Robert Estrin - piano expert

Why Practicing the Piano is Different From Other Instruments

Interesting distinctions

In this video, Robert illustrates the ways in which the piano is different from other instruments.

Released on March 31, 2021

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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

Welcome to Robert Estrin here, with a really interesting subject today, why practicing the piano is different from all other instruments? I actually majored both in piano and French horn in conservatory. In fact, all through my childhood, I was completely obsessed with both instruments, dividing my time. And I think what I loved about the French horn and the piano was how completely different they were from each other. And in regards to practicing, it's a completely different experience. Practicing the horn, it's about tone production, intonation, and being able to play at any volume, at any register and control and getting that beautiful sound. It's just all about that.

Now, interestingly on the piano, just getting basic tone production is the easiest of just about any instrument. You push a key and it sounds pretty good. Try that on a flute, just getting a sound out of it is really tough. Just holding a violin is so hard. Other instruments have tremendous challenges. For example, double reed players like bassoonists and oboists spend a tremendous amount of time just crafting reeds, either making their own reeds or refining reeds that they get from others, with meticulous carving with knives, trying to get just the right response out of the reed.

Vocalists have to study languages and diction. Think about the hours spent doing that, yet there is only so much you can practice singing before you will tire your voice. There is a limit to how much you practice, but there is a tremendous amount of research that goes into understanding what you're singing, if you're singing in other languages, and being able to keep everything fluid, staying healthy because you are the instrument. And every instrument has the challenges. What the big challenge on the piano is, is the music because the piano, fundamentally, it's easier to play basic tone production, but the music makes up for it with its great complexity.

The vast majority of time spent on the piano, as a classical musician, is spent learning scores. And that is the process. Now I mentioned French horn. On French horn, there's a tremendous amount of warmups, slow arpeggios. Things like long tones on wind instruments are essential. My wife is a flutist and she doesn't miss a day of doing her long tones. What are long tones? Long tones are swells from very, very soft to very, very loud, back to very, very soft on every single note on the instrument. And this is a way to develop the control so if you have a decrescendo, you can maintain the pitch and the beauty of the sound by practicing each and every note. The piano, of course, we don't have those issues. We don't have those capabilities. It's going to be fading out, pretty much no matter what you do.

A great deal of time is spent on the instrument itself, just developing the physiology of the lips. There's an old saying with French horn that, "Skip a day and you know it. Skip two days, your section players know it. Skip three days, everyone knows it." I know that times that I've gone on vacation and gotten away from the horn and had to come back to it, it can take weeks, weeks, to get into the same shape, because the muscles of the lips are so delicate that you can't just practice and practice until you're back in shape because you'll blow your chops where you can't play anything. Everything gets fatigued so you have to really baby your lips and keep them in great shape.

Now, in the piano there have been times I've gotten away from the piano and coming back to it, at first, my fingers feel kind of sloppy and not very strong, but I just keep playing. Make sure I don't tax myself too much. After a day or two, I'm right back there. Everything kind of comes back pretty easily. But what is it about piano practice? It's learning scores, and it is a meticulous process. One of the reasons I loved practicing French horn so much is that I could just concentrate on pure sound, the beautiful rich tone of the instrument, which becomes a trademark of your own personality. Just the sound you get on one note.

On the piano, this just isn't the case. On the piano, it's very challenging mental work. Practicing on the piano, if you're doing it right, is a tremendous mental challenge, assimilating notes and scores and music, being able to think of complex arrangements that have polyphony and counterpoint and bringing out different lines. Now, it's true that other keyboard instruments have some of the same challenges. As an organist, you even have the pedals. However, what you don't have, is having to play balancing notes and lines within a texture. If you're playing, for example, a four part chorale, bringing out different lines, just playing a simple chord progression. I'll show you what I mean. I can bring out the soprano line, the alto line, the tenor line or baseline. You can do this simply by reaching with your fingers. Obviously, the most obvious is to bring out the top line.

The same exact chord progression can be played bringing out the alto line instead of the top line, the one second to the top.

Played exactly the same notes, but now I called your attention to the alto line. Now for the tenor line, which is the second to the bottom line which, in this particular arrangement, I'm doing it with my right hand, the bottom fingers of my right hand.

And naturally, the base can also be brought out.

