Hand independence is essential for piano playing at all levels, and in all styles. If you can become proficient with both hands, it will free up a world of creative melodic, harmonic, and rhythmic options; whether it’s with a band or on your own!
When learning from professional keyboard tutorials, many young pianists of a classical background will start learning hand independence with little tunes or exercises called “Studies” or “Inventions”, and these eventually lead to tremendously difficult and complex pieces such as this Bach Fugue.
From listening to this piece, you’ll notice that the pianist's right and left hands are doing completely different things; playing different rhythms, melodies, counter-melodies, and often one hand is playing legato (notes grouped together) while the other will be staccato (played short and apart).
While this may seem inapplicable to modern music, there are in fact many uses, and working on your independence will improve your piano playing markedly.
The biggest thing that stands in your way when developing independence is a lack of focus and a lack of time. While it may seem tempting to veer off and begin improvising or making your own exercises, it will be of much greater benefit to master these ones first. Get into a groove! Play everything with a metronome, and do it over and over again until you have sunk into the groove and you can no longer hear the click.
Part of the joy that comes with practicing independence is the feeling of stepping back from the keys and being able to focus on two things at once. Normally, you’re letting muscle memory guide one hand while you focus your energy on the other. By practicing independence, you’ll develop your focus, and your overall playing ability. Let’s dive in!
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1. Keyboard Independence Basics – Scalar Exercises
Let’s start this guide off with some basics.
While the following exercises won’t sound particularly inspiring, they are a good way to get you feet wet for the rest of the guide, and can be increased in difficulty almost exponentially.
Our first exercise is a classic independence exercise I learned as a young musician.
Start off with your right hand (RH) thumb (finger 1) on C and your pinkie (finger 5) on G. Place your left hand (LH) an octave down from your RH, in the same position (finger 5 on C, finger 1 on G).
All you’re going to do is walk up and down a C five note scale with both hands, making the LH staccato and the RH legato. Do this until you’ve mastered it.
Switch this so that you RH is staccato and the LH is legato.
Now try a variation on this theme! This time, we’re going to subdivide RH into eighth notes, and make them staccato while keeping the LH staccato quarter notes.
Now, try putting the staccato eight notes in the LH. You may find this considerably harder! Once you’ve mastered that, challenge yourself by doing further subdivisions, start with triplets, then sixteenth notes, and even groups of 5!
The audio example below will take you all the way from the beginning to more challenging stages of the exercise. Please note that the exercises are only demonstrated 3 times, but you and I both need to do them 20 – 50 times in order for them to be truly effective!
2. Rhythmic Exercises – New Orleans Rhythm
So you mastered the scalar exercises – great! However, most pianists are looking to improve their rhythmic independence, so that’s what we’ll work on now.
To start, we’re going steal a page from a drummer’s handbook and tap out our rhythms. To develop an independence exercise, one should start with a LH rhythm. For this example we’ll use a New Orleans rhythm in the LH.
At first, you should be tapping this on the table or a closed keyboard. Get used to the rhythm, it can be challenging, but it’s a classic that everyone should know.
Got it? Alright, let’s move on to adding some RH. Below I will show you a bunch of variations on the same theme you can use to work on independence.
Remember, the lower stave is you LH and the upper stave is your RH. Tap it until you’ve got it, and remember to use a metronome!
Translating this to piano now, we will try a traditional New Orleans bass line underneath chords played with the same rhythms as above.
Our bass line follows the same rhythmic pattern, but on the following notes: C, E, G.
For the purpose of this exercise, we will use C6 in it’s first inversion as our chord. That means we take a normal C6 (C, E, G, A), and put the C on top (E, G, A, C).
The patterns are notated below.
In this audio example, I’ll take you through each exercise one by one. Be sure to practice these until you can nail them, and then move on! Start with the metronome slower, perhaps around 50 and work your way up to 80. And then to 110!
Want to see this kind of Independence in action? Check out Dr. John playing “Iko Iko”, a classic tune for New Orleans. If you look carefully, I think Jeff Healey is on guitar…
3. Practical Use – Let’s Learn A Song On The Keyboard!
One of my favourite ways to practice independence is to take a song I know and love and make it an exercise.
For this demonstration, I will take a reasonably challenging song; Vulfpeck’s 1612, and make the bass line and electric piano part into an exercise.
Take some time to listen to the song and familiarize yourself with the groove!
This song is particularly challenging because of the very specific groove you have to nail in the LH, layered with the syncopated RH piano part. This one is a doozy, and took me a few LONG hours to get it sounding close!
First, let’s start with that tasty bass line! It goes like this:
So, it’s not easy, but you can definitely get it! Now, try adding those pesky little electric piano parts on top!
The following audio example will walk you through a step-by-step process:
This example is just the chorus and intro, but you can figure out the verses fairly easily. They are a variation on the chorus line, with a G thrown in there. Take a listen and enjoy yourself!
If you found the above useful, you'll want to check out our guide on how to play keyboard for beginners now for more great tips.
Hand independence is a never-ending learning process. You’ll never really have complete separation, but the closer you get, the more confident you’ll feel playing – well – just about anything! From blues to jazz to pop, anything that requires two hands will benefit from your newfound independence.
Enjoy the practice, use these exercises to really hone your skills and you will see results. Any of these exercises can be taken and adapted, so once you master these, make up your own. Challenge yourself by learning as many parts of a song as possible and playing them all at once!
Keep playing, keep practicing and have a creative day!