The problems with writing about piano playing are various. How does the writer know that the words he uses mean to the reader what he intends them to mean? Problems arise in attempting to be too scientific, and of course some things mean different things to different people. Further problems arise when you speak from your own pianistic legacy and forget that other roads may lead to Rome too (there is no one way to play the piano). While it is old hat for a pianist to claim they are directly descended from Beethoven (we all are), the many schools of piano playing each have their own ways of doing things and of passing these along.
As part of this short series on tension, I am going to offer a very practical solution to the age-old problem of keybedding (right at the end of this post). I hope it helps!
What is Keybedding?
Tobias Matthay (1858-1945) coined the term “keybedding” to describe the fault of pushing against the beds of the key after the note has sounded. If it is futile to press into the key once sound has been produced, why do players do it?
There are many ways pianists reach the point of contact with the key bed, using a variety of different movements and muscular conditions to help achieve different sound qualities. We can slide in or out, draw the finger into the palm, make movements where the arm appears to release upwards, and so on. And yet in order for the key to sound its note, all it has to do is to go from the top to the bottom – just that!
For the playing to sound focussed and for the pianist to feel in control, it is important to aim to the bottom of the key – even in the softest pianissimo. If we tickle the key, two things happen: either the note does not sound or the resulting sound is not real tone but something ghostly, insubstantial and unreliable.
Remember it is the speed of the key’s descent (and not the depth) that determines the volume of sound – the slower the key descent, the softer the sound. But the key still needs to go all the way to the bottom.
I don’t intend to enter into the debate as to whether we cease effort when we reach the key bed itself, or (as some authorities suggest) just before – at the point of escapement. In most situations, the concept of the key bed itself is just fine. In certain touches, such as leggiero it can be helpful to aim to the sounding point. One thing I need to add to a previous statement – the key needs to go down all the way to the bottom, but no further!
Independence in the Fingers
Players press into the key with one finger in an attempt to anchor it down when other fingers need to lift or to play note patterns around it. This is an example of keybedding that will result in a tug-of-war in your hand, and you will experience it as a lack of coordination and most likely tension. One finger (or a group of fingers) needs to be able to rest loosely at the bottom of the key while other fingers do their thing above, below or around it.
How independent are your fingers? I invite you to try this little exercise with one hand on your other forearm:
- Touch the finger tips or pads of your right hand to your left forearm so they are resting there gently with no pressure.
- Gently raise your 2nd finger just slightly up so that it loses contact with your forearm – how did your resting fingers respond? Did they come up in sympathy or to press down into your skin for anchorage? Ideally, you want them to remain in light contact with your forearm, impervious to what your 2nd finger is doing. Repeat this a few times until you have zero response in the resting fingers.
- Try this with each finger in turn, ending with the thumb.
- Now try with combinations of fingers – for example, lift up 2 and 5, keeping contact with 1, 3 and 4. Then lift up 1, 3 and 4 and ask 2 and 5 to stay put.
- Now transfer this to the keyboard, putting all your attention in the resting fingers, not in the lifting fingers.
For my series of finger independence exercises, follow this link to Part 2 of my ebook series (click here)
An efficient piano technique relies on coordinated motions of all the components of our playing apparatus working together. The fingers, the wrist, the forearm, upper arm and shoulders, and our upper body right down to the sitting bones. All these components need to be free to move and to cooperate with each other in order to achieve the maximum result with the minimum of effort. If the body is not correctly aligned, or if we exceed the mid-range of motion, we will experience tiring of the muscles, tension and lack of mobility. This can, over time, lead to injury.
We don’t play the piano with our fingers, but this does not mean that the fingers don’t need to be trained with military precision. We can best achieve this by playing an awful lot of contrapuntal music in three or more voices – fugues from Bach’s ’48’ will never be surpassed, since they are great works of art and the opposite of dry and meaningless exercises. If one finger is incapable of moving independently of other fingers, then no control is possible.
If you want to enhance independence of fingers and have a contrapuntal piece handy, try playing one strand of counterpoint forte and the others pianissimo. Then do it the other way around, and so on until each voice in turn has been brought to the fore.
If you have a piece with melody and accompaniment in one hand, it is good practice to mime the accompaniment while playing the melodic part. I suggest you even do it the other way round too, just for practice: play the accompaniment and mime the melody.
For more on miming, follow this link to Part 1 of my ebook series (click here)
Follow-Through and Effort and Release in Strong Playing
Part of the reason we enjoy playing the piano is the visceral physical connection we have with the instrument as we play. Sometimes this can get very animated, and even frenzied. Muscular piano playing can be a wonderful thing, and there is nothing wrong with a bit of heave-ho.
Muscularity turns into keybedding (and hence becomes a problem) when the downward movement into the key is not released or immediately followed through.
Think of a tennis playing slamming the racket into the ball during an ace serve – the racket does not stop at the point of contact with the ball, but follows through. As a total tennis layman, it appears to me that the ball is hit at a point towards the middle of one continuous and connected arc. So it is at the piano.
- Play a big solid chord fortissimo – you are going to hold onto the chord with your hand after the notes have sounded. You won’t need any pedal.
