Rhythm in piano songs is absorbed by practicing hands separately, proficiency is then obtained by working on the mechanics such as fingering, touch and tempo
Many years ago, a piano teacher of repute once said to me that to absorb the artistic image of a song, it should be practiced with both hands. This piano teacher was not my teacher at the time, but what he said became a source of anxiety to me because I find it tremendously difficult to practice a song with both hands immediately. I always practiced hands separately at first.
Of course, he did not elaborate by explaining to me that; “to absorb the artistic image of a song practice both hands together after you are able to by practicing hands separately at first”.
Only much later at another piano event did I hear him recommend to piano students to practice a few bars with the left hand and a few bars with the right in order to play a phrase in its correct rhythm.
Therefore, in conclusion even this piano teacher of high repute whom I thought possessed a special talent beyond my comprehension, agreed that to learn a new piano song it should be practiced one hand at a time, separately at first as a way to get the rhythm right.
Work on the musicality of the song including its artistic image come later, when you are proficient enough to play the song with both hands. The encounter with the piano teacher entered my mind because I had been struggling with a phrase from Canon in D shown in Image 1 below.
There is a string of 4 semiquavers in the left hand accompanying 2 quavers in the right at the beginning of the bar. Despite my best effort not to do so, I find myself erasing 2 of the semiquavers in the left hand (marked in red). It was more convenient that way, making the rhythm in the left hand match the rhythm in the right hand and murdering the song in the process.
My conscience could not live with such a crime being committed. Having the wasted anxiety lifted off my shoulders, I proceeded to re-learn the phrase in Image 1 one hand at a time separately. Starting with playing the song very slowly. Ignoring for now the fact that the notes are semiquavers I practiced them as if they were minims. You can do so much slower even practicing them as if they were breves.
It felt as if I would take forever to become proficient playing the song at this pace, but the huge amount of time sacrificed return dividends in the form of deep understanding of the notes, pitch and intervals that make up the phrase. When I did finally play it properly, the music sounded authentic. It gave me sense of accomplishment, “Did I really just played that?”, I gasped to myself.
The satisfaction was not merely from the music I heard myself make, but the enlightenment I acquired of the relationship between the notes and their pitch and the uniqueness of their arrangement that made the musical phrase special.
Here are some tips I can offer when practicing one hand at time separately and the accompanying benefits.
By practicing hands separately, I was able to isolate the rhythm in the right hand from the rhythm in the left hand.
As a result, giving me clarity in my brain. I could focus on one rhythmic pattern in one hand.
Recognizing the patterns in the rhythm had to be the primary goal to playing a phrase well. Once accomplished I went to work on the mechanics of fingering, touch and tempo. It is often said that the piano is played with the wrist not the fingers. Apply the wrist’s rotary and lateral movement to achieve a binding legato.
This method; (1) Practising one hand at a time separately, (2) Isolating and recognizing the rhythmic patterns in the right hand first followed by the left hand later, (3) Using the wrists to achieve the proper touch be it legato or staccato enable a clumsy piano student to overcome the challenge of executing polyrhythmic phrases such as the one shown in Image 1.