The secrets of playing softly on the piano
BY ROBERT ESTRIN
For this newsletter article, I’m going to tell you the secrets of how to play softly on the piano.
Have you ever tried to play something softly, but the notes just don’t play? You try to create beautiful melodic lines with decrescendos at the end of phrases, but the notes just drop out. What’s going on? Is something wrong with you? Is your piano broken?
In a symphony orchestra, for example, when there is a quiet woodwind solo, whether it’s a clarinet, oboe, flute, or even a French horn solo, you’d be amazed at the energy they are utilizing in order to project the sound. Even though it’s soft, it has to somehow get out to the audience through a 60- or 80-piece orchestra. Yet it doesn’t sound loud because they are not expelling their air. They’re just putting the air under tremendous pressure with diaphragm support, much like a great singer can sing with a beautiful sustained sound and achieve whatever volume they want.
I’ve talked a great deal about arm weight. It takes much more energy than you may think in order to project a quiet melody on the piano. A good example of this is the second movement of the famous Mozart C Major Sonata K545. It’s all pretty much soft throughout. If you play it without much intensity, it will sound lifeless. So you have to use some intensity. First of all, you need to overcome the accompaniment in the left hand! The accompaniment is supportive. It should be like the babbling brook under a boat floating on water. It supports it, but you don’t want to call attention to it.
Stay very close to the keys, and make sure you depress the keys all the way down. As long as the keys depress all the way in one motion, all the notes will play on a well-regulated piano. But to project the melody, you have to use a tremendous amount of arm weight. What do I mean by that? I mean that when you play that first note, you are actually holding up your whole arm with that single finger. That finger is holding up your arm! You’re not holding up the arm with your shoulder anymore. That way, the weight can be transferred smoothly from note to note, achieving a beautiful line.
Keep your left hand light, and just push the keys to the bottom with a minimum amount of effort. The right hand supports a tremendous amount of weight that transfers smoothly from key to key giving a singing line. And yes, it will still be piano! It’s also possible to get nuance in your phrasing, the rise and the fall of the melody as it goes up to the middle of the phrase, and then descends to the end of the phrase. Just like speaking. There is a natural rise in the middle of a sentence when you speak, and the sound tapers off when you finish. Music imitates life. And when I say life, I mean literally breathing! You have to have that rise and fall. You get the feeling of the breath on the piano through the use of the weight of your arm.
It’s just like a musician in an orchestra projecting the melody from the back of the woodwind section. You have to do the same thing by utilizing arm weight, projecting melodies in your music that are written piano and pianissimo. That is the way to achieve it.
Now watch my lesson: