Watch a pianist’s hands. They seem to be performing a wordless ballet, conjuring up a magical being with crossing, fluttering fingers and hands.
Sometimes the fingers stay on the keys, while at other times they take flight across the keyboard like a ballerina, each finger landing in the exact ¾ inch wide space that is a single piano key.
Notice that the pianist’s whole body seems involved in the music. The arms, the torso, the head all seem connected to secret puppet strings moving in time.
At times the pianist hunches over, as if wanting to merge with the keyboard. Then, alternately, the torso rears back from the keys, as if a woodsman needed a solid perch from which to drive a heavy blow.
The two hands almost never do the same thing, as if they were a ballet team involved in a single dance that makes no sense without both of them contributing their unique swath of notes.
Then observe the eyes, involved in a flurry of micro-movements. Playing the piano often involves having to look more than two places at the same time.
Pianists solve this problem by looking out of the corner of their eye, and looking incredibly quickly for one or two principal notes that must be observed for a split second or risk disaster.
Sometimes the hands cross over each other, or become entangled in the same area of the keyboard. Chopin is famous for places where the hands interlock, the two thumbs involved in their own inner ballet, crossing and re-crossing, under and over.
Each pianist works out subtleties of their own, fingering changes, even the disposition of notes from one hand to the other, all to suit the individual hand.
The pedals are another part, unseen and unheralded, but undeniably, according to the great Vladimir Horowitz, “They are the secret of the piano.” A great pianist uses them far more often than one would suspect.
Horowitz often spoke to his tuner and technician about the slightly “nasal” sound that his Steinway D (9 foot) made when the soft pedal (the left one) was only partially depressed. “Half-pedaling” as it is sometimes referred to, does indeed, on some pianos, yield a half-light, twilight sweet sound to certain pianissimo passages.
You can hear this effect used seamlessly, with perfect confidence and style on many pianist’s recordings, including Rubinstein and Horowitz.
Take a field trip and visit You Tube to see the wonderful array of world-class artists playing the piano, many where you can watch their hands. Do a search there for “classical piano.”
All pianists seem to be speaking the same language, in their own way, with their hands.
Copyright 2010 Walden Pond Press