Achieving Hand Independence – The Foundation (Part 2/4)

In the previous post, I gave some general advice about practicing and achieving hand independence.  In this post, I’ll give more specific advice and exercises.

Practicing hand independence begins with a rhythm, pattern, idea or concept – something you want to work on.  It could be stride piano, a walking bass line, bossa nova, the Charleston, something Keith Jarrett played or something you invented yourself.  Once you’ve isolated an idea, you can derive exercises from it.

We’ll start with an easy one: the Charleston.  Feel free to adjust to fit your skill and taste.  Really, the difficulty isn’t what’s important here; it’s the process.

Charleston 1

The Charleston is easy on its own, but once you add another voice, the alternating downbeat and syncopation makes it challenging, even for advanced pianists.

Important note: Playing these exercises at the piano, with notes and harmony, adds a dimension that makes it more difficult.  Because rhythm independence is our focus, it may be necessary to start away from the piano.  My initial exercises are derived with notes and harmony as afterthoughts; I add them to the mix later, when a rhythmic foundation has been established.  I recommend patting your right and left lap for the first set of exercises.

Here’s ground zero:

Charleston 2

A whole note on the downbeat is easy, but it gets more difficult when you move that whole note around:

Charleston 3

All of these patterns should be solid before moving on to the next one, or on to something more complicated; we’re establishing a foundation.  If any of these are shaky, repeat them until you get it.  If you find you’re repeating it a million times and still not getting it, the exercise is too hard.  Try a slower tempo or an easier left-hand pattern.

Next, half notes (or two evenly spaced notes per measure):

Charleston 4

And quarter notes:

Charleston 5

Charleston 5

By this time, you may be ready to take these patterns to the piano.  Depending what your concept is, you’ll have different options for what notes to play in your left hand. For demonstrative purposes, I’ll assume we’re working towards applying this to a blues in F major, so I’ll use the following:

Charleston 6

As I mentioned, moving these exercises to the piano adds multiple levels of difficulty.  Higher and lower pitches will add different amounts of stress to different beats.  Even if a right hand rhythm is un-syncopated, a combination of pitches could create a pitch syncopation, which makes the exercise more difficult.  Compare this to patting on your laps, where pitch variance isn’t really an issue.

Also, even though our goal is to apply this to a blues in F major, playing over the blues from the get-go may be too difficult.  Not only would your hands have to manage rhythmic independence, they would also have to manage chord voicings and chord progressions.  This may be too much to think about.  For exercises meant to improve hand independence, I tend to first isolate single chords or short progressions before moving on to longer, more complex forms.

For these reasons, the first few exercises use minimal pitch variation; the right hand is confined to playing only one note, and the left hand is confined to playing one chord.  The following are translated from the exercises above:

Charleston 7

Charleston 8Charleston 9

By this time, you should be getting a feel for how this all works.  Your skills are beginning to compound and it should be getting easier and easier to absorb new rhythms.  Instead of providing an exhaustive list of right-hand rhythms, I’ll let you derive your own.  Pay close attention to how one rhythm can be shifted around in the bar to create more rhythms.  Find a right-hand rhythm that makes it difficult for your left-hand to stay steady.  Then practice it!

In a way, I treat this process like a game.  I try to find rhythms for my right-hand that will stump my left-hand.  Of course, it’s easy to create impossibly difficult rhythms to stump my left-hand, so the rhythms I pick for my right-hand have to be part of a linear and somewhat logical sequence of difficulty.  Each new, consecutive pattern is derived in some way from a previous pattern, but made slightly more difficult.  This way, I’m always keeping within an optimal level of difficulty.

In the next post, I’ll continue with this sequence and add pitch variance to these exercises.  I’ll demonstrate how pitch syncopation can be used to derive more complex exercises and improve hand independence.

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