On Teaching

September 3, 2014

Hand Distribution III

Continuing our trek through the Alla Breve section of Bach’s D Major Prelude and Fugue, BWV 532—looking closely at issues involving hand distribution—we come to a brief section that is influenced by something other than the music itself:

Example 1 shows that if there were nothing else to think about, clearly there is reason not to distribute the two voices between the two hands. That is the first principle of hand distribution, after all. However, in most editions of this piece, there is a page turn right about here. Therefore, the player can gain a bit of ease with that page turn by taking all of these notes in one hand (most likely the right hand). It is entirely possible that the various editors have chosen to position these measures at a page turn in order to help out in this way. Of course, for a player who memorizes the piece this won’t matter in the long run, but it might still help during the learning process. 

This is a special case—sort of a diversion. In fact, analyzing it like this is a useful way to help a student to relax: talking about something practical and not artistically intense, but relevant. However, it is not an unreal concern, and there are other reasons for taking clusters of notes in one hand in order to deal with something else while playing. The main one is probably the act of changing stops. Even something as simple as grabbing all of the notes of the final chord of each verse of a hymn in one hand to change stops with the other is a branch of decision-making about hand distribution.

The rest of this Alla Breve section mainly presents the same issues that we have already seen, with perhaps a few twists. I will go through it all, but concisely, since it is more or less “review”. 

The next short passage (Example 2, measures 48–49) has an outer voice that is more active than the other voices. Therefore it will make sense to keep that voice by itself in one hand, for the most part. Some players may want to break up the middle voice by taking the d at the end of measure 48 in the right hand. There may be other modifications that could make sense, but tracking the entire middle voice in the right hand would significantly increase the difficulty of the passage.

Example 3 (measures 50–51) shows the next measure, which has an intricate middle voice. All of the notes of that voice can be reached by the right hand; however, it might make sense to take some or all of those notes that can also be reached by the left hand, to break up the physical act of combining that line with another. The candidate notes are probably the opening c#, and the b and the a in measure 50.

The next, which is fairly lengthy, has the fast-moving figures in the upper voice. However, the two slower voices are not close enough to one another to be taken in the left hand, clearing the right hand just to track the intricate line (see Example 4, measures 52–59).

For most players, the easiest and most natural way to finger the passage will involve taking in the left hand all of the middle-voice notes that the left hand can actually reach, and taking the notes that the left hand cannot reach in the right hand. On the second quarter note of each of the odd-numbered measures, where the two higher voices come together, there is a special issue to think about. Which hand can best project to the listener the illusion that this is two notes, one of which moves away as part of the upper eighth-note line and one of which is part of the middle-voice quarter-note line? It is actually a trap in a spot like this to try to play the note with two fingers at once, one from each hand. (No one would suggest this on purpose, but students will indeed fall into doing it, probably through indecision.) The choice of hand (and finger) should be made clearly, even though it can be made either way.

For most of the next nine measures, there are no real questions to think about, either because the (manual) writing is in only two voices or because the balance of more intricate and simpler writing makes it clear. 

At measure 65 (Example 5) there is an interesting subtlety to examine. The middle voice takes over the note being held—presumably in the left hand—by the lower voice. Which hand should play the note? The left hand is right there, but with the “wrong” finger—since whatever finger is holding the note, the hidden repeated note will sound better if it is played with a different finger. This is not hard to manage. The articulation and timing of the move from the c# to the a in the middle voice might seem to be under more natural control if both those notes are played in the same hand. However, it is entirely possible to practice towards making that gesture effective across the two hands, as I will discuss below. It might seem better to take that eighth- note a with the left hand to give the right hand more time to get up to the c#′′ on the second quarter note of the measure. However, to me that “leap”—the tenth from the a to the c#′′ over the time-span of an eighth note—is the main reason to take the a in the right hand. The physical gesture of moving the right hand up the distance of that tenth will—like a bowing gesture in string writing—give the player the best chance of shaping the articulation and timing of the musical gesture in an effective and natural way.

At measure 69 (in Example 6) there is a brief passage in which any and all of the notes of the middle voice could be taken by either hand.

This is a good spot at which to remember once again that it doesn’t matter on which staff the notes are printed. The decision about which middle-voice notes to take in which hand should be based on comfort and logistics. This is not a bad time to mention that this will vary with the particular hand shapes of different players. For example, it is quite likely that a player with relatively short thumbs will gain more comfort from taking the d in measure 70 with the left hand than a player with relatively long thumbs will. 

Measures 71 through 78 display a texture in which the upper voice is mostly holding long notes, while the other two voices are fairly active. A sample of that passage is shown in Example 7.

It makes sense to take the eighth-note middle voice in the right hand, just accepting that one finger (the fifth finger) of that hand is unavailable since it has to hold long sustained notes. 

At measure 79 there is another opportunity to use hand distribution to make the playing of repeated notes sound natural, and to avoid letting those repeated notes disrupt the flow of the voices. My suggestions are indicated by letters, and are shown in Example 8.

The next complicated or involved spot begins at measure 89 (Example 9). This is a longer example of the sort of writing found at measure 36 and discussed in last month’s column. In this case, however, the eighth notes in the middle voice can all be reached by either hand. The player has a free choice as to which hand should play any of these notes and therefore what pattern to follow through the passage. The teacher’s role is mostly to point this out to the student, and to help the student notice the implications of different choices for hand position and articulation (and of course the implications of articulation preferences for hand distribution choices: the more interested a student is in playing the upper half-note line legato, for example, the more middle-voice notes the student will want to take in the left hand). I myself would probably take the third eighth note of each beat in the left hand—those that are a third higher than the lower voice left-hand notes, closest to them—and the others in the right hand. There are other ways to do it.

