How do I work on sound quality on the piano? My first response is to say: I don’t know. That’s probably how many of my colleagues would begin their answers. As musicians, we are eternal students. Music is a constant work-in-progress for both performers and composers. No one, no matter how old the composer, was finished exploring music before they died. There’s always more to learn, no matter who you are.
Throughout our lives, we are searching for that precious relevance between finger and ear and how those two systems can create different variations of sound. The clavier instruments started, like everything else, from simple and primitive beginnings and then evolved into an extremely elaborate device hailed as the King of the instruments.
Singing on the piano.
There are many elements involved in achieving good tone on the piano. One of them is this famous “singing on the piano.” It’s not true that the idea of singing on the piano only started in the 19th century with the famous piano makers Erard and Pleyel. J.S. Bach on his tiny little instrument— the clavichord, the size of a large guitar— was already dreaming of the singing quality.
His interest in keyboard instruments and the astonishing scale of his work paved the way by successfully turning a percussive hammer-and-string instrument into the one capable of sound much more mellow and song-like. The human voice is the ideal example of how we are trying to sound at the piano. Stravinsky talked about the percussiveness of the piano, claiming the whole world wants the piano to do something that it’s not designed to do. But even while denying the piano’s singing capabilities, he was composing his own masterpieces that emphasized those same singing qualities. However the topic of singing on the piano is only one among many we can discuss concerning sound matters.
The language of music is the most expressive of all.
We can also talk about sensitivity and the separate aspects of tone, or at least we can try. But Is there truly enough vocabulary in any human language to express those subtle gradations? The language of music is the most expressive of all languages known. We musicians have in our hands something incredibly flexible that can express anything. We can go into the furthest corners of the human psyche and look for answers. Most of those questions are open-ended, and the answers never will be found or don’t exist because they have to do with our dream world. We don’t and won’t have definitive answers. Music is the ultimate way to dream of those answers. That’s what Bach did with the religious nature of his music. That’s what Beethoven did, especially in his later works, trying to find the source of existence in his own unique way. It was also the search for God, but probably something more or different than what the church would offer.
Search for the elusive good piano tone.
The ideal sound of our instruments and the constant search for the best way to express ourselves are closely related. Right now, in these troubling times, we have time to reflect without having any looming deadlines. This is the time to look for insights, to ask yourself some questions that you never had the time or even desire to ask. I believe this reflection will help us to come out of this challenging situation with the pandemic as winners. I am spending more time than ever with the piano and doing some projects that I otherwise probably wouldn’t, learning some repertoire, which requires a lot of practice. My search for that elusive good piano tone is part of this never-ending quest.
Each chord has it’s own inner life.
So far, our discussion about tone quality on the piano has been relatively abstract. There are a few different activities that I use to focus on improving my sound. Firstly, I have to work carefully with each chord to ensure that I am always emphasizing the right parts of a sonority. Each chord or every vertical harmony has it’s own inner life. Besides the obvious polyphony, there is a hidden hierarchy within a chord. Some notes are more important, and some are less; there are bosses and servants. Usually, there is one note or interval which makes the chord unique and acts as its soul. The ability to distinguish this essense in every chord brings out a piece’s harmonic intensity and helps the piano shine. These notes and sonorities exist, and it has to be part of our nature to look for them. We often do this subconsciously, but you can also make a conscious effort. In lessons, I ask my students to search for the soul of each chord whenever I feel a lack of harmonic intensity.
Arranging for piano.
Arranging can also be a helpful exercise for working on tone quality.
Right now, I’m working on a piano arrangement for The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky. His original writing is extremely dense, and in reducing and adapting it for piano, I must be clear about which notes in the chords are essential and which are less. You need to understand the priorities in each chord to be able to play it with only ten fingers. I also decided to incorporate a pedal drum and pedal tambourine because there are several places in the score where percussion is irreplaceable. Making arrangements helps bring out as much emotional intensity from a piece as possible since it forces to analyze the music carefully and put that analysis to work.
Slow practice is essential for improving tone quality.
Slow practice is another essential technique for improving tone quality. It’s irreplaceable. Slow practice helps with the technical finger work, of course, but more importantly, it trains our ear and creates layers of neuron connections between the ear and the finger. Once they are fully established and trustworthy, every little note will become an essential part of the musical fabric, as present as the oxygen surrounding us. When I am working with students struggling with tone, usually slow practice helps them understand and set their priorities. In the balancing act between speed and sound, the harmonic identity needs to be prioritized above articulation, velocity, or strength. Essentially, through slow practice, they can begin to implement the close harmonic nuance gained from finding the soul of each chord.
Rachmaninov, for example, knew his trade both as a composer and a pianist and advocated for intense slow practicing.
He’s one of my idols. I admire the way he can get into every little piece of dust in the texture when he plays, whether it’s his own music or Schumann’s Carnaval or Chopin’s amazing Waltz in C-sharp Minor. He achieved this mastery through very slow, calm practicing. When you play very slow, you don’t just allow the muscle memory to work hard. If you listen intensely, those neurons that create those amazingly valuable connections between the ear and finger become even more sensitive.
Listening that intensely is mentally tiring, and I think many young people don’t really do it. They may practice slowly, but they are not engaging their brains and ears at the same time. It’s often tempting to read a book or watch YouTube while doing slow work, but if you do that, you are missing out on the most precious mental engagement so critical for slow work. I don’t believe that person should practice a tremendous number of hours every day. Your practice can be a reasonable amount of time, but it has to be intense. And in this intense practice, your ear is heavily involved at all times, whether you are performing or practicing slowly, and it will be mentally tiring. If you are not getting tired of your practicing, you are not doing a good job.
