On Touch (Part One) – Practising the Piano

I was recently asked by Pianist Magazine to write a series of three articles on touch, which turned out to be more challenging than I had anticipated. The second article on non-legato touches was especially difficult, since these various touches overlap (no pun intended), and any attempt to classify them risks ending up confusing rather than clarifying.

The first article, just published, is on legato and staccato. In this, I talk about four different types of staccato and three different types of legato – our plain vanilla default touch, legatissimo for cantabile melody lines and ‘finger pedalling’ where notes are deliberately held down and overlapped.

I want to distinguish between finger pedalling as a specific touch and the bad habit of neglecting to pick up the finger after its written note value. Beginner and elementary pianists are constantly being told (quite correctly so) by their teachers to pick up their fingers. Holding fingers down beyond the written note value at this stage is bad technique and produces unwanted blurs and smudges. However, at the advanced level an overlapping touch (finger pedalling) is indispensable.

Let’s say we have an Alberti bass (or broken chord pattern) with a melody above it. It sounds dry and clattery, but pedalling blurs the melody and adds too much resonance. The best way of adding resonance is to use finger pedalling. Instead of releasing the notes of the Alberti bass in a conventional legato touch, we hold onto them, creating a harmonic effect. This enables us to play broken harmonies without dryness, and yet to play the melodic line above without the smudging that would happen if we used the sustaining pedal. Actually, we are still able to use the sustaining pedal, adding a dab of pedal here and there to warm up the tone, but we won’t be relying on it for connecting notes.

On a grand piano, thanks to Sebastian Erard’s double escapement mechanism (1821) we don’t need to lift the key all the way to the surface to repeat it, we can lift it only about half way up and play it again. This means we can repeat a note without any gap in the sound, using only the finger. We can develop finger pedalling by taking a triad and, with each finger in turn, release the key about half way before repeating it. When you can control the keys in this way, break up the chord in the style of an Alberti bass releasing the key in this way only when you need to repeat that note. There are some instances where, instead of holding down all the notes of the chord, you might just hold the bass, and a bass line thus emerges from the texture.

Finger pedalling is not just for the left hand! Let’s take the opening of the first Minuet from the B flat Partita of Bach. The printed notation is thus:

And yet the following possible articulation brings out the two voices implied in the RH line:

For the video demonstrations, check out my video on Pianist Magazine’s YouTube channel:


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