Hand Independence for Synth Players

A masterclass from the June 2013 issue of KEYBOARD.
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It’s often the keyboard player’s job to recreate complex studio sounds onstage. Reverbed pizzicato strings, portamento synths, and distorted Mellotron all sound amazing together, but how does one person with two hands play all of it? I do my best to avoid the obvious solutions, like omitting a part or using pre-recorded backing tracks. After I transcribe the parts, find a workable keyboard split and get each sound just right, it often turns out that I can actually play it all—but this takes practice and developing your hand independence.

Like with all hand independence exercises, start with isolating each hand. Next, begin combining the parts so they form a single interlocking mechanism, paying attention to which notes or chords from each hand are played at the same time versus which lead into each other. Once the passage makes sense as a whole, set your metronome to a slow tempo that gets you through the exercise without stopping, and work up from there. Soon, your muscle memory will start taking over and you’ll be able to focus on feel and articulation for each part.

1. Piano Ostinatos and Wurlitzer Lines

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On Teddy Thompson’s A Piece Of What You Need tour, it fell to me to translate Marius DeVries’ elaborate production onto the stage. Ex. 1 is reminiscent of a musical situation from that time, with piano ostinatos and chord hits in the right hand and a Wurlitzer line in the left hand. Ostinato rhythm figures are a common feature in pop music of every kind, so the skill of playing a more complex counterpoint line against them is highly useful.

2. Synth Meets Guitar

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During the David Byrne and St. Vincent Love This Giant tour, I play what was originally a guitar part with my left hand and a synth counterpoint with my right. Ex. 2 demonstrates how to pull off a similar sonic feat. Here, articulation is the beast: Identify the spots where one hand plays staccato against the other hand’s tied or legato notes. Loopthe pattern, lock into the groove, and work on getting the articulation exactly right. Imagine you’re playing it along with a horn section. Once it feels like second nature, try improvising your own syncopated licks while keeping the left hand going.

3. Bass and Rolled Chords

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Ex. 3 illustrates a steady left hand bass figure supporting laid back “push and pull” phrasing in the right hand. I used this approach during Marianne Faithfull’s semi-acoustic “Songs of Innocence and Experience” tour. The right hand’s rolled chords provide the harmonic foundation as well as bluesy, ornamented fills. The sustain pedal would’ve been convenient here, but we can’t use it because of the pointy bass notes. Quarter-note quadruplets in 6/8 time is a popular polyrhythm that’s good to practice, but beyond that it’s most important to focus on a free, unhurried delivery in the right hand. See how loosely you can phrase these licks, (or some of your own), without compromising the steady lilt in the bass.

4. Multi-Synth Harmonies

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On St. Vincent’s Strange Mercy tour, I literally had my hands full. She’s known for her use of layered, orchestral-style parts and jagged syncopated lines, and they often occur all at the same time! Ex. 4 demonstrates some of the techniques I used with her. To achieve three-part harmony with portamento-infused monophonic synths, I created three instances of Arturia Minimoog V in Ableton Live and set up each note of the scale in the top voice to be sent to all three synths, with the second and third voice transposed down accordingly. I then used a slightly modified Ableton Operator sound in an upper split zone to play the right hand line. Notice that clefs and notated octave placement are somewhat arbitrary in cases like this. I’ll often have a higher-pitched sound in the left hand (or vice versa) just because I like how a particular part feels there.

5. Both Hands, Both Feet

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At a recent show with singer-songwriter Bess Rogers, I played a song that required both hands and both feet. Ex. 5 illustrates how to pull this off. Start by dividing your keyboard into three zones that fit each part’s range. The top zone can be a long bell or electric piano sound—here I used high-register Mellotron vibes with rapid tremolo. The middle zone is for the “woozy” synth string sound, and the bottom is for the smooth Moog lead with glide. We’ll need the sustain pedal to stay pressed down throughout, so either filter out the sustain controller for the top zone or reduce polyphony to allow for continuous sustain. Finally, in the lower zone, assign a pedal to switch octaves as indicated. If this isn’t possible with your setup, your left hand will have to work a little harder to make those octave jumps (or hit octave shift buttons).

“While you can practice the first three examples on a piano, Examples 4 and 5 will require keyboard zoning and more specific sounds to be performed live,” advises keyboardist and composer Daniel Mintseris, who has performed with David Byrne, St. Vincent, Teddy Thompson, Peter Cincotti, Renée Fleming, Marianne Faithfull, and Martha Wainwright. His experimental album with cellist Dave Eggar is called Convolutions for Piano, Cello, and Electronics. Find out more at mindlessinertia.com.