Perfecting your pianissimo


Piano teacher and Pianist contributor Tim Stein answers your piano playing questions...


‘When I play pianissimo, I often don’t get a sound out of the piano. Am I doing something wrong?’


Producing a sound on the piano is dependent on the speed at which the hammer strikes the string. If the hammer strikes the key quickly, you get a louder sound; if the hammer strikes the key slowly, the sound will be softer and this is probably what’s happening to you. Because each piano will be different, a good idea is to experiment with what is commonly known as the ‘set-off’ or ‘biting point’ – the moment at which the hammer comes into contact with the string.


Try this simple one-finger exercise to test the sensitivity of your piano and to see how much control is required to play very softly. Taking the second finger of the right hand (the second finger of the other hand if you are left-handed), repeat a single note in the middle register of the piano, as if you are bouncing a ball on the key. Start with a loud sound initially and then gradually get softer, bit by bit. Then do exactly the same thing but beginning with a soft sound and build up to a gentle crescendo. Try to feel the sensitivity of the piano action behind each key stroke as you play. Think of the finger pushing down gently into the key, as if you are sinking into a comfortable sofa. Ask yourself, what happens if I use more arm weight? Or what happens if I just use the weight of the finger?


Another useful tip is to play any single note and consciously try to make no sound at all. The same idea can be used when you want to vary the tonal weight of a chord, a single note of a chord or the balance of sounds between two hands. Where the right hand may be playing the melody and the left hand a chordal accompaniment, you could practise playing the right hand, say, while mimicking the movement in the left. This is especially useful with pianissimo cantabile playing. Whatever happens physically, however, needs to be mentally prepared too. When you imagine the kind of sound you want to produce in your head, it seems easier to get the feel of it on the piano.