Getting the perfect sound we’d like to get from the piano–or any instrument for that matter–it’s a lifelong pursuit. Lifelong as in we can always know more about the sound we get from an instrument. We can always work at improving it. The underlying principle is we play, we listen, we learn. Nuances reveal themselves over time–it’s the nature of experience.
But while producing a beautiful piano tone is a lifelong pursuit there are things we can do to control and shape tone in the short term of right now. Actually, I like the idea of shaping tone. I’m not sure about controlling tone. I guess the difference between shaping and controlling isn’t so much substance as it is semantic? On the other hand my inner John Cage, it speaks?
If we play with too much force the piano produces sound that’s harsh and brittle. Play the piano softly and it’s much easier to produce sound that isn’t harsh or brittle.
The way to play softly is transfer less weight into the keys. Less weight into keys means they’ll accelerate less as they travel to to the point where they trigger the hammers. Less acceleration rather than more acceleration means keys transfer less energy into hammers that in turn strike the strings with less force.
Explore the Una Corda Pedal
An easy way to quickly produce a lot of timbral change – on a grand or baby grand piano – is to use the una corda pedal–which is often called the “soft” pedal. The thing with the una corda pedal is it’s not an on/off switch, Even though pianists often use it that way. Depress the una corda pedal little bit and it has almost no effect. Depress it all the way to the bottom for maximum effect.
And that’s exactly how to learn to use it: Practice depressing it to various degrees. Pump it up and down and listen to how it shapes timbre – which was something that came up in lessons with Jaki Byard in my student days.
Jaki’s point was move the pedal and listen. And get to know what it does, really, by overusing it. That’s a different approach than trying to find the one perfect place to depress the pedal to. But it comes back to experience–we learn how to do things by doing them and thinking about what we’ve done and adjusting as needed.
Experience is a great teacher!
Play in the Middle of the Piano
Work with something in the middle of the piano where timbre by default is homogenous. The idea is play with a short passage that’s easy to shape into the sound you’d like to have. A few measures from a Bach Chorale or a few measures of a melody, any melody, are perfectly good for this. As you get the sound that you want from a small short passage you’ll probably find the process of shaping it transfers into your overall playing. It’s something to feel and look for as a feel.
The Practice of Practice
Good practice it is to give credit where credit is due. I was reading a chapter in The Practice of Practice. Jonathan Harnum, the book’s author, recommends crafting three solutions to whatever we’d like to work on in the moment. So that’s what this post is: It’s three practice techniques to shape piano tone.