The first time I heard Vladimir Horowitz in recital his vast dynamic range and the incredible array of sounds and colours he managed to produce from the piano made a huge impression on me.
When we perform, our playing will have far greater range and expressive power if we are able to control the instrument from the slightest whisper in pianissimo to the most sonorous and mighty fortissimo with all gradations in between (is your mezzo piano discernably different in character from your mezzo forte)?
We’ll be able to do much more with the music if our sound reflects all the dynamic levels that composers demand from us (whether these are marked in the score or not) and from the sounds we hear in our imagination.
Tone is hardest to control at either end of the dynamic spectrum, with really soft playing demanding the most control. Isn’t it ironic that listeners tend to equate virtuosity with loud and fast playing, whereas control of tone in pianisissmo is in many ways as demanding technically? It is actually not that hard to produce loud sounds on the piano – keeping the tone good is another matter.
When things are not working as they should be, soft playing can end up sounding wispy, unfocussed and threadbare and the loudest playing noisy, monochrome and ugly.
In this post, I would like to look at the ingredients of pianissimo playing because I highly recommend practising at this level of sound very regularly.
I would like to dispel the myth that soft playing somehow equates to weakness. Unless I am creating a special impressionistic effect, a kind of intentional transparent mistiness, I will still need to send the key from top to bottom and very often the finger tips will need to be firm. Not weak or floppy but firm! The importance of sending the key right down to the key bed (or sounding point if you prefer) in soft melodies and chords cannot be overstated.
Sometimes what we do at the piano seems counterintuitive. You would have thought that to play really softly you would play on the surface of the keyboard, hardly sending the keys down at all. As I discussed in my recent post A Matter of Pressing Concern, the opposite is true. When we play pianissimo we aim to the key bed perhaps even more consciously than when we play at other dynamic levels.
Many years ago when I was finishing my postgraduate studies with Nina Svetlanova (herself a long-time student of Heinrich Neuhaus), she gave me a suggestion that I initially dismissed as fanciful and not really viable. She told me that in pianissimo the finger should already be half way into the key before we sound the note, and then go the rest of the way down firmly. Some years later this notion germinated in my playing and I found that it was true.
If you want to experience the control that playing from inside the keys offers in pianissimo, start by simply feeling the surface of the key under your finger before you allow the key to descend. Little by little you will discover the activity happens at the very bottoms of the keys and not, as you might think, on the tops.
Recently I have been dusting off Schumann’s Sonata in F sharp minor for an upcoming recital in the summer. I have not played the work in about a decade and I have decided to bring it very gently back to my fingers by practising virtually without pedal – slowly and very softly, scaling down my dynamics as many notches as possible. Here’s why:
- To keep physically loose, free and mobile.
The looser we are muscularly, the more mobile we are and the greater our command of the keyboard. Conversely, if the muscles are tight, we are sluggish and will find it much harder to move.
- To avoid the risk of tension and injury
It is neither smart nor necessary to spend much time in routine practice projecting the full range of sound and emotions. Save it!
- To work hard at controlling tone
When we practise softly we minimise the participation of the upper arm, which allows finger activity to be perceived more clearly in the brain. By reducing the involvement of the big muscles, we enhance the finer sensations of the small finger muscles.
- To add nuance and shape to every single line
I often notice a tendency in loud passages for inflection to disappear from the playing. Each note comes out equally loud, like a series of detonations, and subtleties of timing go out of the window. Unless the music is describing something robotic or mechanical, this type of sound feels impoverished. I think of the parallels with speech. Unless he is shouting, an actor who is delivering the lines loudly will still inflect them (some syllables will be stronger than others and timings will still exist). By practising softly we can respond to shadings, timings and refinements of phrasing, and a residue of our sensitivity to this remains when we play at full voice.
- To voice textures and balance each chord
Were we to practise loud passages always loudly, we risk dulling our ear to these possibilities. Harshness in fortissimo comes not only from tight muscles and excessive force whacking the keys down but also from a lack of voicing. No matter how loud the passage, chords and textures still need to be voiced and layered. Put simply, this means some notes are stronger than others.
- To listen more attentively
The clavichord was Bach’s preferred keyboard instrument when he wanted to express his highest musical thoughts. Practising the clavichord always used to be favoured by pianists (Mozart in particular) because it forces you to listen much more attentively (as well as developing a more sensitive touch). The clavichord is quite extraordinarily soft and far from easy to control. When you go back to the piano, you are able to hear much more acutely. If you want someone to really listen to you, whisper!
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We all love the visceral excitement of big playing, and creating a large and resonant sound full of emotion. But we don’t need to practise like this all the time. Busting through the tonal ceiling by practising too much in the upper dynamic ranges is dangerous on many levels, and not at all necessary. It always leaves us wanting more sound, feeling we never quite manage to produce enough and we end up struggling with the instrument.
Practising full tilt for several hours a day is almost certain to have a negative impact on our body and our ears, plus will wear out our piano! Going back to the thespian analogy, an actor rehearsing his lines by himself would not need to project especially strong lines to know they are supposed to end up sounding strong in the presence of an audience. An inner intensity can take the place of external force.
We all use repetition when we practise – it’s how we ingrain muscular movements so they eventually become automatic.
How about saving one repetition where we put our attention on our body – our arms, shoulders, wherever we sense we might hold tension? As we play, first notice where we are holding or tightening up and then ask our body very nicely if it will please let go.
With practice, you may be quite surprised how effective this simple process can be!
Remember – good posture is vitally important not only in performance but also every time we practise!
For more tips on sitting correctly at the piano, follow this link to Part 2 of my ebook series (click here)
Practising the Piano eBook Series Part 4
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