Play like an Angel

For 300 hundred years the theories of Isaac Newton were accepted as the ultimate answers to the laws of the Universe. Then along came Albert Einstein. Of course, relativity did not negate the earlier theories, but it did show them to be incomplete. Just as quantum physics has shown Einstein’s to be incomplete. And it is highly unlikely that any scientist now or in the future will ever claim now at last, we have all the answers.

Take black holes for instance. No-one has ever seen one, however we know they are there because we can see the effects of them. But why are they there? No-one knows. And even when we do, it will surely lead to a deeper understanding reminding us there is yet more to be discovered. In the meantime, it makes sense to act on what we do see and worry about the explanation later!

What has this to do with piano tone? Well first I must refer back to a statement I recently read which I quote verbatim: “Obviously one cannot alter the sound of one single tone on the piano, beyond changing the loudness of it.”

Now there are two diametrically opposing views on this. In one camp are those who believe that as there is no direct link between key and hammer, the only variable the pianist has at his disposal is the speed at which the hammer is thrown at the string. Hammer speed is directly proportional to volume but can have no other effect on tone.

In the second camp are those who hear a difference in tone according not only to how fast they press the keys, but also according to the manner in which they press them. They conclude that therefore the hammer speed/volume relationship is not the full story.

Over the past hundred years there have been a number of experiments to try and establish which camp has more credibility, the most recent and most scientifically rigorous as recently as 2014. The results of that experiment were fairly conclusively in favour of the first camp.

But … may I remind you of my first paragraph. Whatever we know today, quite possibly is not the whole story.

At the same time as Einstein was developing his relativity theory, a certain Tobias Matthay was expounding his ideas on piano tone, firmly rooted in the second camp. In fact it’s fair to say Matthay was one of the first to teach according to those ideas. And what success he had too, numbering amongst his students such illustrious names as Myra Hess, Clifford Curzon, Moura Lympany, Irene Scharrer, Vivian Langrish and Harriet Cohen. The common thread that links the performing careers of these pianists is, guess what? – their reputation for exquisite tone control. Clearly Matthay (or Uncle Tobes as his students called him) knew a thing or too, and knew how to teach it too. Of his teaching it was said, he takes students who really should not play the piano at all and makes them play like angels.

As pianists, it really doesn’t matter which camp we believe in. All that need concern us is whether we make beautiful music or not, and ears (not just our own, but perhaps more critically those of our audience) are the final judges, not scientists. One can be in either camp and still make beautiful tones, even if one’s understanding of how that happens is incomplete or even faulty. That said, those who think there is something in what Matthay taught have more variables to experiment with, which seems to me a more creative approach than subscribing to a cut and dried theory assuming there is nothing more to be learned.

So yes, I am definitely with Matthay on this one. Not just because I happen to have been taught by one of his students (Harold Craxton) but because it instinctively makes sense to me as a pianist. Being a curious soul, I’m interested in possible scientific explanations, though that’s not exactly my top priority. If, by depressing piano keys in a certain manner I hear sounds that please me, and by depressing differently I don’t, then I will continue to believe how I press the keys makes a difference – and just like making allowances for black holes, the explanation can come later.

Who knows, one day one of my students may even play like an angel …….