Achieving Hand Independence-Part 1
Posted by Chris Donnelly

By Chris Donnelly

Achieving hand independence is one of a pianist’s top priorities; it’s a common pursuit among students. It’s also one of the easiest to attain; hand independence requires only two things: Structured Exercises and Practice.

Students have difficulty improving hand independence because they 1) don’t know how to craft the proper exercises, 2) aren’t disciplined enough to stick with them, and/or 3) don’t put in the necessary practice time.

In this article, I’ll be addressing these general issues.  (Also, though hand independence is the primary focus, my comments below can be applied to practice in general.)  My next two articles will cover more practical advice and exercises for achieving hand independence.

1) Crafting Structured Exercises

Hand independence is an issue when jazz pianists try to improvise freely, with minimal rhythmic constraint.  Students never ask me how to achieve hand independence while playing a Bach fugue (rhythmically speaking). That’s because it’s all written out!

So, if I wrote out, note-for-note, an “improvisation” with a challenging, “independent” accompaniment, and instructed students to practice and play it, they would have fewer issues with hand independence.  This is because notation provides a more solid foundation for students to explore and improve the relationship between hands.  This is an important principle to understand when crafting exercises.

Side Note:  Achieving rhythmic independence is the more common issue, and that’s my focus here.  Of course, hand independence isn’t limited to rhythm; tone and balance between hands are issues too.  Furthermore, the issues and exercises discussed here also apply to finger independence.

I find that students who are trying to improve hand independence get frustrated because they’re crafting exercises that are too difficult.  Mistakes are commonly made, improvement is sluggish and a foundation for achieving hand independence isn’t being established.

2) Applying Discipline

Even if students do have good, structured exercises, they may not appreciate the level of discipline required to take full advantage.

Exercises meant to improve hand independence and muscle memory involve lots of repetition, a feature of discipline.  But jazz students underestimate the importance of repetition – it contradicts their ideas of creativity and spontaneity.

Too often, they turn repetitive, disciplined exercises into creative “exercises,” with too much spontaneity and no focus.

My instructions for practicing hand independence always include sticking to patterns, or structures, and never wavering (until it has been mastered). This is how you rid bad habits, fix mistakes and improve skills; every note, every rhythm, should be repeated exactly as it was played previously.  Otherwise, the point of the exercise is defeated, and time is being wasted.  I’ll give specific examples in the next article.

3) Putting in the Time

In the short-term, with discipline and the right exercise, students will improve.  But how do they figure out what to do next?

The challenge is to always keep within an optimal level of difficulty.  Exercises need to adapt to skill level.  If it’s too easy, students won’t learn anything.  If it’s too hard, a foundation is being established.  As they improve, they need to recognize when to modify the exercise and how to modify it.

Luckily, with hand independence, improvement is very evident in the short term.  It’s also very easy to increase the difficulty by small increments. I’ll write more about this in the next article too.

In the long-term however, improvement is more difficult to gauge.  Assuming the student is committed to building an extensive vocabulary and puts in many hours of deliberate practice, he/she will eventually and gradually break free of the rigid structures imposed during practice.  This comes with a feeling of more freedom and versatility during performance.  It takes many months and many years to achieve this level of freedom.  Students usually underestimate this.

Over time, it also becomes easier to assimilate new patterns and exercises.  This is because skills compound with time and practice.  However, no matter how independent your hands are, there will always be gaps in your ability.  Full independence is impossible!

There will always be a pattern or exercise that will elude you, at least until you practice it!

(Chris Donnelly is a Juno nominated pianist, composer and improviser from Toronto, Canada.  He teaches at the University of Toronto and blogs regularly at www.chrisdonnellymusic.com).

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