Thursday, July 6, 2006

Left Hand vs. Right Hand

OK, we've got some great questions. Let's see if we can start getting some of them answered and prompt others to jump in with their opinions.

There seemed to be some interest in getting the right hand and left hand to work together. It seems this problem is unique to the piano, as most other instruments concentrate EITHER on playing the melody (flute, trumpet, violin) or chords (guitar). Piano players must do both.

Actually, I believe the problem is NOT getting the hands to be coordinated with one another, but rather the opposite. How do we train the hands to work independently? How do we de-coordinate them?

A trumpet player uses two hands to produce just the melody. A guitar player uses two hands to produce just the chords. A piano player must do two things at once.

As a struggling novice boogie-woogie student back in the early 1970's it became apparent to me rather early that in order to succeed at boogie, I had to have a very strong left hand. Not only did my left hand have to play the harmony (chords), but it was also responsible for the rhythm.

If that were not enough, I had to save up all my mental creative concentration for the right hand in order to get creative with my improvising. So I concluded I needed to get my left hand down perfectly first. I had to train it to go on "auto pilot."

Luckily the left hand was pretty repetitive, so training it to be on auto pilot was not out of the question. I would work very hard on just the left hand for a few weeks, and it actually got pretty good with those boogie lines. I was pretty proud of it. But pride cometh before a fall, doesn't it?

Everything went fine until I added my right hand and started to play some improvised lines. Then the whole thing fell apart on me. And the sad truth was I wasn't ready to start improvising yet. My left hand wasn't completely automatic yet.

So how do I train myself to improvise without driving myself (and everyone in ear shot) totally crazy with the lone monotonous left hand?

Then it hit me. I would practice my left hand while distracting my brain with other things such as ............ watching television. After a week, that went pretty well. Then I graduated to reading while playing my left hand. If news magazines were a little hard to start with, I would read comic books. Then newspapers and magazines, even novels, all with those boogie-woogie lines droning in the background.

Then I went for my biggest challenge. I'd practice my boogie-woogie left hand while talking on the telephone. Yes of course I was driving everyone else crazy at that time. But it was worth it. For me. Plus I was living alone, so that helped too.

Within six months I could keep that boogie-woogie left hand going and start to add my right hand while improvising on the blues scale. What fun.

That's one way to approach it. Anybody else have some other suggestions? Of course it's not like the problem was solved forever. In fact, with every new song there is still the element of this tension between left and right. But after I solved the problem once, it made subsequent challenges a little easier.


  1. Robert,
    Interesting thought process. I've been working on the left hand patterns with my eyes closed and probably hitting more wrong notes than correct ones at this point. Fortunately, my wife doesn't complain or laugh and I don't much care what the neighbors are thinking.
    Bill Little

  2. Hi, Robert, thanks for the hint. I gave up 2 hands on boogie-woogie sometime ago. I think I'll give it another try on your tips.

    I was wondering if playing one hand to "Play-Along CD" would be helpful to begin with? Suppose I could buy the 12 bar tune, with capability of suppressing either right hand or left hand. I kind of think it should be a great tool for right hand improvisation at least.

    Frank Lin

  3. Can you post the boogie woogie lines you played???

  4. Robert,

    Good hints you have there about coordinating both hands together. I don't have too much problem with boogie woogie because the LH rhythmic feel is quite even.

    I tried your Rumba (that is the bonus lesson for the LH you put in the Continuing Chord book) with the LH coordinating with the RH song melody..... in the beginning, I had trouble.... but eventually when I felt that rhythm of 'uneven' beat then, I was able to apply them into my playing.

    I finally could hear that rumba beat going on my LH and able to keep my RH going with the song. Yaaaay. Love that sound and rhythm.

    So I think feeling the beat inside help to coordinate both LH and RH together.

    One question here about this Rumba playing: (Maybe this is another topic)

    The LH you gave was hitting the 135 of LH notes individually.

    I've done that succesfully.

    Can you give me suggestions of what to do now and how to continue expanding on this so that it is not so monotonous with just hitting the individual 1 3 & 5?


  5. Sadly, I'm still a novice at the piano, but I agree with the suggestion posted to practice until it's second nature.

    Years ago when a teenager I learned the accordian and played for several years. The LH is very different than the RH and you can't see the keys.

    It was very difficult in the beginning, but I practiced the left hand only...until I knew where the little button keys were...then I concentrated on the notes and the rhythm. When I (and the professor) was happy with that hand... I went on to the RH. Not until I hand both hands playing correctly did I attempt to put both together.

    It took time in the beginning but with each new music I learned it got easier and easier and in no time at all I was playing great music.

    Of course that was many years ago and I was much younger then and without arthritic hands, But I use the same technique now to play the piano...and it does work.

    So to put it simpler the key word here is Practice Practice Practice.

    Hope this helps someone...I know it helps me.

  6. Robert

    Funny you should mention that the key is to decoordinate the left from the right hand. The main reason I bought your lessons and others was to coordinate my right hand to the chords and runs that my left hand does so easily. My right is all melody. I can pick out any tone and melody independantly. I so desparately need to get the right hand to extend the chords not just melody. I found this very hard to do. I had never took a lesson and learned to play full songs using both hands using fingering that was somewhat unorthodox. Your DVD and overhead views helped me to actually see the proper fingering, and your courses taught me much needed inversions. Thank you.

    If you have some fixes for my problem, that is, playing chords with both hands while sticking in melody notes with my right hand and bass runs with my left hand, I'd love to hear it. I can play the two parts at the same time using both hands, but as it stands now, my mind separates the two parts too much. It's very hard for me to coordinate them together whenever I need to play a right hand chord.

    Does this make sense to you?


  7. Hi, Thank you for sharing such great ideas. I think I'll borrow comics soon..Lol

    I've been trying to play Comptine D'un Autre Ete - L'Apres Midi (Yann Tiersen, a music featured in the film Le Fabuleux Destin d'Amelie Poulain.) Its a romantic french film. Maybe you guys should check it out, if you understand french well. I guess they have the englsih version as well, but anyway, lets get to the topic..

    It is true, when i play both the chord and the melody, the song is a mess-up. I find it really hard to combine both hands. I hope your brilliant ideas can help de-coordinate the left and the right side of my brain.

    Right now, i suspect my neurones are all tangled up with no clean separation between the two spheres of my brain. However, I suspect if that could lead to side effects. For instance, I heard that when your right and your left brain are linked (coordinated/tangled up), you are good at maths, as well as in rhetorics (talking , speech, etc).

    But what if piano tried to separate the two parts of my brain to lead me into independent hands, will that affect my other skills..


    Post your suggestions and comments other readers, Thanks..

    Shailen Sobhee

  8. I've said it before. I'll say it again. Learn the left hand first. If it's tricky and highly rhythmic (e.g. boogie-woogie) practice the left hand while reading a magazine. Get your brain used to the idea that the left hand must be trained to perform without conscious thought.

    Robert Laughlin

  9. Hi,

    I am still trying to learn piano. According to my friend the idea is practise each hand separately.
    But till now I still have problem coordinating them.

    One correction to your comment about guitar playing.
    A guitar can do both melody and harmony like the piano abeit less note but nonetheless a complete song.


  10. could someone send me the right hand music to jingle bells please send to

  11. That "left hand melody" suggestion was right on the money. After all if the right hand can do melody and chords as is normal in piano playing, why not the left hand do both too?

    One pianist who has this figured out (and who has made many other innovations) is Henry Butler.

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