Sound and pedaling in J. S. Bach’s music.
Working on sound also requires careful attention to historical and stylistic details. For example, after a close scrutiny of the facts, I support the use of pedals in the music of J. S. Bach. We all want to play music authentically. None of us would admit neglect of authenticity when playing Bach or Handel, no matter how Romantic an interpretation might be. But when you look at historical sources, you will be surprised how much difference there was between Bach’s reputation then and now. Even the contrast in J.S. Bach’s aspirations and those of his own sons-composers are stark. Bach lived a long life for his time.
Why did his music stop being popular in the last years of his life? Was it because people were ignorant, the society was so closed up, and his contemporaries were all mistaken? Those assumptions can not be correct. The neglect of Bach’s music was part of history; his music became untrendy. The same thing happened to Mozart in his last years. Nowadays Bach’s music is often accepted beyond criticism. But it is a historical fact that it was considered way too conservative during his time. It took almost a century for the world to rediscover Bach’s music and it stays with us today ever fresh and ever young. Similarly, we can talk about the irrelevance of Schumann’s art or how Chopin never wanted to admit being part of the Romantic movement. Chopin regarded himself as a Classical composer.
We cannot limit ourselves to the simple dry facts that the harpsichord didn’t have a pedal and couldn’t hold the sound. That doesn’t show us the whole picture. Bach was not writing specifically for piano or harpsichord; he was writing for all keyboard instruments. There was no precise design because that’s how people composed then. When you browse through both books of preludes and fugues in The Well-Tempered Clavier, you can see that some compositions will work better on dual-manual harpsichords, other ones on organ or clavichord. But all of them could be performed on either. This universality was part of his project with The Well-Tempered Clavier.
Every time we’re making decisions on pedaling in Bach, we have to try to find the origins of his decision making. We have to be aware of how Bach’s instruments sounded. The sound was very different from his favorite harpsichord to his even more favorite small clavichord, which he had to tune every single day because it would go out of tune in minutes. But it had a mellow tone that suited Bach’s craving for a singing tone quality. There are some pieces which are written for organ, and they still can be performed on different keyboard instruments, but there are so many things that physically cannot be done on anything but an organ. Nowadays, of course, synthesizers can do those things. But the point is that people were still playing organ pieces on harpsichord, or those clavichord pieces on organ, without much musical losses.
In Bach’s time, the approach to composition was different. There was practically a lack of understanding that playing music is art. If you wrote something difficult for piano, or any other instrument, it would not be regarded as a successful piece. The change in attitude started with Beethoven, Liszt, Berlioz and others, who created the craving for a physical challenge. So when we play Bach, we always need to find the texture which sounds most effortless in every piece. It is more important than the instrument we’re using. If we try very hard to make it extremely dry, then it will be repelled by our taste buds as something not authentic. However, once we use the pedal and can hear the pedal effect wildly in Bach’s music, that’s unacceptable since he had no such device to use. But you can use the pedal in ways that are inaudible but which help support the production of that necessary effortless sound. This kind of subtle pedal usage is common in Viennese classical music and even sometimes in Chopin. Employing it in Bach may be slightly anachronistic but effective.
Music of Bartok and Prokofiev.
Music of Bartók and Prokofiev powerfully reflects the distress of the First and the Second World Wars and a very intense historical period of time between them. Of course, it also goes way beyond adhering to the historic events being simply music. Most of the drama that we hear in Bartók’s music is rooted to the atrocities of WWI. There is aggression there, but also horror, anguish, and pain. He fused Hungarian folk sources with a cutting-edge harmonic vision of his time creating a completely unique musical language.
Piano tone in Prokofiev’s piano music.
Prokofiev’s music, in contrast, has a slightly different orientation. Although easily identified as Rusian it mysteriously is influenced by everybody from Bach to Debussy. Mosaic of world’s influences can be found in most of his pieces. Yet still his musical language is as unique and stand-out as Bartok’s. Parisian songs, German baroque dances, russian melodism, Italian tarantella, all of it and much more infuses his music. He was one of those lucky composers who would just breathe melodies. He always had more melodies than he could use, similar to Chopin and Mozart. Stylistically, Prokofiev never entirely became a modern composer, which is what makes his music intriguing. He never burned the bridges with the past, like Messiaen or Stravinsky. Many other composers of the time, including French impressionists, were more willing to start anew completely. Prokofiev still was building on a deeply Russian foundation. And for that, he was sometimes criticized by his fellow modern composers as being a reactionary.
Having said all that, can we truly imagine that Prokofiev’s music can only be dry or cold like steel? Prokofiev fought to get rid of that epithet his whole life, but we still hear variations on it today. That view is quite limiting. Of course, there are some iconic pieces by Prokofiev, especially for piano and orchestra, which create that cold steel impression. They are very powerful, and create a signature sound. But Prokofiev’s stylistic range was incredible. There is Neo-baroque music; there is Neoclassical (the fifth Piano Sonata) or Neo-romantic (the ninth Piano Sonata or the F Minor Sonata for Violin and Piano). If you know Prokofiev’s music well, then along with cold steel, you will find so many other things, and that needs to be reflected in the tone of the piano when you play Prokofiev. Simply listen to his ballet Romeo and Juliet. There is tremendous human warmth there, an understanding of how much pain the loss of human life can cause, and a range of emotions from Shakespeare to Bulgakov.
Much of our piano sound discussion has been indirect from thinking about the ideal tone on the piano to more historical questions about styles and belonging to them great composers. I find this kind of reflection necessary for building a good sound quality.