July Q&A with PianoTV: Hand Balance, Memorization and More

Hello and welcome to this month’s Q&A session with PianoTV! As with every month, we tackle four questions on a variety of piano topics. This month we’ll be approaching everything from how much to memorize and how to make one hand louder than the other.

Let’s get started!


Question #1:

This is a really important piano playing skill, something that I usually start teaching after the first year or so (depending on how fast the student is progressing). We need to be able to edit the individual volumes of our hands for one big reason:

To create a contrast between melody and harmony.

Melody is the main tune of a piece, whereas the harmony supports it. If you’re playing a simple tune with chords in the left hand, then your left hand is the harmony. When we have this arrangement, it’s important that our right hand be projected more loudly than our left hand.

But the question is, how do we do that?

I like to start simple, by playing simultaneous pentascales or chords in each hand. Start at the same volume, and move very slowly. If we want the right hand louder, we incrementally try to boost the right  hand volume while trying to keep the left hand quiet. This is going to take some practice and concentration.

Sometimes it helps to physically lean into the notes you’re attempting to play louder. So if my right hand is the hand I want louder, then I might literally lean on my right hand.

You can also do this exercise on a desk or other firm surface. Pretend you’re playing a chord in each hand, while slowly making one hand press harder (and thus louder). You’ll be able to physically feel it if you’re succeeding.

One challenge of this is you might be tempted to press your hands at different times – making them non-simultaneous. Really force yourself to move your hands at the same time.

Once you can do exercises like this with ease, you’ll find that applying it in your music will get easier (though the notes are usually more complicated, adding another layer of challenge).
Sometimes this skill takes a while to fully develop, but it’s a skill you’ll use in virtually every piano piece you learn – it’s well worth mastering.

Question #2:

This is a cop-out answer, but I tend to find that memorization is something that develops naturally. There’s no specific time you need to memorize pieces, but it is a useful skill to develop.

For my students who use the Piano Adventures books (as per your example), we usually don’t memorize these pieces on a regular weekly basis. However, if there’s a recital coming up and they’re playing a piece or two from their book, I strongly encourage them to memorize them.

So if there are any pieces in these books that you really enjoy, and really want to master, then I would recommend spending a month or so on it (even if it usually takes you a week or two) in order to memorize it and master the details.

To give you a ratio, my students probably memorize something like 1 piece in every 10 we learn. It’s a rough figure, but it gives you an idea.

Exceptions are for performance pieces, pieces they just really like, or more challenging pieces that aren’t in their books (usually these are higher-level pieces we choose for music festival).

In the past I’ve given my students the challenge of developing a piano repertoire of 12 pieces they learn throughout the year, and really like. These pieces must be memorized, and the student must be able to play them anytime (so they must be maintained). You could give yourself a similar challenge of memorizing approximately 12 songs in a year (or 1 each month).

Anyway, I hope some of these ideas are helpful to you!

Question #3:

You can absolutely use the RCM books without doing exams! In fact, I find it really useful – it gives you a variety of music that’s all at the same level, so it takes the guesswork out for you.

I’ve had students in the past go this route, and it works very well.

For my students who don’t do exams, I always make sure they can do the technical requirements for their level – it’s mandatory. So if they’re at a grade 6 level but not doing RCM exams, they still have to be able to play grade 6 level technique.

Same goes for ear training and sight reading – all of these are really important skills, and I make sure that even the most Classical-hating students develop them.

Alternately, you don’t need to use the RCM books per se, if you’re willing to do a bit more research. The RCM syllabus has a huge list of every piece a student can play at every level, and for each of those pieces, it lists what book they come from. I’ve found a lot of really great books just by checking out this list.

These books usually have pieces that aren’t all at the same level, so it takes more effort to go this route. But if you’re into collecting music books, especially the essential classics, this is a good route to go. You’ll find that you use the RCM books for a year or so, and then pretty much never look at them again when you move on to the next book.

With some of these classic collections, though, you’ll go back to them for years and they tend to accrue more sentimental value.

Those are my two cents; either route is totally fine! It just depends on your preferences and if you’re into hoarding books. 😉

Question #4:

Ahh yes, the guitar strumming effect – when you press your fingers down, and they all sound at different times.

I find this most commonly happens with playing chords, so that’s what I’ll focus on with my suggestions.

The main reason this happens is because your fingers are all different lengths. If you’re playing with proper hand posture, all of your fingers roughly become the same length, which is the first important step.

Make sure when you’re playing, your hand shape is rounded – when your hand is stretched flat, the pinky and thumb are nowhere near the other fingers, but a rounded hand shape brings them all much closer together.

Even then, though, problems can happen. The thumb is still shorter, and chords that integrate black keys can throw off your standard hand shape.

My favorite intermediate piece for teaching this is Chopin’s Prelude in E minor. Not for beginners, but it’ll give you the same idea. This piece is full of constant chords in the left hand, and what’s more is they need to be played quietly. This is usually a recipe for disaster, and even well-trained musicians can end up with “guitar strumming” here.

So instead of learning the chords with all three notes right off the bat, we start with the outside 2 notes, and then play the inner note in a broken pattern. Once we get those outside notes sounding simultaneously, we change the pattern – now maybe we alternate the bottom two notes with the top one. Then maybe the top two notes with the bottom one.

Once you can do all of these 2-note combinations comfortably, start trying all three. You might need to play around with the force of your fingers to get them all sounding simultaneously. For example, your outer fingers might land on the keys first, which causes them to fall out of sync with the middle note. Put more focus into getting that middle note down faster.

As for coordinating RH/LH notes, simple hands-together scale exercises are great for this. Even 5-finger scales are amazing.

conclusion

I hope you enjoyed this month’s Q&A session! As always, ask any questions you may have in the comments and perhaps I’ll get to them in the August edition.

xo,
Allysia

Allysia has been teaching piano in Canada for nearly a decade, and has her Grade 10 RCM certificate. She especially enjoys nerding out to music history and theory. When she’s not making videos or teaching, she’s reading, writing, and jamming in a rock band.