Let me be clear

(or how to put a damper on things)

Clarity is a most admirable trait.  And that goes for piano technique too.

If you think the piano is a percussion instrument please leave the room now.  Because it is not.  It has strings and is therefore a stringed instrument (take that, you violinists!)  Ok, so it has hammers too, but it is not the hammers that make the sound – it is the strings.  The best that can be said about the hammers is that they facilitate the sound.

What is often forgotten, though, is that as well as a hammer to facilitate the start of every note there is also a damper to stop it.  I’ve yet to meet a pianist with such cloth ears that he’s not aware of the hammer meeting (not striking!) the string and facilitating (not creating!) the sound.  But I’ve met plenty of pianists who just rely on the natural tendency of the string to lose energy and let the sound gradually diminish, rather than do what they should.  Which is to give the dampers a chance to do their work and cease each note at precisely the right moment according to its exact time value.

Here’s an exercise for you.  Play any piece you already know from memory.  Any piece will do, so no excuses.  Now, while playing it through very slowly (no music allowed), be aware of exactly the time value of each note – in other words precisely where should it cease.  Firstly I bet you don’t know, and secondly even if you do, I bet you don’t do it.

Hanging on to notes which shouldn’t be hung on to (fingers to blame as much as feet) is the biggest reason why otherwise good playing sounds messy.  If you have a digital piano to hand, a good trick to play a Bach fugue you’ve played before (you can use the music this time) with an organ sound.  By definition, organ sound continues at full blast for as long as the key is down so it is VERY obvious when a note starts – but just as obvious when it doesn’t cease when it should.  Follow the score absolutely literally with regard to time values and I would be most surprised if you don’t find a major improvement in clarity compared to your previous efforts.  The difference will be even more startling when you switch back to the far greater subtlety of piano sound.

And don’t think you can just avoid all that multilayer Bach stuff and instead wallow in a wash of late-romantic harmonic blur – the above applies no less to that kind of music too, for which the composer has as just much right as JSB to have his musical thoughts meticulously represented.

It will sound clearer too.

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