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The key to the pianist's world.

The pianist must discover infinity in the vertical movement that makes up the small world of key descent. Because it's such a miniscule world--vertical movement of about three-eighths of an inch from the surface of the key to the bottom--key descent may impress us mostly by its insignificance compared to the lateral sweep of hands across the keyboard, but for the pianist the artistry that captivates an audience begins with key depression. In the early 1900s, piano pedagogue Tobias Matthay wrote several essays exploring this small but important universe and published them in a book entitled Pianoforte Tone Production (1903) and also in Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique (1932).

The act of touching a key and putting it down begins our physical relationship with the piano. The link between our tactile sense and aural sense begins with listening to the tone produced when keys are treated differently. Teachers can share the excitement of these beginnings with students. In the Morton Feldman Essays, the American composer recalls taking piano lessons, as a child, from a woman whom he says taught the Czar's children. "She would sit down and show me how to play. The way that she would put her finger down, in a Russian way ... the liveliness of the finger. And produce a B-flat, and you wanted to faint," Feldman says. (1) Mesmerized by the beauty of the tone his teacher produced, Feldman remembered years later her approach to the key.

Natural Curiosity and "Key-Sense"

Like the young Feldman, in their beginning lessons, most children have a natural curiosity about the piano that teachers can use to help them discover more about the instrument. The more we know about our instrument, the more we love it and the more we can express ourselves through it. During a beginning lesson sometime ago with my student Beth, we worked on a piece in her method book that suggested keeping the damper pedal down for the entire composition. When she came back and played it for me the following week, she said she liked the piece, but she wondered why she had to keep the gas pedal down the whole time. I took this opportunity, not only to answer her question and remind her of the proper name for the damper pedal, but also to explore the piano and how it worked.

We decided to look inside my studio piano to see what happened when I put down a key. When I opened the piano lid, the inhabitants of this inner world surprised Beth. She didn't see a gas tank, spark plugs or pistons, but rather hammers, strings, tuning pins, dampers and the inside of the soundboard, to name a few things. Her eyes sparkled with curiosity as she wondered, "How do all of these parts work together to make a piano tone?" I asked her to look at the inside of the piano as I put down a key. As she watched, Beth began to get an idea of the "wizard behind the curtain," the mechanisms that created sound. She saw the hammer move toward the string, and when they met, she heard a pitch. As I kept down the key, the damper was held away from the string. The sound resonated until I released the key and the damper fell back against the string, silencing the sound. Years later when Beth played Mozart Sonatas and Chopin Nocturnes, we experimented with putting down the keys in various ways to get the velvety legatos or sparkling staccatos called for in the music.

To develop what Matthay calls a "key-sense," (2) we should know what purpose the key serves in the sound-making mechanism. Since the piano is a speed-sensitive instrument, it depends on key speed to produce various shades of color and dynamics. The piano keys enable us to convey more speed to the strings than we could by using just the fingers alone. As the finger sends down the key, the hammer moves to the string at about twice the speed of key descent, The key descends about three-eighths of an inch, while the hammer travels about two inches before meeting the string. This extra travel space allows the hammer to collect more speed so, even if we slowly put down a key, the hammer speed will be quite fast. The initial strike of hammer against string sets both into vibration at the same speed for an instant before the hammer falls back and allows the string to continue vibrating until the tone fades into silence or until the damper stops it when the pianist releases the key. The piano tone begins clear and bell-like, then comes the beauty of its decay, wavering and changing shape until it is no longer. Our fingers alone could not set the string into motion fast enough to take a piano tone from its bell-like beginning to its whispering end. The key translates the pianist's energy into speed as it sets the hammer into motion to make this sound effect possible.

As we look at the piano, only a small portion of the key is visible to us--the portion that receives the finger's touch. Keys continue into the body of the piano for another twelve inches or so, making the entire key about eighteen inches long in upright pianos and smaller grand pianos, and almost two feet long in nine-foot grands. The keys also are tilted upward toward us, although they appear to have no tilt at all. As we move the visible part of the key downward, its opposite end, the hammer end, moves upward, creating a see-saw effect. This upward end then sends the hammerhead on its journey to the string, producing sound. Since the pianist may be almost two feet away from the string, which is the source of sound, Matthay suggests that pianists imagine the key as a continuation of their finger and treat the finger and key as one unit, thus giving the pianist the illusion that the fingers actually are making contact with the string. (3) The pianist's job is to have an aural picture of the desired tone and communicate the right amount of energy to a key to produce that tone from the string. When does this tone start? Does it begin when the key gets to the bottom, or does it begin somewhere along the way to the bottom?

