Robert Estrin - piano expert

Three Secrets of Tone Production on the Piano

Learn three basic ways of producing tone on the piano

In this video, Robert talks about "tone production" on the piano. What does that mean? Watch the video below to find out!

Released on April 6, 2016

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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

Hi, welcome to I'm Robert Estrin with a great show today, Three Secrets of Tone Production on the Piano. The piano really is a unique instrument. I remember in third grade, I had a general music class. And at the end of the class, my teacher sometimes would let me play for the class which was always something I was really into. And one time, I remember asking, "Can I play for the class at the end?" And she said, "Well, I don't think we have time."

But the class was all about the classifications of instruments, the brass, the wood winds, the percussion, and the strings. And so at the end of the class, she went to me with a smug face, she said, "Okay, what classification is the piano in?" And something made me realize by the way she was asking that it wasn't the obvious string instrument that would have been what you'd think to say. So I thought about it for a moment and I, in all my wisdom at third grade, I said, "Percussion." And she was shocked and she had to let me play.

So yes, the piano is a percussion instrument. I digress for a very important reason. Because when playing a lyrical piece on the piano, to get a sense of a line, a singing tone, which is what all instruments ultimately imitate, the human voice, how do you do it on a piano where you play a note and it almost immediately is dying away? How can you get this round phrase like in a Chopin nocturne?

We're going to use the f-sharp major nocturne of Chopin to demonstrate three possible solutions. Now, while I'm showing you three ways, it's not a scientific method that you're going to say, "I'm going to choose method two and that's what I'm going to use." I'm just giving you a bag of tricks that you can use to explore things with. Ultimately, it is using your ears. But this can provide some excellent starting point for you.

So the first way to produce a singing line on a piano is simply to get louder towards the middle of the phrase and softer towards the end of the phrase. And this is done, not by calculating note to note, but by using the weight of the arm which increases towards the middle of the phrase and decreases the downward weight at the end of the phrase. And you get this kind of a sound which is quite beautiful.

This is really intrinsic to playing melodic music on the piano is the rise and the fall of the phrase. So you might wonder, what other types of tone production are possible to...evocative of the human voice? Well, another method is simply playing louder for the high notes and softer for the low notes. The reason why this works so beautifully is that when singing or playing most wind instruments, it's a natural tendency to have more volume as you get to higher notes because it takes more air and energy. And if you do that on the piano, you also create a beautiful sense of line. Listen to the difference.

So it creates a different sense of phrasing but beautiful and lyrical nonetheless.

The last method that I'm going to show you is something that is intrinsic to the piano and it's almost the art of illusion. In the hands of someone like Vladimir Horowitz for example, he utilizes this technique a great deal. I remember growing up, studying with my father Morton Estrin, and I was always enamored with Horowitz because it was a completely different type of tone production. And while this isn't can't just say, "Oh, Horowitz does this," because obviously an artist with a depth of Vladimir Horowitz had many, many different ways of approaching melody.

But one of them, I believe, is to simply play longer notes with more energy than shorter notes. Why does this make sense? Well, it comes back down to the physics of the sound of the piano. Notes that have to last longer, you have to play with more energy for them to last longer because they're fading away. If you do that on the piano, it actually works beautifully to create a sense of line, evening out the sound of longer notes that carry through to the faster notes.

Now there's subtle difference in expressions, those three different methods. I suggest you experiment with your music and try these methods and see what is really genuine for you. Ultimately at the end of the line, you just listen and you do not calculate any of these methods in your performance. These are just jumping off points to give yourself ideas of what might work, to give yourself an arsenal of expressive tools you can use in your playing.

Thanks so much for joining me. I'm Robert Estrin, once again here at See you next time.
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Comments, Questions, Requests:

Michael Prozonic * VSM MEMBER * on October 2, 2019 @4:41 pm PST
The piano is a percussion instrument so what is the harpsichord? and the pipe organ?
Robert Estrin - host, on October 5, 2019 @1:41 pm PST
The harpsichord is a plucked string instrument. It doesn't fall neatly into the macro instrument groups: string, woodwind, brass and percussion.

The organ is indeed a wind instrument. However, it is also unique since it is not blown as woodwind and brass instruments are.

Both of these instruments can also be classified as keyboard instruments.
fulvia * VSM MEMBER * on April 6, 2016 @5:26 am PST
Great lesson. Thanks. Espression is something I need to work on!
Eddie on April 6, 2016 @3:25 am PST
Why did Chopin have to write this nocturne if F# ? Would it have been so ruinous to the tone if it were in F or G ? I suppose the best way of handling it is to think in terms of which note i.e, B is not sharpened and automatically play all other notes sharp unless told otherwise with an accidental.
Robert - host, on April 6, 2016 @2:18 pm PST
Composers choose keys for pieces based upon how they sound in certain registers. Could this piece work a half-step higher or lower? Possibly. But Chopin determined what key sounds best.

To understand the significance of what key a piece is written in, just imagine if you were to transpose a piece up or down by a substantial amount. Obviously there would be great compromises in the tonality since some notes would be extremely higher or lower for optimal sound - a melody that isn't in the most singing register of the instrument or supporting bass that is either too low and muddy or too high to create a solid foundation. So, while the compromises of transposing a piece by a small amount is relatively small, there is no good reason to avoid playing in different keys on the piano other than avoiding becoming comfortable playing in all keys.

My suggestion is to acclimate yourself to playing in all keys. You can gain a great deal by learning all of your major and minor scales and arpeggios as well as playing basic chord progressions in all keys. Here is an article and video that may help you:
paul.plak * VSM MEMBER * on March 1, 2017 @2:12 pm PST
Hi Eddie, to me it makes a great difference in what I hear. Adding this half tone upwards just adds a lot of expectation, a kind of light. Think of tonality key as if music was a photograph. You can print them darker or lighter, it will be the same photograph, but you'll enjoy them in a very different way if it's in the darker, the middle or the higher tones. Of course in music it makes sight reading a lot harder, because the brain has made a link between the written note and the mainly white keys you have to press on the keyboard, and it's just more difficult to add the mental step remembering what's sharp an what's not. But it's just not exactly the same music. It sets a different mood.
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