The Single Greatest Challenge of Piano Playing

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Welcome to Living Pianos. I’m Robert Estrin. In this article, we will be discussing the single greatest
challenge in playing the piano. There are many aspects to playing the piano, such as playing with both
hands, playing multiple parts, playing fast, and playing scales, arpeggios and repeated notes. However,
there is one aspect that is the Achilles heel of piano playing, and that is the envelope of the sound
produced by the piano.

The Piano’s Sonic Characteristics

If you listen to just one note played on the piano, what do you hear? You hear a sharp attack, a quick
decay and a slow, quiet sustain that gradually decreases in volume. This presents a major challenge for
playing the piano since it is difficult to play melodies which imitate the human voice. After all, the human
voice is the original musical instrument of all time! Wind instruments have the benefit of using breath to
create musical lines. Violins and many other string instruments have bows to sustain notes. But on the
piano, in order to overcome this limitation, you must master the art of illusion!
How to Create the Illusion of a Continuous Line on the Piano
One of the techniques for creating a singing line, or sustained line, is to use the weight of your arm. The
arm has weight and, by using it as an analog to the breath, you can create a smooth line. You can
transfer the weight of the arm smoothly from note to note, rising and falling like the breath, with more arm
weight in the middle of the phrase, and less arm weight in the beginning and end of a phrase. This
technique can be enhanced with the use of the pedal. But before we discuss this, let’s talk about
something I refer to as, “The Phantom Pedal.”

The Phantom Pedal

The Phantom Pedal refers to the use of finger technique to hold down notes with your fingers instead of
relying upon the pedal. This allows you to sustain notes with your left hand while adding emphasis to the
melody notes in your right hand with the pedal. This creates a much more sustained melody, without the
risk of creating clashing harmonies or muddy sound.

Bonus Tip

As a bonus tip, we will discuss the use of the una corda, or soft pedal on a grand piano which is the
pedal on the left. Una corda means, “one string” because in early pianos, there were 2 strings on each
note. Depressing the pedal shifted the hammers so that the hammers only struck one string on each
note. Modern pianos have 3 strings on each note in most registers. The hammers still hit all the strings,
but not directly. This results in a softer initial attack. Yet the sustain is just as rich because of sympathetic
vibrations. By combining this pedal technique with the use of the arm, as well as the other techniques I
described earlier, you can overcome the inherent limitation of the piano’s sonic characteristics.
In conclusion, the single greatest challenge in piano playing is the envelope of the sound produced by
the piano. However, by mastering the art of illusion, and combining techniques such as using the weight
of the arm and using your fingers to hold notes (phantom pedal), you can overcome this limitation and
create a beautiful, sustained sound. This is the secret of artistry in piano playing.
I hope this has been helpful for you! Leave your comments here at LivingPianos.com and on YouTube!
Thanks again for joining me, Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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8 thoughts on “The Single Greatest Challenge of Piano Playing”


 
 

  1. How does one change the amount of arm weight applied to various notes of a phrase?

    Regarding phantom pedal, if the left hand is holding harmony notes with the fingers to simulate pedaling, but the right hand is actually pedaling at the same time, how is this different than playing with the left hand normally?

    Upon understanding the above, I would like to know how phantom pedaling increases melody sustain.

    My understanding of the una corda pedal on a modern piano is that by shifting the action rightward, the hammers strike two of three unison strings (and one of two strings, or the right half of single strings). In contrast, your article stated that all three unison strings are struck by the hammers.

    1. When using the “Phantom Pedal” technique, you aren’t pedaling the same way when you so add the pedal. Instead of pedaling to connect notes in the left hand, the left hand is holding notes with fingers instead of using the pedal to sustain notes. This frees you up to use the pedal to enhance longer melody notes instead of relying upon the pedal to connect left hand notes. Since the pedal makes notes resonate from the sympathetic vibrations of all the strings of the piano since it lifts all of the dampers. This enhances these notes with more sustain creating a more singing line.

      If you look inside a piano and depress the una corda pedal, you will see that the hammers still strike all 3 strings, but not directly. So the softer part of the hammer strikes the part of the hammers that don’t have the grooves which are compacted felt from the hammers striking strings. These grooves create a harder surface which creates a more strident sound than the shifted part of the hammers which have softer felt. This is what creates the change of tone.

      Pianos that are played a great deal will have deeper, harder grooves. So the change of tone will be far more pronounced when depressing the soft pedal than new pianos which haven’t developed the grooves as deeply yet.

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