Berens’s The Training of the Left Hand

Most people are right-handed and it is not uncommon to find piano pieces where the right hand has complex passages with the left hand doing relatively little. While the right-hand part might feature flourishes, cadenzas and virtuosic passages, the left hand is often relegated to playing a supporting role accompanying the right.

This can lead to a disparity between the development of the hands from the early stages of playing and the left hand ends up being less proficient. When faced with technical difficulties in a left-hand part, pianists often find themselves severely hindered by the deficiencies in their left-hand technique.

Improving left-hand technique

Although there is much debate surrounding the merits of technical exercises and studies, an ideal use for them is to target specific issues, such as left-hand development. Herman Berens’s Training of the Left Hand (Op.89) is an collection of exercises and studies intended to assist pianists in doing just this.

As part of a project dedicated to developing the left hand, I’ve created a video series featuring a selection of studies and exercises from this collection. Published in instalments, this series is now complete and shows how these works can be used as effective vehicles for focussing on specific challenges and improving overall left-hand technique.

Video on using Berens's The Training of the Left Hand to improve left-hand technique

Studies vs exercises and how to approach them

There is a clear distinction between studies and exercises which has been made by Berens in this collection. Exercises are generally more mechanical in nature, whereas studies have a more musical element to them. However, it’s always best to practise even the exercises in a musical manner as the ultimate objective of any technical work is to develop skills required for music making.

Hanon, who published his famous set of exercises at around the same time, instructed to “lift the fingers high and with precision”; but this is a relic of a bygone era in piano teaching and is notorious for creating tension. Instead, more natural movements such as lateral and circular movements in the wrist can be used for greater precision, velocity and ease (I demonstrate these types of movements throughout the series using an additional overhead camera).

In this introductory excerpt I explain this distinction and show how the first study can be choreographed in a more natural way:

Specific aspects of technique

The studies and exercises I’ve selected cover a a range of technical aspects and challenges, including:

  • Articulation, velocity, evenness of touch
  • Scales and passage work
  • Repeated chords
  • Legato octaves
  • Arpeggios
  • Double notes and thirds

In each video I share throughs on interpretation and methods for how these pieces can be practised for the best results. In this video excerpt I demonstrate methods for practising and executing legato arpeggios in Study No. 18:

Preparing for music

These exercises and studies will prove most beneficial if we think about learning and playing them musically. Not only will it make practising more enjoyable, but will also help when applying these techniques to our playing. The technical aspects covered in these works appear regularly throughout the repertoire, making them excellent preparatory activities. For example, Exercise No. 35 features passages with very similar characteristics to the left-hand parts in Chopin’s Aeolian Harp etude (Op. 25 No. 1) or his Nocturne in C-sharp minor (Op. 27 No.1):

EBerens Exercise No. 35 for left-hand technique
Berens – The Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Exercise No. 35
Chopin – Nocturne in C-Sharp Minor (Op. 27 No. 1)

I hope that these studies and exercises will provide you with a useful and enjoyable way to improve your left-hand technique, thereby helping you to overcome any obstacles to expressing your musical intentions.

The full set of videos is now available to Online Academy subscribers or for once-off purchase from our store. Click here to view the series index on the Online Academy (including several free video previews) or click here to purchase from our store.

Further Links & Resources

  • Berens Training of the Left Hand (Op. 89) – Click here for open domain editions of The Training of the Left Hand (external link).
  • Online workshop – In this online workshop, Graham Fitch presented a range of exercises, studies, repertoire and practice techniques designed to improve left-hand skills. Click here to purchase access to recordings and workshop resources.
  • A Cello Suite for the Left Hand – Click here to find out more about our study edition featuring an arrangement of JS Bach’s Cello suite No. 1 in G major for the left hand.
  • Tips for Using Technical Exercises & Studies – Click here to read another blog post on using exercises by Berens and Hanon effectively.

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