In the midst of a heated Internet-driven controversy that surrounds playing a single note at the piano, Emma Leiuman explores “sound imagination” wedded to fluid physical motions that expand ideas about the universe of expressive piano playing. In a detailed narrative, the pianist, schooled in the great Russian musical tradition, shares her awakenings and technique interwoven insights that offer a unique artistic perspective.
The Whole Piece Starts from One Single Note
In my teenage years I struggled with so-called “incorrect tone production.” The sound I produced was not to my satisfaction, and my arms were tense. As a result, I couldn’t adequately express myself in my playing or communicate all my ideas through performance.
My teachers constantly told me that I had a “harsh” and inexpressive tone. They believed it was in some way linked to my hands and body being racked with tension. Naturally, in this physical state my technique was limited and I couldn’t play in very fast tempos. I’d miss notes and my passages/runs were uneven.
Despite the fact that I had started playing piano at the age of 5– enrolled at the well-regarded Moscow Central Music school celebrated for its high-level professional education, I realized that I couldn’t play properly until I found the way to play one single note correctly with a good “singing” tone and the right partnered sensations in my hands.
My dilemma, however, was that I had no idea how to start, even though I’d read many books written by famous Russian teachers about how to achieve good tone.
One day as I was practicing J.S. Bach’s Prelude e flat minor from the Well Tempered Clavier, Book 1, I suddenly heard all the permeated textures as if sung by a beautiful angel’s choir. And in a single instant, I gained an awareness of how to begin playing well. Essentially, I would come to the piano and simply express what I’d heard in my mind, and I could control tone and muscle sensations by this formula: energy within created imagined sound reflected in physical sensations that manifested through the tone produced on the instrument.
This imagined sound also helped me to develop so-called “sensitive and tenacious” fingertips (that are the essence of professional piano playing) The imagined sound brought bright impulses to my fingertips.
Soon I discovered that not only could I hear the sound in my mind, but I could also move it and stretch it any way I wanted. The direction of the sound movement I found in melody patterns. If a note in a melody would go up I would stretch my imagined sound to the right, if down to the left. And that helped my wrist become flexible and “singing” as well, because my wrist would follow my imagined sound being filled with that energy.
I might add that in one single note we can imagine different colors of harmony. For instance, how different would note C sound in your imagination in the emotional color of C major, c minor, A-flat major, a minor, F major and f minor. And how different the same note C may sound in your imagination in all dynamic levels from PP to FF.
In truth, this consciousness directly affects your touch and tone. So you may have about 30 different touches based on harmonic and dynamic imagination!
So here I was, playing one single note with good imagination and good hand movements, feeling absolutely blessed and at peace, knowing in my heart that the whole musical universe encompassed the ability to produce one correct sound on the instrument. 🙂
In time, I also discovered that this ability pre-hear the sound and stretch it in the direction of the next note is the key to making a good legato. It was because I could imagine two notes and hear how one sound would gradually flow into another sound.
I also discerned that I could actually sing while imagining and playing those two notes. I called it internal singing. To clarify I need to emphasize that singing is not just about singing notes– it’s about feeling the distance between notes with little resistance that helps develop intonation. Singing itself doesn’t really help – if you try to copy Glenn Gould nothing will happen. 🙂 What really matters is how you feel and intonate distance between notes. To feel that little tension between sounds allows you to feel energy that in turn makes you feel like singing.
And that intonation technique paved the way for me to finally start playing with free energy and so-called “arm weight” technique. This emancipated my whole body, resulting in my tone becoming full and free as well.
Another key to expressive playing of two notes was musical speech – intoning not only the distance between notes, but feeling the different meaning of each interval. For instance, a second and seventh may represent tension, waiting, asking energy; a third and sixth are romance and beauty; a fourth is an energetic call to action; an augmented fourth is very tense and mystical; a fifth is calm, meditational energy; octaves and unisons are open statements. All of this I could feel and convey through intonation, and this understanding would affect my intonation, imagined sound, touch and tone.
So taken together – imagination of sound gradually flowed into another sound plus internal singing “intonation” gave me a Masterful technique that all those great piano teachers where talking about but couldn’t communicate how to achieve. 🙂
With possession of my awakenings, I became a master at playing not only one note, but also connecting two notes in the right way. 🙂 Thankfully, it became the springboard for my fluent technique, good tone and expressive performance.
Sequence of notes
Phrasing and form
In my 20s I discovered that I could convey phrasing and form of music through sound imagination and intonation. That phrasing is simply the technique of distributing weight while playing. And so I could emphasize main intervals in motifs, main motifs in phrases and main phrases in sentences through intonation and weight technique. And that would bring a natural flow and expressiveness to my playing and allow playing virtuosic pieces with ease.
On a bigger scale I would find out which parts of the piece could represent the beginning, development, rising to climax, climax and conclusion of the musical story. And that helped me distribute energy within the whole piece.
To conclude I’d like to emphasize that just as the whole universe was born from a single point, obtaining mastery and virtuosic playing must begin from one single note.
And without sound imagination I cannot develop my fingertips, flexible wrist, free hands and body, that I need to feel and convey all gradations of dynamics; colors of harmony; intonation and weight, phrasing and form.
For me, sound imagination of a single note in a piece is as important as the thought of a single word in a complete story.
Emma Leiuman’s The Art of Piano Technique
Piano masterclass – Correct Tone Production
Chopin and Rachmaninoff piano compilation