Using Piano Technique to Bridge the Left & Right Brains

My lessons with Marko, the adult amateur I mentioned in my last post, have fascinated me for a number of reasons. For one, we are working together via the Internet as he lives in France while I am in Belgrade. I worried about teaching on Skype because normally my lessons are very tactile. But I’ve discovered that I can do something similar to what a Feldenkrais practitioner does in group ATM lessons – to formulate my verbal commands so specifically that my words become the equivalent of touch.

Another intriguing aspect: my student is a computer whiz, a hyper-intellectual, whose exposure to piano began just a couple of years ago. It has been an exceptionally clear opportunity to see how a “computer-brain” that is totally oriented towards linear, arithmetic, logical thought deals with the phenomenon of music which, although on the surface appears to consist of mathematically related entities, is actually a beast of a different skin.

Marko shows me what he’s learning, a little Bartok piece that is tricky because the two hands do something similar but not identical.

Bartok #13 Follow Me
Bartok #13 Follow Me

Bartok’s teaching pieces usually focus on presenting one specific technical or musical problem for the unwary student to trip over and for the teacher to set straight. This seemingly innocuous counterpoint is the work of a very knowledgeable and clever musician!

Marko’s playing is the epitome of linear in the worst sense of the word. Plunk, plunk, plunk go the notes – it’s really as if a computer was churning them out. Then he hits the polyphonic trip-up point and his inner mental gears grind to a halt – a complete blockage!

Marko was also physically stiff: tense shoulders, immoveable wrists, so I thought I would kill two birds with one stone, addressing his lack of movement by giving his wrists a musical, phrase-shaping task. “Move your wrist back towards you and sink it down towards your lap. Then play the first half of bar 6, very slowly, moving your wrist forwards continually through the group.”

Bartok 1st half of Measure 6, R.H.
1st half of bar 6 r.h.

He did this, but moved forward in hitches: a note would get a movement forward and then there would be a pause in the movement before he played the next note. You could see the gears working in his brain, calculating how to incorporate this radical new element into his playing. For him it was a real stretch. You have to realize, we are talking about big time hyper-intellectual here! A smooth, flowing movement in this context was really foreign to him because his thought was totally oriented towards figuring out what pitch it was, where that pitch was on the keyboard, and which finger he should use to play it. There was virtually no brain power left over to deal with a wrist movement.

As he practiced this half bar to get it smoother, I noticed another characteristic habit: he would shorten the initial long note, playing the quarter note and the following two 8ths virtually equal. This is another classic pattern I’ve often seen among mathematician-amateur pianists. We musicians associate the mathematical relationships of music with 1) pitch and 2) duration, but the untrained mathematician has a strong tendency to process the pitch but not the rhythmic value. This gives us a clue to left brain brain-right brain function in music making.

The left brain’s thought is linear, mathematical and logical whereas the right brain’s is holographic, artistic, emotional and intuitive. To my mind, although rhythm would seem to be a mathematical element of music, it is a right brain function, whereas pitch perception is handled by the left brain. In other words, pitches in music are sterile, inert, dead, until rhythm brings them to life.

It seems to me that movement as well is a right brain function, and when we incorporate that wrist movement into his phrase, we’re building bridges over to his right brain. As he practiced this, there was a gradual improvement until a certain point, and then a real transformation would take place. A fundamental new quality would appear. His wrist movement would get smoother and smoother, but when it became really smooth, the improvement in his phrasing was a quantum leap. He got very excited because he could feel it and hear it too!

Then we had to go through the whole process again with his left hand in that half bar.

Bar 6, 1st half, l.h.
Bar 6, 1st half, l.h.

It was like starting from scratch, but eventually we got that flowing sound and movement.

I warned him in advance: “When you put your hands together, it’s going to seem to you that all your good work was for naught.

Bar 6 1st half

Bar 6 1st half

You’ll go right back to your old, left brain way of doing it. Don’t be discouraged; that is to be expected. But keep in mind that you now possess another way of experiencing those notes, and you will have succeeded in transforming those little black dots into music when you incorporate that flowing physical movement into playing this passage hands together.” Again it was like starting from scratch, but he eventually got it. The important thing was the change in quality of his ‘trying.’ I told him, “Every time you bring your wrists back and down, you bring yourself back to neutral. You ‘take a breath’ mentally. This breath is crucial. You have been banging your head against a wall because you haven’t been taking the time to return to the neutral starting point.”

Later still in the lesson we went through the second half of bar 6 in the same fashion, just as rigorously, just as meticulously. Here he at first failed to separate the right brain wrist movement from the left brain note pattern in another way: when the melody rose, his wrist went right; when the melody descended, the wrist moved left.

Bar 6 2nd half r.h.

Bar 6 2nd half r.h.

Again it was a big leap for him to move his wrist forward in one continuous gesture regardless of the melodic direction. But another crucial bridge between left and right brain was established when he succeeded.

After he learned the forward wrist choreography for each half bar, I had to give him one more movement strategy so he could put it all together. One solution could have been to make one forward movement through the whole bar. But eventually we would have to put larger and larger segments together, and it becomes impractical to do one forward movement through an extended passage. Instead we added a “wrist flip” (see The Craft of Piano Playing, Appendix I). Basically, when he finished the half bar forward movement I had him scoot his wrist back to the starting position quite quickly. He eventually learned to do this so well that he could do two forward movements through the single bar without any hitch in the smooth forward rhythmic flow. It’s a way of ‘taking a breath’ on the fly, without any audible break to the melodic flow.

“OK, that’s enough for one lesson, you’ve learned a lot today…” And he had. His wrist felt more limber. He was much less tense than he usually was at the end of a “normal” practice session where the tension builds up as he repeatedly tries to get those darn notes to behave and generally fails. Most important, he had this sense of exultancy from having made music instead of struggling with the text. He shone!

And the basis for this transformation was him ‘joining his two brains’ – a valuable lesson indeed!


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