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Know Thy Piano - 1
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Thunk!

Almost a wonderful performance—except for cantabile and pianissimo ruined by the thunk! thunk! of the damper pedal hitting the top of its travel. If the player had only known that piano design helps you pedal silently.

Experiment for yourself: With pedal down, play and release a chord. Slowly raise the pedal, stopping when the sound stops; then notice how far the pedal still is from the top. Alternatively, with pedal up, play repeated notes staccato. Keep playing as you depress the pedal. Note how far down you must go before the notes lengthen.

In other words, the pedal has "free play" at the top. To change pedal cleanly, we need only bring the pedal into the "free play" region, not all the way up.

To practice silent changes, play a two-handed C chord with pedal. Release the chord and hold the pedal. Still holding, play an F# chord. Now change the pedal silently, getting rid of every trace of the C chord. Do the same thing again, but with a quicker change. Finally, change at the very moment you play the F# chord. A minute or two on this daily, and soon your ear won't tolerate thunks.

Here's a tip: If you use pedal at the beginning of a piece, put it down before starting. That eliminates every noise from the first moment of the music. The smoothness of the sound will delight you!

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Know Thy Piano - 2
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Stick Shtick

When you listen to someone else play, have you noticed how unclear the piano sounds when the lid is closed or only partly open? Putting the lid all the way up when you play—on "full stick"—frees overtones and other high-pitched parts of the sound, and keeps them from being trapped inside the instrument. Your tone comes through better, and so do the beginnings of notes, the attacks, which are partly just the noises of hammers hitting strings.

Attacks are powerful enough to define notes and help shape phrases, yet so short-lived that they don't make the sound louder. But when they're blunted by a closed lid, then we do play louder, attempting to maintain profile in our playing. This makes for a thick sound which may cover other players.

Listen to someone else playing with lid down, then up. I think you'll find "up" more lucid, allowing softer playing to make its point.

Next, with piano silent, raise and lower the lid behind a solo instrument to hear how full stick helps the soloist, too. In master classes, we've done such experiments dozens of times, and "lid up" always wins hands-down.

Full stick is better for recording, too. Taping a clarinet-piano recital, we noticed over the control-room speakers that the instruments sounded dead. At intermission, we put the lid up, and they came alive; and not just over the speakers: The audience commented on the improvement, too.

To persuade ensemble partners to let you use full stick, ask someone they trust to judge the sound. Be careful, because many people think full stick means loud. To ensure that the "judge" hears reality instead of this preconception, have him or her listen with eyes shut—and don't raise the lid until the eyes are closed.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Know Thy Piano - 3
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Look Ma, No Pedal

She played beautifully, don't you agree? But what heavy weather she made of those slow repeated notes! Apparently she didn't want a pedaled sound in that passage. Oh, I agree; she was right; but she seemed to think that avoiding gaps between repeated notes requires an ultra-smooth finger legato. She'd play more reliably, with less wasted energy, if she knew how easy it is to connect repeated notes even without pedal.

When you see her, suggest she play one note and let the key come up a bit, then try to repeat the note from that height. If it works, she can try letting the key up less next time; if not, let it up more.

Once she's found the lowest height at which notes repeat reliably, she'll notice on her own that at that height, the damper's still off the string, so she can easily repeat without gaps.

What? What if different keys repeat at different heights? Then she needs a visit from the piano technician. No one can acquire fine skills on a piano that's out of adjustment!

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Know Thy Piano - 4
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

The Genius of the Piano

You seemed impatient in the master class. No, don't worry; you weren't rude to the guest teacher; I was the only one who noticed. It was—wasn't it?—when he was talking about imitating the harpsichord in playing Bach?

Hold on! You're preaching to the converted. I agree; if we play Bach on the piano, we should play him on the piano, not imitate the harpsichord. I know you wouldn't ask too much of the textures. Your ear would never let you rip the fabric.

It puzzles me, though, that people always talk about what the piano can do that the harpsichord cannot, but never the reverse: what the harpsichord can do that the piano cannot. I mean, playing at an constant dynamic level.

