Hands Together: Chopin's Fantaisie Impromptu
We can now finally start putting the hands together (HT)! This is where some students encounter the most difficulties, especially in the first few years of piano lessons. Although the methods presented here should immediately help you to acquire technique faster, it will take about two years for you to be able to really take advantage of everything that the methods of this book has to offer, especially for someone who has been using the intuitive method. Therefore, work on learning the method as much as using it to learn a particular piece of music. The main question here is, what must we do in order to be able to play HT quickly? In answering that question, we will learn why we devoted so much of this section on HS practice. As we shall soon see, putting HT is not difficult if you know how. Playing HT is almost like trying to think about two different things at the same time. There is no known, pre-programmed coordination between the two hands like we have between our two eyes (for judging distance), our ears (for determining the direction of oncoming sound) or our legs/arms (for walking). Therefore, learning to coordinate the two hands accurately is going to take some work. The preceding HS work makes this coordination much easier to learn because we now only have to concentrate on coordinating, and not coordinating AND developing finger/hand technique at the same time. The good news is that there is only one primary "secret" for learning HT quickly (of course, there are numerous other tricks, such as the "adding notes" method, outlining, etc., discussed below). That "secret" is adequate HS work. All technique acquisition must be done HS. Putting it another way, don't try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS. By now, the reasons should be obvious. If you try to acquire technique HT that you can acquire HS, you will run into problems such as (1) developing stress, (2) unbalancing the hands (the RH tends to get stronger), (3) acquiring bad habits, especially incorrect fingerings, that are impossible to change later on, (4) creating speed walls, (5) incorporating mistakes, etc. Note that all speed walls are created; they result from incorrect play or stress. Therefore everybody has a different set of speed walls. Premature HT practice can create any number of speed walls. Incorrect fingering is another major problem; some fingerings appear more natural when played slowly HT but become impossible when speeded up. The best example of this is "thumb under" play (section III.5). What this boils down to is that you will need some criterion for deciding when you have done adequate HS practice. The first criterion is HS speed. Typically, the maximum HT speed you can play is 50% to 90% of the slower HS speed. This slower speed is usually the LH. Suppose that you can play the RH at speed 10 and the LH at speed 9. Then your maximum HT speed may be 7. The quickest way to raise this HT speed to 9 would be to raise the RH speed to 12 and the LH speed to 11. Don't try to raise it HT. Raising the speed HT is probably the biggest cause of problems with the intuitive method. As a general rule, get the HS speed up to about 50% above final speed. Therefore, the criterion we were seeking above is this; if you can play HS at about 150% of final speed, relaxed, and in control, then you are ready for HT practice. Do not take this "150%" too literally; it is not necessary to measure the HS speed with a metronome. Just make sure that the HS speed is much faster than HT, then try HT. If you still have trouble, go back to HS and raise its speed a little more. If you had done sufficient HS work, the HT play will come very quickly. There is a world of difference in how the brain handles tasks in one hand and tasks that require two-hand coordination. HS practice improves your ability to manipulate one hand. It does not tend to form habits not directly controlled by the brain because the brain controls each function directly. HT motions, on the other hand, can be cultivated only by repetition, creating a reflex habit. One indication of that is the fact that HT motions take longer to learn. Therefore, bad HT habits are the worst because, once formed, they take forever to eliminate. The best way to acquire technique quickly is to avoid this category of bad habits. This is why it is so important to delay HT practice until you are sure that the HS preparation is adequate. The ability to coordinate, yet independently control, the two hands is one of the hardest skills to learn in piano. The flip side is that this makes HT habits nearly impossible to undo -- nobody has yet figured out a way to erase HT habits quickly. This is the main reason why so many students spend so much time trying to learn HT -- they transition to HT before they are ready and end up trying to acquire technique HT. Now, this does not mean that you should never try HT in the beginning; you can start preliminary HT work at any time -- just don't try to improve technique HT yet. HS practice is fundamentally different; you can change fingerings and hand motions relatively quickly. You can increase speed with much less chance of picking up bad habits. But it is not enough to get up just to final speed HS; you must be able to play much faster before you are ready for