A chord is officially two or more notes played simultaneously, but there are probably as many species of chords as there are of spiders. There is so much to say about practising chords that this is part one of a multi-part series of posts (not sure how many yet) on the subject.

Except for percussive tone clusters, a chord on the piano is rarely intended as an amorphous blob of sound. It is a living organism where each finger involved contributes to the hierarchy of tonal priorities, so that the melody finger will be stronger than the filler (or harmony) notes. If both hands are involved, there will be this sense of top (melody) as well as bottom (bass), with harmony notes in between, graded by the ear of the individual player so that no two pianists will reproduce exactly the same tonal balance. I have often joked that piano playing would be easier if our hands were attached the other way round, so that strong thumbs (instead of puny pinkies) were on the outsides of the hands, and would be responsible for top melodies and foundation basses (the latter so often neglected). I am going to quote again from Heinrich Neuhaus’ The Art of Piano Playing (if there were one definitive book on piano playing, it would surely be this one).

It is very appropriate here to remember that Anton Rubinstein called the two fifth fingers “conductors” leading the music. The limits of sound (both upper and lower) are to music what the frame is to a picture, the slightest blurr  [sic] (which is particularly frequent at the lower limit) in the bass results in a diffuse, shapeless picture; the musical composition then turns (as I sometimes tell my pupils) into either “a headless horseman”, if the bass and harmony swallow the melody, or “a legless cripple” if the bass is too weak, or “a potbellied monster” if the harmony swallows both bass and melody… (Neuhaus, p 74-5.)

This memorable description reminds us to be ever vigilant about our sound and our control of textures and sonorities. Let’s now apply this to the topic in question – chords. If it were possible to put down the keys with equal key speed and acceleration, you wouldn’t actually hear all notes equally – the natural acoustical properties of the piano would favour the lower notes. The lower the note, the greater the resonance. This is just a fact. Given that piano sound is so often geared to top listening (the melody line), we are constantly needing to adjust our sound in the top direction.

It is a good (academic) exercise to take a chord from the context of a piece and give each note a percentage value, realising that this is to some extent arbitrary and can never be scientific or absolute. Let’s look at this example from Schumann, the opening chord of the Etudes Symphoniques, op. 13:

I want the ear to be directed to the top note, since this is the melody line. Remembering that top notes will be naturally less resonant than those underneath, I would give this 40% of my total sound. Looking at the RH, the lowest note is an octave doubling of the melody note and as such acts as its shadow. We have to be very careful to sketch this in very lightly – say 5%. The next note up (the E) is much more important since it is the third of the chord, and I want to give a very clear sense of minor key here. I would give that 20%. The lowest note, the bass C sharp is extremely important, because it underpins not only the first RH chord but also all the other chords in the bar. But, remembering it has a good deal of its own natural resonance because of its register, it gets a value of 20%. The two remaining notes, the G sharps, are to my ear much less important. I certainly don’t want to hear the growl of a bare fifth in the LH, so I would play the bass G sharp very lightly, at 10%. Because I am in danger of exceeding my quota, I had better give that other G sharp in the RH the remainder (that extra dominant in the chord is there for padding, like breadcrumbs in a sausage).

As a curiosity, I had hoped to include a page from Karlheinz Stockhausen’s Klavierstueck No. 1. I don’t have the score and I couldn’t find the example I wanted online, except from this YouTube clip. Look at the chord at approximately 0:35. The composer has specified the voicing of this chord (decisions like this are usually left to the performer) extraordinarily precisely, with the dynamics (from the bottom upwards) p, ff, fff, ff, f, ff, mf and giving certain notes different lengths or cut-off points.

But coming back to reality, it takes a highly trained hand to achieve results like these. The fingers need to be trained so that each can execute a task independently from the others. I go back to my favourite illustration of this, the circus monkeys. Your ten fingers are like monkeys in training for the circus, and you are the ringmaster. On command, Monkey Number One (let’s call him Chee Chee) has to do a double pirouette while Muggle-Wump next door does an inverted somersault. It is very important that Mojo on the next pedestal remain completely still and impervious to these antics, until it is his turn to perform.

I have my own exercises for training independence of the fingers, for all levels. I also favour the first few exercises in Dohnanyi’s Essential Finger Exercises, but these have to be done correctly and with the supervision of an experienced teacher or they simply won’t be effective. Neuhaus gives his own basic exercises, on page 70:

It is also vital to play plenty of Bach, or other polyphonic music to gain control of lines, and fingers.

I think you will all recognise this little ditty. I am playing all five fingers at once each time, but firming up the finger on the key I want to sound strongest. While this clip won’t win a grand prix du disque, I think it illustrates the point.

For me, the greatest control occurs when the hand is on the surface of the keys before the chord is played. Then, by active use of the fingers, I can be certain of the balance of notes within the chord. When I say active use of the fingers, I mean the condition of the fingers (the relative level of firmness or bracedness within the hand). If I want my fifth finger to play stronger than my third, say, the fifth finger would need to be firmer.

We can practise chords in the following ways:

  • Play the strongest note of the chord first alone, with the level of sound you want (or slightly more) then put the remainder of the chord down silently, or triple pianissimo. Aim to decrease the time distance between these two events until the strong note sounds as an acciaccatura to the rest of the chord (in other words very slightly split). The next stage is to sound the notes of the chord simultaneously (and I mean dead together) preserving the tonal balance you have just practised
  • Do this the other way round, by starting with the silent/soft notes, and then playing the strong note, etc.
  • Practise playing the chord as a unit then replaying the strongest note two or three times, forte tenuto, while resting gently (no pressing!) in the rest of the chord
  • Do this the other way round, by holding the strong note and replaying the remainder of the chord two or three times, pianissimo leggierissimo (perhaps in rhythm of, say, crotchet-quaver-quaver-crotchet)
  • If it is a stream or progression of chords, play the top line by itself, firmly and  with the fingering you’re going to end up using
  • Repeat this, this time dummying the underneath notes (the fingers touching their keys religiously, but aim not to sound the notes)
  • Play the progession without the top note, pianissimo

More chord practising thoughts next time…

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