“Why won’t this hand work?” is something every piano teacher has heard students say in exasperation. The left hand is often a source of deep frustration for pianists for two main reasons:
1.) Roughly 90% of the world is right-handed. Are you one of them? 2.) Piano music tends to be right hand oriented.
Unless you are naturally a “southpaw,” you will, as a matter of fact, struggle more with your left hand. However, there is hope!
First, it bears exploring some caveats to the second point listed above. A general overview of piano music reveals that the right hand typically plays a lot of the melodic content in most styles of music. Melodies tend to sit “on top” in the mix, and due to the configuration and design of the piano keyboard, that means that your right-hand gets a pretty good workout.
In jazz, for example, the right hand tends to be more active, roaming up and down the keyboard in scaler patterns and intervallic jumps. Meanwhile, the left-hand remains more or less locked into playing chords and roots (bass notes).
However, the left hand should not be relegated to plunking out chords or roots. Any pianist worth her salt must also play with equal proficiency in the left hand. As your repertoire advances, or alternately, as your improvisatory skills improve, you should learn how to use your left hand to play both melody and harmony. In classical music, this is especially necessary.
So how do we do this?
To improve your left hand, you have to give it some extra attention and tough love. As previously mentioned, the goal is equality between the hands. However, because your right hand will improve with greater ease, you will need to structure your practice time to include extra work on the left hand.
To see improvement, technical studies for the left hand should be practiced regularly. Below are some tried and true approaches for improving your technique.
Run all 12 (enharmonically there are 15) major and minor scales with the left hand. Also, be sure to include the harmonic and melodic minor variants. For starters, scales should be practiced legato (long, attached notes) with a very even and steady rhythm. Rhythms you may use should include eighth or sixteenth notes. Another way to practice the scales is staccato (short, detached notes).
Again, always play steady and even lines. Additionally, you should practice scales using various dynamic (volume) levels. You can add crescendos (gradually louder) and decrescendos (gradually softer) too. Lastly, you may also practice other modes, including the chromatic scale. The chromatic scale uses all twelve pitches of the keyboard, and you should practice it beginning on different pitches or jumping-off points.
2.) The Hanon Book
Practice the Hanon Book daily. The real title of this book is called The Virtuoso Pianist in Sixty Exercises for the Piano. However, everyone calls this book “The Hanon Book” after the French author, Charles-Louis Hanon (1819 – 1900). This book is the most widely-known and celebrated technique book in the world. The great Rachmaninoff (composer and teacher) swore by it. While it has its rare detractors, The Hanon Book is almost an obligatory study method for students worldwide. Careful practice of all the Hanon exercises will vastly improve your left hand, and your right hand too, for that matter!
3.) Other Famous Technique Books
Other technique books employed universally by teachers include Preparatory Exercises, Op. 16 by Aloys Schmitt, and three tomes by Carl Czerny titled The School of Velocity Op. 299, The Art of Finger Dexterity Op. 740 and Thirty New Studies in Technics Op. 849. The Schmitt and Czerny’s methods are complementary, and they will give your left hand a mega workout. Simply put, careful practice of these age-old exercises will take your playing to the next level. Just remember to be patient. It takes daily, focused practice.
A Couple Final Thoughts on Playing Piano With Your Left Hand:
Whenever you practice technical exercises and scales, you should always use a metronome. Metronomes help to improve your timing. Time and rhythm are the most glaring weaknesses for students. Metronomes help you to remain goal oriented. As you practice, you may adjust the BPM (beats per minute) to work towards more accurate and fluid playing. The best antidote to sloppy rhythms is the metronome.
Lastly, if you’re curious about repertoire that features the left hand only, you should check out Maurice Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand composed for the Austrian pianist Paul Wittgenstein. After losing his right arm in The Great War, Wittgenstein commissioned Ravel to write a piece for his left hand. It’s a fantastic work of art, and you’d never know that only one hand is playing it:
There are also several beginner pieces and method books for the left hand that you may peruse. Heather Milnes’ Let’s Play Piano with Left Hand Only is an excellent book for children. If you’re an advanced pianist, you may try playing Camille Saint-Saëns’ Six Etudes for the Left Hand and/or Three Improvisations by Frank Bridge, which is also composed entirely for the left hand.
Don’t give up on your left hand. Equal skill between the hands is critical to becoming a fluent pianist.