The single most asked question I hear from my students is how do I coordinate both of my hands together on the accordion? This also comes across as "My left hand is doing what my right hand is doing. How do I make them independent?" and "Help! How do I separate my hands!!!"
This is a big topic. Don't worry. You're not alone.
I've answered this question a number of times and led hundreds of students through it, both in real life and online. The good news is that hand independence is something that can be taught, just like learning to ride a bike or learning to juggle. In this article I've broken down hand independence into 5 techniques and exercises that will help you along your journey.
Here's how I've divided this guide:
Before you begin
You're not alone. Every accordion player has been through the issue of hand separation.
Unfortunately, hand independence comes at the start of your accordion journey. It's a requirement for playing more difficult songs, and I've seen a large number of players quit because it didn't "click" for them.
Please don't quit. Remember the following:
- Everyone goes through this. You're not alone.
- You will get through this stage, just like you were able to learn to tie your shoe laces and ride a bicycle. You will separate those hands!
- You'll need both time and practice. It may not click for you on day one, but it may click on day four, on minute number seven. Give it time. Give it practice.
Once you have it down, it stays. For good. It's like any other skill. Let's get started.
Why our hands don't separate
Our body wants to stay in sync. It wants to stay balanced. Right and left. The same thing at the same time. Things start to collapse when we try to separate that synchronous movement. Try juggling, rubbing your head and tapping your belly at the same time, or driving a manual car. Your body just doesn't want to comply. The same is true when we try to play two separate rhythms - one with our left hand and one with our right.Our body just doesn't want to do it! It wants both hands to do the same movement at the same time.
This makes it easy to play songs that have a one-to-one relation between our two hands like Marry Had A Little Lamb or Ode To Joy. But as soon as we try to do something even slightly different with our left hand than our right hand (like playing a waltz), things fall apart.
This is the pattern we have to break. And break it down we will! Here's how.
The methodology for separating your hands
My methodology in anything musical (and anything in life, actually) is to break down something to its smaller, basic parts, and then move on to the larger parts. In the case of juggling it means building our way from one ball to three balls. In the case of learning to drive a manual car or motorcycle, it means working with one pedal - the clutch only - before introducing the gas pedal and shifter.
With the accordion you'll concentrate on the movement of your hands. This means removing the notes and even the song itself from your exercises. You'll just concentrate on movement. If a movement is too difficult, cut it back and make it more basic. Only once the smaller pieces are there will you put the entire puzzle together.
Below you'll find five exercises for separating your hands. Go through each step and see which one works for you. They are in no particular order and should be tried in combination. Meaning, if one doesn't work, move on to the next one and come back.
Step 1- Take away the accordion
Let's simplify things. Begin by removing the accordion entirely. Get your hands familiar with the rhythm first, and then introduce the notes and fingers. If I'm playing Shatakovich's Waltz No. 2, the difficult part is trying to fit in more than 3 notes into an oom-pa-pa pattern.
Let's remove the accordion and tap the same pattern. You're essentially becoming a drummer.
Bonus: You can do this exercise on your table while eating or working or while riding your bicycle (carefully!).
Step 2 - Isolate the trouble section
Song: Nantes by Beirut (performance, lesson and sheet music).
Don't try to play an entire song. Play the right hand separately from the left hand. Make a note of any time you stumble. It could be a large jump in the left hand, or a walk-down in the right hand where your speed suffers. Isolate the section. Before you can play with your hands together, each hand needs to play the passage perfectly.
In Beirut's Nantes, the left hand pattern has odd timing. The right hand plays a series of notes that are difficult. Before combining both hands, I need to play the left hand without mistake, as well as the right hand, before proceeding. That means being able to play the left hand on "fully automatic"mode, without thinking about it. I call it setting your left hand on auto pilot. You should be able to play your left hand while speaking with your right hand. Once your left hand is on "auto" mode, proceed to step 3.
Step 3 - Introduce the correct left hand and tap the right hand
Song: Nantes by Beirut (performance, lesson and sheet music).
We've isolated the trouble section (in my example, the right hand of Beirut's Nantes). I know the left hand and set it to automatic. I'm going to remove the notes from the melody, tap out some rhythms with my right hand, all the while my left hand plays the same rhythm on repeat. Here's what that looks like.
My left hand is correct. It's set to auto-pilot. I'm not thinking about it. My right hand is doing Step 1 - tapping out some rhythms. Once I'm playing those without mistakes, I can slowly introduce rhythmic patterns in my right hand.
My right hand is only playing one note or chord. I'm very slowly adding complication to it. My left hand is still set to auto-pilot. I'm not playing the melody. I don't care what my right hand is playing - the point is to just feel the physicality of playing bass with my left hand, and tapping different rhythms with my right.
Step 4 - Introduce the correct right hand and tap the left hand
Song: Vai Verdai from Cirque Du Soleil's Allegria (performance, lesson and sheet music).
Song: Libertango by Astor Piazzolla.
Exercise 4 is the same as exercise 3, except instead of automating the left hand, we're removing it, and concentrating on the right hand instead. In the song Vai Vedrai, for example, the left hand has a complicated rhythm using notes I've never played before. Plus, the right hand is complicated, too.
To approach this song, I would isolate the trouble spot (exercise 2). I would learn the left hand (exercise 3) while tapping out the right hand melody. Then I would do this exercise - tapping out the left hand rhythm while concentrating on the correct right hand melody.
The same principle applies to Libertango. There are some chord combinations that are difficult. Instead of struggling with them, remove them from the equation for the time being. Concentrate on your right hand melody. Tap out the left hand rhythm. As you become more comfortable, bring both hands together.
You're working on hand independence!
Step 5 - Play only one part (and record the second)
Song: Hallelujah by Leonard Cohen (performance, lesson and sheet music).
This one's a confidence booster. Record yourself playing one part of the song (either right or left hand) and play the other part. This will ensure you know both parts correctly. If you stumble, try again.
This step forces you to play in rhythm. It means knowing the right and left hands well enough to play them in tempo. Stumbling in this part is natural. Slow things down, and try again.
I would rather you play something at a snail's pace and do it correctly, than stumble along at breakneck speed.
How do you slow down? Breathe. Relax those shoulders. Watch the tension in my shoulders and neck when I try to play this passage too quickly. I don't breathe! My right hand is struggling to keep up! I re-record my left hand and slow things down. So relaxed! It makes all the difference in the world.
Example: See It In Action
Conclusion & next steps
I've been playing the accordion for almost 15 years now, and the piano for 10 years before that. I still come across songs and rhythms that challenge my hand independence. When that happens I rely on the tools described in this guide - the 5 exercises - to break down the stumbling block into something more manageable.
It always takes time and practice. I'll find myself tapping out a rhythm on the kitchen counter while waiting for my tea to steep, and later when I'm walking I'll be slapping my thighs while whistling out a melody... all things that encourage the body to feel the complicated rhythm.
Bring these steps in to your playing and let me know in the comments below what works and what doesn't.
I got it! What now?!
Learning the accordion shouldn't be frustrating or difficult. We never stop learning, but at the same time there comes a time in your musical journey when you should be able to just pick up songs and play them. There is nothing quite like it for enjoyment & relaxation.
On my website, AccordionLove.com, I teach songs and techniques for learning those songs. I teach songs by first looking at the structure of the song and then by doing a note-by-note playback exercise. I provide the sheet music as well, but I encourage you to learn to play by ear as much as possible (this way you'll remember the song long after you've learned it, and you won't need the sheet music to play it).
If you're interested, sign up for a FREE 3-day trial. I encourage you to take a look through the exercises and songs and choose one or two that you like.
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