One of the biggest challenges for piano students of all levels is to produce a lovely singing tone. And the most significant physical impediment to molto cantabile (very singable) playing is having a taut wrist. Without its being supple or flexible, the descent of the finger onto the key is the equivalent of landing stiffly with a pencil point attack. Sometimes, if taken to the extreme, in a faster tempo, the effect of a tight wrist is likened to Rosie the Riveter aiding the war effort.
To have a riveting tone, without evoking the sound of an electric drill searing nails into a B-24 bomber, I would instruct the student to first imagine the tone he would like to produce. He should not settle for less than his ideal, and singing will always help. The voice does not have to be perfect, but its having a free and relaxed breath aids the process. (The teacher should sing along as a role model)
During my first lessons with Lillian Freundlich, after years of piano study with another teacher, I was asked to play one note with a selected finger for half of my lesson. Listening attentively to its curve and wave, I developed the “feel” of “dropping” my finger into the key’s core, backed up by a relaxed arm, elbow and wrist. If I tightened up anywhere along the physical pathway, I knew the tonal cost immediately. Lillian would remind me of the desired sound ideal by dropping in a perfectly centered note with the grace of a ballerina.
Our note-to-note exchange, echoed back and forth sensitized me to a universe of beauty that was suddenly within my reach. It was like language and nuance passed from parent to child.
Once individual notes with each finger produced an appealing tone, the next step was learning the art of legato (smooth and connected) playing. A mental image of the piano being a large bowl of jello, encouraged a slower, deeper entry into the notes, aided by the resistance of a dense and voluminous medium. Weight transfer down the arm, through a supple wrist into the fingers, was pivotal to sustaining a singing tone. A relaxed center of gravity was at the core of the whole process.
Putting aside Rosie the Riveter, and a collection of pencils, playing the piano is being in touch with beauty, expanding tonal awareness, and knowing how to physically accomplish these ideals.
By example, here are performances of very young students who’ve been imbued with the singing tone from the very start of their piano lessons. Notice the grace and flow of their arms and wrists.
These results are a tribute to piano teacher, Irina Gorin and her mentoring in the Russian tradition. Currently, I use her extraordinary instruction, Tales of a Musical Journey with 4-year old student, Rina, whose lessons I’ve been tracking by video.
EARLY Period of Study
After 8 months of instruction:
Above all, generous time is spent imbuing the singing tone and how to physically produce it with no rush to enlist all five fingers. The process is deep, delving and rewarding. It applies to learning at any level of piano study.