Music for One Hand

General Remarks

Teachers are sometimes asked to teach when the student can play with only one hand, temporarily or permanently.

If a student sustains an injury during the course of the studio year, encourage him/her to continue piano study. Once stopped, it will be tedious to regain pre-injury levels, even in the non-affected arm. The prospect of being unable to play well with either hand may be so frustrating that once restarted, the student may quit in what he feels is failure. Also, once lessons and home practice time are stopped, other activities will flow in to fill the void.

If the parents call and say the child will be suspending lessons "for a while," bring these two problems to their attention. If the parents truly wish to keep the child in piano study, they will continue to enroll him throughout the recuperation period. If enrollment ceases, it is up to you whether to hold that spot open or to fill it. If the child has not returned in 6 weeks, I would say there is a 98% chance he will not. If you have a waiting list or receive an inquiry during the child's hiatus, you might want to fill the lesson time immediately and try to work in the returning student later (if, indeed, he does return).

As to the one-handed literature, most of it is for the left hand. Much of this was written for a particular artist, such as Paul Wittgenstein, who lost his right arm in World War I. Two other reasons why left-hand literature is more common than right-hand literature are that most people are right-handed; and that nearly all the standard repertoire has the melody primarily in the upper (and thus right-hand) register. Consequently, left-handed repertoire not written for a specific artist is designed primarily for a pedagogic purpose.

Moreover, most specially-written literature for one hand is written for the advanced student, again much of this as a result of writing for a one-armed concert artist. This puts the studio teacher at a disadvantage because most of the students so disabled will be beginning and intermediate students who break fingers/wrists/arms in soccer, football, baseball, and other school-age pursuits.

One approach for beginning students with only one hand available, and one which also works at the intermediate level but less effectively at the advanced level except as a temporary at-lesson technique, is to make a "duet" out of a normal two-handed piece. The student plays whatever part is appropriate, and the teacher plays the other. This process brings in the advantages of duet playing: accuracy of counting, sensitivity to which hand has the melody, and other ensemble concerns.

Another approach, particularly for home practice, is to have the student do something with the non-functional arm, if at all possible. Here are two ideas: (1) Tap the primary pulse (in 4-4 time, this is the quarter-note). (2) Tape the rhythm of the left-hand part. It is a two-voice left-hand part pretty much throughout the piece, have the student alternate voices on alternate days. The tapping can be done on the leg, the side or front of the ribcage or where the non-funtional hand rests. Advise the student to STOP if there is pain!!

And of course there is the time-honored method, appropriate for all levels, to have the student work on the appropriate hand in standard literature, thus getting a head start on certain pieces. If the temporary disability will be of more than two months' duration, interleave this and the previous approach with specific materials for one hand or teacher-arranged materials for one hand.

There is somewhat more literature available to the intermediate, but there is not much. Some pieces I have used are listed below.

Also see PIANO MUSIC FOR ONE HAND, by Theodore Edel (Indiana University Press, 1994), for a more complete survey of available literature at the advanced level. Edel also lists materials for three hands and five hands, two left hands, two right hands, one and three hands plus orchestra, and what right-handed literature exists.

Some of the pieces in the public domain can be found free on various websites. Particularly check the Werner Icking Music Archive, which also has an abundance of works for both hands.

Below are some pieces particular to given levels of study. If you have teaching suggestions or additions to this list, please contact me. I'd like to share them with everyone; full credit to you, of course! Please include your e-mail address so I can make a hot link. I'd like the complete title of the work, which hand, publisher, and your estimate of difficulty based on the levels given below. Many thanks! For some of the pieces I've turned up, I have been able to find only partial descriptions. If you have further information on any of these, I'd again appreciate an e-mail.

Beginner Level

There is virtually nothing published at this level, alas. Therefore, I suggest that you write your own arrangements for the beginner. Of particular merit would be songs written for up-coming holidays, as all children adore holiday music of any kind; folk tunes are also good, as these have high-quality melodies (which is the reason they have survived).

Don't forget that you can use things such as note clusters (especially with the arm that is in the cast - - let's call it a "cast cluster"), glissandi, and continuous damper pedal, in addition to accents and staccato to add spice to this music.

In writing for your students, I advise that you -not- take a two-handed piece and try to "convert" it to one-handed music. Revise your thinking, as it were, and -start- with the concept of a one-handed piece. Keep in mind the amount the child's hand can stretch and the number of notes he can read. (It wouldn't be too much to introduce a new note in a piece, of course.)

Elementary Level

Early Intermediate Level

Intermediate Level

Also consider arranging something of your own. Look at Bach's solo cello and violin pieces; these are generally a "single voice" and are public domain. An excerpt from one of these pieces, if in an appropriate range for note-reading, would be excellent for beginners, as well. And, of course, you can transpose; and double or even quadruple note values.

Upper Intermediate Level

Lower Advanced Level

Advanced Level

In addition to the pieces listed below, consider pieces in the standard repertoire with demanding left-hand parts.

Exceedingly Difficult

Also see music by Arthur Foote, Franz Liszt, and Charles Alkan. There are, of course, others. In addition there are anthologies such as Theodore Edel's "Piano Music for One Hand" (Indiana University Press) and Raymond Lewenthal's "Piano Music for One Hand" (G. Schirmer).

copyright 1996-2010, Martha Beth Lewis, Ph.D.
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Last updated April 16, 2010.