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Ten tips for tonal beauty

Technical virtuosity is only one part of the pianist's armoury. Melanie Spanswick offers MUSIC:ED readers her checklist for creating a beauty of sound which goes beyond the skin-deep

Technical virtuosity is only one part of the pianist’s armoury. Melanie Spanswick offers MUSIC:ED readers her checklist for creating a beauty of sound which goes beyond the skin-deep.

Start by sitting correctly at the keyboard; make sure you feel comfortable and the spine is straight. Keep your shoulders down, and drop your arms by your side, so they feel ‘heavy’ and relaxed. This is the feeling to aim for whilst playing and practising.

A flexible or loose wrist motion plays a crucial role in sound quality, so practise laying your fingers over the keys and then move the wrists as each note is played: up and down, from side to side, then with a circular movement. The wrist should ideally be malleable and able to move wherever and whenever necessary.

Use a five-finger pattern (place the fingers and thumb over middle C, followed by nearby D, E, F, G); using the fingering 1-5 (or 5-1 in the left hand), and whilst holding down the first note (middle C), encourage the wrist to make a complete circular motion, keeping the thumb (of the right hand) firmly attached to the note (even though the sound has dispersed).

Now continue playing D-G (and back down again, from G to middle C) using the same motion (taking time between each note), focussing on sinking deep into each key, feeling the key bed every time. The hand, wrist and arm should feel relaxed between every note.

Use a soft, elastic, but heavy arm movement, which literally allows the fingers to drop down into the keys, providing plenty of gravity, support and arm-weight behind the wrist. The fingers should ideally play on their ‘pads’, the padded, soft area of skin on the finger-tip, because this will further cushion the sound; but you can also use fingertips here, if preferred.

Your fingers must remain firm; this is developed over time by engaging the finger joints fully, combined with playing on the tips.

Try using the musical example below as a vehicle for creating different tonal possibilities; work at creating sound variations, from as quiet and soft as possible to all-out fortissimos, checking your torso for tension regularly; the more powerfully you play, the more wrist and arm movement you will need to support the hand and fingers.

You can also employ the same example (below) to practise voicing specific lines, that is, highlighting the top of each chord, then the bottom note of each chord in either hand, followed by some of the inner notes, as well. This will help to gain finger control, and attune the ears.

When producing a powerful fortissimo, guard against the urge to ‘hit’ the notes, playing as loudly as possible, because beyond a certain level the sound tends to become astringent and unpleasant. Use your arm-weight combined with a ‘cushioning’ wrist and hand circular motion to form a rich sound.

Have some sound in reserve too; try to avoid playing at full capacity (whether fff or ppp) all the time, keeping some power or delicacy for certain performance situations, in order to cope with different instruments and acoustics.

About the author

Melanie Spanswick
Melanie Spanswick

Melanie Spanswick is a pianist, writer, teacher, adjudicator and composer. She is the author of Play it again: PIANO (Schott) a three-book piano course for students who are returning to piano playing.