How The Piano Works and Tone

I like to talk with my students in the very beginning stages of the piano study about how the piano works, what is tone, and how the action of the piano affects tone production. Understanding in a basic way how the piano works and its advantages and limitations can help significantly with understanding how to create a beautiful tone and also beginning technique.

How The Piano Works

The piano is a percussive instrument. An acoustic piano works by pressing a key that is attached to a hammer to hit a string and make it vibrate. When you play a key, the hammer “hits” the string causing it to vibrate and make a note sound. When you press the key with a little weight, you make a soft tone and when you use more weight, you make a louder tone. If you use a lot of sudden weight, the sound will be loud and percussive.

When you release a key, the damper comes back down on the string to stop it from vibrating. How quickly you release a key determines the quality of the note cessation as the string stops vibrating. If you release the key abruptly, you will have a sudden stop of the vibrating string, if you release the key slowly, you will have a gradual stop of the vibrating string.

When you press the damper pedal, all the individual string dampers stay up after the key is released so that the string will keep vibrating.

Basics of how a piano key works from the Piano Technician Academy
Basics of how piano pedals work on the piano from Cunninham Piano

Tone is the quality of sound produced by pianist

Sound on the piano is produced by pressing the keys with fingers to make hammers hit strings. Whether or not we consider the sounds produced to be beautiful depends on when the keys are pressed in time and how they pressed and released to create a musical idea. Pianists can create an infinite variety of moods with how they press and release their fingers from the keys.

It is important to remember how a piano works when trying to create a beautiful tone. For instance, pressing the key harder after the hammer strikes the string does nothing for the actual tone production. Having both temporal (where the note is in time) and physical control over the finger’s descent and release from the key in a musical context is required for quality tone production. In addition, having good overall posture, upper body and wrist positioning to help with decent and release of the fingers into the keys, and proper positions of the fingers themselves while pressing and releasing the keys all impact the ability of the pianist to produce good quality tone.

Use of the pedals also affect tone production.  Because all the individual string dampers stay up when the damper pedal is pressed even after the key is released,  more harmonics are heard as other strings vibrate “in sympathy” with the original string vibration. Depressing the Una corda pedal fully makes the entire hammer action shift to the right (on a grand piano), allowing the hammers to strike one string fewer than usual, therefore reducing the sound and resonance to produce a different quality of sound.

“The pianist can change tonal quality with his unlimited ability to mix many or few sounds with an infinite number of degrees of loudness and sound duration. Various degrees of overlapping legato will also enrich tone quality. The employment of the different pedals on the piano will have the same effect.”
– Reginald R. Gerig from “Famous Pianists and Their Technique”

“Music is a tonal art. It produces no visual image, it does not speak with words or ideas. It speaks only with sounds…….the best tone, and consequently the most beautiful, is the one which renders a particular meaning in the best possible manner.”
– Heinrich Neuhaus from “The Art of Piano Playing”

“Tone or sound on the piano is produced by pressing the keys with your fingers. It’s how this is executed that makes the difference. Not by hitting the keys or banging them. There are many aspects involved in good tone production. It’s important to know that it’s the whole body and mind that helps create the beautiful sound, not just the fingers. “
– Sonja Joubert,, Retrieved: 13 September 2020

“What is piano tone” by Josh Wright piano

How The Piano Works and Tone downloadable pdf

National Music Teacher Conference 2023

The National Music Teachers Association holds a conference every year in different parts of the country. The conference includes master classes, technology and informational sessions, pedagogy sessions, an exhibit hall, evening concerts, association meetings of various types, opportunities for networking, and awards banquets. The conference also features competitive performances of students in all instrument areas, as well as composition. This year’s conference was held in Reno, Nevada and was the first totally in-person conference since the pandemic. I think the welcoming speech by MTNA president, Karen Thicksun summed it up well when she said that having an in-person conference felt like “coming home”, and for me, a return to normalcy.

So, was the conference quite normal? I would answer, almost. The overall attendance was a little down, there weren’t quite as many exhibitors in the hall and the exhibits weren’t quite as grand as previously, but it was still quite a lot of fun for a piano teacher and “lifelong” student like myself. I attended 24 sessions in 3 full days (plus an evening and a 1/2 day), mostly on topics like practice effectiveness, piano pedagogy and techniques, performance anxiety, piano repertoire, and improvisation. Some sessions were fantastic, some were merely good, and some made me wish I had chosen a different session.

