Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. Today’s question is about what makes a pianist’s sound unique. This is a really tough question to answer, but I’m going to do my best!
My wife is a flutist. When she was very young, she studied with some great concert flutists. At one point she heard her teacher play her cheap student level flute. Sure enough, it no longer sounded like a cheap flute. It sounded like this great flutist! With wind instruments, it’s obvious. And it’s most obvious with singers. As soon as you hear a voice, you know who it is.
If you hear Frank Sinatra, there’s no doubt about who you’re listening to.
With piano, it’s much further removed from singing, certainly. It isn’t even like the distinctive sounds of wind and string players. But indeed, there are unique sounds different pianists produce. I grew up idolizing Horowitz and Rubinstein. The whole methodology of their pianistic approach was so drastically different from one another. So, this enters into it. Certainly, physiology has something to do with the sound of the piano as well. A massive man might have a bigger sound compared to a very slight man or woman. But not always. It goes much deeper. How you hear things will affect the way you approach the keyboard, and results in very different sound production.
What are some of those differences? Well, I was trained from a very young age by my father, Morton Estrin, to have the weight of the arms supported by the fingers instead of having limp fingers floating in midair and letting the fingers push down. Now, in very fast passages that’s exactly what you want to do, because you can’t support much weight when you’re going very quickly. But in a slow melody, you certainly want to have a sense of line. And the best way to get that is to use the weight of the arm. Using this method you can produce a fluid line on the piano like a singer. Playing just with the fingers, without supporting with the weight of the arm, results in a less fluid performance. Naturally, how the pedal comes into play also affects the tone tremendously.
There are some pianists who produce such unique sounds that you know who they are instantly!
I find this amazing. With the human voice, you’ve got the whole inside of the body and the vocal cords and the intonation of speech. On a wind instrument, you have the lips and you also have the throat and the vibrations within the chest cavity. There is so much more to identify sound. What do you have with the piano? The tone is produced by hammers hitting strings. How the heck do you achieve a distinct sound? Well, just like I have revealed previously, growing up I had very small, weak fingers, and yet I grew up hearing my father and some of his spectacular students. I always would strive to get that big beautiful sound. In fact, I contorted my body trying to make my spaghetti fingers produce anything close to the sound I heard from my father. But I made it happen in slow music particularly. Fast pieces were a little bit tougher for me having weak fingers, and I didn’t practice a great deal as a young child. But on slow music though, even from the youngest age, I was able to produce the sounds that I heard just from making it happen.
The sound of a pianist comes down to what they hear in their head and achieving that sound.
So that’s the lesson for today. It’s all about the connection of the hands to the ears. And that’s what you want to strive for in your playing so you can express your voice on the piano. I’d love to hear from any of you who have ideas about how to produce a beautiful sound on the piano! There’s a lot more to this subject, and I may produce a whole series about this on my Patreon channel. Thanks to all of you who have subscribed! I’ll see you next time. Again, I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource. Thanks again for joining me.