Controlling Tone – Practising the Piano

There has been a heated discussion this week on a Facebook piano pedagogy page concerning how we affect tone quality at the piano. This argument is nothing new – it has been going on for very many years and has never been settled to my satisfaction. It probably never will. Do we pianists need to know that much about the science behind how sound is produced in order to achieve artistic results?

We all know that the faster we put the key down, the louder the sound but is the way we send the key down a factor in this (using this type of movement or that), or is it simply a matter of controlling the speed of the one key in relation to the speed of the next key in a melodic line, or a stream of chords?

Most people seem to agree that applying this test to one note in isolation is meaningless (since music is not made with a single sound) but there are very many differing and contradictory views on what we need to do to control tone and other aspects of technique. It’s a minefield, and much as I might disagree with others they will disagree with me. If you want to read the post that sparked last week’s debate here is the link to Shirley Kirsten’s blog, Journal of a Piano teacher from New York to California. 

I firmly believe the way we move at the piano is reflected in the sound. If I use angular, jerky movements I will create angular, jerky sounds. If I hit the keyboard I will produce ugly, percussive sounds. Individuated finger movements produce very articulated, non-legato sounds (the equivalent of a wind player putting a “t” tonguing on each note of a phrase, or a string player using separate bows). This is great for certain effects but not for melodic lines where notes need to feel connected in one breath.

Fortepiane - mechanizm angielski
Modern Piano Action

The singing line

Let’s look at what is involved in the production of a legato cantabile melody line in your typical Chopin Nocturne, for example. Chopin modelled his piano style on the bel canto tradition of Italian singing, and aimed to make a percussion instrument sing by replicating the intonations, colourings and timings of the human voice. The greatest players do indeed make the piano sing but they do it by illusion. This is the whole point! It is achieved not by science but by having a sound in your head before you play and then allowing your body (hands, fingers, arm – whatever) to assist you in realising this sound.

I like to feel that in playing a legato cantabile melody that my arm acts in a similar way to the singer’s steady stream of breath. My hand, fingers and wrist are an extension of my arm and in order to engage the arm and wrist, I use a flatter finger (playing on the pads or cushions rather than the tips). Rather than using striking movements of my fingers from the knuckle joints I use stroking movements – sometimes this feels like a gentle squeezing, and may involve sliding in and out along the length of the key. The sensation is of clinging to the keyboard with finger pads like those of a gecko, combined with a floating and malleable arm.

Gecko foot on glass analogy for piano tone
Gecko foot on glass

The founding father of the Russian piano school, Anton Rubinstein, was famous for his deep singing tone. When asked how he achieved it, he responded: “Just press upon the keys until the blood oozes from your fingertips”. Clearly this was not meant as a literal instruction, rather the poetic communication of a sensation (I have heard others speak of the sensation of the arm dragging the hand across the keybeds as feeling like “spreading butter on toast”).

Now from a scientific viewpoint, we all know full well that there is no point pressing into the key once the sound has been made. Matthay called this futile and potentially injurious activity “keybedding”. In so many situations at the piano we need to be fully responsive to the principle of effort and release (switching off muscles the instant we sense the key bed), yet the tactile sensation of contact with the keybeds while – dare I say it – maintaining gentle pressure through a group of notes in a melody line does seem to produce a tangibly different sound than striking each key with an individual finger movement would. Is it the physical act itself that creates this particular sound or does this condition of arm and finger better enable the pianist to create the illusion of smoothness and connectedness of line they are so desperately after? Is it therefore illusion through delusion?

Let’s look at how legendary teacher Rosina Lhévinne approached the singing line. Watch from 2:40:

Mme. Lhévinne’s instructions “transfer the weight from one finger to another” and (when sliding the finger towards the body across the key) “come to me, come to me!” begin to make sense when combined with other things, such as singing, demonstration and physical contact. Misha Dichter (the student in the clip) sums it up with his comment: “It all comes from something as simple as a breath as she breathed it and sang it. And of course the more she sang and mentioned this and you put all of her remarks together I suddenly found my piano is starting to sing a little bit.”