My favorite sessions in no particular order were:

  • Seeing the new “player” pianos from Yamaha and Steinway
    • This is an area of piano technology that I don’t see everyday as a private piano teacher. I mean who can afford to buy a $100,000+ piano for their studio that is both acoustic and totally digital other than University music schools. However, it was very fun to see this technology in action at the conference. Basically these new “player” pianos from Yamaha (Disklavier) and Steinway (Spirio) are a true acoustic pianos, so they can be played just like a regular acoustic piano, but in addition, they have the ability to make “high resolution” recordings or transmissions to other similarly equipped pianos. During the demonstrations, they were able to remotely play these pianos and also play previously made recordings on these pianos. It was amazing.
  • You Be the Judge – An Adjudication workshop by Clinton Pratt and Siok Lian Tan
    • I am not an adjudicator, but I think every piano teacher “adjudicates” their students performances every week at their lesson. So, a session on adjudication is especially helpful. I really liked how well-organized and useful this session was to me personally. The presenters provided an overall framework for adjudication concepts, gave a great list of evaluation criteria, summarized stylist criteria for different time eras, talked about vocabulary and tone when writing comments, gave advice on time management when adjudicating, and then went through video playing examples and then provided example adjudication comments. The vocabulary list for describing performances alone was worth attending this session. The presenters also provided their handouts for downloading which is always a great feature. I’m sure I will go back to my notes and handouts from this session and study them for use in my own studio when “adjudicating” my students in their lessons.
  • If You Like That, You’ll Love This! Piano Repertoire Alternatives for Overplayed Pieces by Kate Boyd
    • Learning new repertoire for students is always helpful. Kate Boyd’s presentation was very well organized and included a QR code for downloading her presentation which included the score of the music suggested as well as YouTube recordings of all the repertoire. In addition, all the lesser known repertoire was categorized by era and/or technical challenges. This is an incredibly useful list for piano teachers and I will be checking this list for repertoire for my students.
  • From Heart to Hands: How Mindfulness Can Revitalize Your Teaching by Laura Amoriello, Fernanda Nieto, Danette Whelan
    • This session was scheduled for the last half day of the conference and I didn’t have high hopes for the session, it just seemed to be a bit more appealing than the alternatives. However, this session turned out to be one of my favorites of the entire conference probably because of the presenters gave creative, concrete, and very useful ideas for how to deal with student stress levels in the studio and during performances. After the session, I immediately bought a packet of the mindfulness cards and the expanding ball for my studio. I’ve started talking to my students about practicing and playing confidently to make sure that they are always playing with confidence, even in practice. In addition, there were great ideas about how to use improvisation in the studio as therapeutic stress relief for students. It was a terrific session and I was glad I stayed the extra half day to attend.

I saw a lot of my fellow piano teachers looking a bit overwhelmed by all the information that was being presented at the conference. I personally like to take a lot of notes so that even if I can’t absorb everything immediately, I can at least go back and look over my notes later. The last time I attended the national conference, I tried to bring my laptop to all the sessions and take notes, but I had trouble with running out of power, incorporating handouts into my notes, etc. This time, my notetaking took a totally different approach. I took all my notes on paper during the sessions and then scanned my notes and handouts into pdfs using my phone. After scanning, I sent the pdfs to my computer and sorted them into my teaching resource topics folders on my laptop every evening. I also made a list of all the sessions that I attended at the conference, so I can remember everything that I attended and find my notes. Then, I just threw all my paper notes and handouts into the bin. This method is so much better then my previous note-taking method, thank goodness for my phone’s Scannable app.

One more thing, the performance Tuesday night by the young pianist, Drew Petersen, substituting at the last minute for Yefim Bronfman (suddenly unavailable due to illness) was amazing. Drew was the 2017 American Piano Society Pianist of the Year Winner and has the following website:

What is piano technique?

My favorite book on piano technique is  “What Every Pianist Needs To Know About The Body” by Thomas Mark. However, upon further investigation, I realized this book never describes itself as a book on technique, but rather as a book about how to move at the piano. When I reread the introduction, Mark actually says: “This is not a book about piano technique. I say little about how to play arpeggios and nothing about fingering the B-flat major scale in thirds.” and “The information in this book… brings about improved bodily awareness, a better quality of movement, and better piano playing.”

So, what is piano technique? I thought that how you move at the piano was imperative for proper technique which makes Thomas Mark’s book definitely a piano technique book for me. Reading that passage made me feel a little confused as to the definition of piano technique. I began to ponder the different definitions of piano technique (not for the first time) and subsequently felt need to create a definition that works best for me and my teaching.

Wikipedia’s definition of piano (musical) technique (paraphrased) is: “Musical technique is the ability of pianists to exert optimal control of their instrument in order to produce the precise musical effects they desire.” That’s a very broad definition and it includes all the mechanical ideas like posture, breathing, hand position, and even scales, but it also includes exactly everything. It’s kind of a wimpy definition because it is too general. For my teaching, I wanted a more workable definition of piano technique.