The next few measures (Example 10 measures 94–96) end the section of the piece that we are analyzing. Again, either hand can reach the middle-voice notes. Choices can be made based on the usual factors: closeness of notes to one another, hand position, and so on. However, this passage also has a special feature. A player might find that the shaping of the timing and articulation of the syncopations/suspensions in the upper voice feels more natural either 1) with those notes isolated on their own in the right hand, or 2) played with the middle-voice notes in the right hand, using a kind of rocking motion to reinforce the feeling of the pacing and articulation of those notes. This is an individual thing: I can easily imagine doing it either way.

When a student (or any player) has made all of the decisions about which hand should take which notes of a (middle) contrapuntal voice, and worked out the actual fingering, then the next step is to practice the passage in such a way that that voice sounds the way that the player wants it to sound. If the hand distribution and fingering are right (comfortable) then this should not be categorically different from practicing any other sort of passage. 

However, there is one concern. It is undeniably a little bit more difficult—or perhaps it would be more accurate to say “less intuitive”—to shape the timing and articulation of the transitions from one note to the next in a contrapuntal voice when those notes are in different hands than when they are in the same hand. It is very important not to let this fact lead a player into making awkward hand distribution choices. (Sometimes it can and should influence those choices when other factors are fairly evenly split). But it should be kept in mind and addressed in practicing. 

The main way to address it is to practice that voice by itself, but split between the hands with the correct, worked-out fingering. This is partly physical practice, but even more it is listening practice. It is easiest to attune the ears to the flow of the line when the line is not covered by other notes, and this will make it easier to hear and follow the line in the context of the full texture. It is always straightforward to extract the line once the fingering process has been accomplished. It can be a good exercise for a student to write out—or type out—the line by itself, add the chosen fingerings, and practice it from that. However this is probably not necessary. 

For the bulk of this practicing it is important not to change the chosen fingering—and it is crucial not to do so accidentally or at random. (It is always OK to rethink fingering consciously, if there is a reason to do so.) It is also important to listen carefully during this practice to the transition moments, where the voice crosses from one hand to the other. It is possible, especially with a line that is physically not hard to play, to play short sections of the line in one hand at this stage to listen for the continuity, and then put it back into the correct (two-hand) fingering, trying to match the one-handed effect. It is probably a good idea not to do very much of this: just once or twice through a given short section of the line being practiced. If a student finds this to be disruptive (that is, if it is hard to go back to the fingering that is really being practiced after visiting the one-hand fingering) then he or she should not do it. 

When a student has practiced a line this way and is ready to put the whole texture back together, he or she should try at first to listen only to the line that passes between the hands and to pay no attention to the voices around it. (Unfortunately, it is impossible by definition to solo out this line, since in all of the passages of the kind that we have been studying both hands and all the voices are—and have to be—on one keyboard.) This is an exercise in focusing, and of course it can’t be achieved literally. You will always hear the other notes, but you should try to focus on the line that passes between the hands, to be conscious of that line and the sonority of all of its notes.

It can be a good exercise to take any line of music—say the top line of a hymn, or one voice of a two-part Invention, or a cantabile melody from the slow movement of a Mendelssohn sonata—assign it an arbitrary fingering that shifts back and forth between the hands, and practice that fingering. (The fingering can be worked out arbitrarily, but should be written in and not changed at random.) This is not to end up playing that line that way regularly, but as training in listening to and executing the transitions from one hand to the other.

Often the issue is not that of passing a line between the hands. In non-contrapuntal music, the question of how to divide the notes between the hands (assuming, as always in this context, that the whole texture is meant to be played on one keyboard) should usually be determined as simply as possible by trying out the physical comfort, simplicity, and convenience of any of the various possibilities. In fact, very often, just remembering that it is perfectly all right to distribute the notes between the hands however they fall most easily is the most important as well as the first step. The rest follows from that. 

It is interesting that the impulse to play upper staff notes in the right hand and lower staff notes in the left hand can be pervasive. I recently took part in a conversation about the wide left-hand chord on the fourth beat of measure 8 of the Widor Toccata (Example 11). For many players, it is impossible (or nearly so) to play all four notes of this chord in the left hand, and for even more players it is at least awkward. The player who initiated the discussion absolutely could not reach those four notes. Nonetheless, the conversation revolved around such issues as which note or notes it was best to leave out, or whether there was a solution based on arpeggiation, or whether Widor’s left hand was really big enough for him to be able to play this chord easily and nonchalantly. 

It took a while for someone to notice the obvious solution, namely that the highest note of the so-called “left hand” chord is within easy reach of the notes of the upper voice, and can perfectly well be played in the right hand. Doing it this way opens up some performance issues similar to some of those discussed above. The timing and articulation of that note must be just right, as a match to the other notes of the chord. That is intuitive if all of the notes of the chord are in the same hand—and less intuitive, more challenging, if the notes are split between the hands. This is analogous to the issues involved in passing a voice back and forth between the hands. It is also important to keep the articulation of the top line going the way you want it while adding an extra note for the right-hand thumb. A player who absolutely cannot reach the entire chord can take on the task of practicing to get these things right. A player for whom the chord is possible but awkward can decide where the balance lies as to what is easiest and what will give the best results.