5 top tips for understanding the key bed
By Melanie Spanswick
The key bed can remain a mystery for many, lurking, as it does, beneath the only part of the key that is visible, the key surface. The key bed is really a term to describe the very bottom level of the key, the area past the double escapement action on the keyboard. It’s where you feel a ‘jolt’ as you play into the key (this is more keenly felt on grand pianos). But how do we incorporate it into daily practice? And should we even go there? Many think not, and it’s even been thought that playing ‘into’ the key-bed can cause tension issues and possible injury. But that only occurs when the concept of tension and release isn’t in place, or hasn’t been fully understood. Here are a few ideas for exploration:
- There are several useful touches when playing the piano which use various ‘levels’ of the key. The first is a light articulation, it might be described as ‘surface’ articulation. Useful for light staccato, or finger staccato, or a scattered sound necessary for many rapid passages, needing a gossamer approach, and, one which is particularly effective at the top, or treble, part of the keyboard. Start by playing a scale using finger staccato, allowing the fingers to swiftly ‘brush’ the keys with an inward finger motion, leaving the keys quickly. Now play your passage again using a legato touch, the fingers literally running across the keys. Aim to play without ‘landing’ anywhere, eliminating any accents, bumps or ‘jolts’, smoothly playing scales which flit over the key surface, gently skimming.
- The second level demands a fairly light articulation, too, perhaps one suitable for practising and playing scales and arpeggios. Key-bed levels have little to do with dynamics, but, instead, are rather more associated with the character and feel. To explore a slightly deeper touch, again, play a scale or two, but this time, allow the fingers to delve a little further down into the key, and aim for sparkling, clear scales without becoming too heavy, cloying or ‘stuck’.
- The third level is all about a much clearer, deeper, more solid articulation, which might be considered suitable for chordal passages, and those which require a certain depth and intensity. Fingers need to be much firmer for this touch. Ensure your upper torso is relaxed, wrists are flexible, and allow the fingers to work fairly deeply in to the key, as you play your ‘practice’ scale. A firmer touch should yield a more powerful sound, and this sound must ideally be equal throughout each note in your scale.
- The fourth and, perhaps, final level is the bottom of the key. This is past the well-known double-escapement on the keyboard, or the mechanism which allows a pianist to repeat a note quickly without releasing it fully. This escapement can be felt by the ‘jolt’ which the finger becomes aware of as it plays a note fully, that is, heavily. Upright, older grands, and digital pianos often don’t have this ‘jolt’ (or it’s more challenging to ‘feel’), and therefore one must imagine it in order to play into the key bed (which can be done). I encourage all my students to explore this area of the key carefully, and in fact, they frequently practice ‘heavily’ for much of their practice time. This is because it’s an extremely beneficial method of establishing firmer fingers, rhythmic control and a rich tone. To practice using this method, the upper torso must be flexible, wrist circles (or a tension and release mechanism) should be assimilated, and practice must be slow, as it is the most useful as part of a slow practice regime. Once implemented, faster tempi can be resumed, and touch can be lightened, for even, rhythmical playing. However, during performance, you can, and should, use the bottom of the key for certain passages and to create solid timbre, especially useful for when playing with an orchestra.
- For an interesting exercise, select a piece of music with several musical lines in order to create ‘layers’ of sound. Label each musical line with a different key-bed sound ‘layer’, and try to envisage the necessary tonal colour for each layer. Now play the passage slowly, implementing those sounds, so that you are aware of the disparate sound layers and how they can be effectively employed in your piano playing tool box.
© Erica Worth. Taken at Steinway Hall, London