When Silence Becomes Sounds

All musicians should know when sound actually occurs as they play their instrument so they know where to direct their energy. To determine when sound actually is produced during key descent, very slowly put down a key to avoid making a sound. Just before the key reaches the bottom of its journey, you will feel a little bump. This bump is the point in key descent where the hammer meets the string and silence becomes sound--so the key actually passes through the sound on its way down. When we watch someone play the piano or when we play the piano ourselves, it appears that sound occurs when the key hits bottom, but this is an illusion. Sound occurs just before the key gets to the bottom. Pianists who are aware of this will not waste energy jamming their fingers into the bottom of the keys where there is no sound except the thud of the key meeting the keypad.

Delicate shades of dynamics, which are major components of artistic performance, are determined by the key speed. Quicker speeds produce louder tones because they send more energy to the strings. Slower speeds create softer tones because the energy is subdued. The placement of the pianist's fingers on the keys also will affect dynamics to a certain degree. For example, if Beth wants very soft tones, placing her fingers on the outer edge of the keys while descending slowly to the bottom will give her quiet meditative sounds like those required in the closing measures of Aaron Copland's Piano Sonata. On the other hand, if she needs the rich forte called for in the opening C-minor chord of Beethoven's Pathetique Sonata, Op. 13, No. 8, she should direct more speed into the key, accelerating gradually, using the pads of her fingers without striking a blow to the key. Gradual acceleration causes a less percussive meeting between the hammerhead and the string and yields a rich tone, which is in keeping with the grave tempo and mood indication given by Beethoven for the serious and solemn opening to this sonata. Using the pads of the fingers as opposed to the tips encourages a softer approach to the key. In contrast, the bright fortissimo appropriate for the opening of Beethoven's Hammerklavier Sonata, Op. 106, No. 29 requires a quicker descent with Beth's fingertips causing a more percussive strike of the hammerhead against string, yielding a brighter sound.

Words such as "rich," "bright" or "brilliant," which sometimes are used to describe sound, are somewhat subjective, but a physical phenomenon occurs when the hammer strikes the string, creating different qualities or timbres of sound. In the early 1900s, when pedagogues such as Matthay and Otto Ortmann were poring over their notes for their landmark works in piano pedagogy, the character of a piano sound was sometimes called its "clang-tint." Acousticians who help design concert halls use such terms as "round" or "intimate" to describe the quality of sound they want an audience to hear. The physical phenomenon that produces various timbres begins with string vibration. When the hammer strikes the string as a result of key depression, the string begins to vibrate, first along its full length--producing a sound called the fundamental--and then it vibrates in sections, first in halves, then in thirds, then quarters and so on, creating sounds called overtones or upper partials, which are higher in pitch than the fundamental. The fundamental tone, with its simple, regular vibrations, is what the ear hears as a musical tone as opposed to the sound of a door slamming or sandpaper scraping against wood. While slamming doors and sandpaper scrapes produce sounds, they generally are not perceived as musical because they lack a continuous fundamental tone. The overtones, with their compound, irregular vibrations, give a fundamental tone a certain character or "clang-tint." Overtones, for instance, help us hear the difference between a flute and a clarinet or the difference between the sound of two pianists like Horowitz and Rubinstein.

The fundamental and its overtones are set into vibration very quickly, and it would take someone with a very keen aural sense to hear all of these tones separately. What our ear hears as one musical tone actually is a combination of a fundamental and its accompanying overtones. For example, the note G (the fundamental) may bring with it the G next above (as the string vibrates in halves), the D above that (as the string vibrates in thirds), the G above that (as the string vibrates in quarters), the B above that (as the string vibrates in fifths) and so on, to infinity. This is similar to the way we see one color where two or more are mixed. What our eyes may see as green on a painter's canvas really can be a mixture of yellows and blues. As the string continues its natural division, creating ever-higher overtones, the intervals between them become smaller and sound more dissonant. We rarely hear a pure fundamental tone either in music or in nature. A sound that is close to this is the hollow sound of a tuning fork.

