The best piano playing is an expressive and creative experience that communicates with audiences at a depth that goes beyond language. A truly awesome performance comes from the heart of the performer and touches the listeners, painting vivid imaginations and stirring the feelings. All this comes as a result of soothing a huge, mechanical instrument under precisely moving hands. The way this develops is using all our thoughts to picture the sound we want to create and to listen intently to the quality of every note we play, moving it closer and closer to the sound we desire. Technique develops foremost by listening.
The piano is an extremely strong, complex instrument. Playing well requires some understanding of the mechanics of the instrument.
The piano has been evolving since its invention by Cristofori in 1698. Its parts and functions have been increasingly finely tuned, resulting in greater capability to respond to the finest changes in movement of the keys. The piano consists of over 12 000 parts, 10 000 of which move. Most pianos have 230 strings, together creating the weight of pressure of four adult elephants. Most pianos also have three pedals, which arefurther able to influence the sound produced.
Since the inner workings of the piano are not usually directly contacted by the performer, the quality of sound produced is entirely dependant upon how the key is pressed and released. Subtle differences in movement of the keys (e.g. how centred the finger is on the key when it touches; how quickly the key descends; how deeply the key is pressed; how quickly the damper lifts from the strings or reconnects with the strings; how long a key is depressed; the weight used in the key) cause a virtually inexhaustible range of sound intensity and quality. The tiniest, indiscernible difference in contact with the keys completely alters the sound, as that movement is magnified through the response of the 12 000 internal piano components. How the keys are contacted depends entirely on how the hands and fingers are moving, and how these are supported or released by other parts of the body – in other words, posture and technique.
It is amazing to watch a great performer. The instrument seems to be stroked so easily, and it sings so beautifully. In this image, the performer illustrates the vital relationship between instrument and performer – one of harmony rather than struggle.
While technique is fundamental, and must receive conscious attention, the heart of technique is listening to the sound produced while listening in our minds for the one we want to hear. We need to make adjustments to our posture and movements when the two sounds are not the same – but the secret is to first listen to the sound.
Listening is the key to playing the piano well. We need to train our listening skills for the sound quality we want to hear. We do this by thinking carefully about the pieces we are playing, listening to recordings, experimenting with different movements when we touch the keys, and dwelling on every note as a sound alone and as part of the phrase and piece.
We need to determine with our imaginings the picture the music will create, the feelings it will stir. Should it sound like snowflakes, a dark night, autumn leaves falling, or a storm? Often the title offers suggestions. Other hints come from the key the piece is written in and those it passes through, tempo and volume indications, and the nationality and period of the composer. But, it is up to the pianist to dream of and hold their picture at all times and to help the audience see the picture, too.