In piano playing, you almost always use both hands. Sometimes it’s hard work getting both hands coordinated. To improve your piano playing, it’s crucial that you develop well-balanced coordination between your eye (visual), ear (aural), thinking brain (mind) and arm/hand/finger (physical). Depending on the type of problems you are likely to face in piano playing, you may need to focus on a particular aspect of coordination to solve them. Here are some examples to show what coordination is about in relation to piano playing.
Mental and physical and visual coordination
Try drawing a triangle in the air with your right hand and a square with your left. In doing so, you’re working on mental, visual and physical coordination; your mind (or thinking brain) is telling each hand what to do and your eyes guide your hands to follow imaginary shapes in the air; your hands are acting upon it. The same goes for your finger work on the piano. When you learn something new or find a problematic passage in the music, you need to play in slow motion so that your thinking (commanding) brain can tell your fingers what to do (where to go, how to play, etc.) before your fingers do the work. After enough repetitive practice, your finger muscles eventually ‘memorise’ the repeated sequence of movements, and you get to the point where your fingers do the work automatically. It could be a long process for some but it will eventually come together.
It’s often true that visual input can be distractive. So, when you face a problem coordinating between the hands in playing a certain passage, try playing it with your eyes closed. You’re now working on mental and physical coordination.
Another visual input that can be distractive at times is the notation in the score. When you find it tricky to play a certain passage, try looking away from the notation and look at your hands to see how the notes are working between the hands, and then close your eyes to improve your mental and physical coordination. When you fix a problematic passage by gaining coordination in this way, looking at the notation again won’t be so distractive; at this point, the notation becomes more of a guide.
Aural and mental coordination
Imagine yourself standing beside two groups of people talking about two different subjects and trying to understand what both groups are saying at the same time. You certainly need more attentive listening with a focused mind than just casual listening. When you play a piece of music where each hand has to follow an individual melody line of equal importance, your aural and mental coordination should be working at their best so that you can focus on getting the finger work sorted! How can you gain such coordination? Using your own voice to help is one method. You can always hear yourself speaking because your intention to speak and to be heard is there. Learn to sing or hum one melody line (whichever is the easier one to sing; left or right hand part) and memorise it. Now, as you sing or hum the memorised melody line, play the other line at the same time. It may take a few attempts but if you manage to follow two lines that way, your ear is now accepting both melody lines at the same time. Your finger work should be much improved from this point. Sometimes lack of coordination results from lack of attentive listening.
Visual and physical coordination
The easiest way to understand what it means is to try the following broken chord exercises:
1. Using one finger (say, the 2nd), play a C major chord in a broken form for four octaves non-stop, both ascending and descending (C-E-G, C-E-G….. | G-E-C, G-E-C…..). Make sure your eyes find the next position before your finger does, so that your finger always knows where to go in advance. It’s often easier to follow a chord pattern on the piano when you see a group of black keys as a sign post. For example, C and E are located around the two black keys.
2. Now, back track one note after each three-note pattern cycle (C-E-G, E-G-C, G-C-E…..), again for four octaves non-stop, both ascending and descending. Make sure you let your eye guide where your fingers need to be going.
You may find that descending is slightly more challenging than ascending. Start at a very slow speed until you can play the exercise(s) continuously without hesitation. When you become comfortable with it, that proves your visual and physical coordination is now working successfully in harmony.
Visual and mental coordination
This doesn’t involve physical or aural coordination at all, which means you play the music without playing any instrument. What sort of coordination skill is this? It’s a skill to be able to hear the tune in your head (mind) as you read the written notation (visual). Try the following well-known folk tunes. Can you guess the title of each tune without playing them on an instrument?
If you managed to guess either title correctly without playing any instrument, you already have the foundation for this coordination to be developed further. This coordination skill also plays a big part in improving your sight-reading; you start interpreting the notes as musical sound rather than just the dots being endlessly laid out. This skill can be gradually developed by the regular singing of short exercise tunes from the written notation (solfège) as well as by learning and playing as much written music in various styles as possible. So that you build a large vocabulary of sound associated with melodic shapes. The larger sound vocabulary and the more patterns you can refer to in your head, the quicker you can predict how the music goes when you read the notation.