A New Method of Practicing Piano: Switching Hands
Music is a language. It is a universal language. Musicians speak it and everyone understands it.
Let’s have a look at what kind of language it is. What is its structure? What are the conditions of its existence?
All musicians know that music consists of musical sentences which are called phrases. In classical music, a phrase usually consists of 8 measures with a comma between the 4th and 5th measure that serves as a breathing place.
I came to further conclusions about the structure of the phrase during my years of teaching piano to the students of different ages. I think that musical phrases consist of musical words. In classical music, which largely contains time signatures and measures, every measure can be perceived as a word.
In most modern languages, words consist of syllables. For example, in the Armenian language, words usually have multiple syllables and the last syllable gets the accent of the word. In English, the accents are more often in the beginning of the word, etc.
In music, the accent in the word is always on the first beat of the measure. We can assume that all the other beats are syllables in musical words. We must remember that we are not shouting the accents of the words in any language: we can say it fast, slow, whispering, etc., but we cannot displace them. We’ll get nonsense such as celebratio’n instead of celebra’tion.
The beats have certain meaningful relations inside of each measure. In the 2/4 time signature, the 1st beat is more important than the 2nd beat. In 3/4 time signature, the 1st beat is the most important, 2nd beat softer (acts like a balancing beat usually), 3rd beat the softest which is preparing the next 1st beat. In the 4/4 time signature, the 1st beat is the most important, second is softer, 3rd beat is stronger than 2nd beat , but softer than 1st, and the 4th beat is the softest.
So we have to agree that the articulate beats in the measure are extremely important.
The new and effective way of practicing which I found and tried many times with my students is called “switching hands”. I also use this methods when I am practicing.
What is the idea?
Let’s imagine we are working on Bach Prelude in C minor from his WTC 1, BWV 847.
I advise my student to practice first with small sections, a few measures long, maybe a phrase or a half of a phrase. First let’s work on perfect articulation, energetic rhythm and coordination of the right hand for those measures.
I ask the student to play each quarter note (4 sixteenth notes) with alternating hands: Right hand plays the I beat, left hand plays the II beat, right hand the III beat, left hand the IV beat and so on. We need to count out loud at the same time with eighth notes (one and, two and...) and tap the quarter notes with our foot. The counting and tapping are very important as it keeps the musical phrase in the frame of the living rhythm. We must do it a few times well.
Then we must switch our hands and alternate them the opposite way. We must play first quarter note beat (4 sixteenth notes) with the left hand, second quarter beat (next 4 sixteenth notes) with the right hand, 3rd quarter beat with the left hand and so on. It has to be played with counting and tapping a few times well.
Then we have to go back to and play the phrase like it is written with counting and tapping and imagining that we are still switching our hands. The next step is to work on the left hand music of the same phrase the same way.
The last step is to play both hands together with counting eighth notes (here metronome can be helpful as well), and tapping foot with quarter beats. We have to repeat it a few times.
This is the main idea of the method. It gives immediate and excellent results in articulating musical words and making meaningful phrases which are organized by living metro-rhythm. It also helps to coordinate hands and memorize the pieces faster.
I am not a biologist, but I think there is an explanation why this method is so effective and speeds up all the processes so well.
As we know right hemisphere of our brain controls the left side of our body, the left hemisphere controls the right side.
By giving part of music (that is played originally by one hand only) partially to the other hand, we activate the hemisphere of the brain which was not involved before. Our next step, which includes alternating hands in opposite order, gives both hemispheres of the brain new information to work with. So, it activates the response of our brain immensely. The additional plus is the fact that we are staying focused all the time while practicing this way.
I decided to call this method “switching hands, a view of an Armenian musician” to honor my motherland and all those wonderful people whom I loved.