March 22, 2020

About the Author: Sonja Joubert

Sonja Joubert is a master pianist classically trained by the late master Mr Josias Van Der Merwe and the late Adolph Hallis. She is also an excellent piano teacher with over 40 years of teaching experience specialising in both jazz and classical piano.

Let's start with the instrument.

The Pianoforte is an instrument that plays both softly and loudly as the name indicates. The Italian term ‘piano’ is translated as ‘soft’ and ‘forte’ as ‘loud’. The piano is also known as a percussion instrument.

The sound is produced by a hammer hitting strings when a key is pressed. The instruments leading towards the development of the piano were the clavichord and harpsichord.

On the harpsichord, the sound was produced by a string being plucked and one had no control over the tone production or dynamics. When the piano was developed the possibility of creating dynamics on the keyboard was born, being able to play both softly and loudly by changing the way of playing or pressing the keys. In this way, one can bring a lot of expression of music out of your instrument. You can play the piano very softly by playing the keys very softly and gently. By feeling them and playing with little force. When playing loudly, you need to use more strength and power and weight that comes from your whole body.

Tone production plays a major role in the interpretation and expression of the score. Many times reporters will write about the ‘touche’ of the pianist after a performance. This touche or beautiful tone is created by good tone production.

Why is tone production so important and the improvement thereof?

The tone or sound created by the pianist playing has a huge impact on the music created. If it’s beautiful and rich, you will enjoy it and others will even come to a standstill when taken away with your playing of beautiful sounds and creating an awe-inspiring beauty in sound and emotions evoked in listeners.

Have you listened to some beginners or sometimes those that never learnt to play properly, how their sound created is often harsh, having a hitting and nearly brutal sound. It sounds as though the keys are banged or hit. Now, this is the way you do not want to sound! Therefore giving attention to sound production from the start of studying, even as a beginner – is so important. The very beginner can and should learn from the very start how to create beautiful soothing sounds on the piano.

Improving your tone production will enhance your playing in a major way, here are some examples:

  • Legato playing will be flowing and beautiful
  • The quality of your music will be lifted to a higher standard.
  • Playing of flowing beautiful phrases will speak to the listener and take them on a wonderful journey.
  • Instead of people clasping their eyes or wishing you would rather stop playing, they will want you not to keep on playing because of the soothing sound and emotions evoked in them.
  • Good tone production will make the piano “sing” and it can mimic even other instruments or even the voice, in an amazing way.
  • It will enhance the ability to interpret your music and bring greater expression to the music you are performing.
  • Sound and expression will improve greatly.
  • Without proper tone production your performance will always be lacking in touching and exciting listeners. It's amazing how you yourself will be able to hear and also enjoy the fruit of improving your tone production.

How is tone produced?

Tone or sound on the piano is produced by pressing the keys with your fingers. It's how this is executed that makes the difference. Not by hitting the keys or banging them. There are many aspects involved in good tone production. It's important to know that it's the whole body and mind that helps create the beautiful sound, not just the fingers. Let us look at the following:

How can I produce this beautiful tone?

It involves the whole body, hand and fingers and of course always the mind. The most important aspect in this production of beautiful sound is the ear as one has to listen very tentatively and know how you want your music to sound.

When pressing a key you have to play it with the fleshy part of the fingers rather than right on the tips itself. The keys are played with a stoking or pressing weight played into the keys, rather than a lift up-up-down movement of the fingers. Playing a single note even involves the whole hand, wrist and arm. You need to be seated correctly at the piano and use the whole weight of the arm, from the shoulder flowing down into the hand. Maybe I can try to explain it this way. Think about pressing into the keys like pressing into an elastic soft stress-ball or one or those balls that the physiotherapists use for people to strengthen their hand muscles. It's much like pressing into a soft texture, even though it's a key that you are pressing down.

Having this mindset will greatly help you with improving your tone. Having a flowing action with your arm and wrist moving a bit downwards, as though you are pressing into the keyboard, then moving it upwards again, helps a lot.

Playing into the keyboard instead of hitting the keys are of major importance. Even when you are playing fast passages, the movement of the fast finger passage will sound much better with this method of thinking and executing sound. Else it might be like playing a bit 'on top of the keys' and you will struggle with control. It's important to still have ‘grip’ on the keys, even with fast playing.

Tone in Chord playing:

When it comes to chords, this physical effect of playing into the keys are once again of major importance:

  • Preparing the chord before playing it
  • Then hearing the sound in your mind
  • Then pressing the chord into the keys and immediately
  • Releasing it upwards again, all helps with tone improvement.

Playing phrases:

When playing phrases you need a good tone from the start of the phrase to the end of it to create that musical sentence that really speaks. Using your weight on each note to create a beautiful sentence of music that moves and flows is important.

“The secret is to use a constant weight of the arm which grows to the top of the phrase and diminishes to the end of the phrase. The fingers support the weight and transfers the weight smoothly from note to note. So you exert downward pressure on the key not just on the attack, but throughout the length of the note. This enables you to get a smooth line by using the weight of the arm as the constant like the breath of a singer.”

(Living Pianos – The secret of great piano tone)

There are different schools of technique on tone production. The above way of playing is mostly used in the, for example, Russian School of concert pianists.

How can I start to improve my sound?