- Enjoy the feeling of contacting the bottoms of the keys.
- Immediately you sense the keybeds, sense the follow-through of the motion you have just made. What happened in your wrist and arms in the milliseconds after you heard the sound? You may have felt the shock absorbed through your wrist, the arm rising slowly as your fingers keep hold of the keys. You may have made a forward thrusting or sliding movement – a movement towards the back of the keys.
- How long did it take for you to recover, to return to a state of equilibrium?
- What is happening in your hand now? If you are pressing into the keyboard then you are guilty of keybedding! Your fingers ought to be loosely holding the keys with no downward-bearing pressure at all, as though you had playing the chord pianissimo.
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We need to have a sense of being connected to the key beds – this is a good thing. If you have ever tried to move across a dry sandy beach, you’ll know how the lack of firmness underfoot really hinders speed and efficiency of movement. Moving on wet sand is of course much easier, because the ground is firmer.
Feel how you tense up your body when walking on an icy footpath in winter, a single misplaced step could topple you. What an immediate relief it is when you come across a part of the path covered with grit – this grit gives traction underfoot so you can move freely, efficiently and economically.
See if you can sense what sort of surface your fingers are moving on as you feel the contact with the keybeds. In fast running passages, can you still sense the activity is right down inside the key rather than on the top? Is every finger in touch with the surface of the key before it attempts to play? Are the fingers that are not playing at rest on the key surfaces or are they poking up in the air? If they are, you have a tug-of-war going on in your hand.
In soft playing, are your fingers loose and floppy or firm and connected to the bottoms of the keys?
In our imagination, we can turn the key beds into all sorts of surfaces – a trampoline is a favourite when I want to release a good strong chord upwards.
- Trampoline. Spring off or thrust upwards from the keybeds to your next position. Great in certain chord streams and types of octave passages. You can even thrust up and release effort yet hold onto the chord with your fingers.
- Spring-loaded launch pad, or diving board. If you are managing a leap, it is most important the finger just before the leap is firm and that you use the keybed to launch you to your next destination. If you don’t launch properly, how can you expect to get there quickly and land accurately? You’ll need to keep loose and free during the journey, of course.
- Flypaper. Imagine the keybeds are covered with a layer of sticky flypaper which helps you keep the key contact necessary for singing lines.
- Bubblewrap. If flypaper is too gooey for you, try bubblewrap. There’s a little malleable cushion of air between your finger tip and the key bed.
- Toast. You are spreading a layer of butter with a continuous light pressure that is not deep enough to gouge holes. Try using this imagery for scale patterns and melodic lines.
- Sprung gym floor. The keys bring you up as you run across this lightly sprung floor – for vigorous, active fingery passages at the forte level to feel springy and effortless. Also for strong chords you’re going to hold onto after impact – the fingers remain in contact but the arm recoils imperceptibly upwards.
I would like to offer you a very simple practice technique for dealing with keybedding. Practising like this on occasion is a great idea for us all.
- Focus your attention on the tips of the fingers as you play a note or a chord.
- As you hold the keys, sense what is going on in the tips of your fingers – are they clinging on for dear life, pushing down against the key bed or are they just resting there freely – hanging in the breeze?
- Find a way to allow your arms to hang freely from the shoulders, and for the finger tips to retain a very loose contact with the key bed as you hold onto the key. Release all muscular tension from your arms, shoulders and wrist.
- Take a section of a piece you are not comfortable with or that you feel tires you out.
- If possible, you’re going to play note by note or chord by chord, but you might prefer to stop on main events (first beats of the bar, chords, other arrival places). It’s up to you – it’ll vary from piece to piece anyway.
- When you stop, hold onto the note(s) you stopped on and immediately turn your attention to the tips of your fingers. Are they clinging, pushing or resting lightly? By force of will, command your body to release tension and do not move on to the next note or stopping place until your arms and fingers have obeyed.
- As you get better at this, you will find the time it takes from the command to the release will get shorter and shorter. Eventually it will happen simultaneously and you won’t need to think about it.
Here is what the process looks like – the blue “play” boxes can contain one note, a bar or measure, a phrase, an arbitrary stopping place or a more complete musical section.
At the end of each “PLAY”:
- Stop, but hold on to the keys you stopped on
- Check in with your body
- Recalibrate if necessary
- Continue with the next “PLAY”
Discussing this subject opens up a whole can of worms, since pressure touch is an aspect of technique passed down to me from the very best modern Russian school of piano playing. Warmth of tone and singing lines result from a certain connectedness to the bottoms of the keys. This is not the same thing as keybedding – at all.
For more on pressure touch, follow this link to my blog post Controlling Tone
Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4
I am delighted to announce that Part 4 of my eBook Series is now available. You can purchase Practising the Piano Part 4 (priced at £9.99) directly from my website. It is also available on Amazon Kindle and for pre-order on the Apple iBookstore (click here for the full series catalogue which contains links to the individual volumes on all platforms).
The full series (Parts 1 to 4) can now be purchased for £35.99 (a discount of 20% off the individual part prices). If you already own one or more parts of Practising the Piano you can also take advantage of further discount bundles to complete your collection. These can be viewed on the series catalogue page here.
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