Separating The Hands For String Players

While the coordination of the movements of our left and right hands/arms is one of the greatest and most constant challenges of string playing, there are many benefits to be had – as a practice technique – from making a total separation of the work of each hand. To isolate the righthand we will play everything exclusively on the corresponding open strings, while to isolate the lefthand we will put the bow down and sound the notes only with lefthand (and perhaps the occasional righthand) pizzicatos. This allows us to concentrate exclusively on one hand at a time, which is a luxury so rare in normal music-making that we can only really create these conditions artificially in our practice room.

Pianists use this practice technique often, but string players use it rarely. This is perfectly understandable, for at least two major reasons:

  • unlike for pianists, when string players play with only one hand there is absolutely no music happening and absolutely no musical satisfaction. Ravel wrote a Piano Concerto for only one hand, but such an idea for a string player is obviously impossible (but would make a good comedy sketch)!
  • unlike for pianists, playing a string instrument with only one hand requires reimagining the music. For the righthand, we need to recreate the music with only the open strings, and for the lefthand, we need to consider which notes will sound naturally with a lefthand pizzicato, which ones we will want to hear with a righthand pizzicato, and which will remain silent. Especially for the righthand, this transformation can sometimes be so complex as to require almost the rewriting of the music in order that we can concentrate on observing the movements of the hand rather than trying to work out on which string it is supposed to be playing.

“Playing” a piece of music using only the open strings is perhaps even more musically unsatisfying than playing the same piece with only the lefthand, but while both are musically/emotionally barren they are very rich in intellectual/technical stimulation. This practice technique also gives our nervous system a rest from the constant emoting that tends to happen automatically as soon as we start playing the cello with both hands !