What is the best way to learn a piano piece: “hands-together” or separately?

Yesterday I posted a link to an excellent study that highlighted effective piano practice habits.

Researchers found that pianists who tried playing with hands-together early on when learning a new piece learned the music faster than those who stayed with hands one-at-a-time for longer. I think this is probably because playing with both hands helps us hear the whole piece better, right from the start. It also helps us get a head start on the piece’s hand independence and rhythmic coordination challenges.

I’d like to take a moment to say that while I applaud researchers who do studies like this, they rarely frame their results in a wide enough context (at least in their published reports). Sure, the university music students who practiced like this did better, but if you’re just starting out on piano and find it helpful to play one hand at a time, then please continue to do so! I myself have spent hours upon hours playing the RH of Chopin’s “Revolutionary Etude” over and over, at all tempos. I loved doing this and yes, I did get to Carnegie Hall 🙂 Find what works for you at a particular time and do it. At the same time, of course, keep re-evaluating your practice habits and grow with your approach.

Perhaps the real value of an observation like the effectiveness of early hands-together practicing lies in the further questions it brings. With the college students, for instance, I’m guessing that the pianists who put their hands together earlier were actually a little more advanced than their peers. So maybe they would have learned the piece faster even if they started more with hands separately. Or maybe they had better music “ears.” Since they could look at the score and “hear” the music with their inner ear, they could attempt both hands right away. Their colleagues might have had to listen to each hand independently just to get a sense of the overall piece. (All pianists know that it’s easier to learn a piece if they already know how it goes.)

So maybe it’s a 2-sided coin: The more advanced pianists were able put their hands together earlier, and this in turn helped them go farther, faster. Maybe the others were in a stage of their development where they needed to practice hands separately at first. I’m not sure I would have been as quick to jump to conclusions as the researchers in that article were.

My advice to you: have fun while you practice. Play hands separately, together, and any other way you like. The important point is to stay with it and enjoy each moment of your time at the piano.

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