Playing The Piano With One Hand
December 5, 2015 — 0:00

Author: Dorothy Johnston  Category: learning the piano music and literature poetry  Comments: 11

Last Friday, while walking 3 dogs, I tripped, fell heavily and broke my left wrist. Now I’m facing 6 weeks without being able to swim, drive or play the piano.

It’s amazing the number of dog-walking mishap/ falling down/ breaking limb/ stories I heard during my 24 hours in hospital.

One of my nurses broke her ankle after slipping on some perfectly ordinary leaves. My anaesthetist told me how he was riding his bike with his dog running obediently alongside when all of a sudden the dog dashed in front of him. He went straight over the handle-bars, but fortunately wasn’t hurt. The culprit? A pedestrian walking towards them carrying a packet of sausages. This story was made all the more vivid because the anaesthetist was sticking needles into me at the same time as he was telling it.

I’ve just tried playing a few bars of a favourite piece on the piano with my right hand only. I can see I’m going to have to do a lot of experimenting/improvising over the next few weeks.

Soon after I started blogging, I wrote a post about the importance of music to my father when he was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and about playing the piano at different writers’ residencies around the world.

Thinking about this, I was reminded of  the poet Tomas Tranströmer and how he taught himself to play the piano left-handed after suffering a stroke.

‘Tranströmer began playing piano as a child and it became for him in his life a passion matched only by his career as a poet. Musical references and composers often appear in his poems. In 1990, he suffered a stroke that paralyzed the right side of his body and affected his speech.




This description, from the poet’s official website, and the photo of Tranströmer sitting at his piano, focused and dedicated, his right hand tucked up and his left hand making music, moved me very much. Music is as important to me as writing, and my inconvenience is nothing compared to what Tranströmer faced. Now, when I sit at the piano trying to pick out melodies with one hand, I’ll be thinking of him.

This poem is copied from Tranströmer’s official website. I don’t know if he wrote it before or after his stroke.



After a black day, I play Haydn,

and feel a little warmth in my hands.

The keys are ready. Kind hammers fall.

The sound is spirited, green, and full of silence.

The sound says that freedom exists

and someone pays no tax to Caesar.

I shove my hands in my haydnpockets

and act like a man who is calm about it all.

I raise my haydnflag. The signal is:

“We do not surrender. But want peace.”

The music is a house of glass standing on a slope;

rocks are flying, rocks are rolling.

The rocks roll straight through the house

but every pane of glass is still whole.

  • What a bugger, Dorothy! But, as ever, it’s something that’s got you thinking, connecting with the world around you. Don’t know Transtromer’s poetry, but you’ve got me intrigued. Also, you may remember that it was when Tony fell in the crevasse on Mt Blanc that displaced his heart and lung that he had to give up the trumpet and took up the piano instead. As for stupid accidents … I am so very careful now after the hip/femur adventure I’m boring.

    Take care, get better and enjoy the piano. The left hand is supposed to be the creative one, linked to the right side of the brain.

    December 6, 2015 — 0:54
  • Thanks, Sara. If you don’t know Transtromer’s poetry, I can sincerely recommend it.

    And thanks for reminding of that story about Tony – such a lesson there! A bung wrist isn’t nearly so bad as a bung hip, and it’s marvellous the way you’ve coped with that. It’s a good reminder, really, now that I can’t dress myself properly, or wash the dishes (a plus, this one), how quickly we can become dependent and how grateful we are for help.

    December 6, 2015 — 1:33
  • Somebody we know was mown down by a ride-on mower that was taking a short cut down the street. And one our our patients on the home rehab team was the victim of a hit-and-run with an elderly perpetrator on a mobility scooter. I’m sure the enforced one-handed playing will be good for your character. One of the great classical pianists, I forget which one now, like Transtromer, and played one-handed after that.

    December 6, 2015 — 7:29
  • oops, meant had a stroke like Transtromer

    December 6, 2015 — 7:30
  • So sorry to hear this, Dorothy. I do hope your recovery is swift and complete. My mother dutifully took my sisters and I to piano lessons each week and I wish now I’d been more attentive and grateful. I gave it up after four years and three exams, never learning to sight read. I try to live regret-free but I confess, this is a biggie. Even one-handed I’m sure your playing is lovely and I look forward to hearing it one day.

    December 6, 2015 — 20:17
  • Gert, you are, as ever, a fund of funny stories. It’s extraordinary how vivid and memorable these mishap stories are – their own kind of flash fiction! I’m thinking of making a collection of them. Further contributions welcome!

    December 7, 2015 — 23:48
  • Thanks, Jen. I learnt for 3 years as a child, and only started playing again when my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s in the 1990s. It really is amazing what you can do with one hand.

    December 7, 2015 — 23:52
  • gabrielle daly

    So sorry to hear of your accident Dorothy, but most interested to hear of your love of playing the piano. May I ask if you have come back to it after playing as a child, or as an adult beginner? I have spent about twenty years learning the piano with a gap pf twenty years between the two lots of ten. I also taught for six years, but all my learning was based around t11he exam sylllabus. I would love to come back again but have that highly structured approach deeply engrained. Do you think it possible to throw that off? What is your experience?


    December 20, 2015 — 2:43
  • Thanks for your good wishes, Gabrielle.
    I learnt the piano for 3 years as a child and came back to it in the 1990s when my father was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Music was a way of communicating with him when words had failed. I once wrote an essay about this and it’s on my website under the heading non-fiction, if you’re interested. As to your question about throwing off a highly structured approach, I never had to do that since my period of formal learning was short. I’m not sure I understand why you would want to; perhaps you could explain a bit more?

    December 20, 2015 — 20:53
    • Gabrielle Daly

      By ‘highly structured approach’ I mean the generally accepted mode of teaching at that time. Teachers stuck to the AMEB syllabus, we learned the scales, pieces, ear training and sight reading commensurate with the level of a particular exam. When you had the timing and notes down, you put in the ‘expression’ like the icing on the cake. We could jump through the hoops but I don’t think we had any real understanding of what music was about. We didn’t study solfege or improvisation and it was hard for us to learn from memory. In spite of all my years of learning if I am asked to play something I inevitably say, “I don’t have my music with me.’

      December 20, 2015 — 22:19
  • I’m sorry if you don’t feel you can play for other people. Some time I would love to hear you play!

    December 21, 2015 — 22:14
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