Posted on October 27, 2016 by Tia Lalani

To Teach or Not to Teach: One-handed Piano Students By Darby Branscombe Editor’s Note: Darby Branscombe has recently completed the third year of her Bachelor of Music degree. She is a student of APTA member Dr. Milton Schlosser. At the suggestion of her instructor, she has submitted this paper for inclusion in the Newsletter. Thank you for …

To Teach or Not to Teach: One-handed Piano Students

By Darby Branscombe

Editor’s Note: Darby Branscombe has recently completed the third year of her Bachelor of Music degree. She is a student of APTA member Dr. Milton Schlosser. At the suggestion of her instructor, she has submitted this paper for inclusion in the Newsletter. Thank you for sharing this with us, Darby. We wish you all the best in your future studies.

Piano teachers will inevitably be faced with instances where their students are temporarily injured, limiting their playing capabilities to  only one hand.  They may ask themselves if it is worth giving piano lessons during the time of recovery when the student can only play with one hand. What about a student who is permanently limited to the use of one hand? Should this student be denied the opportunity of playing the piano because they have a physical disadvantage? There is a wealth of mostly unknown repertoire for one hand that is available to piano teachers. Although every piano teacher may not be willing to invest the extra time and effort required to teach this type of student, a student who has the use of one hand should have the opportunity to take piano lessons because their disability should not limit their ability to explore music making on the piano.

Although teaching a student who has the use of one arm may be a time-consuming and challenging task, it would be a valuable experience for both the teacher and the student. The teacher will be faced with many challenges and will have to decide prior to accepting the student into their studio whether or not they will be willing to invest the time and effort needed to help this student succeed. Barbara English Maris discusses the reasons that so many teachers work with students who have special needs. From her discussions with other piano teachers, she has discovered a common theme that motivates them to teach all types of students: “Music has been important in my life. I want to share that with other people I know so that they, too, can experience the gratification and joy of having music in their lives.”

Despite the challenges, many teachers believe that music should be accessible to students with any abilities or disabilities including having the use of only one arm. Learning to play the piano has the potential to positively impact the life of such a student. Lessons provide an opportunity for the student to discover himself or herself through music and can encourage him or her not to be limited to activities that society deems easy enough to do with one hand. Learning to play the piano will give the student a feeling of accomplishment as they prove wrong the stereotype of needing two hands to successfully play the piano.

In their article Adaptive Piano Teaching Strategies, Anita Louise Steele and Christopher Fisher discuss many of the challenges that can arise when teaching a physically or cognitively handicapped student. They identify that “most of us will never fully understand what it means to have a desire to learn and yet be hindered by a disability.” But in order to positively impact students with special needs such as being limited to the use of one hand, they insist that “one must attempt to understand and appreciate the psychological, social and emotional strains of the learning process as they experience it.” There are many causes of loss of function in one arm: a birth defect, a battle wound, a stroke or an accident could lead to loss of function or amputation. In any situation, teaching such a student requires the teacher to be prepared to deal with emotional issues and insecurities during the lesson. Before lessons begin, as much information as possible should be gathered on the student to enable the instructor to teach more effectively. The following questions could be discussed with the parents prior to the first lesson:

  1. What is the cause of the disability?
  2. Does the student have any emotional issues or insecurities that I should know about?
  3. What are the capabilities of the non-functioning limb? Could it be used to play one or two notes?

For example, music teacher Margaret Smith English taught a student who was able to depress keys in the treble register with the two bones protruding from her right arm, playing either single notes or the interval of a harmonic third. By asking these questions, the teacher will have an understanding of the student and will be better prepared to address issues that may arise during lessons.

In addition to being prepared to work with an emotionally vulnerable student, the teacher must also be prepared in terms of lesson plans and repertoire. For beginner students, this includes adapting method books so that the student will play with one hand. As the student progresses, the teacher will need to find pieces specifically written for one hand as well as adapting or arranging existing two-handed works. Organizing a variety of repertoire that provides a balance of pieces that are interesting to the student and pieces that progress in difficulty will be a task that takes time and effort.

There are many works or collections of works for one hand that are available to piano teachers. The majority of one­ handed works for piano are for the left hand, estimated to be about 99% by Adrienne Wiley, but works for the right hand do exist. Theodore Edel, author of Piano Music for One Hand, traces the history of one-handed piano repertoire and identifies four major reasons for the composition of these works: technical development, injury, compositional challenge and virtuoso display. Lyle Indergaard identifies specific situations that led to the composition of one­ handed music in his article Music for the Left Hand. Composers suffering from injury or over-practicing sometimes turned to one-handed works while giving the other hand time to heal. Such was the case with Alexander Scriabin, who wrote his Prelude and Nocturne for the Left Hand, Op. 9 while suffering from tendonitis in his right arm due to over-practicing. Other composers were influenced by or commissioned to write for one-handed concert pianists, namely Geza Zichy, who was injured in a hunting accident, and Paul Wittgenstein, who was injured during World War I. More recently, Melody Bober has written Grand One-Hand Solos for Piano, a series of 46 pieces in 6 volumes. Bober’s series contains an equal number of pieces for the right hand and for the left hand that increase in difficulty from early elementary to late intermediate,  making it a valuable resource for teachers. Raymond Lewenthal’s anthology Piano Music for One Hand provides teachers with a diverse array of pieces, as it contains over 30 works by a variety of composers. For advanced  students,  many works for one hand exist, such as Bartok’s Etttde, Saint-Saens’s Six Etttdes, Op. 135 and Ravel’s Piano Concerto for the Left Hand. Additional repertoire can be found in Edel’s Piano Music for One Hand, in which he has catalogued over 1000 works according to genre and to which hand is used.

