How to play the piano (Part 3/3 – holding and releasing the piano keys)

How to hold and release a piano key when learning how to play the piano

When we have reached the key bed, we must do one of two things: we must release all pressure on the key and allow it to rise, or we must hold it down. In either case, the arm should return to its light, relaxed condition which will, of course, be needed for the preparation of succeeding notes.

For staccato, no pulling up of the arm or fingers is in the least necessary. With the release of pressure the key will return, to its surface position, carrying up the relaxed finger; and unless  prevented by the pedal, the damper will return to the strings and cut off the sound.

Sometimes, in the playing of a loud staccato note or chord, the arm, in its light, relaxed condition, will feel driven tip off the keyboard with a bouncing action just as a ball, thrown to the ground, will bounce by reason of its own resilience and elasticity. This action of the arm should certainly be allowed and even encouraged, provided that there is time to perform this bouncing action and to resume contact with the keyboard before the next notes are due.

How to tell if you pressed the piano key the right way?

If the sound we have produced is required to last for some length of time, the damper must be kept away from the strings. This may be done by holding down the key, or by means of the pedal. (The question of pedaling will be considered in a later piano lesson).

In holding down a key, we may be tempted to continue the same amount of pressure that was needed to swing the key down and with the same muscles. But if this is done the arm cannot be ready for the preparation of the following notes.

When we are holding down a key or keys, the arm should, in fact, be as light and relaxed as in the process of ‘preparation’ and, of course, when holding down one key we shall usually be preparing the notes which follow. How, then, is the key to be prevented from rising?

The keys must be held down with a firm but gentle pressure of the fingers but of the fingers only. On no account must this pressure interfere with the freedom of the wrist or the lightness of the arm. With practice, this pressure may be quite considerable without any exertion extending to the wrist, and it should always be sufficient to give a feeling of real firmness and security on the key-bed.

An exercise on playing those piano keys

Here is an exercise to develop this feeling of pressure with the fingers when pressing the piano keys, combined with a light, relaxed arm. Sit at a table of approximately the same height as the piano keyboard and place your fingers upon it with the arm extended forward as for playing. See that your arm feels light and that all the joints are free, exactly as for the stage which we have called ‘preparation’. Your finger-tips should rest lightly upon the table in the playing position. Now press down with one finger, at the same time moving your wrist freely up and down, or from side to side, or with a circular motion; the direction does not matter so long as real freedom of movement is observed. The elbow and the shoulder will, of course, move too, with equal freedom and with a feeling of lightness. Keep the arm moving and increase the pressure of the finger so that, in imagination, you feel its tip sinking deeply into the table. Repeat this, using each finger in turn, and then with combinations of fingers. If you feel the slightest stiffening of the wrist you are calling into play the wrong set of muscles; but with practice you will find that you can press quite forcibly with the fingers alone.

Now repeat the exercise without moving the arm but retaining within it the same feeling of lightness and freedom: you may have to return again and again to the moving arm before you can do this with certainty, but the knack will come.

In playing legato passages composed of single or double notes (in legato chord passages we are usually forced to rely more or less entirely on the pedal to join the sounds) this pressure of the finger-tips should be felt as continuous, extending over the whole phrase. The pressure of one finger lasts until just after the next finger, having swung its key down, takes up a similar pressure.

It should be noticed that this pressure is completely unrelated to the loudness or softness of the passage in question. Obviously no more pressure need be used than will suffice to prevent the key from rising; but if we feel happier or technically more secure when applying greater pressure, there is no reason why we should not do this. The only proviso is that the pressure should be correctly applied.

Comparison with other instruments

In the playing of a string or wind instrument the actual production of the sound goes on for as long as the sound is to last, by means of a movement of the bow or an exhalation of the breath, and so the player inevitably experiences a feeling of physical continuity throughout a legato phrase. In the case of a pianist, this is not so. We know that, as a matter of scientific fact, we can do nothing in piano playing to influence the tone, apart from its duration, after the hammer has struck the strings. Realizing this, many students seem to lose interest in a long note after the moment of its inception. Musically, we must listen to, be aware of, enjoy each sound for as long as it continues. By means of the correct pressure of the finger in holding down the key, we can feel that we are doing something to the sound for the whole of its duration. If, further, we can imagine that we, too, are still actually producing the sound for as long as it lasts, this is an illusion worth cultivating: by this means our legato playing will be greatly helped. We can then feel, even with our fingers, the connection between, the merging of, one note and the next. Thus a valuable link is forged between our musical intentions and the means of their fulfillment technique.

This conscious pressure on the key-bed is most helpful in controlling the precise duration and the subsequent cessation of sounds which are not legato. Take the following example:

Mozart - Fantasia in D minor

A string or wind player would, as a matter of course, give precisely the correct duration to each note and rest, but how many pianists take this trouble? Usually one hears the quaver chords played with a more or less indefinite staccato, and the final crotchet may be given the value of anything from a quaver to a minim. If we use the type of finger pressure described above, not only can we feel physically the prolonging of the sounds for the required length of time, but we can accurately time the cessation of such pressure, and with it the cessation of the sound, to coincide exactly with our preconceived intentions.

Try playing the phrase just quoted, with close attention to the exact duration of each chord, and hear how much more satisfying such a performance is than one in which this is not strictly observed.

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