How to play softly
By Robert Estrin
How soft is piano? That’s the question for today! You see piano written in your music, or maybe pianissimo. How soft should you play it? How soft is soft, and how do you even achieve it on the piano? We’re going to dive right into this today and cover this in a way that will help you achieve soft playing.
Dynamics can’t really be measured.
There is something called a decibel meter. It measures the unit of volume and you might think this could provide a good answer to this question. For example, when you see allegro in your score, how fast is allegro? What number is it on the metronome? There’s a similarity here because allegro is more of a mood, a feel to the music, not an exact number. It’s the same thing with dynamics in music. So how do you achieve a piano or pianissimo sound? How do you get a quiet sound?
Piano has more to do with tone than just volume.
For example, if you play the first Clementi Sonatina Opus 36, No. 1, the second movement is a quiet movement. Some people struggle to play really quietly, finding it difficult to even get the keys down! How can you possibly play that quietly? There’s a lot to be considered here. First of all, you should realize and understand that you are the closest person to your piano. Anybody listening to you is going to be much further away. Even if they’re just across the room, they might be three, four, or five times further away from the piano.
You must project your playing!
When you are performing in a hall, there are people listening from the last row of the balcony. Think about how far away from the piano they are. Think about a large hall like the Metropolitan Opera House in New York City at Lincoln Center. It’s is an astounding hall with magnificent acoustics. It holds 3,800 people in the audience! It’s an enormous place to fill with sound. There is no P.A. system; it’s all just acoustics. The singers on stage. and the instrumentalists in the pit, are being heard acoustically. There are no microphones or speakers. So when they have something written piano, they still have to use an immense amount of energy to create a projecting sound. The singers take big breaths and put it under pressure with their diaphragms so that they can project even the softest sound.
Playing piano or pianissimo is like being able to project a whisper by using diaphragm support.
When you whisper with diaphragm support, it can be heard across the room. That’s what you must achieve in your piano and pianissimo playing. Using the weight of the arm, you can project a big flowing line that will come through. It will still have a soft quality, even though the actual decibel level may be greater than you think. You would not believe the amount of energy you have to put into the keyboard, with tremendous weight of the arm transferring smoothly from finger to finger. So you shouldn’t just be limply pushing down keys.
The continuity of the arm weight is what creates the line and ensures that you can control a quiet line.
Remember, the melody line must project above the accompaniment in the left hand. It has to have more projection than you might think. Without that support, it would have more of a percussive quality, sounding loud even when you’re not playing particularly energetically. Instead, you want to play with a smooth quality that evokes the quality of sound of piano or pianissimo. This also enables you to shape the rise and fall of the phrase providing room to grow and die away, giving architecture to your music.
So remember, piano is more a quality of tone than an absolute volume.
Not only that, but you must project out into the room. Remember, you’re not just playing the piano, you’re playing the room you’re in! You must reach every listener in that room. So project your sound. Don’t be afraid to use some energy! As long as it’s a smooth energy, transferring from key to key with the weight of the arm, it will never have a harshness, and it won’t sound forte or even mezzo forte. It will have a tonal quality of piano.
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Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com