Two symmetrical keyboards, one for each hand - an novel idea, but it works well
One of the strangest (initially) concepts of jammer keyboards is symmetry; the mirroring of motion between the two hands. This really made my eye-brows lift when I looked at Jim Plamondon’s first demos of his two-keyboard Thummer.
And I’ll bet that that nearly everyone has the same thought:
What a weird | interesting | bizarre | novel idea – wonder how it works out in practice?
Consider the standard music keyboard, which is profoundly asymmetrical. Seldom will the same fingers be used, and because the thumb has a different reach, the hand movement and location must vary as well. This is a huge amount to learn.
Can symmetry give alternate keyboard players any help?
After learning several hundred keyboard exercises on the symmetrical 2-keyboard jammer, I'm confident that this design has numerous advantages. In rough descending order of significance, these are:
Only one keyboard “fingering set” needs to be worked out and learned, a huge reduction from the two sets otherwise required, one for each hand, on non-symmetrical keyboards. (*1)
Keyboarding skills transfer between hands playing symmetrical keyboards. To be specific, note-playing and timing skills transfer. In other words, one hand automatically teaches the other what to do, to a significant degree. (*3)
Parallel Octaves are super easy. There are many occasions in music where the hands play the same notes, an octave or two apart. This is trivial to learn and easy to play on the two-keyboard jammer; nearly zero effort. Not so much on the traditional keyboard.
Fingers do not collide. It is easy to play close harmony and contrapuntal motion with two keyboards.
The same notes can be doubled, giving a unique, subtle richness to the resulting note. This cannot be done on the traditional keyboard.
[Note: this is not to say that there are no little surprises. In the following posting I'll talk about these and give tested tips.]
Which skills transfer?
Some simple experiments (*3) established that (for this writer at least) skill transfer between hands on the two-keyboard jammer is about 66%, in close agreement with the scientific literature (*2). (see notes at the end of this posting).
This applies to both the temporary skill one gains in an hour’s practice and to long-term, hard-wired movements, the skill developed over weeks of practice
To a first approximation, keyboard skills transferred equally well both ways, from right to left and vice-versa, as some of the recent scientific literature reports.
Do any skills not transfer?
Not everything transfers. Key basic motor skills , e.g. pressing keys fast, precisely locating them, and moving between keys, must first be learned by each hand. Thus you don’t get much of a boost at the beginning.
Why hasn't keyboard symmetry been tried before?
I think it’s just chance. Of old, the major hand skill was hand-writing, which is inherently asymmetrical. Writing “dog” with the other hand requires different hand movements and timing, or else you get “qob”. In other words, the other hand can’t help the writing hand.
In many tasks, symmetry is either not useful or blindingly obvious and done automatically. Keyboards are a special case, and it took the insight of Jim Plamondon to figure this out.
Clumsiness transfers too ...
Interestingly, I found, especially at first, a distinct flavor of “clumsiness transfer” as well as “skill transfer”. For example, if my right hand learned, the theme for “Chariots of Fire”, then trying to play it with the left hand would be reasonably successful, but some notes would be missed.
Now here’s something a bit interesting: when I went back to playing with the right hand, it then made the same mistakes the left hand had just made. In hindsight, this makes sense. Apparently “un-skills” could travel from the hand to hand just as easily as a skill could travel the other way.
To a psychologist, this would be a worthy research subject in its own right. However interesting this might be, this is an unwanted side effect. Fortunately, I found “clumsiness transfer” faded with time, with no conscious effort on my part; presumably my sub-conscious learned to transfer the preferred way.
Taking advantage of skill transfer to boost both hands to equal proficiency
Is one hand teaching the other really that useful? When would you ever play any song with the less proficient hand? Why learn to play a poorer version of say Hanon Exercises or Happy Birthday that you will never use?
Furthermore, it’s also pretty boring to work yet more on a piece or an exercise that you (not to mention your housemates) are likely very, very tired of.
But consider the long term: the same snippets, the same note patterns will surely come up again and again. I suggest practicing with the less proficient hand patterns and songs that are generic. With modest additional effort, you can be ready to nail those patterns when they pop up under either hand.
The next posting adddresses how to use symmetry effectively.
Ken Rushton MusicScienceGuy
*1. I tested my keyboards using pitches ascending to the right, as on a piano. I found this arrangement was more than a pain; it was ugly; far harder to play and learn.
*2. Some interesting snippets from the science journals:
Stoeckel T, Weigelt M. Brain lateralisation and motor learning: Selective effects of dominant and non-dominant hand practice on the early acquisition of throwing skills. Laterality: Asymmetries of Body, Brain and Cognition. 2011;17(1):18–37.
Key Quote: “Participants initially practising with their dominant hand benefited more from practice than participants beginning with their non-dominant hand. These results indicate that spatial accuracy tasks are learned better after initial practice with the non-dominant hand, whereas initial practice with the dominant hand is more efficient for maximum force production tasks.”
Matias Edgar, MacKenzie I. Scott, William Buxton Half-QWERTY: a one-handed keyboard facilitating skill transfer from QWERTY. CHI '93 Proceedings of the INTERACT '93 and CHI '93 Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems. 1993, pp 88-94
“During the evaluation of a one-handed chord keyboard, Rochester, Bequaert, and Sharp  trained one student using the right hand only. The subject was later retrained to type with the left hand only. The subject ‘reached close to his right-hand typing speed in less than one third the time he spent learning right-handed typing’”
Teixeira L, Timing and Force Components in Bilateral Transfer of Learning. Brain and Cognition 44, 455–469 (2000) doi:10.1006/brcg.1999.1205, http://www.smpp.northwestern.edu/savedLiterature/Teixeira2000BrainAndCognition44p.455-469.pdf
“… bilateral transfer of learning took place for both anticipatory timing and force control, with more noticeable transfer of training for the former.”
3. Some simple experiments
If I learned to play an exercise in the program Piano Marvel to 100% accuracy with my right (preferred) hand (from less than 25% accuracy with either hand), the left hand could then play 60-70% of the notes correctly at the same speed.
The left hand then was able to get to 100% accuracy in about 1/3 the time. For example, when training the right hand took three hours, then training the left hand to the same speed and accuracy took only about an hour.
Curiously, this training of the left hand further improved the right hand. After teaching the left hand to play the excercise at 100 beats per minute, the right hand could play up to 110 beats per minute.