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On Teaching

August 4, 2014

Hand Distribution II

I have suggested that beginning in the middle of measure 19 and going on for a while, it is best to take the upper voice—a somewhat wide-ranging eighth-note pattern—by itself in the right hand, and to group the other two voices—both of them slower, and occupying places in the keyboard compass very close to each other—in the left hand. This is logical and satisfies the various points that I listed last month. It also predisposes the important “hidden” repeated note at the beginning of measure 22 to work out to best advantage, with the left hand playing and discreetly releasing the on-the-beat quarter-note d, and the right hand coming in to play the following eighth note. 

If, by any chance, it is important to the student/player to make all of the half notes and quarter notes of the lower two voices fully legato, then keeping those two voices together in the left hand throughout will require a substantial amount of substitution, which by definition makes the fingering more complex. This could to some extent undermine the gain in simplicity that comes from letting the right hand track the active upper voice unencumbered. It would be simplest to keep the lowest and middle voices in the left hand. (Also, a player whose performing style suggests keeping this passage strictly legato is probably a player who is quite adept at substitution—someone for whom it does not add much difficulty, if any.)


Example 2: Finding the middle voice

The next section is quite different. Example 2 shows that the three manual voices are for the most part doing similar things to one another.

The measure-long passage beginning at the second quarter note of measure 25 is an exception to this and has the same texture as the passage discussed above. It would be physically possible in this measure to take the middle-voice notes with either hand, but it seems clear that taking those notes in the left hand will make the playing of that measure much easier.

Throughout this passage—with no exception—both hands can reach the notes of the middle voice. The middle voice is somewhat more active than the other two—just for the record, thirty-two notes in the excerpt as it appears in the example, compared to twenty-seven for the upper voice and twenty-five for the lower. This is not enough to make a difference on its own. Active or not, it is the middle voice that can be, and perhaps should be, shared between the hands. It can’t be isolated. 

One way to approach a passage like this is to try it both ways: play the top two voices all in the right hand—probably two or three times, just to get used to the feeling; and then play the lower two voices together in the left hand, also a few times. The point of this is not to choose between those two absolutes, but to look for moments of tension. Where, in playing two voices in one hand, do you feel that it becomes awkward or difficult? If you are lucky, those spots will be complementary: places that are awkward in the right hand will seem natural in the left hand and vice versa. If this is the case, then you are very close to having found a pattern of hand distribution that will work and that will maximize comfort in playing. You can sketch out that pattern, create the specifics of the fingering, and begin to practice. You might want to change something as you go along—I will come back to that important concern below. 

In carrying out this procedure, I make a few discoveries for myself. I find it slightly awkward to reach the f# and the e in measure 24 with the right hand. I find it somewhat awkward to track the middle-voice notes beginning with the last quarter note of measure 27 and going on for about two measures with the left hand. However, I find it easier to get the c# at the end of measure 29 with the left hand than with the right. There are various other details. Again, this is all empirical, and it is just about me: no one else will necessarily experience the passage that way. (For one thing, my feeling for hands and fingers here inevitably bears the traces of my having played the piece for more than forty years, and of my initial encounters with the piece when I was very much a beginner, and tried to read through it and learn it without the guidance of a teacher!) However, anyone can discover a fair amount about what will work best by trying it out this way.

Here are a few more analytical or specific things to say about the passage:

1) If you take the a on the second quarter note of measure 23 in the right hand, expecting also to take the b immediately following it in the right hand, then that gesture—going from a to b—involves contracting the hand. This is, all else being equal, relaxing and natural.

2) Measure 24 is perhaps an especially good place to alternate hands in the middle voice. If you play the d with 4 in the left hand, then the left hand can easily play the f# with 2, then the c# with 5 and the e with 3.

3) If you alternate in this way, then you can play from the beginning of measure 23 through the downbeat of measure 25 without changing the right hand’s position.

4) The g# in measure 26 will be easier for most players to take in the left hand. This is because it is far enough from the f#′′ in the right hand that the right hand must execute an uncomfortable stretch or assume an uncomfortable hand position in order to reach it.