HT. Only by going to such fast speeds can you guarantee that all your finger/hand/arm positions and motions are optimized. If you perform enough preparatory HS work, you will find that HT play at final speed comes surprisingly quickly and easily. You have effectively scaled all potential HT speed walls by avoiding the mistakes that create them. For example, you can cultivate accurate chords and jumps best HS. It can be forbiddingly difficult to practice fast runs, accurate chords, or jumps HT, and there is no need to create such difficulties. So here is a suggested routine for ensuring adequate HS work. Suppose that the final speed is 100. First, memorize and learn HS to 80 or even 100 (whole piece, or a large section, at least several pages; doesn't have to be perfect at this stage). This may take two or three days. Then start HT at 30 to 50. The objectives are (1) memorize HT, (2) make sure that the fingerings, hand positions, etc., work HT. This may take another day or two. You will in general need to make some modifications, such as when the two hands collide or one needs to cross over/under the other, etc. Then work on the technically difficult sections HS to speeds over 100. When you can comfortably play at speeds of 120 to 150, you are now ready to seriously start practicing HT. Vary HT practice speed; as soon as you start to get confused HT, clear up the confusion using HS play. For difficult material, you will be alternating between HS and HT for days, if not weeks, with the HT progressively taking over. As you improve HT play, always keep the HS play well ahead of the HT speed, because this is the fastest way to improve HT. Now we can understand why some students get into trouble when they try to learn pieces that are too difficult by practicing mostly HT. The result is an unplayable piece full of stress, speed walls and bad habits that completely block any improvement because the problem motions are locked in. If this happens, no amount of practice will help. By contrast, there is nothing that is too difficult with the methods of this book (within reason). But it is still not a good idea to tackle pieces that are too far above your skill level because of the tremendous amount of HS practice that will be needed before you can start HT. Many people would become impatient, start HT or abandon HS prematurely, and end up getting into trouble anyway. There are more benefits to acquiring technique HS before HT, in addition to saving time and trouble. (1) You will develop the independence of the two hands which is so necessary for controlling the expression. (2) You will find that the piece will have a much more solid foundation than if you started HT too early, and you will feel that there is better control. (3) You can more easily play through mistakes or hide them. If you had learned the piece HT only and one hand makes a mistake, the other hand will stop. But if you had learned it HS first, then the other hand can keep going; in fact, you can often change fingerings as you play. (4) You will memorize it much better with fewer blackouts. (5) Best of all, you will acquire technique that you could not acquire by practicing only HT. Because you can play much faster HS than HT, you can acquire technique HS that you cannot even dream of, playing HT. It is this extra technique that builds a solid foundation for controlled HT playing. (6) If you can play accurately at 150% of performance speed HS, you will find that nervousness during the performance will be greatly reduced because of the increased confidence that you can handle the piece. In fact, using this method, you should eventually be able to play the piece at far above performance speed, which is what you need to do in order to have adequate control. Most of the HT practice procedures are similar to the HS methods (shorten difficult passages, continuity rule, rules for fast and slow play, relaxation, etc.). Therefore, although there appears to be relatively few HT rules stated here compared to the HS section, you already know many of them from the HS section. There is no need to repeat them here because you will readily recognize their applicability if you had carefully studied the HS section. As stated earlier, there are additional HT methods that can help. One is outlining, discussed in section III.8. Another is the method of "adding notes". Suppose that you had followed all of the above procedures, but still have trouble playing HT. That is, you can play HS at much faster speeds than final speed, yet HT does not work. Then try the following. Take a short segment of the difficult section. Then play the more difficult hand HS, repeating it continuously (this is called cycling, see section III.2). Now start adding the easier hand note by note; first add only one note, until you can play it satisfactorily. Then add another, etc., until the segment is complete. Very often, the reason why you cannot play HT although you can play HS is that there is an error in one hand. Frequently, this error is in the rhythm. Therefore, as you add notes, try to find out if there is a rhythmic error in one hand. Another source of HT difficulty is insufficient memorization. Note that HS memorization and HT memorization is not the same thing. Therefore, just because you have it memorized HS does not mean that you have memorized