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Left brain v right brain - the battle commences....

So why not complicate further the portfolio of deliverables for 2015, and learn the piano under exam pressure.....?

I’m not normally one for New Year resolutions, let alone following them through, but this year I have taken on a new challenge.  January 3rd found me in the local music shop.  “I’ve never played the piano before. I can read a bit of music, but only the bit that you play with the right hand.”  Three hours later I was having a trial piano lesson and a week later took delivery of a new piano.

I have a very well-qualified and experienced teacher – “Let’s aim for the first exam in July” said he in lesson one.  Fire up Microsoft Project – this needs a plan, deliverables and a SWAT analysis.

I soon discovered the first major weakness, or maybe even threat. I started to experience the difficulties for the more mature student in what is the basic element of playing the piano, namely the left hand and the right hand playing different notes and rhythm together and combined with all the dynamics and articulation that the music score demands.  Think rubbing your stomach while patting your head times 4!  Plus I have to learn how to read all those notes that are played by the left hand.

So now I have to apply my consulting skills to overcome a basic process weakness as I head, all too rapidly, towards that milestone - my first exam. (“We’re looking to achieve distinction, Geoff” says my teacher. “Nothing less will do.”)  That basic weakness is of course that, being right-handed, my left hand wants to follow my right hand no matter what the notes in the musical score dictate.

This led me into some background research on the reason behind this. People who learn an instrument from an early age achieve a corpus callosum - the nerve fibres that join the left side and right side of the brain – that is up to 15% larger than average. The corpus callosum is key to finger co-ordination and responds to training in exactly the same way as a muscle. Further research has also shown that the part of the brain associated with auditory processing is larger in trained musicians. I’d better get practicing. I’ve got 50 years of brain training to make up.

Now the next issue that I have to address is how I actually approach this practice. How do I train myself to play different notes and beat with each hand and overcome the basic dominance of the right hand/left brain?  The classic approach is to learn a piece of music “hands-separately”. In other words, learn for each hand separately before bringing them together. Sounds easy – try it. The left brain comes charging in at the first sign of two hands.

This led to a refinement from my teacher.  “Learn the left hand part first.” For a novice, starting with the right hand part produces a result more quickly and is generally the recognisable part of a piece of music. Interestingly, research has shown that if you practice only the part for one hand, you are almost certainly learning to inhibit the other hand.  When one hand is playing, the brain is actually sending signals to the other hand telling it not to move. This cannot be good news, but nevertheless this is the way that piano is generally taught. Learning and practicing “hands-together” may actually take longer as the two parts each demand and fight for focus and attention at the same time.

I will, at least for now, have to achieve my deliverables in a serial fashion (left hand part then right hand part (or maybe vice versa) but in the knowledge that there is a rather key dependency on both parts arriving together in time for the exam.

Now where’s that music for "Chopsticks"?


Freeman Geoff Booth