Learning to play softly on the piano is really a challenge and a skill of fine art. It is very challenging to master but when it’s executed well, the results can be amazing. So this article and video will provide some tips on how to improve your playing.
I want to mention first that you will need to have your piano regulated and voiced on a very high level to achieve consistent, quiet playing. If the notes don’t respond mechanically or sonically in a uniform fashion, you simply can’t achieve pianissimo playing since some notes will drop out.
I was very lucky growing up with my father, Morton Estrin. who is a concert pianist. We had several fine pianos around our house and in his studio, and I also got a chance to try out concert instruments when he was selecting pianos for performance and recording.
He has a reputation for being able to fill even the largest concert halls with tremendous sound; in fact smaller halls were sometimes not big enough to handle the sound. However, while he was known for his massive strength, he had incredible skill for pianissimo as well. This is a skill that is really daring for most pianists; as playing quietly really demands the audience’s full attention – even ruffling your feet can disturb the sound of the piano. However, playing like this can open up worlds of expression in the music.
But how do you achieve this? How do you play quietly and still maintain control in your playing? My father would describe pianissimo playing like this: think of the energy of the sun. Now imagine blocking it all out except for one single pinhole. The energy that flows through that one pinhole; that is what pianissimo playing is about. There is an intensity even at very low volume.
When it comes to playing quietly on a wind instrument or a string instrument there is the breath and the bow which provide continuity. So what can you use on the piano to get the smoothness of line in very soft playing?
You could try calculating each note successively louder, then softer trying to get a smooth phrase. However, if you use this approach it will sound calculated! You will not achieve a singing line.
The secret is to use the weight of your arm and to transfer the weight from finger to finger smoothly. When playing pianissimo you will also want to stay as close to the keys as you can making sure they aren’t depressed at all. Use minimum motion. The arm weight provides the analogue to the breath of the human voice! It provides a continuum of energy creating the illusion of a singing line.
Keep in mind that the piano is technically not capable of a true singing line since all notes are fading away as soon as they begin. Yet, by utilizing the weight of the arm, you can achieve smooth, pianissimo playing with great control.