Developing a Wide Range of Tone on the Piano

Piano Lessons / music theory / Developing a Wide Range of Tone on the Piano

Hi, I’m Robert Estrin at Today, I’m going to talk a bit about how you can develop a huge range of tone on your musical instrument. This isn’t just about the piano. This is about all instruments.

I want to start with the original instrument of all time, which is the human voice.

We all have this instrument with us. For millennia it was the only instrument, until people started banging on things and blowing through things. Eventually we invented a whole range of instruments. But it’s really important to remember that it all came from the human voice, and that’s how we express things.

With a wind instrument, or the human voice, how can you develop control?

My wife, Florence Estrin, is a concert flutist. She has remarkable control in her playing, from the very softest to the loudest, with purity of sound on all notes in all registers. How is such a thing possible? Well, I’ll tell you her secret. Every day, with very few exceptions, she goes through what are called long tones. What are long tones? It’s going through every single note on the flute, one by one, starting as soft as possible with a slow swell to very loud – then a slow swell to very soft, creating a long tone of expression, keeping the pitch the same, which is very difficult on wind instruments. She does this in octaves, making sure the pitch is coherent from octave to octave. She even has a flute that she can take on vacation that’s not so expensive. She can take it out at the hotel at some point, she’ll go through at least a few minutes. Now, why would she go through the pains of long tones on vacation? It’s because with a wind instrument like the flute, the tone production of the lips is so intrinsic to the instrument, that even taking one day off you lose a little bit of that muscle tone. So, it’s not worth taking several days off, because then it takes several days to get back on that high level.

How do you do such a thing on a piano?

On the piano, what we have is the arm weight. How do you utilize the arm weight to get a good tone? Well, if you were to play something on the piano and not use your arm weight, there’s no way to really control your playing. It becomes very calculated. I’ve talked about this before. Sometimes, you have to use the entire arm when you’re playing big chords. For example, the beginning of the Tchaikovsky, B Flat Minor Piano Concerto. If you play those big chords without the arms, you get a harsh sound, compared to playing utilizing the arm weight. What do I mean by the arm weight? By putting your fingers right on the surface of the keys, and then releasing the whole weight of the arms all at once to the bottom of the keybed you can achieve a beautiful sound.

Use arm weight as the analog of the breath.

Now when playing melodic lines, the entire arm doesn’t have to impact each chord or each note. Instead, you lean into the entire line, leaning heavier with more arm weight in the middle of the phrase, creating the line. Just like in speech, it goes up in the middle of the sentence and comes down at the end. Your music has to do that too. You will get a beautiful sound because you have the analog of the breath with the weight of the arm transferring from key to key, rather than playing each note with no weight of the arm, which creates a calculated performance. This is how you develop a huge range of tone on the piano where you don’t get that ugly harshness. You have the support of the arms, much like the support of the breath for a singer or a wind player. It creates that beautiful sound and control.

Thanks so much for joining me. I’m Robert Estrin here at, Your Online Piano Store. See you next time!