I’m still learning to play the piano…
Around five years ago I suddenly realized why I appeared to be having so many problems creating a good playing tone on the piano. I had thought that I had merely acquired bad technique, or that perhaps I wasn’t a very good player. I also felt that my ‘touch’ sounded harsh (to my ears, anyway), and I wasn’t creating a very good ‘depth of tone’ on the keyboard.
For any musical instrument, it’s not just about technique-some players have a prodigal ability, and exhibit excellent technique from a young age, others, like myself, have to practise like mad until you (sort of) get it right. Attaining good technique is continuous hard work-but it’s not the only work that needs to be done. Technique without musicality is one of the very worst things to find in a musician, but the opposite is almost just as bad.
Although I practised regularly, and listened to numerous musicians, I wasn’t seeing a strong improvement in the sound quality of my playing. What else did I need to learn? I honestly felt that I was truly missing something in my technique: did I need to see another piano teacher (for a second opinion), or was I just a terrible pianist? How was I going to ‘get’ this sound on my own? And this was something that I knew I had to learn on my own; the tonal quality that I was trying to attain was more of a personal goal: the way I sounded wasn’t necessarily bad, so I didn’t think it fair to ask a piano teacher to try to change something that wasn’t immediately obvious.
I asked myself: is it possible that the solution I seek is not as complicated or as laborious as I had originally made it out to be? What if it’s not about technique-and I still wasn’t sure about this-what if it had to do with the more fundamental issue of how I physically positioned my self in relation to the piano.
Any musician (doesn’t matter the genre) has to come to terms with the physical presence of the instrument that they play. Whether or not the instrument is very small and relatively easy to carry, or large and cumbersome and requiring the services of several well-built burly men with a truck, it still comes down to a body (the musician’s) learning and adapting to the physical strengths and limitations of the instrument they have chosen to work with.
What I discovered was that a large, immovable and still instrument like the piano perhaps demanded the same kind of stillness from me, the performer. I realized that I moved too much whilst I played, and that this was detrimental to the sound quality of my touch. Many musicians will move whilst they perform, and it doesn’t harm their playing: I’m not trying to create a ‘correct procedural practice’, only describing a particular limitation of my performing. One of the common complaints I’ve heard from previous piano teachers was: “stop moving so much, it’s distracting”, “the extraneous movements are taking away from the energy of your playing” etc. I decided to try playing with as little ‘extraneous’ body movement as possible. When I did this, I found that the movements I had to make with my fingers/arms/back were more controlled, my sound became more focused and I was better able to concentrate on creating a good sound-instead of relying on all the twisty-body movements I had used previously to express some kind of ‘musical’ emotion.
I’ll introduce two classical pianists that I admire because of their playing combines a heady mixture of bravado, focus and stillness: Grigory Sokolov and Kemal Gekic. Both have flawless technique, and are incredible musical talents. What I like about the video examples is that both musicians embody what I aspire to in my performing, which is a playing technique that is completely focused, calm, musical and adheres to a stillness that I think is deeply respectful of the piano as an instrument. The Liszt and Prokofiev are both very active, and technically demanding pieces: that the players performed these works and still maintains a grounded calm, playing without (apparent) tension or stress is testament to their incredible talent. The Prokofiev is performed with utter attention and laser-like focus; Gekic’s cool and somewhat detached (but still with energetic musicality) performance of the Liszt, on the other hand, radiates a serene calm.
Kemal Gekic performs the ‘La Campanella’ of Franz Liszt
Grigory Sokolov performs Prokofiev’s Piano Sonata #7, 3rd movement