To me, separated hands just means that one hand does one thing while the other does something else. Usually this means that the left hand plays melody while the right hand plays some kind of accompaniment. Some folks also call it hand independence.
Lesson One: Octaves
The simplest way to play with separated hands is to play the melody with both hands in two different octaves.
First, choose a melody that you can play in one position (i.e. without crossing bridges). Learn to play this melody with just one hand. Then learn it with the other hand. If you’re weaker in one hand, you’ll need to drill the tune more with that hand.
In order to play with both hands, you’ll need to establish an octave relationship between your hands, as shown in the diagram. The lower circle represents a right hand note on the bass bridge, and the upper circle represents a left hand note one octave higher on the right treble bridge. The same relationship works across the treble bridge, too.
You might want to try this exercise before trying the tune:
Put your right hand on the lowest note on the bass bridge, and your left hand on the note one octave higher, on the right side of the treble bridge. Play both notes, one at a time and then together. Move both hands up one course and repeat. Keep going until you run out of notes at the top, then go back down. Do the same thing with your left hand on the left side of the treble bridge and your right on the right side.
Now try playing the tune with your left hand on the left side of the treble bridge, and your right on the right side. Play it smoothly, slowing down as much as you need to.
Play it again, this time with your left hand on the right side and your right on the bass bridge.
When you’re ready, try playing the tune two octaves apart (left hand on the left treble bridge, right on the bass).
Challenge: Try a tune that involves both sides of the treble bridge. Your left hand will play on both sides of the treble bridge, and your right hand will play on the bass bridge and the right side of the treble bridge. Maintain the octave relationship between your hands: when one hand crosses a bridge, so does the other.
Lesson Two: Intervals
By choosing some interval other than the octave, you can create a simple harmony line.
First, choose an interval. You can use mostly thirds or mostly sixths for most tunes. Mostly sixths is a bit more “separated,” so we’ll use that for the example, again demonstrating with “Simple Gifts.”
Establish the interval relationship between your hands: A sixth interval means your right hand is across and down one course from your left. In other words, when your left hand is on G, your right hand is on B. You may want to run this interval up and down the bridges like you did with octaves in the previous lesson.
For thirds, put one hand two courses below the other — i.e. when one hand is on G, the lower hand will be on E.
Now try playing the tune. Your left hand will play melody on the left side of the treble bridge, and your right will play sixths on the right side. Slow down as much as you need to in order to play smoothly.
For thirds, both hands will be on the same side of the bridge.
You’ll likely notice that some of those right-hand notes don’t sound as good as others. In such cases, try a fifth interval instead — your right hand will be straight across from the left, i.e. when your left hand is on G, your right hand will be on C.
For thirds, when a third interval doesn’t sound so good, try a fourth — three courses below, or when your left hand is on G, the lower hand will be on D.
Adding in these fifths (or fourths) makes playing with mostly sixths (or thirds) a bit trickier than playing in octaves, because your right hand’s position relative to the left hand changes when you switch intervals.
Challenge: When you play in intervals, both hands are moving in the same direction. Try playing a tune with two diverging voices — a melody and harmony, for example. If you have a hymnal, you could try playing the soprano and alto lines together. I play some classical pieces this way, too, like this bourree from Handel’s Water Music.
Lesson Three: Root-fifth
Root-fifth is a rhythmic accompaniment pattern I learned from Tim Seaman, who in turn learned it from John McCutcheon. While the left hand plays melody, the right hand alternates between two notes of a chord — usually the root and the fifth.
Once again, we’ll demonstrate with “Simple Gifts.”
First, you’ll need to get your right hand used to the alternating movement.
Find the marked G on the bass bridge and the marked D straight across on the right treble. This is the root and the fifth of a G chord. Go back and forth between these two notes. (Hint: If you strike the strings farther from the bridges, you’ll have less distance to cover, and it’ll likely sound better, too.)
Next, experiment with your left hand. While your right hand keeps going evenly, play some left hand notes — any notes — on the left side of the treble bridge. At first, strike simultaneously with both hands.
Then, try hitting the left hand notes in between the right hand notes: Right Left Right Left Right Left Right Left, etc. Slow down if necessary to keep playing smoothly and evenly.
Now try leaving out some of the left hand notes. The pattern I use most often is Right (rest) Right Left Right Left Right (rest); you may like another variation.
Whatever happens, keep your right hand steady — it should feel like a metronome.
For “Simple Gifts,” you’ll need at least two chords, G and D. (If you like, you can experiment later to find additional chords.) To find the D chord, you could find a D (the root of the chord) on the bass bridge and play the A (the fifth) across from it on the right treble.
Another possibility is to switch the root and the fifth. You could play the D chord by playing the A on the bass bridge and the D on the right treble, and you could play the G chord by playing the D on the bass bridge and the G on the right treble. You’ll notice that this fifth-root variation involves a slightly diagonal line, not straight across like the root-fifth.
You can also experiment with using the third instead of the fifth: G on the bass and B on the right treble. Or try other variations. The main idea is to keep your right hand moving between a bass note and a right treble note.
If you can, record yourself playing just the melody with your left hand. Use this recording to practice the right hand part, so that you can figure out when to switch chords and what variations of the chords you want to use.
Now try putting the two parts together. It may help to work one phrase at a time, then link the phrases together. Slow down as much as necessary to keep the rhythm steady.
This technique works with a variety of tune types, from stately marches or airs to lively reels.
For faster, notier tunes, you will likely need to cut out a lot of the melody notes in order to play the melody one-handed at a reasonable tempo. Listen to a recording of the tune (yourself or on a CD) and decide what the most important notes are — the notes that jump out, the ones that carry the mood or tell the story. Adding some syncopation is often a good idea. For an example, consider Angelina Baker first the way I learned it, then with root-fifth accompaniment.
It’s also a fun technique to use as a basis for composing.
For example, check out Timberline Wander by Tim Seaman (my version of it, anyway):
Or my own Third Street Market:
Lesson Four: Triangular Chords
Triangular chords are three-note chords that are played in a triangular pattern with the right hand, while the left plays melody. I learned this technique from Tim Seaman.
As usual, we’ll demonstrate with “Simple Gifts.”
This technique requires a little chord theory. You need to know about chords either by visual patterns and by ear, or by their names and structure. In particular, you’ll need to learn some triangular patterns. I’ll give you two here, but you may want to check out my chords article for more information, including a lesson on three-note chord shapes.
For “Simple Gifts,” you’ll need at least two chords, G and D. (If you like, you can experiment later to find additional chords.)
A G chord is made up of the notes G, B, and D. The diagram shows one way to play this chord: first the D on the bass bridge, one above the marked C, then the marked G on the right treble bridge, then the B two courses higher.