Soft Piano Playing, Part 4

Lessons with a Lady, continued…

“And we can’t play with fingers braced with thumbs,” she said, while
continuing the Bach with index fingers braced with thumbs, giving me an impish smile. I got a flash of what she must have been like as a young woman.

She asked, “So, to assure that all the playing-power reaches the keys when we’re playing normally, we do—what?”

“We….” I was fascinated by her control. “We….” By the impishness and the analytical mind. “We brace the fingers themselves.” I made claws of my hands, and said, “Such thoughts must give us paws,” crossing my eyes. What a fool.

She laughed, though.

“Correct. We stabilize the joints.” She leaned toward me and spoke softer. I leaned toward her and listened harder. She held up two open hands. I held up mine. “Joints are operated,” she said, “by pairs of opposing muscles. Flexors for closing”—she made two fists; I did the same. “Extensors for opening”—we opened our hands.

“When the the flexor muscle operates, the extensor relaxes, and the finger closes. When the…?” She tilted her head inquiringly.

I said, “When the—extensor?” She nodded. “When the extensor operates, the flexor relaxes, and the finger opens.”

She said, “They operate, and they cooperate, you see?” I nodded. “We want the joints to have no ‘give’ as power passes through them, so we—?”

“Tighten both muscles at once,” I said.

The nod. “This stabilizes the joint, just as guy-wires stabilize the radio tower up on that mountain nearby.” She pointed to where wall met ceiling. “You can see it with your X-ray vision. Now—” she gently shook a finger. “Don’t tell people the old lady says to play with tension! The radio tower doesn’t know when a big wind will come, or an earthquake. It must always be ready. But we know! We stabilize only at the instant it’s needed. And only to the degree it’s needed.”

She glanced at her watch. “Next time, tell me two things that influence reliability of soft playing.”

to be continued…

Touch and Tone: I was once helping a student find a used piano to buy, and one candidate was a pre-WW I European grand. It had a substantially different action from modern pianos; and though it was sensitive, it felt weird to me. What really got me down on it, though, was that it sounded weird, though the sound was hard to describe. To my surprise, my student liked the tone as she listened from across the room. Then we changed places and got the real surprise. When she played, she disliked the sound; but I thought it was gorgeous. We inferred that the weird touch was affecting our impression of the tone. You’re unlikely to run into such a piano, but this possible relationship between touch and tone is an intriguing sidelight on perception.

Copyright © James Boyk 2013. All rights reserved.
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2 Comments

  1. Margaret Thornhill
    Posted July 11, 2013 at 8:38 am | Permalink

    I love this literary device of the wise Old Lady! Although I know full well that she is a figment of your own imagination (e.g., you are both the Old Lady and the Eager Student in these vignettes.) These explanations make perfect sense to me, (with or without nastursiums.) Very clever presentation, and I wish I were a pianist so I could know the full value of these concepts.

    • james boyk
      Posted July 11, 2013 at 8:58 am | Permalink

      I know I speak for the old lady, too, when I say thanks for your kind remarks!

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