Playing hands together

said: Dec 21, 2009
 4 posts

Hello Suzuki Parents

My daughter who will be 6 soon has been learning suzuki piano for almost 9 months now.
she plays well, listens, practices, mostly enjoys, ofcourse with a little bribing and other measures for practice time. She will soon be learning somngs like cuckoo and lightly row where she will learn hands together, wth no musix background I am totally scared how she will handle this. I have tried to play cuckoo hands together but I just cant get it right. I am sure the teacher will help her, but I am really curious how other kids have taken it.
Any Tips/advice will be greatly appreciated? I am kinda going crazyy here thinking of how its going to go?


Laura said: Dec 22, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Nothing to worry about—I have yet to have a student fail to learn hands together yet! Here are a few considerations and suggestions, that hopefully will give some perspective and alleviate your concerns:

  1. Learning how to play hands together the Suzuki way (starting right away with a left-hand broken chords, as opposed to individual notes as part of a single melody line shared with the right hand, as is often the case in more traditional approaches) is actually a rather large developmental milestone. Here is why:

The right hand coordination is linked to the ear. Introducing the left hand stirs up that link, so to speak. To make things worse, the left hand notes do not have an automatic link to the ear, since a) they are not the melody line that you are used to hearing on the CD, and b) they are not the highest-pitched notes that are being played (without special technique to make a lower note sound stronger, the highest-pitched note will always be the one that is more naturally “heard”).

To learn how to play hands together actually requires the brain to develop new links, so to speak. It will get messed up and confused for quite a while, and then learn to sort itself out again, as if learning two hands together is like learning a new hand altogether.

Because this is as much a mental process as a physical one, adults tend to naturally have a harder time than kids, since adults are already much more set in their ways. Don’t feel bad though—it can still be overcome. It’s just that your child will probably have an easier time than you will :)

  1. It is important to ensure that the left hand can play well independently on its own by this time. (In other words, the left hand finger technique should be sufficiently developed first.) I like my students to be able to play all Twinkles, and the melody line of many of the beginning pieces (Lightly Row, Honeybee, Cuckoo, French Children’s Song, and Go Tell Aunt Rhody at a minimum—in the bass/lower clef, of course) before starting to teach the chordal accompaniment to Cuckoo, Lightly Row, etc.

This posting is getting rather long, so I’ll continue about the process in a separate post.

Laura said: Dec 22, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Continuing on:

  1. Just as with anything, it’s all about building musicle memory. This is even more critical to understand in learning to play piano two-handed. Suzuki takes advantage of the ability to learn purely by ear, which works extremely well for single-melody instruments (violin, cello, etc.) and even for one-handed melody lines on piano. But when learning piano two-handed, it is just as important to be able to play by “feel” as it is by ear. I suppose that in a manner of speaking, string players only ever learn to play by feel in the beginning too (I have a little Suzuki violnist). However, the difference is that pianists are “spoiled” by being able to “see” what they are playing—so we have to break the eye-ear connection to build and strengthen an eye-touch connection.

Your eyes and ears can only really focus on one thing at a time. At some point, one of the hands, ideally both of them, are going to have be OK running on auto-pilot. A good test of this is whether or not you can play each hand separately, with an extremely high degree of fluency, more or less without looking at the keyboard.

  1. To begin learning hands separately is like rebooting the neural pathway, as mentioned above. You have to approach it as if you are beginning from scratch. Put the hands together literally one note at a time, adding one more note only when the previous notes are sufficiently fluent. It is necessary to do MANY MANY reps, to build the muscle memory and to divide/restablish the ear-hand link to both hands instead of just one.

  2. The hardest step will be the first bar hands together. Your hands and brain will both protest, but keep at it, because it is quite simply a brand new mental/physical experience. You are using different fingers, on different notes, and one hand holds a note while the other keeps playing. Be gracious with yourself. <img src=" />

More in the next post.

Laura said: Dec 22, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Last post:

  1. Your most important resource in this learning process will be that of REPETITION. Repeat, repeat, and repeat again, until whatever it is you are putting hands together (be they single note, entire bars, or entire phrases) start to “sink in” and settle into a comfort zone. There is no magic to this process. For an adult, it’s simply a matter of nose to the grindstone. For a child, it’s a matter of games, sprinkled with as much encouragement and patience as possible.

  2. There are two challenges with the left hand when learning hands together. One is the assigning the individual fingers to the correct chordal patterns (and in the case of Cuckoo, the three different non-chordal endings at the end of phrases 1, 2 and 4 respectively). This is best approached as described in Point #6, above. The second challenge is learning the harmonic structure of the piece, i.e. when to play which chord pattern. This is best approached by learning the entire piece with a “simplified” left hand—either solid chords, or pinky finger only (playing either C only or B only, one long note lasting an entire bar) to learn which chord matches each part of the melody. This helps rebuild two-handed version of the ear-touch connection. Further practice in changing chords fluently (going from the CEG chord to the BDG chord) in the left hand alone will also help.

  3. Because this is a highly individual process, some students will learn Cuckoo or Lightly Row hands together for the first time in as little as a week. Some many take many months. But it is important to keep morale as high as possible, particularly if it’s taking longer. Do lots of review with the right hand, learn more right hand pieces, and and even learn other things (ask your teacher for suggestions) to mix and match the practice time.

