Practicing the Left Hand

September 25, 2011

My mom made me take piano lessons when I was a kid.

At least, that’s the version of the story that I tell.  It makes it sound less like I asked for it, because in the real version of events, I begged to take piano lessons because my brother was taking piano lessons.  And I could not allow my brother to be better at something than I was.  But my brother got to quit, and I didn’t.  It turns out I was good at playing piano.  What a huge disappointment that was to me when I lost interest, and my mom wouldn’t let me quit.

So I kept playing.

Sort of.

You see, one of the boons of being naturally good at something is that you can take a lot of short cuts.  I remember some of my earlier piano lessons.  I would not practice all week.  I refused.  And I would sit down at the piano for my lesson and fly through the pieces in the learning book.  My piano teacher was always so impressed and would say such nice things to me.  I was too young to feel guilty.  When I got older, people asked me to play for things.  Church services, choir accompaniments, special occasions.  I would half practice, show up, and blow everyone away.  I don’t write this to sound boastful.  I write this to point out a fatal flaw that my choir teacher discovered when I was in tenth grade.

I never practiced the left hand.

In choir, all of the tones in the piano accompaniment are important because they help the singers to find their pitch.  But I was a lazy pianist, and I would only practice the left hand until it was good enough.  I’m not sure I ever played it correctly, and I’m almost completely certain I never played all the notes.  And Mr. B was the only person to ever call me on it, because he was the only person who would truly hear it.

Now I also competed in piano, and for those pieces, I poured my heart and soul into the practice.  My piano teacher then would have caught every missed note.  But the stuff that I wasn’t being judged on, I let those pieces slip as if they were not worthy of the same practice and dedication.

I stopped playing piano entirely when I graduated from high school.  The relief was immense, and I swore I would never touch a keyboard again.  That was young, stupid, naive me speaking.  As the years passed, I found myself listening to more and more piano recordings.  I missed the sharp clean sound of a well played piece.  My fingers would start to move along imaginary keys as I recalled hours of practice.  And then when the day came that my dad finally got rid of my old piano, I cried.

So I cried a lot when my to be walked into the house one day carrying a full sized electric keyboard.  I think you missed it, he said.  And I cried harder.

After many attempts at trying to secure a pianist for our wedding in two weeks, we decided that I would just play the piano for the service.  We had the keyboard, and we had recording equipment.  We would just play back the recording during the service, and I would get the music that I wanted.  So I sat down to start flying through pieces like I did when I was kid.

But my fingers wouldn’t work.

I had no strength in my left hand, and my right hand was unwieldy.  I practiced and practiced and practiced.  My right hand recovered, but my left hand still dragged.  Fingers would slip or miss keys entirely.  I would stop and stare at my left hand as if it were a foreign entity, parasitically attached to my arm.  And then I bowed my head in defeat and reached for Hanon.

For anyone who was also forced to take piano lessons by their mother, you know who Hanon is.  Hanon was a 19th century musical masochist, creating a volume of music consisting strictly of finger exercises.  The idea is that these exercises would build strength and dexterity in the fingers.  In the preface to his piece, The Virtuoso-Pianist, Hanon writes, “The study of the piano is now-a-days so general, and good pianists are so numerous, that mediocrity on this instrument is no longer endured.”  You can understand why it was with such defeat and reluctance that I finally got out my copy of Hanon.

But this teaches a very good lesson.  Practice the left hand.  No matter how unimportant you may think it is, one day it may come back to bite you in the butt.

The same thing can be said of writing.  If you don’t practice your writing muscles, no matter how insignificant you think it may be, you could lose all the talent you thought you once had.  As an accomplished writer once said to me, “Writing is like making love.  You must always keep your hands moving.”

Keep your hands moving, especially the left one.

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