The legendary jazz pianist Art Tatum once told a young, boasting Bud Powell, "Look, you come in here tomorrow, and anything you do with your right hand, I’ll do with my left!” Tatum had incredible hand independence, yet more than half a century later, the ability to play musical ideas equally well in the left and right hands remains a rare skill among jazz pianists. For me, it all started with Bach. As a kid studying classical music while teaching myself jazz, I remember feeling that I should be able to improvise lines with my left hand and accompany with my right just as well as the other way around. I’ve been hooked on the topic ever since. Here are some ideas I use to set my hands free.
1. Hearing the Left Hand
When we play music in both hands, what we play in our right hand tends to overwhelm our melodic hearing. This is because of natural force of habit, and because our ear tends to be drawn to higher pitches. To get used to letting your left hand take melodic precedence in your listening, try singing the left hand part of Ex. 1 while you play the entire example. This is an excerpt from Bach’s “Two Part Invention No. 8,” and an exercise I got from the acclaimed jazz pianist Danilo Pérez.
2. Left-Hand Lines with Simple Comping
Start things off by keeping the harmony static and comping in the plainest way possible. In Ex. 2, I’m staying in C minor, playing constant quarter-note chords in my right hand and improvising lines with my left. You may want to start by just using quarter-notes and eighth-notes in your left hand. Once you get comfortable with these techniques, introduce more rhythmic complexity. Get used to the sound of notes like sevenths and ninths being in the bass instead of the treble, and remember never to sacrifice phrasing or touch for the sake of pyrotechnics.
3. More Involved Comping
To work on my groove and the rhythmic precision of my lines, noted pianist and educator Kenny Werner once suggested I practice tunes with a “Charleston” rhythm in my left hand while playing lines with my right. In Ex. 3, I’m reversing that idea by playing that rhythm in my right hand, and soloing with my left hand over the cyclical harmony found in jazz standards like “All the Things You Are.” You can start by playing lines with half-notes only, and then gradually increase the rhythmic independence of your left hand by introducing quarter-notes, eighth-notes, quarter-note triplets, and finally, half-note triplets. Use rests, too—don’t get locked into anything. Once you get comfortable with these techniques, try switching which hand solos and which one comps every chorus.
4. Contrary Motion
Contrary motion is one of the fundamentals of good counterpoint. It simply means that two melodies move in opposite directions, which helps convey their independence to the ear. It also makes typical problems like the use of parallel fourths and fifths disappear. In Ex. 4, I’m improvising two lines that move in contrary motion over standard harmonic chord changes. If one moves up, the other moves down, and vice-versa. Start very slowly and gradually increase the tempo. Try to make each line have as much musical integrity as possible. This is something that you’ll often hear renowned pianist Fred Hersch do in performance.
Give Yourself a Hand
“Contemporary pianists like Fred Hersch and Brad Mehldau have made hand independence a central element of their style, but it’s not easy. Something about how the brain is wired makes it harder than one might think. But it’s very rewarding if you put in the time.” So says Brooklyn-based jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer. He was voted one of the Best New Artists of 2010 by Jazz Times on the strength of his album Five Pedals Deep. He has worked with Lee Konitz, Paul Motian, and Gary Peacock, and was profiled in our Nov. ’11 issue. Visit him at dantepfer.com.