Now, that's just extremely basic, because balancing isn't necessarily just bringing out one line, it's being aware of all of them and controlling them. In order to get that kind of control, you have to really know the score. It's studying the music to develop that control. Are there techniques or exercises that can help with that? Somewhat, but there's no substitute for spending the time really learning the score, really knowing it so well that you have control of all the notes, literally under your fingertips. And that's what makes piano practice unique of all instruments. I'm interested in all of you and all of you who play other instruments. Let me know how you feel about practicing those instruments compared to practicing the piano and how it feels different to you.

Once again, I'm Robert Estrin. This is, your online piano resource. There is lots coming your way. Big news for you. I'm glad to have all of you subscribers and my Patreon subscribers. You ask questions. I make videos for you. We'll see you next time. Thanks for joining me.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

cdw * VSM MEMBER * on April 3, 2021 @7:26 am PST
as a dutchman i try to understand all what you are telling but one word a don't understand namely 'scores', what you mean by that?
At quite old age of 60 i learned for about 5 years to play violin and it was difficult but enjoying and now for a few months i play the piano at age 71 and still like it all. I am not a great player of music but a fan of just making music , now it is boogie woogie i like.
Robert - host, on April 6, 2021 @12:48 pm PST
The score is the printed sheet music. It is the source you must constantly refer to when learning a piece of music.
Kathleen Carroll * VSM MEMBER * on April 1, 2021 @9:11 am PST
Robert, is there a simplistic way of explaining to us how a 4-part chorale work with piano operates? Sometimes the melody is carried by the sopranos, sometimes the altos or tenors, and it can switch back and forth amongst them during the piece. The accompanist on piano (or organ) is so important to the singers, yet he or she isn't usually playing the same notes as the individual vocal parts. If the keyboard player makes mistakes in the score, it throws everyone off, even if the singers do know their parts well. Thanks. Kathleen
Anne Davids * VSM MEMBER * on March 31, 2021 @2:20 pm PST
Insightful video, thank you! I do not play another instrument, only the piano. I am 68 years old, returning to the piano after a break of 50+ years. The mental aspect of playing is quite overwhelming at times. I am taking lessons and am at conservatory level 3, however I am playing pieces that are probably two levels up, as extra practice. It is very challenging! Paying attention to everything at once, including learning the score, is quite an adventure. The joy of all the hard work is a great deal of daily practice, and the experience of it all falling together slowly but surely. If my mind is the least bit distracted, it all falls to pieces.
Robert - host, on April 1, 2021 @4:37 pm PST
You may want to consider studying some pieces you can master in a relatively short amount of time. It is really satisfying! And if you continue in that manner, the level of music you study will grow over time.
Anne Davids * VSM MEMBER * on April 1, 2021 @5:49 pm PST
Thanks so much Robert. Makes total sense!
Steve Borcich * VSM MEMBER * on March 31, 2021 @10:56 am PST
I've played several instruments in my lifetime: violin, piano, trumpet, alto sax and guitar. Each instrument requires a different approach to practicing. The trumpet is the most physically demanding of them. The piano is more mentally demanding than the other instruments.
Robert - host, on March 31, 2021 @12:39 pm PST
You are exactly right. Each instrument has its own challenges.
Geri on March 31, 2021 @7:20 am PST
Very interesting video, thanks! I started piano at age 7 and violin at age 9 (adding and concentrating on viola in collage, plus sang alto solos in the choruses). Each of these afforded me different avenues of study and enjoyment in music making (like you, the string instruments let me concentrate and make lovely sounds - I often wish I had tried my hand at the oboe or bassoon!). I think that everyone who plays an instrument other than piano, should also learn piano and see how it can broaden their horizons.
Oh, FYI, I have degrees in Physics and Materials Science and started working in the semiconductor industry in 1978. Married to another musician/engineer who re-started his composition career (long story) when he retired from high-tech. Can check out his horn and piano concertos at (the horn concerto won first prize from the horn society one year).
Graeme Costin * VSM MEMBER * on March 31, 2021 @5:39 am PST
Thank you for your fascinating insight! A teacher of jazz harmony once played for me a recording of a contemporary classical pianist -- I could hear three distinct volume levels at the same time for various parts in the music from that skilful pianist. Impossible on any other keyboard instrument!

As an amateur theatre organist I am well aware that organists playing that genre of music need to develop the ability to read piano music and convert it on the fly to an arrangement for pedals and two or more manuals. A professional theatre organist commented that less than 20 people in the world have the ability to properly handle the 17 different thought processes involved in concert-level theatre organ!
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