Another favorite reference book of mine is Gerald Klickstein’s book, “The Musician’s Way” and he defines technique a little differently: “The term “technique” refers to the means for executing musical ideas.”………”When we acquire robust technical skills, barriers to musical expression drop away. We internally “hear” musical gestures, and then we make those gestures ring out with a natural quality that seems effortless. Yet despite the spiritual nature of technical mastery, I find that aspiring musicians often confuse “technique” with “mechanics.” As a result, many students don’t develop the technical command that they need.”

So, if I interpret what Mr. Klickstein is saying, then he is admitting that having good technique means you have good mechanics, but that good mechanics is not enough. He wants to add an element of artistic vision to his definition of technique, because he thinks you can’t develop mechanics in total isolation from musical ideas. For instance, if you can play an absolutely beautiful arpeggio isolated from any composition, does that mean that your arpeggio will sound beautiful when trying to play Chopin’s Aeolean Harp Etude? I agree with Klickstein that artistic vision is an important concept for technique. It means we have to keep in mind the reasons why we are working on particular aspects of our mechanical technique and realize that technique is always subservient to the artistic demands of the music.

One of the greatest books ever written on piano technique is “Famous Pianists & Their Technique” by Reginald R. Gerig. This book is a compilation of insights into piano technique over the centuries of piano playing and pedagogy by all the great masters of the piano. Even better is that Chapter One discusses “The Meaning of Technique” with many useful quotations. After perusing this chapter, I discovered my favorite quote of all time on technique from Josef Hofmann: “Technique represents the material side of art, as money represents the material side of life. By all means achieve a fine technique, but do not dream that you will be artistically happy with this alone… Technique is a chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what he needs at the right time for the right purpose. The mere possession of the tools means nothing: it is the instinct – the artistic intuition as to when and how to use the tools – that counts. It is like opening the drawer and finding what one needs at the moment.”

I love this definition and allegory because it acknowledges that you do need a “mechanics” tool chest of technique just like you need money to live and fulfill your life. It also helps my understanding of technique to think that you could imagine a beautiful artistic vision inside your head, but without having a good technique tool chest, you may well lack the ability (or tools) to execute your vision. It makes having a good technique tool chest very appealing, so when you open the drawer, there is a tool already available to help.

Along the line of creating tools to fit the vision, Leon Fleisher says:
“It’s your musical ideas that form or decide for you what kind of technique you are going to use. In other words, if you are trying to get a certain sound, you just experiment around to find the movement that will get this sound. That is technique.”
I like this definition as well because it makes you realize that on some level you have to discover your own technique and when to use it. Even when a teacher shows you an excellent example to follow, you still have to make any technique part of your own personal tool chest. I have found in my practice that even if a teacher shows you how to move in a good technical way at the piano, you still have to understand how to make those movements and sounds your very own through practice and self-discovery. In addition, this quote implies you will encounter musical problems for which you don’t have a ready-made tool in your tool chest. A musician should expect to constantly being figuring out new tools and/or new uses for old tools for the various musical challenges posed by music.

And then there is this from Arnold Schultz:
“The general hostility to the idea of method derives much of its vitality, I believe, from a half-conscious and almost universal suspicion that there is a fundamental incompatibility between a mind interested in the mechanical phases of playing and a mind filled with what is loosely known as musical temperament. There is a fear, furthermore, that a persistent use of the reasoning mind in reference to the objective phenomena of technique results finally in the deterioration and atrophy of the subjective emotions upon which the interpreter’s art depends. This is not, I believe firmly, too bald a statement of the case. It explains the widespread custom of camouflaging purely technical instruction with references to expression marks and with what are often entirely gratuitous rhetorical flights on the beauty of the music in hand.” So, Schultz is highlighting for us suspicions that musicians who concentrate too much on the technical aspects of playing (left brain) and developing their tool box somehow forgo their ability to play with grand artistic vision (right brain).

Fortunately for us in the Gerig’s book, he examines both the empirical and metaphysical musical approaches and believes them to be entirely compatible and I agree. I don’t think concentrating on technical aspects of playing music will necessarily impair your artistic ability. However, I will admit that as someone who tends to be very analytical (left brained), I do need to practice being an artist and work on getting in touch with my emotional temperament (right brain). I freely admit to being jealous of my musician friends who just seem to have an effortless understanding of musical interpretations (right brained people), but I also think everyone brings something to the table and that helps to make every musical interpretation unique. Perhaps artists and teachers that don’t analyze their music thoroughly and just try to feel and hear the music in their heads are also missing certain elements of interpretation that would be available to them otherwise.

“Mastering Piano Technique” by Seymour Fink is not a book I refer to a lot, but it has a wonderful description of technique in its introduction and how it applies not just to the mature artist, but also to the student of piano.