We can apply our knowledge of overtones to key depression when it comes to creating various colors and textures of sound. According to Matthay, loveliness in the quality of sound depends largely on the string's vibrations tending toward simple, regular movement, like that of the fundamental where the string vibrates along its full length rather than compound, irregular movements when the string vibrates in smaller sections. (4) To achieve simplicity in the string's vibrations, it should be set into motion gradually, using a gradual key descent. Debussy used a similar key approach to achieve delicate, gossamer sounds in his own playing. The harsher effects come about when the string is set into motion suddenly by banging or hitting the key. A similar phenomenon happens when blowing across the top of a bottle. If we blow across it gently, the mellow sound of the fundamental dominates; however, if we force air across it suddenly, the resulting sound can be high and piercing to our ears, to the point of being uncomfortable.

Twentieth-Century Sound

Key treatment as it relates to tone production helps in performing the soundscapes written by twentieth-century composers like Morton Feldman in Last Pieces or Toru Takemitsu in Piano Distance, a slow work involving prolonged soft sounds. These modern-day composers present not only new ways of playing music, but encourage the performer to rediscover the piano and its many possibilities. For example, in Feldman's Piano and String Quartet, a gentle composition consisting of long sustained sounds and silences, he instructs the pianist to keep the damper pedal down during the length of this seventy-nine-minute work, so there is a never-ending resonance that envelopes the audience in a mist of sound. In contrast to these muted piano tones, Bela Bartok's Allegro Barbaro seems to encourage the pianist to drive fingers quickly and deeply into the keys to obtain the sforzando dynamic indicated by Bartok for the first chord of this fast and furious piece. Still, even for this chord, the pianist should not hit or slam the keys down. Instead, start from the surface of the keys and give the fingers an energetic bounce out. While hitting a key may seem to give the sound a sforzando effect from the performer's point of view, the sound does not carry well into the audience because the partials, activated by forcing the key, are the product of many string divisions that result in a weak tone. The listeners in the last row of an auditorium may hear only a shadow of the intended sound.

Our century also has brought with it an awareness of musical wellness not addressed in many of the early books on piano technique. The question of how to play the piano, or any instrument, in a way that does not injure the practitioner has come to the foreground in music seminars, workshops and technique books around the world. If we explore the history of the piano and its construction, we learn that key depression is deeper in today's pianos than it was during the time of Franz Schubert. Pianos also are made of more durable materials today. Pianists whose repertoire consists mainly of literature written in baroque, classical and romantic periods of music history are playing music that was written for a piano built of weaker materials and one where the fingers didn't need to go down so far into the key before sound was produced. In the case of the baroque period, the literature may have been written for harpsichord or some other keyboard instrument of the day; all of which would be more delicate than today's piano and have a shallower key depression. Today's pianists must work with plastic, wood, felt, ,copper, iron and steel to make all kinds of sounds ranging from delicate pianissimos to robust fortissimos. It is hard work.

Maintaining the proper balance between working and resting during piano practice and performance holds the key to a healthy pianist-to-piano relationship. Matthay stresses that movement to the key should be as free as possible of exertion, thus allowing the muscles to breathe while moving from one key to the next. It is not until we reach the key that we begin the work of pressing it into motion for tone production. (5) However, he also states that the act of going to a key need not be separate from the act of putting it down, depending on the distance traveled to reach the key. The greater the distance we move to get to a key, as in the large right-hand leaps of Liszt's arrangement of Paganini's La Campanella, the more the act of reaching it and the act of putting it down become one and form an unbroken descent. It is trickier to feel rest and to let the muscles breathe when key descent begins very close to or on the surface of the key as in scale playing. In this case, we must feel rest at some point within key descent to keep the muscles from becoming fatigued. There is a way to achieve this and to work it neatly into different articulations. For instance, in staccato playing, the pianist moves from the top of one key to the top of the next key, and rest can be felt at the surface of the key as the pianist creates short, crisp sounds. In legato playing, rest can be felt at the bottom of the key as the pianist moves from the bottom of one key to the bottom of the next key to create a smooth, flowing legato line. To create a breathtaking pianissimo, the pianist can bring the weight of hand and arm to rest just below the surface of the key, about one-third of the way down, before giving it the final swing to the bottom. (6) This technique works best on a grand piano.

