Adaptive Approaches to Piano Study
Early in my piano education, I realized that sometimes I would need to play with my hands crossed. After I announced to my parents that I wanted to take piano lessons, my grandmother kindly gave me the old upright that she didn't play anymore. My father played for me the only piece he knew—a circus sort of tune with the melody in the left hand and three-note chords in the right hand. I watched him play and thought, "How am I going to do that? He is playing three notes in his right hand and I only have two fingers." However, he played only one note at a time in his left hand, and soon enough we came to the conclusion that I could play it with my hands crossed. This is the crux of adaptive piano study: we must change how we approach technique and fingering based upon the unique anatomy of the individual playing.
There are several principles that are foundational to adaptive piano study:
1. Share a melody between hands
Even though my right hand is capable of playing passages where only one note occurs at a time, some passages are easier to play if both hands share the line, especially if the tempo is fast or if there are many shifts from black keys to white keys.
2. Cross hands
Playing with the hands crossed can be a good solution for playing more notes, and it becomes more natural with practice. Try playing with the left hand over the right and with the right hand over the left. Most of the time, I play with my right hand on top, but there have been instances when it is more comfortable to have my left hand on top. Experiment with how you sit at the bench as well. It may be easier to turn slightly to one side or to lean back slightly. Aim to find a position that allows you to play with power while not straining the wrists.
3. Take extra notes in another hand
If I encounter a passage that has too many twists and turns or too many leaps to play up to speed with my right hand, occasionally I can alleviate the problem by taking a few well-chosen notes in my left hand. For example, an Alberti pattern is difficult to play with two fingers, but easy to play with two hands.
4. Use an adaptive device
In the spring of 2010, I was working on a piece with fortissimo octaves in both hands. The treble voice sounded puny with a missing note, and my professor, Arlene Kies, remarked at how wonderful it would be if I could just pick up something to play an octave and put it back down again. I puzzled over this for a while, and, with the added inspiration of the popular YouTube video, "Rachmaninov has Big Hands" by Igudesman and Joo, I started drafting prototypes for a tool to reach octaves.
My first creation was simple: I made a cross with two pencils bound by a rubber band. The cross proved to be an easy shape to hold, so my father and I used the same design to create more models with wooden dowels. The final tool was made by wood-turner Robert Englund of New Hampshire. The legs have cork at the bottom, which grip the keys similarly to fingertips. To create a more musically balanced octave with one note louder than the other, the cross is placed off-center. Naturally this tool can only be used for passages with many octaves and enough time to pick up and put down the device.
The last movement of the Shostakovich Piano Trio in E minor, Op. 67, has a particularly phenomenal passage for using the octave device. The octave device is also useful for cross-handed playing. There are many examples of art songs in which the treble hand plays chords and the bass hand plays octaves. With the octave device, I can play every note.
As Deborah's oldest daughter was studying piano, I realized how useful the damper pedal would be for connecting what could often be difficult legato due to her playing with one hand. However, her position at the piano was also unique due to a full-length prosthetic leg. Volunteer Engineer Steve Miller from Cincinnati adapted a device created by MIT students that was designed to help a leg amputee use the damper pedal. He extended the arm, and the device reaches to the student's side, allowing her to engage the damper pedal as needed.
5. Alter the seating position
Keeping in mind the unique nature of every child's physical disability, not all children will sit at the piano in the same manner. For instance, a child who has limited muscle control might better control their hands from a higher height at the piano than a child with typical muscle control. A student with a prosthetic leg may be more comfortable on a smaller seat than a bench.
Adaptive piano study is not, yet, an exact science. Much of what we accomplish with adaptive students is done through trial and error. We are all learning, and what your student needs most is a teacher who can "think outside the box" and be willing to try new ideas. Teachers should be willing to put themselves in the student's shoes. I truly did fall in love with my piano professor at first sight, because the first time I met her, she sat down and played a scale using just her right index finger and thumb! Adaptive piano is an ongoing process, which evolves as the student progresses and new technical challenges arise. Teachers and students must collaborate to find a way for students to play in the most facile way possible. Not only will students find joy in playing to their potential, but you, as the teacher, will be equally rewarded.