  4. Once Cuckoo is mastered, it’s common to have the same problems again when learning Lightly Row, because it’s a different left hand chordal pattern altogether (5-1-3-1 vs. 5-3-1). But the learning curve is usually much steeper by this time, so it doesn’t take nearly as long to get the hang of it.

  5. After these two pieces (and if not, definitely by French Children’s Song), you’re definitely over the hump,, and learning future pieces hands together is not a big deal anymore.

… and I believe that is finally all I have to say in the matter! Good luck—and do let us know how it turns out!

Aparna Asthana said: Dec 22, 2009
13 posts

Hi you got great advice from the PP! Wish I had seen that when my youngest was doing hands together last year! Anyway our experience was very similar to what you describe and I was very strung out over this. I have no musical background and to make it harder my older son plays violin and he “gets” the playing by touch and ear thing with no eyes involved from the start so piano was very different for me.

Anyway we started hands together on cuckoo which I personally feel is harder than lightly row but that’s another story! My son was a little over 5 at the time and could play Mary hands together well when we attempted Cuckoo. Mary Little Lamb was not too bad though it was all holding down of chords vs independently fingering left hand. I made post it notes with the cord sequence on each one and had my son put in in order…C C G C etc. He first had to memorize the sequence of cords for the left hand cuckoo with post it notes to help organize this. Then he played each line with teh post it notes stuck in front of him on the piano. Once it was internalized he didn’t need the visual support anymore but it was a huge help in the beginning.

But despite this support left hand would fall apart when we tried hands together and so they only way out was going note by note..matching right hand with left! We took it measure by measure and worked a few notes each day. Eventually it clicked and he could play the piece line by line but not fluidly (he would stop after each line and get his handstogether to play the next). Eventually after 2 months he could play the entire song fluidly hands together. It was not easy. Each song after was the same way…note by note…measure by measure…at some point close to Go Tell aunt rhody..3-4 songs down….it suddenly clicked. He could listen to his teacher play a line and try it out hands together and it would be much easier…all we needed to do was tweak a few trouble spots. After this point his progress was much faster. He put Long Long Ago together in 3 days and had it polished in a week. Same thing would have taken 2 months a year ago! So don’t get disheartened if progress is slow especially when right hand came easily (my son moved very fast initially with right hand only and learning left hand seperately till we hit hands together!). Just keep working through it and suddenly your child will be able to do it themselves without so much effort!

Laura said: Dec 22, 2009
Suzuki Association Member
358 posts

Great input, mars2008! I’d say in that your experience is quite typical (i.e. normal), comparing to the students I have taught. A huge degree of frustration in the beginning, having to take things down to a note-by-note level, but everyone is laughing within a few months and a few pieces later. Learning hands-together from then on becomes simply a matter of what notes to play, and a few tricky spots to tweak when necessary. The brain has already been re-set and it’s never going back. (Like learning to ride a bike or swim!)

I also prefer to teach Lightly Row before Cuckoo (some editions go in that order, while others have it reversed). And if the student’s hands are strong enough, I like to teach Mary Had a Little Lamb hands together before anything else. If their fingers are smaller and weaker (particularly for very young students), I do Mary in the correct order because the solid chords are technically harder for smaller hands.

I should add that the hands-together process is one of the true tests of the parent-child practice relationship. If nothing else, use the time as a way to evaluate and improve how you help your child practice. Pay close attention to the emotional and psychological factors at play (for both of you!), including everything from communication style to the structure & order of the practice time. Be willing to adjust as necessary—this is a good time to do it, as if it can work out during a challenging period, it will be that much better later on.

said: Dec 23, 2009
 4 posts

Thanks for all your advice and input. Hopefully things go smooth..will keep you posted.
Its great to have a forum like to this to connect with other suzuki parents and teachers.
Merry Christmas and happy Holidays!

Kim said: Dec 25, 2009
 39 posts

My son has been taking suzuki piano for 3 1/2 years and he is now in book 3.

Anyway, I remember when he started putting songs hands together. One thing that really helped him I think was that I would play the left hand and he would play the right hand. Then we would switch. We also did a lot of listening so he knew what it should sound like hands together. Once that clicked how it felt to put hands together, he put a book one song together every week or 2 after that and made huge leaps in a very short time. The first songs he put hands together were Twinkles and then Mary had a little lamb. It took a little extra time to make the leap to the left hand like in lightly row, etc. But then he was off and running after that. Just keep trying and it’ll click! Even when it seems like they’re not getting it, they are learning a lot and will surprise you later.

Good luck!

Sue Ellen said: Dec 29, 2009
Sue Ellen Dubbert
Suzuki Association Member
Madison, WI
13 posts

Many thanks to purple_tulips for the detailed post!

I definitely agree with kck—playing one hand while your child plays the other is so very important and gives them the aural experience that will help them play both hands on their own.

I find it essential that the child can begin and end any line with hands alone before beginning hands together work. This practice builds a solid image of the structure of the piece and makes it easier for the child to isolate and repeat the “tricky” spots. My students enjoy taking turns choosing which line they will play next (not exactly a game, but it gives them a tiny bit of choice during practice which can help to alleviate struggles for independence!) I always follow up this out of order practice by having them play the whole piece in the correct sequence. You can also have the child identify which line you are playing (either with one hand or both). These activities are especially helpful for Cuckoo given that no two lines are exactly the same!

Best wishes for you and your child.

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