As a pianist, we are generally tasked with taking the percussive qualities of the instrument and transforming them into a smooth, lyrical tone. Here are three things to consider:
Always think about how you will physically approach each note
Every other instrumentalist as well as vocalists consistently think about this. Breathing is always a central issue to winds, singers, and even string players. Depending on the musical context of the passage, they often think about what type of breathing will be appropriate. Why should it be any different for pianists? Well, one major difference is that producing a sound is done with relative ease in comparison to other instruments––we do not have to rely on breathing to produce sound (even though we should!). Often times, we simply plop our fingers and hands on the keys without much thought.
I would like to, however, encourage all pianists to think about the musical context of the passage and the type of physical preparation that it requires. Often times, teachers talk about imitating certain instruments. But in order to do that, think about the breathing/physical gestures these instrumentalists make before producing the sound: is it a short or a long/slow inhale? Is the preparatory gesture going to be quick or slow? For pianists, this is analogous to how we use our wrists/arms before and after we play each note.
Playing the piano is a horizontal activity
In order to take away the percussive qualities of the piano, I believe that we should always think about approaching the piano horizontally. When I was a student at Juilliard, I remember sitting in a masterclass and the guest teacher used a very descriptive analogy to describe how we should approach the keyboard: if our fingers were ten feet long and could pierce through the keyboard, they should hit the wall, not the ground.
To me, this is the most effective way in maximizing the rich and resonant tone out of an instrument in which its sound naturally decays.
Keeping a fluid and loose arm
It is important to keep your arms and wrists loose and free of any tension at the piano. Often times, tension creeps in before and after we approach making contact at the keyboard. If you find that your tone sounds harsh and stiff, ensure that you are tension free throughout your arms, shoulders, and back.
Of course, developing a beautiful tone at the piano takes years and years of hard work and persistence, but I hope these suggestions can help move things in the right direction.
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