Tickling the ivories is much harder with my left hand than my right
August 20, 2006 8:17 AM   Subscribe

How can I make my left hand stronger and more limber for piano?

I recently started teaching myself some basic piano (all chord-based, so my apologies to the purists).

The right hand is progressing very quickly, but whenever I try to do anything with my left, it's like trying to coax life into a rump roast.

I'm sure this is just a matter of practice needed, but are there any suggestions to help bring my left up to speed with my right?

Background: I'm right-handed, but I also play a bit of guitar, where the bulk of the load is carried by the left hand, so mine can clearly be trained. Also, way, way back in high-school, my left ring finger was mis-set after a dislocation and has since had a slight off-center lean to it, making certain long-stretches more difficult than with the right.

Would it make sense to practice only with the left in the interim, until I catch it up with the right?
posted by baltimore to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Stroke victims in rehab often have their dominant arm restrained (when at home!) forcing them to use the left arm. It seems that something like that would help with dexterity.
posted by orsonet at 9:09 AM on August 20, 2006

This would be a good place to start. Try teaching yourself to write with your left hand, flip coins along your knuckles, that sort of thing.
posted by dirtynumbangelboy at 9:31 AM on August 20, 2006

Scales & arpeggios can help with dexterity. Whatever you practice with, the rule is play as slowly as you need to hit all the notes & chords correctly--in your case, your left hand is the limiting factor. You don't have to practice strictly hands alone, but when you play hands together let your "rump roast" left hand dictate the tempo, and work on speeding up from there.

I used to be horrible about buckling my fingertips, moreso on the left hand. When you press the key, usually the finger should stay arched to produce the strongest or most controlled sound (sometimes sounding notes quietly is tougher than playing them forte). I would bend the tip out, buckling the joint between the distal & middle phalanx. This was partially because I was vain about my fingernail length (sorry, Mrs. Buechler!), but it was also due to finger weakness.

So my piano teacher gave me a wooden clothespin and told me to pinch it with varying fingertips whenever I was bored in class (making sure not to buckle the fingertip out). It did help to increase finger strength pretty quickly.
posted by neda at 9:48 AM on August 20, 2006

exercise balls
posted by matteo at 9:51 AM on August 20, 2006

When I was a wee lass taking piano lessons, I was forced to do exercises out of a series called Fingerpower. These exercises are written to be done symetrically (both hands at once) but can certainly be done one hand at a time. Remember, if you can't do it well slowly, you are only fooling yourself doing them quickly. There are many other books of drills, and your instructor might have some ideas about which ones you should consider working through in addition to scales and arpeggios.

Strength and dexterity are related but different skills.
posted by ilsa at 10:52 AM on August 20, 2006

Consider going to physical therapy to get that old injury worked on. I had some issues with slow movement in my left hand while trying to learn to drum as an adult due to a wrist fracture that had happened about five years earlier. A few physical therapy appointments and some dedicated exercises for the wrist worked wonders. I think it helped that my PT was a musician.
posted by crazycanuck at 11:26 AM on August 20, 2006

Strength is not the problem at all, nor is physical therapy. It is the problem of recall and dexterity with your diminutive hand. The ONLY way to work on your problem is to buy yourself a fucking HANON, the notorious bane of piano students everywhere.

i advise you against playing from the limited free download found here...because piano scores are such a work of art, and i believe notation can only be properly done in tangible book format (as opposed to a print-out), so i strongly recommend you to buy. This book is a staple for pianists everywhere, and we have all cut our teeth between the pages of this tome.

I've played on & off classical piano for 25 years and still have difficulty with dexterity and memorization of bass clef. It's something you'll always have to work harder towards.

When you get a bit more advanced, i strongly recommend you to consider Bach's Inventions, which are also dexterity exercises where the treble and bass shadow each other. They are great for technique and harmony between the left & right hands.

