In last week’s post, The Countdown to Your Diploma Exam, I described two ways of running through a piece or a programme:

  • Performing in glorious technicolour
  • Running through lightly (we do this with an air of emotional detachment, mezza voce, slightly under tempo, the louder dynamics suggested)

I have had a couple of queries about the second approach, so here is a more detailed description of the two performing states.

When we are ready with our playing (please don’t do this before you are ready), we need to decide what are the elements that contribute to a fully alive and vibrant performance and bring these to the fore. Here are the main hallmarks of such a performance as I see them:

Fully Living the Artistic Image

I first came across the term “artistic image” in the Neuhaus book when I was a teenager and it has stuck with me. Put simply, the artistic image refers to the message and the meaning of the music as we see and feel it. As a student, I noticed that my technical ability with a piece was in direct proportion to the sharpness of my artistic image. If I wasn’t sure about the tempo, character, moods and so on, then I struggled physically with it. Our artistic image of a work is always developing and changing, it never seems to stay still. If the concept challenges you, then find a story that fits with the music. Some players are more visual, and they might imagine the music as the score to a movie. What is the poetic meaning, how does the drama unfold? What are the main feelings and emotions? 

When we fully inhabit our performance, we are in touch with all the moods, characters, feelings and the inner drama and we project all this out to the listener – possibly exaggerating a bit. This means filling our performance space with the appropriate levels of sound, much as an actor on a stage would project his voice.

Let’s look for a moment at how we deal with projecting emotions, as this is a tricky issue. An actor expressing grief is not actually feeling grief at that moment, but is in sympathy with the state of grieving and knows how to evoke the feelings. The ability to do this is the hallmark of an artist. Some pianists fully live the music in their face or in their body language, others remain still. Horowitz is a good example of the wizard who conjured up all sorts of furies while appearing to do absolutely nothing. Certainly nothing was visible from his movements or facial gestures. Don’t get overly involved – remember you’ve got a job to do.

Tempo

There is no such thing as the one ideal tempo, but we need to find a ballpark tempo area that works for us – the speed we feel the music at. This may or may not match the metronome marking in the score. Remember the tempo changes depending on the acoustic feedback we get from the particular instrument in the  particular performance space, our mood and the sound-picture we have in our mind that day.

Dynamic Range

Do you know where the climaxes in your piece are? Depending of course on the piece, there is often just one main climax, and perhaps one or two other subsidiary ones. Now zoom in a bit and reflect on where the high points of individual phrases fall (towards the beginning of the phrase, in the middle somewhere, or maybe nearer the end?). If you’re not sure, try singing the phrase – your voice won’t usually lie. Very generally speaking, we tend to move towards climaxes and back off afterwards, although sometimes it can work well the other way round (does the climax work better if you broaden the tempo in order to give more space to the high point?). Experiment with a diminuendo to the high point of a melodic line and you’ll produce an anticlimax of the sort singers sometimes do (a mezzo di voce). This is sometimes known as a “Russian crescendo” – Stephen Hough has written a most interesting post on this subject.

Now scan the score to find out the dynamic range as given by the composer. Pianissimos and fortissimos need their own special sound. It is a challenge to maintain tone quality at the extremes of the dynamic range (loud can become rough and bangy, soft unfocussed and woolly). Make sure to distinguish between mf and mp – each dynamic level needs its own distinct quality. If it is Bach, you’ll need to come up with your own dynamic plan. It is best to avoid the extremes of dynamics, but I confess I do like to use a silvery pianissimo at times.

Types of Touch

Even if these are not marked in the score specifically, we will want to use a wide variety of touch from a projected legato cantabile to staccato, including non-legato touches such as leggiero, portato, tenuto, and so on, where appropriate.

Pedalling

Unless we have made a decision not to use the pedal (in baroque music if that’s the way we want to do it), or in certain places in certain pieces that we want dry, our right foot is likely to be in regular contact with the pedal during performance. The left foot will often find its way to the una corda pedal, for certain special effects (planned or unplanned). To my mind, it is not possible to mark the majority of pedalling down in the score as again this will change depending on the piano and the acoustical space. The depth of the right pedal is also impossible to pin down. For more on this, see my previous post Look, No Feet!

Playing Through Lightly

So what are the hallmarks of playing through lightly? How does this state differ from a full-bloodied performance? We can employ a marking technique that singers often use to save their voices. They use a mezzo di voce (half voice) and mark their line instead of singing full-out. Instead of fully living the music, we can be cool and objective. We don’t use the full range of dynamics, especially at the loud end of the spectrum. As we play, we inwardly acknowledge that this section is going to be fortissimo in performance and that it expresses high drama, but we play it lightly and dispassionately (as though recalling the drama in a daydream). I like what Josef Hofman has to say on this in his excellent book Piano Playing with Piano Questions Answered:

It is not at all necessary to practise loudly in order to foster the permanence of impressions. Rather let an inward tension take the place of external force. It will engage, sympathetically, your hearing just as well.

As we practise lightly, we replace the external with internal representations, like adding comments to your inner score – “Grand, noble, expansive and forte” might be our script, but we practise with this in our mind, not in our sound.  I often make a decision that I will omit pedal when I practise lightly, apart from absolutely necessary pedals. This adds another level of purity and austerity to the effect, and is very cleansing.

As we practise lightly we can of course stop when necessary in order to make corrections and refinements. However, I highly recommend we also use this as another opportunity to run through a performance – the trick is never to confuse these two states in an actual performance.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***

In Part 3 of my ebook series, I explore scale and arpeggio playing in depth. Included are many ideas for practising, as well as rhythm charts,  practice charts, other interactive features and video demonstrations.

Preview or Buy Practising the Piano Part 3

Click on “Preview” for a free preview or on “Buy” to purchase Part 3 of Practising The Piano now.

Click here for the full series bundle:


For more information, and the catalogue to purchase individual parts, click here.

***   ***   ***   ***   ***