A situation more common to piano teachers than having a one armed -student is that of a student being temporarily injured. This can arise out of a number of situations that are either practice-related or external. Students may develop a condition such as tendonitis or carpal tunnel syndrome from over-practicing. This type of injury occurs more frequently in the right hand than the left. Injuries not related to practicing may include a broken or sprained finger, wrist or arm due to a car accident or a sports-related activity. In this situation, Suzanne Guy remarks that students often think an injury merits time off from daily practicing and weekly lessons when in fact “continuity of both is important to continued progress with both hands.” Joyce Grill, who has taught piano in a rural area, remarks that this situation arises very often and parents are amazed when the teacher says that lessons should continue. She suggests having music for both the right hand alone and the left hand alone in your studio library so that “music at the student’s current repertoire level is readily available to strengthen, correct, or reinforce skills at their playing ability” when an injury occurs. Nancy Bachus speaks from experience when she advises that piano lessons should continue in the case of an injury. After breaking her arm, her piano teacher assigned her a piece for the left hand and she remarks “there is no question that my left hand technique improved a great deal from this experience.” She too recommends that piano teachers “have a supply of music at many reading and technical levels for either hand.”

Since there are obvious benefits to learning piano music for one hand while the other is injured, this concept can be taken a step further. Able-bodied students should learn one­ handed works to strengthen weaknesses in each hand and improve melody voicing within one hand. Bachus reveals that she “sometimes gives a student with two perfectly good hands a piece for left hand, to develop better voicing and control.” Since the left hand is most often the weaker hand, Indergaard recommends specifically exploring music for the left hand so that “students of all ages and abilities can gain strength, velocity, agility, and control.” Learning music for one hand provides the opportunity for a teacher’s piano studio to explore one-handed repertoire and perhaps present a unique recital program that will amaze the audience. For the teacher, adding one-handed repertoire into the studio “provides a welcome break from the routine” according to Wiley. Indergaard suggest that for parents of the students and audience members, “this repertoire can add spice to a recital program or serve as a crowd-pleasing encore.”

Repertoire and many resources are available to piano teachers that enable them to teach a student who is permanently limited to playing with one hand. Challenges may arise in terms of finding repertoire and dealing with the student’s emotions or insecurities, but the benefits to teaching this type of student outweigh the challenges. Jeremy Nicholas writes, “Disability is not the only nor indeed the principle reason for writing for one  hand. Often the motivation is simply ‘why not?’ For some the digital and musical challenge is enough.” This same attitude can be applied to teaching students with the use of both hands to play piano works for one hand. Teaching these unique works, whether to an injured student or to a non-injured student, can be a valuable experience for the student and the teacher alike. Bachus suggests that it adds “variety and freshness, as well as solid pedagogy, to our teaching repertoire.”

Although the task of teaching a student who has the use of one hand may not be right for every piano teacher, they should have the opportunity to take piano lessons because their disability should not limit their ability to explore the piano.

List of References:

Bachus, Nancy. “Putting It All Together: Repertoire & Performance – Music for One Hand.” Clavier Companion 3.4 (2011): 40. International Index to Music Periodicals Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Edel, Theodore. Piano Music for One Hand. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1994. Print.

Fisher, Christopher and Anita Louise Steele. “Adaptive Piano Teaching Strategies for the Physically and Cognitively Handicapped Piano Student.” American Music Teacher 60.4 (2011): 22-25. International Index to Music Periodicals. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Grill, Joyce. “Putting It All Together: Repertoire & Performance – Help! My Student Broke an Arm.” Clavier Companion 3.4 (2011): 43. International Index to Music Periodicals. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Guy, Suzanne. “Questions and Answers.” Clavier 42.2 (2003): 48, 45. Print.

Indergaard, Lyle. “Putting It All Together: Repertoire & Performance – Music for the Left Hand.” Clavier Companion 3.4 (2011): 40-43. International Index to Music Periodicals. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Maris, Barbara English. “Musical Variations on a Theme.” American Music Teacher 45.6 (1996): 14-17. International Index to Music Periodicals. Web. 16 Mar. 2016.

Nicholas, Jeremy. ”A Victory for the Left.” Gramophone 85 (2007): 46-47. Print.

Wiley, Adrienne. “Expanding Your Teaching Horizons – Teaching Piano Music for One Hand.” Cello Heaven. n.d. Web. 8 Mar. 2016.

This article originally appeared in the Fall Vol. XXIII No. 3 issue of the Alberta Piano Teachers Association News & Views in October 2016.


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