While key speed controls dynamics and timbre, key release governs articulation. Our ear should guide the timing of both key descent and release. In staccato playing, we should release the key and let it bounce back to the surface as soon as we hear the sound. In legato playing, one sound is born out of another sound as one key is released in reaction to the playing of the next key. In molto legato playing, we listen for the creation of a third sound as two keys become one before releasing the first key. The key treatment for the last note of a phrase deserves our special attention because this note often completes the meaning of the phrase. Painter Willem de Kooning once said, "It is the final stroke that makes the picture." (7) Likewise for the pianist, the last note can make the phrase. TO play the final note in the two-note phrases so common in the piano music of Mozart and other classical composers, the pianist can use the natural phenomenon of piano sound decay and listen for the decay in sound of the penultimate (the note before the last one) and bring the final note of the phrase in at the level of the sound decay. This gives the aural impression of one sound melting into the next. A gentle lift out of the last note will lend a charm and poignancy to the phrase, leaving audiences wanting more.

Unlike many other instrumentalists who control a musical tone from its beginning to its end, the pianist relinquishes control as soon as the sound is heard. Once the hammer touches the string and silence becomes sound, there is little more the pianist can do to control or change piano tone, so care should be taken to determine the tone we want and how we will overcome the key's resistance to produce that tone before we put down the key. You might be thinking, "Well, this is fine for slow playing when we have time to contemplate the sounds we want, but how about in fast playing when there's no time to consider each tone individually?" Slow practice is one solution to this question. It allows us to hear in slow motion--to observe the sound from different angles: from the front end (the attack), from the back end (the decay) and from the final stroke (the release). It also gives us time to synchronize our body movements with our aural image. Breaking down a fast passage so we can hear each note and know its purpose is the beginning of playing, not just with speed, but also with meaning. As we increase our speed, the separate notes merge into one sensation, and we have a phrase of extraordinary beauty.

For the pianist, key treatment will make a difference between a mediocre performance and a masterful one, between a monologue in monotone and a lively conversation, between a B-flat that falls flat and a B-flat to make an audience faint!

When we met Morton Feldman earlier in this article, he was a boy of 12 taking piano lessons from Madame Maurina-Press, a Russian aristocrat who was a friend of Scriabin and a student of Busoni. Years later, in one of his Darmstadt lectures, Feldman the composer admonished a group of musicians, "Know thy instrument better than you know yourselves. It's very, very important." (8)


(1.) Morton Feldman, Morton Feldman Essays (Wasserburg 13, D-5014 Kerpen: Beginner Press/Walter Zimmerman, 1985), 184.

(2.) Tobias Matthay, Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique (London: Oxford University Press, 1932), 13.

(3.) Tobias Matthay, Pianoforte Tone Production (London, New York, Toronto: Longmans, Green and Co., Ltd., 1903), 79.

(4.) Matthay, Pianoforte Tone Production, 77.

(5.) Matthay, Pianoforte Tone Production, 127.

(6.) Matthay, Visible and Invisible in Pianoforte Technique, 9.

(7.) Morton Feldman and B. H. Friedman, ed., Give My Regards to Eighth Street (Cambridge, MA: Exact Change, 2000), 38.

(8.) Morton Feldman, Morton Feldman Essays, 193.

Sandra Rucker Tabachnick received a Master's degree in piano pedagogy/performance from the University of Winconsin at Madison. A piano teacher for twenty-nine years, she currently teaches at the Madison Conservatory of Music. She also is a music critic for the Isthmus, a local newspaper in Madison.
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Author:Tabachnick, Sandy Rucker
Publication:American Music Teacher
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Apr 1, 2003
Previous Article:Young Composers Awards 2003. (Competitions).
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