Why Practicing the Piano is Different From Other Instruments

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Welcome to LivingPianos.com, I’m Robert Estrin. The subject today is about how practicing the piano is different from practicing on all other instruments. I majored in both piano and French horn in conservatory. In fact, all through my childhood I was completely obsessed with both instruments. I think what I loved about the French horn and the piano was how completely different they were from each other. And in regards to practicing, it’s a completely different experience. Practicing the horn is about tone production, intonation, being able to play at any volume, with any articulation, at any register with control, and getting a beautiful sound.

Basic tone production on the piano is the easiest of just about any instrument!

On the piano, you push a key and it sounds pretty good. With flute, getting a sound out at all is really tough! Just holding a violin correctly is incredibly difficult. Other instruments have tremendous challenges. For example, double reed players like oboists and bassoonists spend a tremendous amount of time crafting reeds, either making their own reeds or refining reeds they get from others. This requires meticulous carving with knives to get just the right response out of the reeds. Vocalists have to study languages and diction. Think about the hours spent doing that, yet there is only so long you can practice singing before you will tire your voice. But there is a tremendous amount of research that goes into understanding what you’re singing in other languages, and being able to express content appropriately. You also have to stay healthy, because you are the instrument! Every instrument has challenges. The big challenge with piano is the music.

The piano is fundamentally easier to play, but the music makes up for it with its great complexity.

As a classical pianist, the vast majority of your time is spent learning scores. On French horn, there’s a tremendous amount of warmups involved in practicing. Things like long tones on wind instruments are essential. My wife is a flutist and she doesn’t miss a day of doing her long tones. What are long tones? Long tones are slow swells from very, very soft to very, very loud, back to very, very soft on every single note on the instrument. This is a great way to develop control on a wind instrument. So if you have a decrescendo, you can maintain the pitch and beauty of the sound by practicing each and every note consistently. On the piano, of course, we don’t have those issues. We don’t even have those capabilities!

With French horn, a great deal of time is spent on the instrument itself developing the physiology of the lips. There’s an old saying about French horn, “Skip a day and you know it. Skip two days, your section players know it. Skip three days, everyone knows it!” After a break from French horn, it can take weeks to get back into shape! The muscles of the lips are so delicate. You can’t just practice and practice until you’re back in shape, because you’ll blow your chops and then you can’t play anything! Your facial muscles become fatigued. So you have to really baby your lips and keep them in great shape. After a break from the piano, at first your fingers feel kind of mushy and lack strength. But just keep playing. Make sure you don’t tax yourself too much. After a day or two, you should be right back in shape. Everything should come back pretty easily.

What is so different about piano practice?

With piano you’re learning scores, and it is a meticulous process. One of the reasons I loved practicing French horn so much is that I could concentrate on pure sound, the beautiful rich tone of the instrument. The sound you get out of each note becomes a trademark of your own personality. On the piano, this just isn’t the case. Practicing the piano, if you’re doing it right, requires tremendous mental effort. You’re assimilating notes and scores and music. You must be able to think through complex arrangements that have polyphony and counterpoint and bring out different lines. Now, it’s true that other keyboard instruments have some of the same challenges. As an organist, you even have the pedals! However, you don’t have to balance notes and lines within a texture. For example, if you’re playing a four part chorale, you have four different lines. You can bring out the soprano line, the alto line, the tenor line or the bass line. You can do this simply by reaching with your fingers. The most obvious is to bring out the top line. But you can emphasize any of the four lines, each one calling attention to different lines within the score.

But balancing isn’t necessarily just bringing out one line, it’s being aware of all of the lines and controlling them.

In order to get that kind of control, you have to really know the scores. You have to study the music to develop that level of control. Are there techniques or exercises that can help with that? Somewhat. But there’s no substitute for spending a great deal of time really learning scores. You want to know the score so well that you have control of all the notes literally under your fingertips! And that’s what makes piano practice unique! I’m interested in your opinions on this subject. If you play other instruments, as well as the piano, let me know how you feel about practicing those instruments compared to practicing the piano and how it feels different to you. I’m Robert Estrin here at LivingPianos.com, Your Online Piano Resource.

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