In piano songs a soft tone is special because of the significant impact it gives to the overall experience of the music despite its subdued almost fragile nature.
A soft tone has an element of attractiveness to it that warms the frostiest of hearts, drawing it closer. I find my latest squeeze irresistible when she whispers sweet nothings into my ears in her soft voice. Mozart probably experienced something similar inspiring him to insert the playing instruction 'piano' in the opening note to the phrase shown in Image 1 below from Rondo Alla Turca.
‘Nothing worthwhile is easy’…so does the saying go. Truth be told, playing a phrase pianissimo or piano is harder compared to playing it fortissimo or forte. The reason is; controlling the amount of force exerted when playing soft, which in effect is holding back strength is difficult to accomplish. Hitting a key as strong as I want is easy because there is no need to ration the force exerted.
Strike a key too strong the softness escapes, too soft I risk not making a sound. To overcome this, I practiced at the lowest level, I like call it level zero, by pressing the keys silently. That is, not making a sound, but making sure to press with firmness all the way down to the bottom of the keybed until I felt the sensation of the wood underneath.
I would repeat the process in the exact same way but with a twist, by adding a soft sound to it. Continue to repeat it, each time making the soft sound only slightly louder. Gradually raising the volume ever so slightly with each repetition until I got to the pianissimo sound I want.
“Play soft” …how hard can it be? So I thought when taking instructions from my piano teacher many years ago. In practising piano songs, a straightforward task such as playing soft too required setting clear goals on how to achieve it as described in the paragraphs above. Succeed by not departing from the ordained path, along the way making corrections immediately until they are fully accomplished.
Relatively speaking playing soft is harder than playing loud because of the need to hold back strength. The way to get better at this is by using the weight of the arms as the source of the strength and the wrists to control it.
The wrist is capable of 2 movements; up-down and side-to-side. Keep its position at the same level as the arm with the arm parallel to the ground. The ground covers a wide area so the arms are free to move in any direction. When intending to press a key soft, use the wrist’s up-down motion to land the fingers and hand on the keys in a controlled descend all the way to the bottom of the keybed.
After reaching the bottom of the keybed release the effort, lift the arm slowly and flick the wrist upwards gently to move the hand away from the keys – resulting in a controlled ascend that is not sudden, in turn maintaining the softness of the sound.
I desire a natural expression to the soft sound, so even though I am using the wrist’s up-down movement to press the keys softly, to avoid tension in my playing, I also use its ability to move side-to-side making adjustments together with the arm’s circular motion to generate a free and loose piano playing. The opposite is; when the hands are fixed in one place, playing with piston fingers causing tension and risking injury.
One way a pianist delivers a performance that is musically satisfying is by varying the tone in the sound. Press silently all the way down to the keybed, insert the soft sound later, apply the wrists’ up-down and lateral movements combined with the broad range of the arms’ own movement to produce a soft sound that holds the attention and carries away the listener. A soft tone is special because of the significant impact it gives to the overall experience of the music despite its subdued almost fragile nature.