Many students have ongoing problems regarding their left hand. These difficulties may include inability to read the bass clef properly, weaker fingers or just lack of co-ordination and movement. A languid left hand can be caused by so many culprits, so today I thought it may be a good idea to examine the reasons why the bass clef is crucial, along with a few suggestions about how to alleviate various left hand issues.
Left hand concerns usually start (as with so many difficulties) with insufficient guidance from teachers at the beginning (or perhaps a student who has tried teaching themselves). Many piano tutor books can also be of little help; there are books on the market which focus solely on learning the right hand (or treble clef), rather ignoring the left until perhaps much later when, of course, it’s too late. Fluent reading must start with both hands and both staves (where all the notes live on the score) being negotiated at the same time. The bass clef is arguably harder to read and assimilate than the treble clef, so it’s imperative the left hand is given equal attention from the outset.
Here are a few reasons why:
- Left hand notation, (how the notes are laid out on the stave) is different to that of the right, and the differences must be noted and learnt properly. This may take some time but will be completely worth the extra effort.
- Without thorough bass clef knowledge, proper hand co-ordination is challenging and sight-reading is impossible.
- The bass line is imperative in piano music; it often provides the accompaniment (especially in Classical and Romantic music), supporting the right hand’s melodic line. The accompaniment can be much more complicated and widespread than the melodic material too, so the left hand requires an easy facility in order to move all around the keyboard.
- In the Baroque style particularly (such as that by J S Bach and contemporaries), the left hand must equal the right in terms of phrasing, articulation and agility because the contrapuntal writing pervading this music, demands exacting rhythmic perfection.
- Whether the piece you are playing consists of a simple chordal accompaniment or is a much more florid and elaborate affair, harmonic structure and stylistic understanding frequently originates in the bass part due to Western harmonic structure.
- Good pedalling requires proper listening, but so often pedalling must coincide with the bass line because it is the basis of harmonic foundation.
- If you plan to play or learn your piece from memory, the importance of the left hand comes to the fore; left hand memorisation can be really helpful and sometimes vital.
- Mastering a work’s bass part can aid stability and confidence in performance.
So how can we overcome these difficulties and encourage your left hand to work properly? Once the notes and left hand layout have been properly understood and grasped, then there is the necessity (in my opinion) of working regularly at the bass line.
The best advice is to play exactly the same material in each hand (in unison); whatever you learn in the right hand should also be practised in the left. This works well with studies, scales, arpeggios and short exercises. Most pupils are probably introduced to this idea via scales and arpeggios, but to really progress, studies such as Czerny and Hanon (particularly the latter) can be very helpful. I do often mention these studies (sorry!) and they can be dull, but if played correctly will really aid flexibility.
Repetitive patterns, such as the following example, taken from 101 Exercises Op.261 by Czerny, encourage hands to work equally, regularly work each finger. This type of repetition (if practised fluently with a free, rotating wrist and relaxed arm) strengthens fingers allowing them to work independently, which is what is needed for secure left hand playing. Try the following left hand exercise with the suggested fingering (Czerny’s own) making sure your arm, hand and wrist is always relaxed. Start by playing the left hand alone (memorising it so you can completely focus on your hand and finger movements).
Build up your strength gradually and you might be surprised at how strong your left hand will become; eventually functioning as well as the right. Once you have practised the above left hand exercise, don’t forget to do the equivalent for the right hand too. The wrist should feel ‘free’ at all times and it can help to divide up with exercise into crotchet beats i.e. working on just four semi-quavers at a time.
When you feel both hands are working equally well without any strain or tension, introduce Hanon studies. These require the same finger movement in each hand; the left hand must learn to work fluently so not to ‘lag’ behind the right. As with all studies, start slowly building up strength and speed. It is easier to notice rhythmic or note irregularities or unevenness when hands play exactly the same material.
The following example is the from the first exercise from Hanon’s The Virtuoso Pianist.
Another strategy is to reverse practice or play the right hand line (treble clef) in the left hand and vice versa. This can be helpful too if done occasionally. It can be confusing to start with and you don’t have to play complete works in this fashion, but you can benefit from small sections. This can be a particularly useful method for learning to memorise a work.
Also useful is to practice the left hand material alone but two octaves higher than it is written on the page. This aids clarity, allowing you to really hear what is being played because notes can sometimes sound ‘muddy’ and unclear in the bass register. Try playing your piece hands together but then play the left hand part above the right; ostensibly the left hand will play exactly the same notes as written, rather like the suggestion above (playing two octaves higher) but with the right hand playing its material underneath. This is quite a tricky option but can be helpful nevertheless.
Thorough separate hand practice can be very beneficial. Students should be encouraged to learn each hand on its own when looking at new pieces, and if pupils focus on the left hand as much if not more than the right, this is also a successful strategy for swift learning. Try practising the left hand from memory and see how much you can remember. Probably not much to start with, but as you hone your memorisation skills, you will find that memorising the left hand comes into its own. This method is particularly useful when studying counterpoint. However you chose to practice do not neglect your left hand, because until both hands work securely you will find mastering most piano pieces a gargantuan task. Good luck and enjoy.