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Beginners: How to Practice Coordinating Hands

Welcome back to our series on well-structured practice for adult beginners. So far, we’ve covered these topics:

Now let’s talk about how to begin coordinating hands.

Once you’re able to play each section in your music with separate hands accurately, you’ll be ready to begin putting the hands together. Children can naturally start coordinating hands once they’ve mastered separate hands. However, as an adult beginner, you’re likely to find coordinating hands to be particularly challenging.

Try to imagine what the tendency of most adult piano students might be-- so you can avoid it. Let’s assume you’ve learned your piece from beginning to end with separate hands and you feel ready to start putting the hands together. How would you go about it? Would you perhaps just “try it out?”

Trying it out = Taking a chance that things might come together.

The result of this undisciplined approach will likely be a breakdown in timing and note accuracy. So, all your hard work with separate hand practice will be sabotaged! Oh, no!

Remember, with everything you practice to be mindful because everything you play incorrectly will take an inordinate amount of time to re-learn. The best way to stay mindful is to always listen closely and maintain a disciplined approach. Even if you only want to play for fun, which I often hear people say, still you want things to sound good, which requires accuracy.

Here are two approaches I have found to be effective with adult beginners.

Practice the Points of Coordination

Oftentimes, easy piano arrangements and pieces in adult method books are based on what’s termed a “chord approach.” In other words, the RH will likely have the melody and the LH will have a triad, or perhaps the shell of a chord. By learning what I call “points of coordination” first, you’ll accomplish a couple of things.

  1. You’ll learn to anticipate these points of coordination

  2. By the same token, you’ll avoid “pausing” at these points

Here’s an example to illustrate how I suggest marking your score -- in pencil, of course.

Lightly pencil in boxes around the points of coordination and practice these boxes slowly and mindfully. Again, it’s best not to try to go all the way through the score from beginning to end. Instead, practice getting from one box to the next several times before moving to another set of boxes. You’re likely to discover that many of the same chords appear several times within the music. This approach will help you recognize which chords are the same and which are different -- and how so. Listen closely to these practice points. Notice the RH melody note is very likely to be another chord note. It’s easier to hear this when you’re practicing this way.

Once you’re totally comfortable with the points of coordination, you’ll be ready to reintroduce the notes you had omitted. Again, begin by working from one “box” to the next “box” but add the notes between the boxes, in proper time. Slowly expand your sections until you’re able to play a complete phrase or a complete section of the music. Be especially mindful of repetition in your score so that you don’t spend time practicing redundancies. Erase the boxes once you're comfortable with playing hands together.

Practice going from the first beat of one measure to the first beat of the next -- or to another close target (anything but the end of a measure!)

If your music -- or a section of your music -- is comprised of single notes in either hand, you'll need a different approach. An example is this excerpt from Anna Magdalena's Notebook, Menuet in G. This piece is oftentimes included in adult method books, but it can be particularly challenging for adults.

Here's a simple practice approach. Lightly pencil in X's on your score. Here I've marked the first beat of every measure, which allows you to practice getting across the barline in time. Avoid always practicing the first measure first. You might want to begin with the last two measures on this line, going from the 3rd X to the 4th X to begin, starting on the first beat of the third measure and stopping on the first beat of the first. Be sure to mark fingering anywhere it's not obvious for you.

Here's a simple but effective approach.

Play slowly

3 times RH

3 times LH

3 times hands together

If you’re not able to play three times with hands together, you’re either playing too fast or you’re not ready to coordinate hands yet. If you are playing slowly and you still can’t coordinate hands with this approach, keep practicing separate hands for a few more days. Ultimately, I have to add here that if you use this approach for a couple of weeks and the hands are still not coming together, you are likely trying to play a piece that is beyond your level of advancement.

Note: Avoid another common tendency with adults is playing hands together many times through, less than mindfully. Three times correctly is fine. If you want to do more, still go through the same process of each hand separately first, as above.

Continue to Practice Separate Hands from Beginning to End

While using these new practice techniques, you’ll also want to continue with separate hand practice through the larger sections so that you can maintain a sense of the piece as a whole. Be sure to use a metronome or the Speakbeat App while reviewing separate hands.

By bringing discipline into your very earliest practice sessions, you'll learn to practice efficiently and effectively. Your mindful practice will help you listen better to your own playing so that everything you play from the earliest level music to the more advanced is beautiful and enjoyable. You'll be building a strong foundation that will help you realize your full potential at the piano. Try to enjoy every step along the way. Don't imagine that playing more advanced music will be any different. All levels of playing require discipline and attention to accuracy but also to sound quality.

So listen closely to the beautiful music you're already making. Enjoy every moment.

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