How do you teach piano students to play with a rich, beautiful tone?
It’s a skill that is fundamental to the more complex artistry tasks such as voicing, balance, and expressive phrasing. A singing tone quality elevates a very elementary piece instantly and makes your earliest beginners sound much more accomplished.
But we’ve all had students that just seem to tiptoe across the keys, or poke at the keys, or even worse…bang! How do we teach them to play that oftentimes elusive cantabile?
It’s a linear idea that we are trying to produce with a vertical mechanism, and the subtleties of technique involved here could get really…well, technical.
That is not my aim for this article. I would like to examine a few ways that we can begin to introduce this concept, a concept which will be a lifelong quest for each pianist, to even our most beginner students.
Beautiful tone production comes from the proper use of the whole body, everything working together in the most relaxed and efficient way.
Therefore, proper seat height and posture must be achieved first. Students should then learn the feeling of grounded relaxation at the piano. I’ll talk about that more in a moment.
The fingers must be strong, supported by a flexible, supple wrist and forearm, and guided by the weight of a heavy, relaxed arm and shoulder.
Let’s look at how we can work on these ideas with our beginners.
First up, the concept of grounded relaxation at the piano. That is the feeling of relaxing down into the bench and feeling the feet grounded into the earth. We cannot relax fully without that support, something to relax into. So we want our students to feel supported, grounded, and relaxed.
Many students seem to automatically approach the piano with tension, but we can help them learn relaxation techniques, which will surely be invaluable in all areas of their lives.
A fun activity for the youngest ones is to turn on some relaxing music and have them move freely around the studio, encouraging smooth, sweeping, arm movements. For slightly older students, you may have them sit at the piano and alternately tense and relax certain areas of the body, perhaps starting at the top with the face and moving all the way down to the toes.
You can use a cute fuzzy or puzzle eraser to then check certain areas for tension. As Mr. Fuzzy lands on the shoulder he asks the student if his shoulders are relaxed; if they’re not, he casts his magic spell to make the shoulders fall asleep.
We may also remind our students to breathe throughout the lesson. And as we model breathing and slow, relaxed movements, our students will follow our cues.
Strong fingers can be talked about until we’re blue in the face, but here’s a fun way to help students discover the feeling of strong fingers.
I found this activity in Faber’s My First Piano Adventure Lesson Book A years ago. You balance on a particular fingertip and pretend to press a chocolate chip into some cookie dough. So I will usually pull out some playdough and actually have the student push real chocolate chips into the playdough without collapsing the finger joints and while using a whole arm motion.
Then we eat some chocolate chips ( not the ones in the playdough, of course)!! The playdough provides some resistance to help the student feel the strength of the fingers better as well as the weight of the arm.
A similar activity could be done using some noisy putty. Have the student push a finger through the noisy putty using a relaxed and fluid wrist and arm movement and not collapsing their finger joints. This one will have you both giggling, guaranteed, doubling as a tension tamer!
Next, let’s talk about arm weight. How do you teach a beginner to play with relaxed, heavy arms?
I have read about and tried many different ways, but I have a new current favorite. I discovered this one while watching YouTube videos of superstar teacher Irina Gorin working with her students. Irina is the creator of the series for young beginners, Tales of a Musical Journey.
Now back to arm weight, You need a large soft rubber band or hairband. We’re talking elastic headband size, not ponytail holder. You place one over your student’s wrist and suspend their arm in the air by pulling the elastic up.
The elastic gives them something to relax into. Once they relax fully, you can guide their arm up and down, side to side, fast and slow. They can do this at home with a parent also. With frequent repetition, they will really memorize that feeling of total arm relaxation.
From there, you can add dropping into keys while you are holding the elastic. That will also test out their strong fingers! Once they drop into a key with a firm fingertip, they need to learn to relax everything else instantly.
Then, when you pull their arm back into the air, it should hang loose and relaxed once again. Be careful to make sure the hand and fingers are just hanging on the way up. The elastic activity is teaching not only arm weight, but also flexible wrist motion.
In addition, here is one more activity to work on fluid, relaxed wrists.
Have your student set up her right hand with thumb on middle C. While depressing that key, she makes a circular motion with the wrist: first down into the key, then around to the right, then up and back around to the left. Next she uses that circular wrist motion to play the D with finger 2, again holding the note with a strong finger while circling with a loose wrist. Work up through all 5 fingers and then back down to the thumb. It is thrillingly relaxing for the wrists!
Relaxed body, firm fingers, arm weight, and fluid wrist motions are the basic mechanics to learn for beautiful tone quality and can easily be introduced to beginners.
But beyond learning the mechanics, and equally as important, we must also train their ears to learn what a beautiful tone quality sounds like. They need to know what they are striving for! This will come from much demonstrating in lessons and listening to quality recordings often at home.
Renowned Russian pianist and pedagogue, Theodor Leschetizky, said about tone quality:
“One does not win people’s hearts only with runs of scales and fast thirds, but rather with a noble singing style, clear and powerful, gentle and soft.”
Let us all hope to impress upon our students the importance of a beautiful, singing tone quality at the piano!