We all know
that our brain has two hemispheres, or sides. Furthermore, the left hand
is controlled by the right side of the brain and the right hand is
controlled by the left side of the brain. Remember this fact for it will
become very important in our discussion of how the human brain plays the
There is a
link between the two sides, called the corpus callosum. It is the largest
connective pathway in the brain, and musical expertise has been found to
expand that mass of neurons and ganglia PHYSICALLY by up to forty percent!
right, musicians have forty percent more physical capacity for
inter-hemisphere communication than people who have not tried to play
music, because music constantly and naturally stimulates "talk"
between the two sides of the brain.
inter-brain communication affects several areas of human expertise besides
music. Math skills rely on this two-sided brain juggling, as does writing
prose and handwriting. Each side of the brain performs very different
functions, and yet they work together to create even more complex
supra-functions and ideas.
I bring all
this up because I had a rather "out of body" experience yesterday
while practicing Chopin, that seems to demonstrate this very two-brained
As I was
playing a very difficult passage in which the two hands play extremely
different things, I was struck by a moment of clarity in which I clearly
felt each hemisphere managing each hand, working together without the
slightest effort. I looked down at my hands as if someone else was
playing, and for the first time SAW my hands playing two insanely
unrelated things (physically.)
And it was
my point. There are degrees of repetition in practicing the piano. At
first it may be drudgery to simply grind out the notes in difficult
passages. That's why I simplify parts, sometimes, and play hands
separately for weeks until I feel like I've gotten the hang of the
But now I
know why I was doing that, playing hands separately and/or simplifiying: I
was allowing the brain hemisphere that controls that hand to fully absorb
And I limit
the time that I play the two hands together at first, allowing only
occasional two handed, slow playing, until my brain starts to understand
how to juggle the information for that passage (and that passage alone.)
Each passage is different, and demands a completely different set of
takes weeks and months of repetition in many forms (intense, bored, fast,
slow, etc.) for the brain to make up it's mind about how to deal with
the wealth of sensory information.
here, look there now, reach, curl finger, tall hand, now low." It's an
endless list that each pianist has to account for in their own way.
seems to be not only two brains, but a sort of uber-brain, which
coordinates the two. It's that part of your brain that remembers things
that you have to forget until you need them, like where you left your
uber-brain is in fact the fabled "corpus callosum," the mythical
information autobahn within your brain that ties the two sides of the
brain and all the information inside them together.
practical result of this discovery of the two "live" brains is to
redouble my attempts at games that result in two-handed expertise.
I play a game called Pirates, in which a child plays only the keys G and a
higher octave G, over and over like a clock chime, while I improvise mad
gypsy pirate music in C minor on the lower keys underneath.
The point is
to get the child playing with two hands as easily as possible, spending as
much time as possible in this easy-to-maintain two-brained state.
some difficulty coordinating the two hands, dependent on two factors. One
factor is age, and the other is the difficulty of the passage.
succeed, you have to find the "speed limit" of THAT child playing THAT
passage, and then slowly build the skills in each hand before you try
When a child
succeeds at this carefully orchestrated approach to a two-handed problem,
there is a huge rise in self-esteem as they realize, "Hey, I can play
to realize how hard the piano may be is only useful if you can give them a
to technical problems is always to first separate the hands (brains
separate) and then play each part slowly (allow the two brains to absorb
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