If you are a beginner, and even for the more advanced student the following way of improving your tone production will help you a lot. Start by playing single notes on the keyboard, by pressing the key down with slightly moving the wrist down and then moving it upwards in a flowing gesture. Listen to the sound created and hear the difference in the sound. If the note was purely pressed without any hand or arm movement, the sound will be just a sound, without a singing sound. Try it out for yourself on the piano and listen to the difference. When playing 'on top' of the keys, the sound is always rather unsympathetic and even harsh. Practise by pressing single notes. Portamento style (loose notes not legato). Then try to play a short legato passage (one note smoothly moving to the next without a sound break) as in a line of 5 notes, starting on e.g. the c the d moving up to the g note. Try to feel or press each key and listen to the sound created. Sound production is everything in music.

All sound production involves the mind

All sound production involves the mind and the inner ear, and then only the physical execution of the sound by pressing the keys. Therefore having a clear thought or mind about how the sound has to ‘be’ or sound, is very important. With the inner ear, I mean the sound that you can hear inside which you want to create, especially in an important cantabile line as in a beautiful Chopin nocturne. Or the sound of strong chords in the Chopin revolutionary study in C minor in the Right Hand. Or for that matter, even the strong revolutionary flowing arpeggio lines in the same study. I had the privilege to have been coached by Celine Gaurier-Joubert for a very short lesson on this very study. She showed me how to move the arm and hand flowingly upwards when the arpeggio moved up, and then with a rolling movement downwards back to the starting point of the arpeggio. This small change in the hand/arm movement brought an immense amount of relaxation into my hand and helped me to play it effortlessly instead of trying to beat out every single note of the arpeggio. It also freed up tension and technical issues and helped increase the speed greatly. All because of this incorporation of relaxation and movement used in tone production technique.

Tone production in technical exercises and scales

Practising tone production can and should be done even with technical exercises. Play these also with a stoking or pressing action rather than the old school thought of ‘up down, up down’ as I was originally trained. The last way mentioned does work, although it lacks control and good sound. The correct way to play the notes will be by moving the finger in a stoking fashion moving it rather forward than really upward, then pressing the key with the full fleshy part or the finger, moving the finger down and towards the hand. Nearly like stoking the keys with a single finger.

Celine Gaurier-Joubert studied intensively around tone production during her studies and even today still reverts back to these often as a grounding for her beautiful touche. She has internalised the master work of master pianist and trainer Marie Jaell who wrote monumental works on touche. If you heard any of these great pianists play, you will immediately understand why tone production is the most important aspect of piano playing.

  • It creates the music
  • It creates the mood
  • It creates wonder and brings us to:

This conclusion: its worth it to give attention to your tone production!

Here is a short outline of what pianist Celine Gaurier-Joubert suggested for basic practice of tone production:

  • Practise away from the keys just on your knee.
  • Press into your knee with the fingers nr 1 up to nr 5. Press/stroke into your knee to actually physically feel or experience the feel that you need on the keys.
  • Then transfer this to your piano keys.

Listen to the difference and feel the secureness of playing the keys. A major difference that this grabbing of the keys brings is that one feels more in control of the instrument. In the ‘playing on top of the keys method’, one can easily start to pull the fingers in with tension and stress, while playing in the ‘stoking way’, it helps one feel the keys and be more in control in the faster passages.

When I started to implement this style of sound production, I had to change a whole mindset of years of up-down thought and practised technique. I started by doing a major slowing down of all my fast Bach passages and scales to practise this technique. It was and is more than worth it. It changes the feel, your control over the instrument and most of all the sound that is created. For me, the feeling of keeping the hand relaxed and open instead of the closing up, stressing feeling of wanting to close your hand and playing on the fingertips, hoping not to miss a note, has been a major breakthrough in my own playing. Weight and relaxation of the body and arms, as well as the feeling of the keys, are essential. This effort of extreme slowing down, changing the way each note is played. was really worth the time and effort. So if you are already an advanced student do give attention to your tone production, even if it means that you have to change your old way of playing and thinking. It brings a lot of confidence and freedom to the pianist to be more secure in sound and ability.

Online examples to listen to on key attack or sound production:

“Have you ever seen how cats knead? The soft, relaxed, flexible and deep ‘touché’ of their paws can be easily compared to the gestures we need to use when playing the piano!”

The above mentioned by pianist and teacher Ilinca,

can give one a visual idea of how you can think around your tone production. I do recommend the following youtube video for beginners and even advanced students to watch so as to develop and improve their own tone production. See: How to play piano – Secrets of a correct key attack by ILinca 11 Oct 2011

The importance of strength but relaxation in playing and 'feeling' the keys are vital.

Now as a final word to especially the very passionate student who endeavours to be the best and never stops practising. When working on your tone production, always be careful not to overdo your pressing or strength by practising for hours. You are working with muscles that can get hurt if taken to the extremes. So at the slightest feeling of hurt in your hand or forearm, you need to stop and take a break. Muscles need rest too. Using the principle of movement of the arms and relaxation helps a lot not to hurt your muscles.

Finally – The piano voices you:

The piano speaks and sings, but it is you who make it sing or speak. Therefore put in the effort to work on improving your tone. If you are upset and angry, the piano will reverberate that. The instrument has amazing capabilities to reverberate what you feel, but learning how to bring that out of the instrument is sometimes challenging but exciting. What a great pleasure when you find the sound you are wanting to create! It's like fresh cool waters on a very hot day. Absolutely refreshing.

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