Piano teaching relies a lot on tradition being passed down in a long line from teacher to student and of course there is going to be a certain amount of baggage, including instruction that is misleading, erroneous or perhaps just out of date. Certainly a lot of it is not going to hold up to scientific scrutiny, it wouldn’t claim to.

We might remember that Muzio Clementi (who is generally regarded as the father of piano playing) required his students to practise with a penny on the back of their hand so that the hand remained still, all the work being done by the fingers (which were to stay close to the keys). The arm was to stay fixed, quiet and passive at all times. Modern pianists accept the view that playing involves the whole body and the fingers are inextricably linked with the wrist and other joints and muscles in the arm to produce a natural technique – and therefore good sound. Clementi’s legacy was from the days of the harpsichord where a more-or-less pure finger technique sufficed and was taught. Looking at how people use Hanon and other finger-specific exercises and methodology nowadays, you would think that Clementi were still around – perhaps he is still haunting us.

What is technique?

Schools of piano playing are a bit like religions, each one likes to believe it has all the answers while the other schools are wrong. Why is it that a great pianist can come from any school or tradition? There are all sorts of myths about the ideal hand for piano playing, fleshy fingers being high on the list of suitable attributes. Supposing a pianist produces the most wonderful singing tone yet has long, thin fingers and does not appear to use stroking or sliding movements to get this sound? Could it be that pianistic skill has nothing to do with the hand?

German physiologist Emil du Bois-Reymond was the first to describe the role of the central nervous system in motor activity (in his 1881 paper The Physiology of Exercise). Motor activity happens because of interaction of all the muscles involved, which need to work in the proper order. It is nerves that transmit the messages from the brain to the muscles, and for the nervous system to be at its most efficient other senses need to be involved, such as auditory, visual and the sense of touch (kinesthesia). To perform complex movements, we need a definite sense of purpose. As we refine our control, we eliminate extraneous and counterproductive movements, which means the movements become faster, easier and more efficient. Thus the secret of virtuosity is not in the muscles, but in the central nervous system.

The foundation of piano mastery consists of inseparable connection of sensations with movement with its result – the production of tone (George Kochevitsky, Kochevistky Collection, Pro/Am Resources, 2004, p.212.)

Even if it were possible to deduce which group of muscles was responsible for producing a complex movement at the piano, it would not help us one iota because the muscles are not controlled consciously. The sharper the sound picture we have in our innermost ear and the more vivid our conception of the artistic meaning we have in our imagination, the more directly we will accomplish this at the piano. Since we achieve all this by unconscious means, our sense of purpose is infinitely more important than analysing the technical means.

Oscar Raif (1847-1899) was one of the first to address the importance of the central nervous system in controlling the complex movements in piano playing. He did a series of experiments with pianists and non-pianists and discovered that there is probably no relationship between individual finger agility and piano technique. He found that there was no difference in the number of individual finger movements trained pianists and non-pianists were able to make. The average intelligent person was able to move an individual finger as fast as a concert pianist. What matters in piano playing is the precise timing of the successive movements of the fingers. Gymnastic finger exercises can only improve strength and endurance but will not necessarily help in a complicated movement.

This explains how certain teachers for advanced students who never speak of technique as such can achieve such remarkable results. The student arrives having had a thorough grounding, and the teacher works by inspiring the student, either by demonstration or by sharpening up an artistic goal until this is clarified and refined in the student’s imagination. In such cases, the answers to piano technique appear to be found in the intellect and in psychology. I would add that it is essential for the pianist to have had a thorough schooling prior to going to such a teacher – otherwise, anyone musical enough would simply be able to use their intellect and imagination to develop a razor-sharp artistic image and realise it at the instrument.

Let’s say it turns out the quality of piano tone is actually all about the speed of the hammer in the final stage of its trajectory towards the string – nothing more, nothing less – does this conflict with a pianist’s choice of how he or she uses his body to achieve certain sounds, whether consciously or unconsciously? I don’t think so. I recall a class in which Leon Fleisher referred to the piano as a magic box. We pianists can be as grounded as we like in the science of what we do, but in the end piano playing relies on large doses of magic and illusion, not to mention imagination.

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