How to Play Piano

Question: Dear Albert,

The seems a pretty dumb question, but it’s one of my major problems playing the piano: How do I play piano, without losing security? When I try to play very soft (mostly accompaniments in the left hand) I sometimes don’t press some keys hard enough and these notes are missing.

Thanks for any ideas.

Yours,

– Erich (Zurich, Switzerland)

Albert’s reply: This lesson isn’t about how to play the piano, it’s about how to play piano – meaning softly. The name of the instrument is an abbreviation of the original term “pianoforte,” which indeed sounds as absurd in Italian as does “soft-loud” in English. (To complicate terminology, early pianos, up to the mid–19th century, are called “fortepianos,” with no abbreviated form.)

Increasing Finger Sensitivity

That said, let’s look at how to play piano with accuracy and control. As a first step, there’s a simple exercise that you can do to increase the sensitivity of your fingers. Start with Chopin’s natural hand position. (I recommend a slightly modified version, with the fingers of either hand a whole tone apart, starting on E.) Practice only with one hand at a time, leaving the other on your lap. Try to release any excess tension from the arm (shoulder, elbow, forearm and wrist), allowing the fingers to rest naturally on the keys. Take each finger in turn and, using only the finger, depress the key only very slightly – not enough to make a sound. Release the finger and repeat, this time pressing the key down very slightly further. Feel the sudden resistance at roughly two-thirds down. It is this resistance that must be overcome in order to make the note “speak.”

By patiently repeating this exercise with each finger, eventually you will find both the distance the key must travel and the speed at which you must press the key to make the softest possible sound. I recommend performing this exercise every day in the preparatory stages.

Playing Scales Softly

For scale passages, there is a useful trick. Allow your fingers to fall onto the keys in sequence while remaining as light as possible. Your fingers should be so light that the keys do not even move. Next, apply slightly more pressure, continuing to repeat the scale passage until one or more notes are audible. Then, keep applying ever more pressure until all notes sound and all are even. This simple trick allows you to discover the softest possible dynamic at which you can play a scale on any piano!

Playing Chords Softly

One of the things I learned from my teacher Paul Badura-Skoda is that to play chords pianissimo, we need to adopt a fortissimo hand position. (This is but one of a palette of techniques for playing very soft chords.) Shape the hand so that you can already “feel” the chord beneath your fingers, without the hands actually touching the keys. The hand should be solid but not overly tense. From this position you should be able to control dynamic balance and voicing and thus achieve any piano chord voicing you desire!

This is how to play piano!

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