Sunday, September 26, 2010

Playing Hands Together

In my last post, I introduced the idea of outlining, learning a new piece of music by playing a sketch first, and gradually adding more detail. I emphasized the importance of playing hands together so that you can hear the full structure and texture of the piece.

There are so many reasons to play hands together that I cannot stress the importance of it enough.

By now probably everyone is aware that the brain has two hemispheres, the right and left, with the left side controlling the right hand, and vice versa. In between them is the corpus callosum, a bundle of neural fibers, which allows for the communication between the two hemispheres. “It is the largest white matter structure in the brain, consisting of 200–250 million contralateral axomic projections.” (Wikipedia) It is known to be significantly larger in musicians than non-musicians, and it is somewhat larger in people who are left-handed or ambidextrous.

We’ve all heard people referred to as “right-brained” or “left-brained,” left-brained being the more logical, linear thinker, and right-brained being the more creative, non-linear thinker. While this is a vast oversimplification, there is certainly some truth to it. Presumably, if you want to be balanced and excel at both types of thinking, you’d want to develop both hemispheres of your brain, or, more to the point, to develop the part which connects them, and allows them to work together, the corpus callosum. This can be achieved by engaging in activities which use both halves of your brain, but also in activities that use both hands equally. It makes sense that the corpus callosum is larger is people who are ambidextrous, since they use left and right hands more equally, and in left-handed people, who are often somewhat ambidextrous, having had to adapt to a right-handed world.

One could make the case that if you want to be a great musician, you need to excel at both left-brain and right-brain skills, and I am convinced this is so. Musical is very logical and mathematical, or left-brain. Mathematical ratios are at the core of the vibrations and relationship between vibrations which give us tones, the musical scale, and so on. Most musical compositions have an inherent structure which is logical, often symmetrical, and it what allows the listener to follow and make sense of a piece of music as it unfolds in time. Yet music is also emotional and holistic, very right-brain. To be a great composer or performer, you must be very creative, expressive, communicative, passionate – these are right-brain strengths.

Here’s the great news: the very act of listening to music helps develop your brain, because processing music uses more parts of the brain simultaneously than any other activity. (I recommend Daniel Leviton’s book, “This is Your Brain on Music,” and Oliver Sacks’ “Musicophilia,” for more information on this.) Playing a musical instrument develops it even more. This has been well-documented; we’ve heard of “the Mozart effect” – that is, when children play an instrument, their brains grow faster and they excel at other subjects and other areas of life more than children who don’t play an instrument. (By the way, it isn’t limited to children; we now know that adults can still grow their brains at any age.) Musicians get the best of both: your brain grows by listening to and processing music, and the corpus callosum grows by using and connecting the two hemispheres (the logical and emotional) and by using both hands simultaneously.

When you play hands together, you build the corpus callosum, which will help you be a better musician. In my post about outlining, I also stressed the importance of playing with emotional engagement right from the start as well, because, of course, this also engages your right hemisphere and builds more connections.

New students coming to me often say it’s too difficult to play pieces hands together right from the start. That’s because your brain doesn’t yet have the neural connections in the corpus callosum to do so. If you’ve ever tried to rub your stomach with one hand and pat your head with the other, you may have found you couldn’t do it at first. But as you kept at it, your brain developed the connections to do that activity, and from then on you can do it easily. So it is with just about everything. Every time you play hands together, even if it’s with very few notes, you increase your ability to play hands together the next time.

I once had a student come to me from another teacher. He was a beginner but the teacher started him out on classical pieces such as Bach’s Minuet in G, but had him learn it hands separately. The student made some brief attempts to put hands together, but at the first difficulty he had gone back to playing them separately, figuring he needed more practice on each hand’s part. He spent eight months playing nothing but hands separately! No wonder it was so difficult: his poor brain never had a chance to develop the neurons it needed.

Do I ever recommend one-handed practice? Yes and no. Sometimes I want to play one hand’s part so I can hear it really clearly. For example, we often don’t hear the bass part, our left-hand’s part, as clearly as we hear the right hand (the ear gravitates towards the highest frequencies). But if I’m playing, say, the bass line, why not have the right hand play along with it, doubled at the octave? Who knows – your right hand will probably have something like this at some time in your life, so you are getting to practice it ahead of time! Now you have the benefit of hearing the bass line clearly, but you are still playing hands together. If you want to develop more neurons in the corpus callosum, cross your hands and play the line doubled and with hands crossed. Now your brain really has to work! If you try it you will see what I mean…

And yes, I admit, sometimes a passage is so challenging I work on it hands separately. But I do this only the minimum amount necessary.

Life is too short and practice time too precious to spend it with one hand sitting in your lap. Play hands together! It will make you a better musician and a more balanced person.