You're right, the piano can do it; but not many pianists can! Of course we should ideally have such control that we can play a line with any shape, even a constant one. And sure, there are passages where nothing else will do, perhaps because energy building up in the rhythm hasn't yet spilled into the dynamics, or the composer wants a sense of stasis.

I'm just trying to describe the spirit, the genius, of our instrument. On the harpsichord, a constant dynamic is automatic. On the piano, it's natural to shape the dynamics; and a "high-profile" shape will make its point even if individual notes are a bit softer or louder than intended. The profile makes the shape less susceptible to errors.

Yes, I know the harpsichord has its own difficulties!

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Know Thy Piano - 5
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Hammer & Anvil

A scientist who was an amateur pianist told her piano technician that the keys on her piano felt too heavy. He measured the downweight (the force needed to move the key down to the escapement point) and pointed out that it was 50 grams, which he said was fine and even a bit on the light side. "You need to strengthen your fingers!" he told her indulgently.

The physicist gently said, "You could install an anvil instead of the hammer, and still balance it to 50 grams; but it would take a lot more force to get it moving, and the key would feel incredibly heavy. So it's not just the downweight but also the moving mass that matters."

The technician's eyes lit up, and he said that must be why someone had told him that hammers needed to be shaved to the right weight before being installed. He'd never understood this; had always figured that if they were balanced to the correct downweight, their individual weights on a scale didn't matter. The physicist stared, but politely said nothing. After a moment, she went on, "And what about friction? Even if downweight and mass are both OK, friction in the pivots will make it feel too heavy, won't it?" The technician agreed to this.

It's surprising how many technicians don't understand about moving mass. Because this one didn't, he's lost a customer but gained a colleague; for the physicist is learning to become her own piano technician.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 2003 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 1
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Singing and Screaming

Ultra-loud sound is a legitimate part of piano playing; for instance in "Pictures at an Exhibition," where the score says "with all your force." A recording engineer attended one of my performances; and afterward, using his own jargon, said, "You had that piano in overload!" He was right, and Mussorgsky was right, too: that sound is needed.

But it took me years to learn that if I want a cantabile sound, a singing tone, I must avoid the loudest end of the dynamic range, even below that overload level. Above a certain loudness, no amount of phrase-shaping or finger legato will make a cantabile.

Where's the limit? Your ear will tell you. It depends on the size of the piano: a bigger instrument can play louder and still sing sweetly. And among instruments of a given size, it depends on the design. It doesn't depend on the room or the player; but the use of the two ranges depends a lot on the player!

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 2
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Continuing Delicately

You're wondering why that melody has "bumps" even though you're playing with care? Notice how some notes are longer than the rest? Look at how it moves mostly in 16th-notes but here and here it has dotted eighths. If you listen carefully, you'll notice that the bumps come on the first notes after the relatively long notes. Play them just a touch softer and all will be well.

Sure, go ahead and try it now. You agree that it works? I'm glad. Oh, why does it work? I think it's because when notes come at a certain rate, we get used to the attack of each one coming at a certain point in the decay of the previous. Along comes a longer note, and it decays further before the next attack, so that attack seems disproportionately loud. The note after the long one needs to be played just a tiny bit softer.

Oh goodness, don't feel bad about your ears. Your ears are fine. Few players hear such things analytically on their own. Most of us get better ears just by learning a lot of things to listen for, like this one. I can't remember now whether I figured this out on my own or first heard it thirty years ago from Lee Hambro. Just keep listening as acutely as you can, that's the important thing. (A recorder speeds up the process.)

But just one note each time, mind! Otherwise your listeners will hear a change of dynamic.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 3
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Living Softly

You liked the Schoenberg? Me, too. Those Opus 19 pieces are hyper-romantic, like Brahms rhapsodies compacted: each bar holds a phrase worth of feeling and gesture. Maybe that's why the score is so dense with expression marks.

Did you like the fourth of the set? Very atmospheric, I agree. And did you happen to noti—? Yes, right hand loud, left hand soft. It's interesting that—exactly. The left hand comes through fine. The right doesn't cover it.