BTW, for a larger octave span, sleep with tennis balls duct-taped between your fingers.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:43 AM on August 20, 2006

oh, and buy yourself a metronome (and use it), which will only increase your fluency and adherence to tempi. it is really a great crutch and motivator for pushing your hands to move forward.
posted by naxosaxur at 11:45 AM on August 20, 2006

I second using Hanon's exercises. I just bought a piano after not having one for 3 years, and my fingers have gotten quite weak. It's helping a lot.
posted by JanetLand at 11:53 AM on August 20, 2006

I have heard that surgeons play with elastics and/or knit to keep their fingers limber.
posted by orange swan at 12:09 PM on August 20, 2006

Third Hanon. In your case (and mine), play a lot of it left hand only. For the first half of the book, the right hand is just a couple octaves higher and, at speed, may mask weak left hand notes.
posted by klarck at 12:21 PM on August 20, 2006

Finger independence, and power are achieved only by exercise, and for some highly dexterous skills like playing musical instruments, the degrees of strength and dexterity required are quite a bit greater than required for any regular living tasks. Moreover, some gripping movements which are very useful in daily living, or in work with handled tools, are not called for at all in playing musical instruments, and the muscular development required for them will actually work against you as a musician.

So, as an amateur musician, you have to make some choices about the uses of your hands, and what you are willing and able to do. And this comes into notice, long before a person reaches any level of professional dexterity. If you do something for a week that requires long periods of gripping, you will notice your piano exercises slipping. Conversely, if you practice piano adroitly for several weeks, without picking up a wrench, you'll find you strain to torque fasteners properly, and that everything you want to take apart seems awfully tight, as your piano excercise has cut your coordinated gripping strength.

One little finger independence exercise you can do against any flat surface, with either hand, is to arch your fingers, and tap the ends of your fingers, one at a time (with all other fingers on the surface), forcefully, in various alternating rhythms into the surface. In doing this, you are trying to maximize the distance you can raise each finger before striking, the speed and force of your strike, and the rate with which you can repeat the rhythms flawlessly. The ring finger is typically the least independent, and tires most quickly, for bio-mechanical reasons. If you can work it for only 10 minutes a day, a couple of minutes at a time, you'll see greatest improvement for your efforts.

A particularly effective demonstration of the value of this practice was given me long ago by a piano teacher who used my forehead for the striking surface. That man had incredible finger independence, and struck me as hard with his ring finger as with his index digit. But he wasn't much of an engine wrench, or a carpenter.
posted by paulsc at 1:36 PM on August 20, 2006

Fourth Hanon, first Czerny.



posted by rsandy7420 at 1:39 PM on August 20, 2006

Ok Ok Hanon is good too, but a lot depends on your skill level. You described yourself as a beginner, which is why I suggested a series of books designed for beginners. BE CAREFUL (and use some common sense) ABOUT TRAINING FINGER INDEPENDENCE
posted by ilsa at 2:42 PM on August 20, 2006

Fifthing Hanon. It's a horrible memory for me as a child, but it works. It's also easy and repetitive.
posted by hooray at 9:36 PM on August 20, 2006

Slight sidetrack: can naxosaxur (or anyone else) enlarge on the tennis ball procedure...
posted by TiredStarling at 8:03 AM on August 21, 2006

I'm going the other way from you now, moving into guitar and ukulele and find that the muscles being used are painfully different, though I have found I've gained some dexterity that transfers across back to the piano. I've fiddled with Hanon after similarly teaching myself chord-based piano and can definately report that it helps a good deal with dexterity and improvisational forms.

Hanon is difficult: that there are "only" 60 excercises between onself and virtuosity is not a "For Dummies" kind of path. If you are struggling with your left hand now, I'd wait to get it marginally functional before torturing oneself with the grand book.

When I started learning chord piano, I did a lot of C/G/F Johnny Cash-style music which leant itself to building up a rather lazy left hand while allowing me to work on general hand placement and transitions. Good luck!
posted by Ogre Lawless at 4:18 PM on August 21, 2006

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