A Treatise On The Musician’s Approach To The Piano

A Treatise On The Musician’s Approach To The Piano

– by Theo Engela, circa 1964

            The piano is essentially a soundbox with strings, hammers and keys. If you depress a key, a hammer will strike a string – three if a tricord – which will vibrate at a certain pitch and the soundboard will vibrate in sympathy giving you a ‘sound’. One note in itself, no matter how often repeated, is not music; it can only be sound, noise or irritation. When two of more notes of varying pitch are played separately they become what we know as ‘music’. Notes with the same harmonic relationships played simultaneously are ‘harmony’. Unlike the flute, the clarinet or the trumpet, the piano, apart from being a solo instrument, is also a symphonic instrument, i.e. when you play the piano you play with a full orchestra. Most symphanies have been scored for the piano. Whoever gave the name pianoforte (soft-loud) to the instrument surely knew what he was doing for not only can you play piano and forte, but you can also play legato and staccato; you can play (as in many Brahms works) brashly and savagely – and you can play dolce. You can achieve every nuance and musical shade and you can weave your soul and character into your playing. Small wonder that Chopin made the orchestra the servant of the piano in his two concerti and Liszt chose the piano above all instruments to interpret his passion for Hungarian Rhapsodies.

            There are a few jarring misconceptions in general use about the piano. People talk of soft and loud pedals. In a sense ‘soft’ pedal is correct, but I prefer ‘damper’ pedal because, when depressed, the striking distance between hammer and string is about half the normal distance, ‘damping’ the volume. ‘Loud’ pedal is completely a misnomer, for it does not increase the volume at all. It merely draws the dampers away from the strings, allowing the strings to vibrate freely after the depressed keys are released. The correct term then would be ‘sustaining’ pedal as it sustains the vibrations. People also say that they play on the ‘notes’ of a piano. They don’t. They play on the ‘keys’ and the resultant sounds are the notes.

            The ‘feel’ of a piano is important. It is either shallow, deep, stiff, loose, uneven, smooth or regular. Even if it is smooth and regular it may not give you ‘that feeling’ – the inner knowledge that this is your piano. Compare the ‘feel’ of a Grotrian Steinweg, a Danemann and an Ibach and you’ll know what I mean. The ‘feel’ of course does not end just with the key you depress; it goes beyond that, all the way through the delicate mechanism of the action to the vibrating string and the sympathetically vibrating soundbox of which the soundboard is the great resonator. That ‘feel’ goes up your arm to your brain and mingles with the sensation that came via the ears. If they blend well you are satisfied. It is a cycle that starts in the brain and ends in the brain. If they do not, you want to try another piano.

            I put pianos into three categories: Brahms pianos, Chopin pianos and versatile pianos. A Brahms piano has the rugged masculinity of touch and tone so typical of Brahms the man and his musical moods. The Chopin piano has a lightness, a gentleness of touch and tone that makes one want to play a nocturne on it. The versatile piano is self-explanatory; on it you can reach every degree and pitch of musical emotion from Bach to de Bussey. The Grotrian Steinweg has by far the greatest degree of versatility I have ever encountered. Its depth of tone, resonance and clarity are truly amazing.

            Then there is the matter of touch. Your touch can be soft, firm, harsh, light or ‘polite’. (The latter is afraid to apply a positive touch.) There are varying shades and degrees of touch. There have been many arguments and counter-arguments regarding touch; about the player’s ability to alter the tonal quality of a note by the method used in depressing the key. Some maintain that the same note played by two different players with exactly the same velocity in pressure will result in exactly the same tone. I do not agree. The action controlling the hammer is a far more intricate and delicate mechanism than most of us realize. And more so the expression of the human hand. It is often the vehicle for expression for the soul. How often aren’t our hands capable of expressing what our mouths are incapable of putting into words by means of a simple gesture? And don’t we often judge a character by a handshake? What you cannot read in  face sometimes you can see in the hands, those most expressive parts of the human anatomy. Your heart and your soul are in the finger that strikes the key. Your emotions are mirrored in tone-color. It does alter the tone and you listen to a color of your own creation!

            Of course this cannot be proved, but I am speaking on the authority my own practical experience has given me. I don’t think science could prove it either as it is an ethereal quality rather than an earthly quality.

            If I sound presumptuous or far-fetched then I am indeed sorry, but I write this with firm conviction. I have on occasion sat practicing for over half an hour to get the right tone from only one note!

            Assuming that I am correct in my theory, then it is only reasonable that the tone-control lies not inside the piano, but inside you, the musician.

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