Other instrumentalists know this, of course. String-quartet players know that if they shape their voices well, they'll be heard even though they're not the loudest. And pianists must know it when they accompany. No? You think so many accompanists are depressed because they don't think they're heard? Goodness, I hope you're wrong about that.

But for some reason, solo pianists do forget that you can make layer upon layer and still have everything heard. The crucial thing—yes, as you say, the difficult thing—is to give each of the voices its own integrity. But really, even that isn't so difficult. You begin by singing each voice. Then sing each one while playing each other one, then each other pair. If it's a five-voice fugue, it's a lot of work; but at least you're working on the music, not on what you do with your little finger. (I know. I shouldn't use such a dismissive phrase for piano technique. Of course technique is important!)

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 4
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Home in the Range

Fascinating, yes, to hear two interpretations side by side. But don't you think each had something to learn from the other? Did you notice how she played the soprano melodies more convincingly, and he played the bass ones better? You agree? You think it's simply that her right hand is more capable than her left, while for him it's the other way around? But you know, it's rare for any pianist's left hand to be more able than the right, even when the person's left-handed like me. You didn't know I was? Maybe that makes my point.

I imagine the difference was due to something else. I think we identify unconsciously with lines that fall in our own voice ranges. This just jumped out at me one time in a certain young man's playing. I suggested the idea to him, and he immediately played the soprano as well as he played the bass.

You're right; I was lucky that the suggestion alone was enough to cure the problem. It was like one of those stories about how Freud cured someone famous of a neurosis with one insightful remark; except of course that he wasn't famous, and—yes, I know—I'm not Freud. Or those stories about Zen masters, except that I didn't have to break his arm for him to find enlightenment.

I wonder what someone could do if the suggestion alone wasn't enough. The question is how to get the player to identify with the lines as coming from him- or herself. Perhaps taking lines that lie outside the singing range and transposing them into the range would help bring them "into the fold."

And by the way, it happens with dynamics, too: people usually identify with a rather narrow range of dynamics. When you hear ugly loud sounds, there's a good chance that player identifies with "soft"; and the reverse when you hear tentative soft playing. Very few people can identify with the full ranges of pitch and dynamics.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 5
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Dot Means Go

"A dot is not a period." Well, I thought it was funny. You don't like simple-minded humor or bad puns, I know. But they are unforgettable. Yes, very useful in teaching; dot's true. I saw you wince at the phony Russian accent, too. "Period means stop. Dot means go." Once he pointed it out, though, I heard how Arthur really was letting each dotted note interrupt the flow in that Mozart.

I agree; it must be hard to keep your poise in that A-minor sonata. And Arthur does play it beautifully. Of course our teacher hears that! But you must admit, it did get a lot better when he gave him that bow-and-arrow image. The dotted note is the stretching of the bow; the dot is the moment of release. Then he asked, "After the release, how long does the arrow wait before beginning its flight?" That made it clear, no?

Well, I don't know if just aiming at the next downbeat will guarantee playing the right rhythm. You can hit the downbeat at the right time even though you start too late after the dot. That's why I like the bow-and-arrow image.

Our teacher doesn't care if he sounds simple-minded as long as he gets the idea across. To me, that's the opposite of simple-minded.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 2002 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Play Thy Piano - 6
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

I Get Rhythm

Boy, a performance like that makes you think the blues can say anything, doesn't it? It makes you wonder about high art versus so-called low. I couldn't believe the pianist gave you a lesson right there. I guess it was because the place was empty. What's that left-hand called? 'Shuffle'? How would you write it; in triplet rhythm? I guess that's about as close as we could notate. But it's so flexible. Stable, but keeps moving forward. I think it's easier for me to get it by listening than if it were written down. Somehow when a rhythm is written down, we're at risk of playing it pedantically, don't you feel? No? Well, your rhythm is probably better than mine.

Oh, that's interesting! You imagine written rhythms as approximations even in classical music? Your idea is that we should think of the written rhythm as only an approximation of what the composer had in mind? But what about ones that really are even, like--I don't know--an Alberti-bass left hand. Wait a minute. I know what you'll say: Maybe it isn't even, either. Not metronomic. Maybe it has a little "give" at ends of phrases or half-phrases. Or at harmonically interesting places.

