Walking on the keys

Have you ever come across a particular concept which at a stroke transformed your playing? I did many years ago, and I’m keenly aware that in a work I’m currently preparing I need to give special attention to it – the concept of walking on the piano keys.

The work happens to be the Warsaw Concerto, but it’s probably more useful to use a more familiar work as an example – Chopin’s last Nocturne (in E minor) will do. It goes without saying this eloquent melody must sing out with impassioned expressiveness while the wide LH figuration murmurs in the background as distant as if on another planet. Not at all easy with a melody that is itself marked ‘p’. Especially considering the paradox that the SOFTER it is, the more beautifully it will sing.

Think about it. A soft piano tone at two decibels will drop to half its volume in a given time. A loud tone at 50 decibels will drop to half ITS volume in pretty much the same time. Now in the first case, half of ‘two’ decibels is a barely perceptible drop of one decibel. While in the second case there’s a massive 25 decibel difference. Hence the illusion that a soft tone carries on for longer at its original volume (ie. it sings) – whereas the loud tone assaults our ears and then almost immediately seems gone! Interesting, but then the piano is full of illusions.

Back to the Nocturne. To do it justice we have to begin with the intention of singing this heartrending melody very softly indeed. (Even the impassioned ‘f’ which comes later is surely relative rather than an absolute value). If you play the melody alone, as softly as you can, you can be very expressive indeed because, as well as the illusion above, you have a wider range of shading to play with. But as soon as you add the left hand you inevitably feel a need to give the melody more weight, thus robbing it of much potential expressiveness, not to mention ruining your exquisite cantabile.

Well now at least we know what we are aiming for – our melody at a true ‘p’ and our accompaniment not ‘pp’ or even ‘ppp’, but ‘pppp’, albeit still full-toned! These are absolute, not relative, values – a melody at ‘f’ and accompaniment at ‘p’ is not at all the same thing and would destroy the poignant atmosphere we’re trying so hard to create. I remember a masterclass (but unfortunately not who gave it!) where the maestro commented, ‘to make the right hand beautiful, first make the left hand beautiful’. What wisdom is so few words.

So with total focus on the LH we’re aiming for the softest possible tone with 100% reliability. It’s a good test of how truly relaxed your technique is. The only function of the fingers is to be in the right place at the right time, suspended on the key surface in a state of perfectly weightless balance. Then, for the first note, release just enough body weight through the 5th finger to make the softest possible sound. The finger does no work at all – it is merely there to convey this minimal weight to the key, and thence just enough to hold it down.

For the subsequent notes this minimal weight is simply transferred from finger to finger by rotating the hand/wrist/arm as necessary. The difficulty is to keep this weight both minimal and constant – something only possible with a completely relaxed and balanced arm. In other words it’s just like walking where you simply transfer weight from one foot to the other without ever losing contact with the ground.

Walking ultra-softly on the keys is not at all easy but worth cultivating because it’s a sure way to the softest possible full-bodied sounds with 100% reliability. And with that you then have a huge range of expressiveness for the melody that need barely rise above a true ‘p’. You will sing like never before.