Answers to questions about what hand distribution is the most comfortable— particularly in a case like this, where any number of things are possible—may depend in part on interpretive choices. Certainly in this passage, as I mentioned above concerning the earlier part of this section of the piece, if the player wants to make the lines truly legato, that choice will have implications for hand distribution that are different from what might apply if the notes are by and large detached. Full-fledged legato will tend to require more substitution and might in general lead to a need for more even sharing of the voices. It will be easier to finger the outer voices legato if neither hand has to track the middle voice for very long at once. (More substitution and a more even sharing of the middle voice might be alternatives to each other.) If the player wishes to keep the lines detached, a wider variety of hand distribution choices will work fluently and well. In effect, more fingers are available, since fingers that are already holding notes are nonetheless available to play the immediately following notes. Since interpretive choices can—and should—change as someone gets to know a piece better, and also just over the course of a player’s career, fingering choices and hand distribution choices have to be revisited from time to time. Even in the first stages of learning a piece, hand distribution choices might have to be revisited as the specifics of the fingering develop. This is sort of a paradox: you literally can’t create fingerings until you know which hand is going to play which notes, but you might want to make changes in your template as to which hand will play which notes based on the way the fingering works out in practice. (This is only a concern with passages like the one we are looking at now where the hand distribution choices are rather open.) There is no way around this: it is part of the process.


Example 3: Dividing the work

The next brief section of the piece is similar in principle to the opening several measures: there is an active outer voice, so if possible it is likely to be most suitable to group the other two voices in the other (in this case right) hand, as shown in Example 3.

This is true even though the two upper voices are quite spread out from one another for much of the time.  The b in the middle voice at the beginning of measure 34, for example, is much closer to the lower voice (left hand) notes than it is to the upper voice notes. However, it is very likely that most players would find it hard—or at least unnecessarily harder—to grab that note in the left hand, since doing so would tend to disrupt the flow of the playing of the eighth-note line. Also, of course, there are more of those “hidden” repeated notes, the playing of which can be especially effective if they are split between the hands.


Example 4: Room for questions

The next short section, shown in Example 4, is interesting. The middle voice is the active one, and here it is doing the most active thing that is represented in this Alla Breve section: outlining the chords in eighth notes, like those seen in the upper voice around measure 20 and elsewhere and in the lower voice around measure 32 and elsewhere. As in the passage found in Example 2, the middle voice is the most active, but here it is a lot more active than the outer voices. This raises several questions: which notes of that middle voice are closer to each of the outer voices? For which hand is it easier to play any given note? Is there a musical advantage to letting one hand track (so to speak) an intricate moving line, or this line in particular? Or is there a musical gain from the ease that might be created by splitting that line up? If so, how is it best to practice a fast or intricate line that moves from one hand to another? Is this an issue of its own, or is it essentially just a subset of practicing the notes as such?


Example 5: Xs and Ys

In this particular case, as shown in Example 5, clearly only the notes marked below with “x” can be reached easily by the left hand, though those marked with “y” can probably also be reached by the left hand, though less easily, for most players.

I would probably find it easiest to take the “x” notes in the left hand (possibly not the first one, f# ) and all of the other middle-voice notes in the right hand. At each of the “x” spots, I would play the two left-hand notes with 3/1. This is predicated in part on my wanting to play the lowest line somewhat detached, and, for me at least, it clarifies and simplifies the right hand fingering quite a lot. I would also expect to play the upper voice detached, but less so. I want the freedom to close those gaps down quite a bit in response to the harmonic tension of the line. A player who wanted to make that line quite detached could more readily play all of the middle-voice eighth notes in the right hand, if that seemed desirable.


Example 6: A simple choice

The next section, shown in Example 6, is a classic case of the most active material being in an outer voice—the upper voice—and the other two voices having slower, simpler material, the notes of which are close to one another on the keyboard. There is little or no reason not to join the lower voices in the left hand throughout this example (after the first note printed here, which the left hand can’t reach).


Example 7: Upper vs. lower voice

The next several measures, as seen in Example 7, present a number of interesting questions, which can be answered a number of different ways. 

As in Example 5, the middle voice is the active and intricate one. The right hand can certainly reach all of the middle voice notes, and the left hand can reach most but not all of the measure. The difference, for purposes of thinking about hand distribution, is that the upper voice is all repeated notes. If the player wants (as I myself would) to change fingers on those notes in order to gain more control over the timing and articulation of the repetitions, then that might suggest taking some substantial number of the middle-voice notes in the left hand—though it might not make it necessary, depending on the player’s hand size and relative finger lengths. If the player does not care about changing fingers on the repeated notes or would positively prefer not to do so, then with (most likely) 5 playing all of those c′′ sharps, the remainder of the right hand is available to play the eighth-note line. This might in turn mean that on balance it makes the passage easier to free the left hand of the need to catch any of those notes and to allow it to track the quarter-note lowest voice, with its couple of fairly substantial jumps. That might in turn depend on articulation choices for the lower voice.

Next month I will continue this discussion and turn to discussing hand distribution choices in other textures. I will also discuss practice techniques for hand distribution choices that are technically sound, but musically counterintuitive. 

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