ear

By knowing words you do not know the language. What you know is the outside language; the inner language is known by knowing the language of ideas.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Healing Papers

Meditative practice (i.e. playing your instrument within yourself) has considerable benefits when learning a piece of music; and, incidentally, it can come in really handy whenever you find yourself far away from your instrument for a prolonged period of time. Following the advice of French pianist Jean-Claude Henriot (my mentor when I was a student at the Conservatoire in Évry), I recall making use of this technique in order to prepare for classical piano end-of-year exams/recitals.

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. Hear it in great detail, feel the touch of the piano (this also works for non-pianists: just mentally recall the feeling you experience when playing your particular instrument). For beginner/intermediate pianists, Bach’s Inventions work really well because they consist of only two contrapuntal parts — challenging enough (but not too arduous) to hear simultaneously with the mind’s ear. Of course, you can choose virtually any piece of music. When a passage seems unclear, go back and “replay” it again, (much) slower if necessary. Repeat it as many times as needed, just as you would when you practice on your “real” instrument, until you’re able to hear each note, as well as each item of expression attached to each note, with utmost precision.

This kind of practice certainly requires sharp concentration, and thus works best in a calm environment (I used to go on long walks in the fields near my home in Mennecy to do this). And it might take some time for you to grow accustomed to… But don’t give up! If practiced correctly, the benefits of musical meditation will certainly be felt as soon as you return to the piano (the following day for example — it’s always good to allow some time for the mental exercise to fully sink in). Overall, your knowledge of your chosen piece of music will considerably strengthen. As you rely less on muscle memory and more on your mind’s ear, your memory won’t fail you anymore, and you’ll be able to concentrate on musicality right off the bat.

So the language of ideas cannot be heard by the ears alone, the hearing of the heart must be open for it.

Hazrat Inayat Khan, The Healing Papers

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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