it HT. When you transition to HT, you need to memorize it all over again, although it should go much faster this time. It is a mistake to assume that, because you know it inside out HS, you also know it HT. Let us now proceed with a real life example of how to practice HT. I have chosen a non-trivial example to illustrate HT methods, because if the method works, it should work with anything. This is Chopin's Fantaisie-Impromptu, Op. 66. This example is good because (1) everyone likes this composition, (2) without good learning methods it can seem impossible to learn, (3) the exhilaration of suddenly being able to play it is unmatched, (4) the challenges of the piece are ideal for illustration purposes, and (5) this is the kind of piece that you will be working on all your life in order to do "incredible things" with it, so you might as well start now! In reality, this is a fairly easy piece to learn! Most students who have difficulty do so because they can't get started and the initial hurdle produces a mental block that makes them doubt their ability to play this piece. There is no better demonstration of the efficacy of the methods of this book than showing how easily you can learn this composition. For somewhat easier pieces, see section III.6.l (Bach's Inventions). We start by making sure that you have done all the preliminary homework with HS practice. Although the last page might be most difficult, we will break the rule about starting at the end and start at the beginning because this piece is difficult to start correctly but, once started, sort of takes care of itself. You need a strong, confident beginning. So we will start with the first two pages, up to the slow cantabile part. The LH stretch and continuous workout makes endurance a major issue. Those without sufficient experience and especially those with smaller hands, may need to work on the LH for weeks before it becomes satisfactory. Fortunately, the LH is not that fast, so speed is not a limiting factor and most students should be able to play the LH HS faster than final speed in less than two weeks, completely relaxed, without fatigue. For bar 5 where the RH first comes in, the suggested LH fingering is 532124542123. You might start by practicing bar 5, LH, by cycling it continually until you can play it well. See section III.7e for how to stretch your palm -- you should stretch the palm during playing, not the fingers, which can lead to stress and injury. We all know that you can spread the fingers to increase your reach. However, you also have a separate set of palm muscles just for spreading the palm. Learn to use these two sets of muscles independently: the palm muscles for spreading only and the fingers for playing. Practice without the pedal. First a few bars, then the entire section (up to the cantabile), all memorized and up to speed, HS. Practice in small segments. Suggested segments are: bars 1-4, 5-6, 1st half of 7, 2nd half of 7, 8, 10 (skip 9 which is the same as 5), 11, 12, 13-14, 15-16, 19-20, 21-22, 30-32, 33-34, then 2 chords in 35. If you cannot reach the 2nd chord, play it as a very fast ascending broken chord, with emphasis on the top note. After each segment is memorized and satisfactory, connect them in pairs. Then play the whole LH from memory by starting from the beginning and adding segments. Bring it up to final speed. When you can play this entire section (LH only) twice in succession, relaxed, without feeling tired, you have the necessary endurance. At this point, it is a lot of fun to go much faster than final speed. In preparation for HT work, get up to about 1.5 times final speed. Raise the wrist slightly when playing the pinky and lower it as you approach the thumb. By raising the wrist, you will find that you can put more power into the pinky, and by lowering the wrist you avoid missing the thumb note. In Chopin's music, the pinky and thumb (but especially the pinky) notes are most important, so practice playing them with authority. The Cartwheel method, explained in section III.5, may be useful here. When you are satisfied with it, insert the pedal; basically, the pedal should be cut with every chord change which generally occurs either once every bar or twice every bar. The pedal is a rapid up and down ("cutting the sound") motion at the first beat, but you can lift the pedal earlier for special effects. For the wide LH stretch in the second half of bar 14 (starting with E2), the fingering is 532124 if you can reach it comfortably. If not, use 521214. The thumb under method (see section III.5) should be used here. At the same time, you should have been practicing the RH, switching hands as soon as the working hand feels slightly tired. The routines are almost identical to those for the LH, including the initial practice without the pedal. Start by splitting bar 5 into two halves and learn each half separately up to speed, and then join them. For the rising arpeggio in bar 7, use the thumb over method, not thumb under because it is too fast to be played thumb under. Although you may not be playing it that fast now, you will eventually play it much faster. The fingering should be such that both hands tend to play the pinky or thumb at the same time; this makes it easier to play HT. This is why it is not a good idea to fool around with the fingerings of the LH -- use the fingerings as marked on the score. Now practice HT. You can start with either the first or second half of bar 5 where the RH comes in for the first time. The second half is probably easier because of the smaller stretch of the LH and there is no timing problem with the missing first note in the RH, so let's start with that. The easiest way to learn the 3,4 timing is to do it at speed from the beginning. Don't try to slow down and figure out where each note should go, because too much of that will introduce an unevenness in your playing that you may have a hard time eliminating later on. Here we use the "cycling" method -- see "Cycling" in section III.2 for more details. First, cycle the six notes of the LH continually, without stopping (no pedal). Then switch hands and do the same for the eight notes of the RH, at the same (final) tempo as you did for the LH. Next cycle only the LH several times, and then let the RH join in. Initially, you only need to match the first notes accurately; don't worry if the others aren't quite right. In a few tries, you should be able to play HT fairly well. If not, stop and start all over again, cycling HS. Since almost the whole composition is made up of things like the segment you just practiced, it pays to practice this well, until you are very comfortable. To accomplish this, change the speed. Go very fast, then very slow. As you slow down, you will be able to take notice of where all the notes fit with respect to each other. You will find that fast is not necessarily difficult, and slower is not always easier. Now add the pedal. This is when you should develop the habit of accurately pumping the pedal. If you are satisfied with the second half of bar 5, repeat the same procedure for the first half. Then assemble the two halves together. You now have all the tools to learn the rest of this composition by yourself! It should be clear from this example that the general methodologies for HT practice are essentially parallel to those for HS practice. Therefore, the best way to learn HT practice is to learn the HS rules well. And it will pay handsomely if you can put HT at final speed instead of slowly at first. But this is not an absolute rule. For some pieces it may be better to slow down. In the above example, it was best to start HT at speed because of the 3,4 timing problem. The cantabile section is just the same thing repeated four times. Therefore, learn (and memorize) the 4th repetition first, and the rest will be easy. The quickest way to learn the 4th repetition is to first analyze and partially learn the beginning (1st repetition) since it is simpler and easier to analyze. As with many Chopin pieces, memorizing the LH well is the quickest way for building a firm foundation for memorizing because the LH usually has a simpler structure that is easier to analyze, memorize and play. This is because Chopin will often create several versions of the RH while repeating essentially the same notes in the LH. The trill in the 1st bar (4th repetition), combined with the 2,3 timing, makes the 2nd half of this bar difficult. Practice it first without the trill. Since there are 4 repetitions, you might play it without the trill the first repetition, then an inverted mordent the 2nd time, a short trill the 3rd, and a longer trill the last time around. This will make it much easier to play than trying to trill it all four times. The third section is similar to the first section, so if you managed to learn the first section, you are almost home free. Note that in the final 20 bars or so, the RH pinky and thumb carry notes of major thematic value, all the way to the end. This section may require a lot of HS practice with the RH. The 3,4 timing is a mathematical device Chopin used to produce the illusion of hyper-speed in this piece. The mathematical explanations and additional salient points of this composition are further discussed under "Cycling" in Section III.2. You will probably practice this composition HS for years after you initially complete the piece because it is so much fun to experiment with this fascinating composition. If you play any composition at full speed (or faster) too often, you may suffer what I call "fast play degradation" (FPD). The following day, you might find that you can't play it as well any more, or during practice, you can't make any progress. This happens mostly with HT play. HS play is more immune to FPD and can in fact be used to correct it. FPD occurs probably because the human playing mechanism (hands, brain, etc) gets confused at such speeds, and therefore occurs only for complex procedures such as HT play of conceptually or technically difficult pieces. Easy pieces do not suffer FPD. FPD can create enormous problems with complex music like Bach's or Mozart's compositions. Students who try to speed them up HT can run into all sorts of problems, and so the standard solution is to simply keep practicing slowly. However, there is a neat solution to this problem -- increase speed using HS practice! One disadvantage of the HS-HT approach is that practically all technique acquisition is accomplished HS, possibly resulting in poorly synchronized HT play. Therefore you should be aware of this possibility and practice HT with the objective of attaining very accurate synchronization of the two hands.