Do you feel that your left hand is weaker than your right hand and is holding you back in your piano playing? We all have a dominant hand, and for most of us it is the right hand. However, research has shown that even in left-handed players, the right hand still shows a higher level of motor control!
The left hand is often neglected in our practising for various reasons. Our ear can be so focussed on the right hand that we don’t always listen attentively to what is going on in the left. Even if we do try to listen, we cannot be sure we are able to hear whether our left hand is playing in a controlled way. Perhaps we are playing unevenly, or missing some notes – we can’t quite figure out what’s wrong, but know something is amiss.
Focussing on the left hand
Practising the left hand by itself is of course an option, and something I recommend doing regularly anyway. However, this won’t show us what is actually going on when we add our right hand. I have another solution for addressing this problem which involves playing a passage with the left hand on the keyboard as normal but with the right hand mining its notes on the surface of the keys.
By miming the right hand in this way, we are effectively playing both hands together still, but since we won’t hear any of the sounds the right hand would be making, we are able to really hear what the left hand is actually getting up to (rather than what we think it is doing). The process can be very revealing!
Exercises and studies
A secure left hand technique is essential for pianistic development, and special exercises and studies can be very beneficial. We listen only to our left hand, which is now responsible all by itself for maintaining the pulse, and playing rhythmically and expressively with nuances.
On my shelves I have an ancient copy of Herman Berens’ The Training of the Left Hand. I have never really given it much attention before, but decided to take a closer look after being commissioned to write an article on the left hand for Pianist Magazine.
The subject of whether pianists need to practise technical exercises at all is a contentious one, but doing specific exercises in particular ways for a good reason can be excellent groundwork for technical development alongside studies and repertoire. However, doing exercises without such a focus, or in ways that create tension not only waste time but can also be positively harmful. As with any exercise or indeed any practice activity, it’s how you do it that counts!
Video Series on the Online Academy
Because the left hand is so often a weak link for many pianists, I am in the process of creating a video series on the Online Academy on the the left hand. This will start with videos on a selection of the Berens exercises and studies and include ideas on using symmetrical inversion to build up left hand technique by calling on the strengths of the right hand for assistance.
The series will also feature some of Paul Wittgenstein’s exercises and some of his transcriptions for the left hand of well-known repertoire. Who would have thought Bach’s first prelude from the ’48 could be played by the left hand alone!?
Practising this is not only a terrific test of memory but if we can play the left-hand transcription sensitively, with expression and full rhythmical control, we can be sure we are developing our left hand technique in ways that are perhaps even better than dry, mechanical exercises.
Further Links & Resources
- Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here to view video walk-throughs of selected exercises and studies by Berens showing how to use the studies effectively to develop left hand technique.
- Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
- A Cello Suite for the Left Hand – Click here to find out more about our study edition featuring an arrangement of JS Bach’s Cello suite No. 1 in G major for the left hand.