Robert Estrin - piano expert

How to Play Softly on the Piano

Useful tips to play quietly on your piano.

In this video, concert pianist Robert Estrin gives you a way to approach soft piano playing.

Released on May 15, 2013

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DISCLAIMER: The views and the opinions expressed in this video are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Virtual Sheet Music and its employees.

Video Transcription

Hello! I'm Robert Estrin here at and with a technique video.

How do you control quiet playing on the piano? There's an artistry to this. Now first of all, your piano must be impeccably regulated and voiced to even attempt a real pianissimo because if the notes don't respond mechanically or sonically, uniform from note to note, how can you possibly get quiet? You can't, because some notes will fall off before others. Now I've had the good fortune of playing absolutely superbly regulated and voiced pianos from the time I was born because my father, Morton Estrin, was a concert pianist. So we always had great pianos at home and whenever he played concerts I'd go and get the chance to try the pianos at his recording sessions and such.

So I'm going to start off by telling you a little bit about what I learned from my father. Well, my father has many recordings of Rachmaninoff and Scriabin and Brahms, and who had a reputation for being able to fill the largest halls with tremendous sound. In fact, smaller concert halls were sometimes not big enough for his massive fortissimos that he could get. Just when you thought everything was as loud as it could be, there were other levels possible. But the other secret about my father's playing is his control of pianissimo which is really unparalleled.

I've heard very few pianists ever who dared to play that quietly because it takes a lot of courage as a performer. When you're in a hall with an audience, if you play that quietly you're demanding their attention because everybody has to sit very still and not even ruffle their feet or anything because to hear, but when you do that the expressive capabilities are just ... they make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up because of the beauty of the tone.

So how do you achieve this? How can you possibly achieve that quiet playing and still get the control, the line, the singing? Well, back to my father and how he described to me, 'cuz I studied with my father until I went away to music conservatory after high school, and he describes the pianissimo playing. Imagine the energy of the sun and you block it all out completely except for one pinhole, the energy that comes through there, that is one description of a pianissimo line on the piano, or any instrument for that matter.

As a French hornist, I was a double major at the Manhattan School of Music in French horn and piano. Playing softly requires actually as much if not more energy on a wind instrument than playing loud because when you're playing loud you take a big breath and you blow it out! When you play softly, you take a big breath and put it under some tension with your diaphragm to support the airflow, and that's how you control it on a wind instrument.

So what is the analog for the piano? That's what I'm about to show you. The secret of the piano, of getting a singing line, is the fact that you have to have something that mimics the breath of a wind instrument or singing or the bow of a violin. Some way to get from note to note with consistency. Now, you might think you can just calculate each note and try to play the same level or gradually a little bit more in each key to get a crescendo or a little bit less in each key to get a decrescendo, but you know what? If you take that approach you'll end up with calculated sounding playing, you will not get a singing line.

So the secret is using the weight of the arm and transferring the weight from finger to finger, and when playing pianissimo, staying close to the keys with a minimal amount of motion. Yes, with arm weight, and it's the arm weight that enables you to control the pianissimo.

So, for example, if I played, let's see, what would be a good example? I'll play the beginning of the Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise and get a sustained pianissimo line on top and see how when I'm playing the notes, even though I've struck the key you'll think "Oh, you're done with it!" No need to have any kind of weight on the key. Just the opposite.

The only way you're going to be able to get a transfer from note to note, particularly in a slow pianissimo melody, is by having that weight on one note so that the weight can transfer to the next finger and still sound at exactly the level that you imagine up here, creating the illusion of line because yes, folks, the piano is strictly, technically not capable of a true singing line because every note is fading away as soon as you play it, even on the finest piano. So it is an illusion and here is how you can achieve it using the arm weight.

I'd love to play the whole piece for you on this wonderful piano. In fact, there is a performance of me playing the complete Andante Spianato et Grande Polonaise that you can check out for yourself to hear the subtleties of expression that are possible when you utilize the weight of the arm, keep the fingers close to the keys, use a minimal amount of energy.

Thanks for joining me! Robert Estrin here at and Thanks for joining me!
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Carol Ebert * VSM MEMBER * on August 26, 2015 @4:57 pm PST
Bravo! I just listened to your U Tube performance of this wonderful piece. You make it look so easy! (And [excuse me] it ain't! Thank you for the teaching on sustained pianissimo. It will help as I'm learning the Andante Spianato now, and slowly reading through the Polonaise. My goal is to be able to play it when I'm 100! (Just turning 79) Love it, love it!
Zuhair Bakdoud on September 5, 2013 @8:07 am PST
Thank you for your realistic and practical advice you gave me about finding a piano technician.
Zuhair Bakdoud on September 2, 2013 @10:16 am PST
Robert, I wonder if you could explain what "regulating" a piano means? I have a 9-foot Steinway grand piano, but there are no Steinway technicians in my town of Fayetteville, NC (a military town, adjoining Fort Bragg, NC). Even the city of Raleigh, NC, does not have a good technician (I have tried him: he is no better than ANY run-off-the-mill piano technician, sorry to be so blunt). How can I find a competent piano technician? Kristian Zimerman became a piano technician, IN ORDER to be able to "fix" his piano to be the way he wants it... Obviously, you are such a FORTUNATE human being in this respect: you know how to "take" care of your wonderfully maintained pianos...
Robert Estrin * VSM MEMBER * on September 2, 2013 @11:14 am PST
If there are no competent piano technicians where you live, you can only hope that a good technician travels through your area. If there are any concert level pianos anywhere in town, find out who maintains them. Schools, larger churches, performance venues, orchestras, art centers and serious teachers are all good resources to check out. If there are any pianos in good shape in town, there is hope that someone services the instrument and you may connect with them.
Nancy Forbes on May 22, 2013 @2:15 pm PST
I really like your wonderful videos. I have been playing piano for many years, but I always learn more from your instructions. Thank you so much.
Dr. Rivkah Roth on May 15, 2013 @7:37 am PST
loved your descriptions and the sun ray...
or, as my teacher Prof. Jewssey Wulf (1889-1970) used to remind us... "the pianissimo is a suffocated cry!"
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