OK, I'll try this idea of yours this week in practicing. We'll see at next week's master-class what it does for me. I wonder what our teacher will say!

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 2002 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Practice Thy Piano - 1
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

What now?

You have that new Beethoven in your hands—kind-of, sort-of. You've worked out the technical problems—k-o, s-o. Yet practice isn't going anywhere. You've got the "What now?" syndrome.

What you need is phrasewise memorization. Play each phrase once with the score, then once without the score.

But perfectly, mind! And not just notes, but timing, dynamics and articulation. (When I say "one phrase," I mean with a bit of overlap, so you cover the phrase-joins.)

That crescendo to a subito piano is so typical of Beethoven. Can you make the crescendo sound as though it will continue through the downbeat, so the subito will be fully effective? And where does the crescendo "bloom"? (Almost every crescendo has a place where it "opens up.") And in that other phrase, can pedal help the right-hand legato without compromising the left-hand staccato?

Unawares, you're studying the score closer than ever, trying to hear Beethoven's sound. After a time, you play the phrase perfectly without the score.

STOP! Don't do it again.

Go on to the next phrase; and keep on through the whole piece. Depending on whether it's one of the easier Bagatelles or the Opus 111, phrasewise memorization might take anything from a few minutes to days of work. When you finish, you've eliminated the "kind-of, sort-of" from your playing, and you hear all kinds of new musical connections and interpretive possibilities. You can play the piece for others now, and get the understanding that comes no other way. You can memorize it completely, confident that it holds no surprises.

Nothing lies between you and concert-level mastery now but the pure pleasure of deepening intimacy with the piece.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Practice Thy Piano - 2
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Atternpat

Sometimes the score has a repeating pattern which we practice one unit at a time. We could represent the score as pattern pattern pattern pattern or perhaps patternpatternpatternpattern, and what we practice as pattern, pattern. Often it's a good idea to practice an overlapping group, so the joins get practiced too: patternpat, patternpat, or maybe patternpa, patternpa or simply patternp, patternp.

In addition, it's often useful to turn things inside out and practice ternpat, ternpat, ternpat, or its overlapping version: atternpat, atternpat, atternpat

A gifted pianist I know tried this in the last movement of Opus 31, No. 1, where the left hand is in sextuplets in two alternating patterns. She identified the 3-5 reach from G down to B (end of one group to beginning of next) as a problem; but when she practiced atternpat instead of patternpa, so the reach came in the middle of the group, she immediately laughed and said, "Easy!"

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Practice Thy Piano - 3
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

But Soft! What Sound Breaks Yon Window?

Remember the Old Man exhorting us to play pianissimo and "demonstrating" with playing that almost made the windows burst from their frames? Remember Robert raving about the woman with the "unforgettable pianissimo"? Well, when I heard for myself how hers dances in the mind and murmurs in the ear, I had to study with her; so this is a first report.

Right away, she said I needed to learn Alexander Technique--it's not a piano technique but a general way of using your body efficiently--and she sent me to a teacher for that. Meanwhile, we began on fundamentals.

"You must identify with soft," she said. "Understand the goals of soft playing and take them as your own." I said I understood them better from hearing her play. "A pretty compliment," she said, witholding judgment with her indescribable old-lady's smile. Then we got to work! She had me do an experiment:

With no "give" at your wrist, use arm to play three pianissimo notes in each of three ways: first with the eraser of a pencil held vertical in your snug fist; then with the side of the hand, fingers together; last, with index finger braced near its tip by your thumb.

I could play reliably in all these ways. This showed that my problem was "give" in wrist or fingers when playing. In other words, not inconsistent generation of power but inconsistent transmission. She said to "stabilize" joints at the moment of playing by tightening "flexor" and "extensor" muscles at once. (She made a point that we do this only at the moment of playing, and only to the minimum degree needed, which seemed obvious. She seemed to be fighting a long-ago opponent over this. Odd to think the opponent might be dead!)

