The Pianist with Two Brains is a phrase I coined to show how a pianist is constantly exchanging information between the hemispheres of their brain.
The connection between them is called the “corpus callosum” and is 40% larger in musicians.
We all know that our brain has two hemispheres, or sides.
Furthermore, the left hand is controlled by the right side of the brain and the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain.
Remember this fact for it will become very important in our discussion of how the human brain plays the piano.
There is a link between the two sides, called the corpus callosum. It is the largest connective pathway in the brain, and musical expertise has been found to expand that mass of neurons and ganglia physically by up to forty percent!
That’s right, musicians have forty percent more physical capacity for inter-hemisphere communication than people who have not tried to play music, because music constantly and naturally stimulates “talk” between the two sides of the brain.
Increased inter-brain communication affects several areas of human expertise besides music. Math skills rely on this two-sided brain juggling, as does writing prose and handwriting. Each side of the brain performs very different functions, and yet they work together to create even more complex supra-functions and ideas.
I bring all this up because I had a rather “out of body” experience yesterday while practicing Chopin, that seems to demonstrate this very two-brained human dynamic.
As I was playing a very difficult passage in which the two hands play extremely different things, I was struck by a moment of clarity in which I clearly felt each hemisphere managing each hand, working together without the slightest effort. I looked down at my hands as if someone else was playing, and for the first time SAW my hands playing two insanely unrelated things (physically.)
And it was perfect!
So here’s my point. There are degrees of repetition in practicing the piano. At first it may be drudgery to simply grind out the notes in difficult passages. That’s why I simplify parts, sometimes, and play hands separately for weeks until I feel like I’ve gotten the hang of the passage.
But now I know why I was doing that, playing hands separately and/or simplifiying: I was allowing the brain hemisphere that controls that hand to fully absorb the movements.
And I limit the time that I play the two hands together at first, allowing only occasional two handed, slow playing, until my brain starts to understand how to juggle the information for that passage (and that passage alone.) Each passage is different, and demands a completely different set of memories.
It then takes weeks and months of repetition in many forms (intense, bored, fast, slow, etc.) for the brain to make up it’s mind about how to deal with the wealth of sensory information.
“Look here, look there now, reach, curl finger, tall hand, now low.” It’s an endless list that each pianist has to account for in their own way.
And there seems to be not only two brains, but a sort of uber-brain, which coordinates the two. It’s that part of your brain that remembers things that you have to forget until you need them, like where you left your keys.
Perhaps this uber-brain is in fact the fabled “corpus callosum,” the mythical information autobahn within your brain that ties the two sides of the brain and all the information inside them together.
The practical result of this discovery of the two “live” brains is to redouble my attempts at games that result in two-handed expertise.
For example I play a game called Pirates, in which a child plays only the keys G and a higher octave G, over and over like a clock chime, while I improvise mad gypsy pirate music in C minor on the lower keys underneath.
The point is to get the child playing with two hands as easily as possible, spending as much time as possible in this easy-to-maintain two-brained state: left-right, left-right.
Kids have some difficulty coordinating the two hands, dependent on two factors. One factor is age, and the other is the difficulty of the passage.
To really succeed, you have to find the “speed limit” of that child playing that passage, and then slowly build the skills in each hand before you try combining them.
When a child succeeds at this carefully orchestrated approach to a two-handed problem, there is a huge rise in self-esteem as they realize, “Hey, I can play this stuff.”
Getting them to realize how hard the piano may be is only useful if you can give them a solution.
The solution to technical problems is always to first separate the hands (brains separate) and then play each part slowly (allow the two brains to absorb the moves.)
The brain demands patience.
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