From the softest whisper to the most sonorous roar, the great pianists play with a huge variety of sounds and colours, making the most of the vast tonal palette the instrument has to offer. 

How do we create an intimate pianissimo without those annoying ghost notes that lose focus, or fail to sound at all? And what is the secret behind a fortissimo that retains character and quality of sound, avoiding the ugly banging that causes the listener to grimace and cover their ears? 

Our Magic Box

Felt-covered hammers striking strings means the piano is technically a percussion instrument, yet the pianist brings music alive by aiming to conceal this fact. We evoke the sound of other instruments, such as a violin, a clarinet, and so on, or a full orchestra, a string quartet, the voice, and so on. Even Chopin, surely one of the most pianistic of composers, styled his music after the bel canto operatic tradition. By the power of illusion, we persuade the listener they are hearing a great singer. 

Voicing and Layering

Beautiful piano playing relies on the pianist’s ability to produce multiple layers of sound, creating a stereophonic or 3D effect enhanced by sensitivity of touch, careful listening, as well as virtuoso footwork. The alternative is a homogenised mush of sound, with no definition or dimension. 

I wouldn’t wait until the fledgling player has graduated from the nursery slopes before instilling the concept of a layered sound. In this elementary piece from Schumann’s Album for the Young, the teacher first helps the pupil play the left hand softer than the right before adding shape to the melody line.

“If you can’t sing it, you haven’t really heard it, therefore you can’t play it!”

Leon Fleisher

Singing out loud is the best place to start, you will discover the high and low points of the line, and where you need to breathe. Dispense with the metronome here, it will immediately kill the natural ebb and flow that the music requires (no singer would give equal emphasis to the crotchets in bar 1, nor sing the quavers in bar 2 completely evenly):

Creating a beautiful piano sound in Schumann's melodie

In the 4th bar, Schumann presents the young player with a challenge. How to voice the third in the right hand (second beat) to the upper note, A, playing the F# softer? I present some basic voicing exercises in this blog post that can be applied here. To make the top voice shine out in bar 8, we might first play the right hand’s notes using both hands (to create the right sound easily) and then do some shadow practice in the right hand alone (where we sound the upper notes, miming the alto part). 

Similar approaches will certainly help with the three-layered texture in Schumann’s Of Strange Lands and People, where we might assign a dynamic level of mp to the top melody line, pp to the middle broken harmonies, and perhaps to the basses. 

Supreme control of the layered sound we find in so much piano music is aided and abetted by the study of purely contrapuntal music, a journey that begins with Bach’s Two-Part Inventions, leading to the Sinfonias (in three voices) and then to the fugues from the Well-Tempered Clavier.

The Elusive Singing Tone

How do we create the singing tone that virtually all pianists seek? As I have already suggested, we start off by singing the line to the best of our ability (see this blog post for more on how this works), refining our shaping of the line. Pianistically, we rely on touch to recreate this line at the piano. I would begin by developing a legatissimo touch, where one note blends into the next by means of a small overlap. An exercise such as this is helpful:

Now with a bigger overlap:

Also with a smaller one:

When we play with a legato cantabile touch, we think of stroking, clinging or grasping movements (rather than striking ones) as we transfer arm weight from one note to the next, using a flexible wrist and deep contact with the key beds, playing on the cushions or pads of the fingers rather than the tips. I sense that my arm is like a rope bridge, the fingers firmly glued to the keyboard while the wrist and arm remain free and loose.

Picture by Friedrich Böhringer, CC BY-SA 2.5, via Wikimedia Commons

Perhaps the founding father of modern pianism, Anton Rubinstein, exaggerated slightly when he told the young Rachmaninov the secret of the singing tone: “Just press upon the keys until the blood oozes from your fingertips”. The pressure touch seems controversial in today’s pedagogical world, because it is lumped together with the (negative) habit of key-bedding (when we push into the keyboard after the note has sounded). And yet those who correctly sense this deep contact of the finger pads in the key beds know they can produce the best sound in this way; the problem lies in communicating this to the pianist who misunderstands or overdoes it. 

The subject of sound – what makes one pianist sound so totally different from another when the play the same piano – is such a vast one that it is impossible to do it justice in this short blog post. Do join me for my upcoming workshop (details below), where I will be illustrating the points I have made here, answering questions from attendees, and exploring other aspects of tonal control.

Online Workshop

Discover more of the secrets behind creating a beautiful sound in our next online workshop taking place on Saturday 30th April @ 13:00 – 15:00 BST (GMT +1). In this event, Graham Fitch will show how to make use of the piano’s vast tonal palette. He will also share ideas for awakening the imagination to create an array of sound effects along with exercises for developing voicing skills and weaving a magical texture. Click here for more information and to book your place!