A Pianist’s Means of Expression

Tobias Matthay taught how a pianist's means of expression was achieved.

A pianist’s means of expression allows them to communicate their feelings about a piece of music to the listener.

If you have these tools, then you are a pianist.

You may be filled with music in your soul, and have a great feeling for all music.

But unless you can express those feelings through the piano, you are not a pianist.

Even musically gifted pianists are often crippled by bad muscular habits. A lack of physical knowledge about the piano and their own physical equipment limits their means of expression.

One great piano teacher who saw this truth was Tobias Matthay, who taught piano in England at the Royal Academy of Music from 1876 to 1925.

I was a student of one of his assistants and protege, Denise Lassimonne.

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I spent many a happy hour in her music library.  As a young piano student I studied Matthay’s private manuscripts and explored, through them, the great sonic secret that Matthay had unearthed.

Matthay’s motto was, “Every effect must have a cause.” Thus, if a pianist seeks expression of a certain feeling, they must have the means and tools to make this a reality.

Matthay saw pianists attributing a great sound at the piano to what were almost “occult influences.” This “mystery” was offensive to Matthay, who saw everything as a problem that had an actual solution, separate from “supernatural” influences.” Everything at the piano has a cogent explanation. There is no mystique.

Mastery at the piano was supposedly unattainable for all but the few illuminati who had devoted their lives to experimentation, and what made a great sound at the piano was regarded as mystery.

There were many “schools” of thought about how to produce a beautiful sound at the piano. Some help the hand high, while others, Glenn Gould and Horowitz among them, held the hand flat, in contradiction to every basic rule of the piano.

In other words, pianists had no idea how they were producing the myriad of sounds at the piano. It was Matthay who first tried to scientifically determine how a pianist makes various sounds at the piano.

The first revelation was the source of tone quality, or volume.

Most had speculated that it came from the weight of the hand or fingers on the keys. The reason for this was that most pianists had the sensation of weight and variations in that weight when playing the piano.

A loud sound felt heavier than a soft sound, and a soft sound felt lighter in the “weight” of the hand. Thus the prime means of expression for a pianist was thought to be the weight of the hand and arm.

But Matthay proved the actual source of variety of tonal color was the velocity with which the key was depressed, not the sensation of weight. It took years of experimentation to come to this conclusion, and it is a fact that is still disputed today.

A pianist may have the sensation of weight, but the operative factor that determines the tone quality of a key is the velocity with which it is depressed.

One of his great discoveries was that the wrist must be help loosely, not clamped and tight. This loose “grip”  allows the pianist to feel the velocity of each stroke of the fingers, this controlling the volume and tone.

Matthay recognized that almost all good pianists arrived at the right personal piano technique by a process of trial and error.

His life’s work was to codify and make logical the physical steps one must take to play with the widest possible palette of color and sound, saving the pianist those needless years of trial and error.

Because all of Matthay’s observations were physical, and are easy to verify, he is an historic figure in the lore of piano pedagogy.

A part of his legacy is a group of simple physical formulae for attaining the greatest possible expression at the piano.

But as to being a great musical artist, Uncle Tobs is said to have remarked, “The rest is up to you.”

Copyright 2010 Walden Pond Press


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