One of the most skillful and useful ways to practise is softly, especially loud passages. Let me start with an anecdote.
In the early 80s I had the great good fortune to have a few lessons with Andras Schiff at the start of my postgraduate studies in New York. I remember one occasion when I arrived at the building and, having been admitted by the doorman, made my way to the apartment. As I walked down the corridor, I heard Andras Schiff practising, but extremely softly. Fascinated by what I was hearing, I was in no hurry to press the buzzer. Assuming this had something to do with neighbours and decibel levels, I was surprised to learn that he always practised softly, saving fortes and fortissimos for the concert stage. My teacher at the time, Nina Svetlanova, was always telling us the same thing; this seemed to be a theme of her teaching, it would be mentioned at each lesson.
The way we produce sound at the piano is to depress keys (a vertical activity) whereas music tends to move in horizontal lines. While the distance the key has to travel from top to bottom remains the same whether we are playing soft or loud, fast or slow, the energy used to play forte or fortissimo is greater, as is the key speed (the speed at which the key descends) and the recovery time at the key bed (for a skilled pianist, we are talking about tiny fractions of a second). Physical problems in loud playing come from an excess use of force, and a slow recovery. This translates into tension, which gets carried from one event to the next. The sound gets rougher and rougher, the body gets more and more tired.
BENEFIT NUMBER ONE
By practising softly, we can keep ourselves physically loose and avoid injury. 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.
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 by the board. Unless the music is describing something robotic or mechanical, this 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).
BENEFIT NUMBER TWO
By practising softly, we can respond to shadings, timings and refinements of phrasing. A residue of this remains when we play at full voice. Were we to practise loud passages always loudly, we would dull our ear to these possibilities.
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). 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!
BENEFIT NUMBER THREE
By practising softly, we are able to hear more.
I would like to dispel the myth that soft playing is somehow weak, or 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 fingers will need to be firm. Not weak, floppy or filleted of bone and muscle but FIRM! The control needed to play pianissimo is significantly greater than playing loudly, and practising a passage extremely slowly, softly and evenly strengthens the muscles, reflexes and ear. It is relatively easy to play loudly at the keyboard, but sending the key down from top to bottom in such a way as to produce a true pianissimo requires considerable motor skill and control. In music, a pianissimo is often a very concentrated sound, low in decibels perhaps but not necessarily low in intensity, at all. By focussing the rays of the sun through a magnifying glass to a tiny dot, we can create fire.
BENEFIT NUMBER FOUR
By practising softly, we get stronger!
A rough guide is to practise softly 80% of the time. When we then allow ourselves the luxury of playing at the correct dynamic level, it will be effortless! 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.
***THIS POST IS SPONSORED BY THE NOISE ABATEMENT SOCIETY, WITH OBJECTIONS FROM THE LONDON FIRE BRIGADE***
From September, I have a few vacancies for new students. Even though I am associated with training specialist pianists (secondary and tertiary levels), I am interested in teaching anyone with a passion to play the piano. At present my studio consists of people of all ages, the youngest being 8 and the oldest 78! I teach from my studio in SW and also in Central London. Please contact me at [email protected]