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A helping hand

A helping hand (Photo credit: JMaz Photo)

Yes!  This really works!

In this example, you will need to be patient and keep your desired end result in mind.  When you stick to it, though, it takes less than a week to play the left hand fluently.

The music

One of my piano students is playing “Liebestraum” by Franz Liszt, arr. Bastien.  This is a simplified version in which the left hand plays primarily quarter-note broken chords.  The piece is very chromatic, which requires reading accidentals in quick succession.

The melody is not difficult.  Adding the left hand makes a huge difference in the piece’s impression on listeners.  The harmonies are often unusual, but by adding them, the repeated melody notes have direction.

Let’s get started!

You will recognize this well-known piece as soon as you hear it, so play the melody first.

The left hand should be learned separately.  Accidentals can derail things in a second!  Give yourself a break and focus only on the left hand during a few practice sessions.

Look at the structure

The compositional form is ABA.  The departure from the opening key occurs, of course, in the B section.  This is where the accidentals happen so often they can be confusing.

My student started her practice sessions with the B section, left hand alone, for a few days.

What, specifically, do you need to work on?

If your answer is, “the entire piece,” or “the middle section,” you need to improve your ability to identify where the problems are.  Looking at the entire piece, or a long section, is far too vague an approach for you to progress in a reasonable amount of time.


Are you using good fingering?  Have you written the fingering in the score?  It is not necessary to write a number on every single note.  Look for places where your hand could stay in the same range, but the music moves to a different place on the keyboard.  What fingering can you use to make that transition go smoothly?  You may need to adjust the fingering earlier in the phrase.

Important:  Use the same fingering every time.  There’s no getting around this one.  You will learn the piece much faster.

Practice challenge

Do you read bass clef easily?  My student does not, so I gave her an assignment.  For one week, she said the names of the notes aloud while playing.  When she started doing this during her lesson, she was reluctant.  When she tried it again, she was speaking so softly, I couldn’t hear her (directly to her right!).

On the third try, she did it!  I challenged her to continue doing that, even when practicing alone.  I know it works… I use the same approach sometimes, saying fingerings out loud.

At first, she needed a slow tempo.  The idea is to play at a steady pace while saying the letter names loud enough so someone can hear you across the room. Maintaining a steady pace makes it much, much easier to go a little faster in a day or two.  The hesitations will disappear, and mistakes won’t have a chance to be built in!

Try for a steady tempo, even if that is slow, for now.  You don’t want to build in “hurry up and wait” like a New York driver!

Why bother to say the note names out loud?  Can’t I just say them to myself?

NO!  And this is why:  Speaking creates an additional track in the brain.  It is one more way to know the piece.  Finger memory alone is too risky.  Patient work on many levels truly pays off.  Those levels include:

  • visual memory
    • of the notes on the page
    • of the keys you play on the keyboard, in the sequence of the piece
  • auditory memory ~ how does the music sound?  Can you sing the tune?
  • finger memory ~ how does playing the piece feel?  Do your fingers, hands, and arms feel it differently than other pieces you know?
  • fingering memory ~ it can be helpful to say the fingering out loud.
  • harmonic structure ~ do you know which chords you are playing?  I’m not talking about which chord inversion, whether there are 6th chords, or anything beyond the basics.  You need to know what the basic harmony is.

How to increase the tempo

After you can comfortably play the left hand while saying the note names out loud, going slightly faster will be easy!  But don’t go from the slow tempo to, say, 12 counts on the metronome faster all at once.  Speed up a little at a time.

When I practice this way, I increase the tempo by 2 or 4 clicks/minute.  At the end of the practice session, I write down what the fastest tempo was that day.  On the next day, it usually does not work to begin at that tempo.  So I back up a notch, get comfortable with that again, then go to the fastest tempo from yesterday.  Arriving at that point doesn’t take long.  Then things proceed from there.

As you reach faster tempi, you may want to back up more than one notch to begin the next practice session.  Things improve quickly, so don’t worry if you need to start slower.

OK, now you can play the left hand at a convincing tempo with no glitches!  You did it!  Bravo!

Getting both hands into the act 

It’s time to slow down a little and add the right hand.  You will progress faster if you continue to say the names of the notes in the left hand.

Where do your eyes focus?

My student had no problem with this at all.  I asked her whether her eyes were focusing in a different place on the page now.  She said that they were, in the white space between the two staves.

That is crucial to playing both hands together!  When one’s focus is on the right hand, the left hand is out of focus and collects mistakes.  (Oops, I meant to play….)

My hunch is that we all tend to focus on the top line more than the others.  This is true in piano music, open choral scores, opera scores, etc.  That is not particularly helpful!

Choice of music

“Liebestraum” is a good piece with which to learn these tools, since the melody has so many repeated notes.  That makes it easier to look at the left hand.  You can play the melody by ear.

Please share your thoughts in the comment section below!

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