How to play the piano (Part 2/3 – playing the piano notes)

Playing the piano notes – the proper way

The first part of this lesson,  THE PREPARATION, focuses on the idea that, the notes in any piece of piano music will, as a result of the intelligent practicing of that piece, become largely automatic. In other words, the pianist will be able to find his way on to the surface of the right notes without very much conscious thought. But the act of depressing the keys the production of sound must never be allowed to become automatic. This is very important in playing the piano notes, if you want to know how to play the piano.

In considering the production of sound we come to the real heart of piano playing. The secret of success lies in the ability to time the descent of each key with accuracy. We must never forget that our task is simply to make each note sound in exact accordance with our preconceived musical intention to make each note sound when and how we want it. The how is, as we shall see, just as much a matter of timing as the when.


The body’s movements

As to the actual movements by which the keys are depressed movements of the fingers from the knuckles, of the hand from the wrist, of the forearm from the elbow in either a rotary or a downward direction, of the upper arm from the shoulder either forwards or backwards, and even of the torso from the hip-joints these can only lightly be touched upon. In any case, so greatly do people vary in their physical and mental make-up, and so complicated are the co-ordinations of movements which have to be employed, that only by personal instruction and supervision can these
be taught. It is assumed that the reader has already received some such training, and will be able to apply to his existing technique such hints as are given here. The body’s position and movements are crucial in learning how to play the piano. It has significant value in playing the piano notes the right way.

In the first place, every act of tone production must be thought of as a swinging movement. We must not timidly put the keys down, nor must we insensitively push them; but by feeling their upward resistance to our fingers, and allying ourselves with it, we must swing the keys downward into sound.

Pressing and playing the piano notes

If we consider the act of swinging a tennis racquet, for instance, in order to send a ball over the net, we shall; find a helpful analogy. In such an act, we are first conscious of the weight of the racquet. It is by feeling and using this weight the racquet’s resistance to movement that we are able to swing it towards the ball at, within limits, whatever speed is required : quickly if the ball is to travel far, less quickly for a shorter distance. The next thing we feel is the impact of the racquet on the ball. This is the culmination of the stroke, the point at which we have been aiming, and the point which we have had vividly present in imagination from the beginning of the movement. After this impact, the arm, with the hand carrying ‘the racquet ‘follows through*, continuing the movement though with diminishing speed. To realize the importance of the “follow-through” we have only to imagine how ineffectively we should strike the ball did we not intend this continuing movement. It is the intention to follow through that gives freedom and confidence in the performance of the entire action. A very good analogy that is related with playing the piano notes.

In swinging down a piano key we must remember that it is the amount of tone the loudness or softness of the sound, according to our preconceived musical requirement that determines the amount of speed we shall try to impart to the key. But whether we move the key quickly (for a loud tone) or more slowly (for a softer tone), it is by means of the upward-acting weight of the key the resistance it offers to our downward exertion that we can gauge the amount of energy needed and so control this speed. Although the movement of the key is on a much smaller scale, the analogy of the tennis racquet is always applicable.

pressed piano key

The fingers cannot feel the impact of the hammer on the strings (analogous to the impact of the racquet on the ball) when playing the piano notes, because, as an examination of the piano mechanism will show, the hammer will by this time have been thrown towards the string and will no longer be in contact with the key. But we must listen for this impact, for this is the when of the sound, the instant at which it comes into being the instant which must as closely as possible coincide with our previously conceived intention.

The follow-through, however, we can and must feel physically. We must always (with one exception to be considered later) continue our downward movement with the key until we are stopped by the felts beneath when playing the piano notes; and, before relaxing the downward pressure, we must feel for every note, even in the quickest passages, an instant of repose upon this firm, secure bed of the key. Unless this follow-through is intended from the outset of the downward movement one is almost certain to play timidly, without a sense of mastery and without conviction. A superficial touch (that is, a touch in which there is no follow-through) is one of the most potent causes of nervousness and feelings of insecurity in playing feelings which must inevitably hamper the fulfillment of our musical intention. The acquisition of a touch with a good, deep follow-through immediately gives confidence.

We have all heard students who play with a thin, unconvincing tone, some of whose notes, particularly in pianissimo, fail to sound at all; and we have heard those who play with a dull, heavy tone, entirely lacking in singing quality and brightness. In the former case, the players may certainly be feeling the upward resistance which the keys offer, but they do not follow-through. In the latter case, they are most probably digging their fingers deeply into the key-beds but without utilizing the key-resistance to create sufficient speed at the beginning of the key’s movement.

How to feel the piano key

Sensitivity is required at both ends of the key’s journey. We must feel the movement of the key from the instant at which it leaves its surface position, and we must enjoy the feeling of firmness and security which the key-bed gives us when we follow through. If both these things are done and if, through experiment and experience, we develop the capacity to move the key at an almost infinite variety of speeds, the possibility of controlling the how of each note of producing for each note exactly the tone we require will have been created.


The one exception in playing the piano notes to the necessity for the follow-through is in the execution of very rapid repeated notes. Here it is only by allowing the keys to rise to their starting position as soon as the sound has emerged, that the keys and the hammers will be ready to be used again for the next repetition of the note. (At this point we necessarily anticipate the subject of Section VI.) Consider, for example the passage beginning at bar 43 of Alborada del Gradoso by Ravel or the repeated notes in the same composer’s Scarbo from Gaspard de la Nuit. In such cases there is not time to take the key down to its lowest position, much less to feel any repose upon the keybed. In order, therefore, to produce the tone successfully, a particularly strong impetus must be given to the key at its
surface position, and we must deliberately avoid taking it all the way down. Only in this way do extremely rapid repetitions of a note become possible.

It is obvious that muscular exertion must be used to swing down a key, and that the amount of this exertion will be determined by the speed at which we want the key to move. It is a matter of every-day experience that quick movements require the expenditure of more energy than slow ones. In piano playing, too, several keys often have to be moved simultaneously. The playing of the piano notes, for instance, of a five-note chord will take much more energy than that needed for sounding a single note at the same level of tone. Thus in fortissimo chords the muscular exertion required is very great indeed. But the length of time needed for the keys to accomplish their downward journey is a mere fraction of a second, and (as we shall see in a later piano lesson) no purpose is served by prolonging the possibly intense muscular effort after the completion of this movement after we have, in the production of each note or chord, reached the key-bed and have experienced an instant of repose upon it. Indeed, if we do continue the exertion beyond this point we shall not be ready for the preparation of succeeding notes.


Final advice

During the actual descent of the keys when playing the piano notes, then, be generous in your expenditure of muscular energy, applying to the key without stint the amount of exertion needed to produce the required tone even applying, when the tone requires it, the maximum force of which your fingers, hands and arms are capable. This exertion must always be timed with the utmost accuracy, and the more relaxed are the arms, hands and fingers during the process of preparation, the more easily will accuracy in this respect be achieved. So, now start practicing playing the piano notes and learn how to play the piano!

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