First I had to acquire strength in both sets of muscles (my extensors were weak!) with this exercise:

Tip of left index finger on top of bent right-hand knuckle nearest fingertip. Left thumb under tip of RH finger gently tries to open the joint. Gently resist. Hold five seconds. Next, left thumb inside same joint, tip of left index finger on top of tip of right-hand finger. Gently try to close finger; gently resist. Hold five seconds. Do 12 RH joints (not thumb), 12 LH, twice daily.

After three weeks, she began to teach me to associate loudness with the necessary amount of stabilizing force, which she calls "sta-force" ("I hate jargon, my dear; but I can't stop myself from shortening this phrase. It sounds like something Democritus might practice with those marbles in his mouth!")

Play a chord fortissimo with one arm, noticing how much sta-force you instinctively use in wrist and fingers. Play it pp with the same amount of sta-force. It will play reliably! Now see how little sta-force will still give reliable playing. Daily experimentation teaches you to match (1) intended volume level to (2) playing force and (3) sta-force.


Something else I'd never realized: After playing, you can almost "let go" of the note and it will stay down. The sketch shows the force of finger on key, not the key position.

Practice reducing sta-force immediately to just the level needed to keep the key(s) down.

Finally, stabilizing behind the playing force is necessary, too; be sure that your torso is not moving "in reaction," as she says. Oddly, you can subsume reaction movements into an overall torso movement carrying the phrase.

What startled me was how analytical she is, given the spirituality of her music-making. I'd always thought spirituality was enough; it's not.

See Abby Whiteside's ebullient books and James Ching's Piano Playing. Alexander Technique is not a piano technique but a general method for using your body efficiently. See alexandertechnique.com and ati-net.com.   James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 2003 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

Practice Thy Piano - 4
Knowledge that helps people play better.
by James Boyk

Soft Playing Hints

I told you I was surprised at her being so analytical. Actually, she's sort of idealistic-opportunistic: She says every activity can be useful to our art. (The way she uses the words art and artist shows me how self-conscious I've been about them.) Just look at the range of what follows. First, an unusual exercise:

Sitting away from the piano, imagine playing softly. If this makes you tense, release the tension systematically. Do this daily until you don't get tense. Then do the imagining while sitting at the piano with the instrument closed. When you can do this first thing in the morning without getting tense, do it with the piano lid open (but the keyboard still closed). Next: keyboard open, hands in lap. Then hands on keys but not playing. Finally, when playing.

She points out, too, that there are two kinds of quietness: actual softness, and undisturbedness. If playing a bit louder lets you play more calmly, do so!

What about disturbances from noises of fingers hitting keys, and keys hitting bottom?

Press on front surfaces of several adjacent white keys to keep them from moving. "Play" the keys with fingers of the other hand, and notice that you can do it quietly or noisily! Get someone else to do it while you listen from far away. Put a mike far away and make two recordings of a passage, one with lots of this noise and the other with as little as possible. The quiet one will sound both softer and more legato!

And this:

In fast passages, play to the middle of the ‘dip,' like a harpsichordist. Imagine you're just tossing the hammers up toward the strings, or trying to avoid the noise of key hitting bottom.

And I should have realized on my own that if notes are to sound together, the softer ones' keys must start moving earlier. It's obvious! (You can make it easier to get the right dynamics by "biasing" the hand--rotating it.)

She points out too that vertical motion of keys is what creates sound. This I had realized; but I hadn't thought it through. When it's hard to reduce your finger velocity--you're moving too fast--you can "use up" some of it by moving toward or away from the fallboard, leaving less for the vertical motion. Your finger slides down a sloping hill instead of diving vertically into the key.

If a passage is intractable, try it in a different octave to be sure it isn't just a problem in that particular range of that particular piano.

Finally, if you play a note too softly, hold it an instant after the others release, so it will be heard.

Off to master class. Next time, more about dynamics, including (gasp!) fortissimo.

 
James Boyk is internationally known as a concert & recording artist and master-class teacher. His revolutionary book for musicians, To Hear Ourselves As Others Hear Us, has received the warmest comments and reviews. Address comments or questions to the moderated forum. Copyright © 1999 James Boyk. All rights reserved.

 


 

 


 

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