Tips to help bring out the best tone when playing the piano

There is a pianist from the past, Artur Rubenstein. His playing was characterised by the most beautiful tone. Rubenstein gave every note importance and make melodies truly sing. The result, as you can hear below, was truly exceptional.

Chopin Nocturne Op. 9, No. 1 in B flat

Here are some tips to achieve a beautiful rounded tone:

    Relax, check your posture.

    Play with the pads of the fingers rather than the tips. Aim for a warm ‘buttery’ tone effect when doing this.

    Listen carefully. Listen attentively to the sound you are producing and adjust your touch accordingly.

    Play with a variety of touch. Experiment with different levels of pressure to bring out the full range of the piano’s sound.

Rubenstein was ‘honest’ when he played. He searched for the composer’s meaning, and endeavoured to produce what the composer meant us to hear. He didn’t ‘throw away’ notes and gave them all full value. Can you practice to achieve this?

Finding your voice

When we begin playing the piano our hands and brain coordinate to play all the notes roughly at the same volume. At the beginner stage it is not yet possible, say, to play one hand louder or softer than the other. However, with practice you can begin to play the fingers of one hand heavier or lighter. Taking that forward you can gain more control of the fingers and are able to play one finger heavier or lighter than the other fingers of that hand.

The ability to create independence of the hands and fingers takes time and doesn’t come quickly. However as you progress it does become easier and there are some technical exercises available to help.

Ultimately, as your control and touch develops and you can make the phrases ‘sing.’ This is achieved usually by not necessarily playing the phrases or tunes louder, but by having the control to play the accompaniment a little lighter and quieter. You begin to find your ‘voice’ and it opens up a whole new world of expression.

Keep trying, with work and patience it will come!

The Sustain Pedal

Playing the piano can be a truly immersive experience, especially when you explore the unique qualities of the piano sustain pedal. It is the one on the right hand side and holds the key to unlocking a world of musical expressions.

One of the main joys of using the sustain pedal is how it helps you keep the notes singing. The moment you press down on this pedal, a magical transformation occurs within the piano: it lifts all the dampers away from the strings, allowing the notes to ring out and sound freely. This creates a sort of musical elixir, blending individual notes into a vibrant and full-bodied sound that lingers on, even after your fingers have left the keys. It’s like weaving a rich tapestry of sound, allowing your performances to truly sing and resonate.

But the pedal doesn’t stop there. It has another trick up its sleeve – enhancing the resonance of your piano. With the dampers lifted off, the sustain pedal allows unplayed strings to vibrate sympathetically to the notes you are playing. This adds depth to your sound, almost as if it gives a soul to the piano, bringing out the instrument’s unique voice and making your music feel more alive.

The sustain pedal is also your helpful friend when you’re aiming for a smooth legato – a seamless connection between notes that might be a stretch to hold together by fingers alone. By cleverly managing the pedal, you can weave together notes that would otherwise be impossible to connect, creating a silky thread of sound that flows effortlessly through even the most intricate musical passages.

Remember: try and use the sustain pedal as a ‘paintbrush’, bringing it in and out gently as he music requires, rather than switching it ‘off and on.’

Another interesting aspect of the sustain pedal is its ability to inject a variety of expressive effects into your music. By carefully controlling how much you press down on the pedal, you can make the sound linger on longer, gently fade away, or create an echo-like decaying effect. These subtle manipulations can add a whole new level of emotion and detail to your performances, making each piece uniquely your own.

The pedal also gives you the freedom to experiment with the tonal colours of your piano. When you mix and match the pedal’s effects with various playing techniques – like the intensity of your touch or the dynamics of your playing – you can create a stunning palette of tonal shades and textures. This flexibility gives you the power to paint different moods and atmospheres with your music, adding a personal touch to your interpretation of the piece.

In essence, the piano sustain pedal serves as an artistic tool that enhances your control over the sound production of the piano. By offering opportunities for sustained sound, increased resonance, smooth legato, and a whole spectrum of tonal colours, the sustain pedal truly allows your performances to bloom with expressive and nuanced detail.

Playing, or Practising?

Hello again!

We all like to play piano pieces through from start to end. However if we are learning a piece by playing it all the way through then it can be counter-productive.

When learning a piece and encountering difficulties which cause you to slow down or stop, it’s important to isolate those difficult bits and practise them separately. Try repeating the difficult bit using hands separately or playing slowly with hands together. Do this until the section becomes more easy to play.

This method ultimately saves you time and helps you to learn the piece quicker!

 

Play with more empathy and touch?

This is a quick tip to suggest a way to become more ‘in touch’ with the music you are playing.

A lot of us play a little mechanically, mainly because of the amount of practice we have to put in. It’s sometimes easy to forget to approach the music in a heartfelt way.

However, try this. Ask yourself “What does the piano think of me?”

It may or may not make a difference for you. But for those it does, what a difference it makes!

Why Scales and Exercises?

Exercises can be the least attractive element of learning to play the piano. They can be mechanical and repetitive and to a lot of people fairly meaningless.

However, exercises build technique. They promote the muscular growth and flexibility and dexterity to prepare you for the more difficult pieces.

Exercises need to be approached proactively rather than reactively. That is, get involved, listen carefully. Measure yourself against these three principles:

  • Am I playing smoothly?
  • Am I playing on the beat?
  • Am I playing with an even tone?

The last one, which means “am I playing the notes so that none of them sound too loud or too soft,” is the biggest challenge you’ll face when learning to play. Regular exercises help to meet that challenge.

The 50% practice routine

A bit of homespun advice about your piano practice:

Each practice session begin with a scale and arpeggio. Choose a different key each time. Remember to play smoothly, in time and with an even tone – these are the 3 things to look for. I appreciate this is not an attractive task (you can make it attractive and look forward to it.) However it builds strong technique. Exercises are not exactly an attractive proposition but if you want to improve then it’s a habit that needs to be cultivated. Someone once told me that to create a habit it takes 21 days, so try it… so for the next 21 days do your exercises before anything else.

When we play the piano to play we often do 2 things: a) play for pleasure, go over our favourite-of-the-moment pieces, and b) practice new ones. I can’t emphasis enough that if you want to advance and play more challenging and beautiful pieces you must spend at least 50% of your practice time working on new pieces. Call it “the 50% rule” if you like and please try it. At each practice start with exercises, then practice the new pieces, then finish off with the things you love.

Online Piano Lessons

The Coronavirus pandemic makes humans think creatively and in this case offer online piano lessons. Having done some testing we’ve found the best solution for sound and video quality is to use Skype.

One-to-one lessons via Skype are available for existing students. Please contact me if you’d like to keep rolling!

 

Looking ahead!

When sight reading or maybe just playing a piece that you know from music, always look ahead. You should be looking at least one bar ahead all the time to anticipate what is coming, the fingering that will be needed, and seeing the structure of the music.

It’s a tough disciple to follow at first but looking ahead will pay huge dividends.

Tip to aid concentration and accuracy – the game of threes!

This is a good one.

When practicing you sometimes come to a difficult section which slows you down or stops you. Instead of starting from the beginning take the difficult section and play it slowly 3 times without making a mistake. Should you make a mistake during any of the 3 times then start the 3 times again. Continue until you can play it the 3 times without making a mistake. The next day try again, and if you complete the 3 times successfully then increase the pace until you can play the section at the same speed as the rest of the piece.

The ‘game of threes’ is an excellent way to improve your concentration and accuracy. Remember that good pianists always go straight to the tricky parts of a piece and practice those first.

If you are going to perform the piece eventually then try playing the game of threes for the whole piece.