8. Divide and Conquer:
Part 3 - Separate the Hands

by Daniel Nistico

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When pianists first practice a piece, they often practice each hand separately before playing them together. Even when a piece is well learned, it’s very beneficial for a pianist to practice hands separate.

Essentially it simplifies the task into something easier to memorize and process, which equals a quick way to make the music sparkle.

String players often practice phrasing on open strings. This helps them refine their tone and make their musical intention clearer.

Us guitarists can borrow these ideas from other instruments and use them to our advantage. What’s great is that this is quite a simple practice tool to think about, but when actually executing it, it’s challenging and fun. I’ll break it down and look at some methods and advantages for practicing each hand separately.

Left Hand Alone
A lot of our musical flow is dictated by the left hand. If our shifts are not flowing, then the music can get jerky and unwanted rubato can start to happen.

If you practice the left hand on its own, you can very quickly solve these problems.

1. Select a small unit that isn’t yet sparkling enough to you. Play it and observe exactly what the problem is musically, then figure out what is causing this technically in the left hand.

2. Use your right hand to mute the strings so that they don’t make any sound.

3. Play the passage with your left hand only. You should hear no sound except for occasional sounds of the left hand moving on the strings.

4. Ensure that your musical intention is clear in your mind and that you’re hearing the music in your head while you’re playing it with your left hand alone. Is the phrase or unit getting louder or softer? Is it a sad passage with a laid back pulse or the opposite? Are there certain notes to put vibrato on? Do your fingerings best express your musical sentiment? Whatever it is, make your left hand (and your whole body) embody the musical expression.  

5. This is a great opportunity to be super-aware of your left hand’s mechanics. How much pressure are you using? How fast or slow are your shifts? Are they jerky? Are you playing close to the frets to minimize buzzing? Is your thumb active or passive? Are you using the weight of your arm to place the fingers down? Definitely use a mirror to help observe this for yourself. 
 
Right Hand Alone
1. I suggest choosing very small units to practice the right hand alone, because this is much more abstract than the left hand.
I tend to do one measure or less at a time and build up from that. You want the movements to become fluid and automatic, so small units with multiple repetitions is the way to go. 
 

2. Work out what the right hand fingering is, it might help to write it down on the score in color. Places where you slur with the left hand can be more challenging to figure out the right hand fingering.

3. Play the right hand only on the open strings that you would usually play the passage/unit on. For clarification I’ve written out one example from Sor’s Etude (no. 10 Segovia Edition):
4. Tone, dynamics, rhythm and articulation are probably the big points to focus on for right hand alone. Work this all out before you attempt to play the passage. Mark it in the score with color.

Once you've practiced the hands separately, try playing them together. You should feel greater security in your musical intention and technical execution.

The next email will focus on dividing and conquering harmony and will explore ways to help you understand every single harmony in the pieces you’re working on. 

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