“Technique is like grammar; once it is a part of you, you speak without conscious attention to it. In the same way, technical matters function below the conscious level in mature pianists. Experimenting first one way then another, pianists mine their deepest, most intuitive feelings about the music, seeking out a particular mood, tone color, or expressive nuance. Ultimately their inner musical thinking triggers the requisite movement so they experience no separation between muscular exertions and musical goals.

The circumstances of the novice differ radically from those of the seasoned player; consistent technical training must be made an integral part of the learning experience. When first coming to grips with the relatively awkward conditions surrounding purposeful movement at the keyboard, students should be instructed in a healthy and efficient use of their bodies. Poor technical training slows their rate of progress and inevitably limits pianistic growth.”

I love this description of technique because it applies to everyday pianists – the vast majority of us “piano mortals”. I have discovered that many of my piano teacher colleagues were students of accomplished teachers and were well-trained technically from an early age. For those lucky few, they learned early how to move well at the piano. Unfortunately, when I was younger, I wasn’t taught a usable piano technique and consequently thought I was not a “gifted” pianist. I never learned to play scales and arpeggios with ease at a young age. I thought my fingers were slow and didn’t realize that I could do exercises to work on finger speed and efficient movement. I simply didn’t know to listen for many of my thumb accents and even if I heard them, I didn’t have a lot of previous practice or tools for dealing with this issue. It is only now after many years of persistent practice and effort along with sound pedagogical instruction that I have managed to correct a lot of my original poor piano technique. So, you can understand why I’m a great believer in good instruction and understanding of technique. While I agree with piano pedagogues that talk about understanding their artistic interpretation before thinking about technique. I also believe it can help a lot to fill your technique toolbox early in your piano study, so your tool box isn’t empty when you finally start to think about your artistic visions. Not only that, but when you play with poor technique, it’s really hard to hear what you are playing without bias. You hear your thumb accents in your scales and believe it is normal. It is then difficult to develop an artistic vision of musical scales passages that really flow.

Getting back to “What Every Pianist Needs to know about the Human Body” by Thomas Mark, I’m going to disagree whole-heartedly with his narrow definition of technique. I believe understanding how your body works should be considered to be part of a pianist’s “technique” and a useful tool for the technique toolbox. For instance, if you understand that your body follows your head, it makes sense that when you are playing high notes at the piano, you would move your head toward the top of the piano knowing your body will follow. I believe technique encompasses everything about how to move at the piano because having a basic understanding of your hand anatomy, how to sit, and how to move (as covered by Mark’s book) means you have a solid foundation from which other aspects of your own personal piano technique can extend.

So, what is my new definition of piano technique?
Piano technique is the body positions and movements used to exert optimal control of the piano in order to produce desired musical ideas. Sound technique includes healthy and efficient use of the pianist’s body and needs to be taught from the very beginning of a student’s piano study. Pursuit of an excellent technique is a continual quest for an ever more complete chest of tools from which the skilled artisan draws what is needed in pursuit of an artistic vision.

Music and the Making of Modern Science by Peter Pesic

This is a book that explores the many-faceted role music has played in the historical development of western science. It is very well researched (with extensive footnotes) and could easily be used as the basis for a university level science/music history course. For anyone who likes science and believes music is more important in our lives and history than generally acknowledged, this book provides many concrete examples of the importance of music in the lives of ground-breaking scientists. In fact, there is a rather fun quote in the discussion of Schrodinger where “As his biographer observed, almost uniquely among theoretical physicists, Erwin not only did not play any instrument himself, but even displayed an active dislike for most kinds of music, except the occasional love song.” And then of course, even Schrodinger resorts at some point to musical analogies when describing the emission frequencies of hydrogen.

The book starts with the ancient Greeks and these early chapters were fascinating because at that point, the study of music and science had not differentiated. As pointed out in the first chapter, “The ancient Greek word mousike denoted the activities of all the Muses, vocal and instrumental art as well as the arts of poetry and dance, which the followers of Pythagorus then connected with their teaching that all is number, thereby also implying that all is music.” The chapter goes on to talk about early number theory inspired by musical intervals and also how Plato established the quadrivium curriculum of arithmetic, geometry, music, and astronomy as the basic liberal education of natural philosophers for millennia.

I’ve always enjoyed the story of Johannes Kepler searching for laws of planetary motions based on the famous “Harmony of the Spheres” idea. In Chapter 5, “Kepler and the Song of the Earth”, Kepler’s musical background and ideas on applying musical theory to planetary motion is thoroughly examined as he assigns a particular vocal part to each planet: Mercury – Soprano, Earth and Venus – Altos, Tenor – Mars, and Bass – Jupiter and Saturn. In this chapter, you can follow his seemingly desperate search to find musical analogies for each planetary motion. Kepler’s musically related research has consequently inspired generations of scientists and musicians. One of my personal favorites is modern attempts to create actual music from Kepler’s music/mathematical ideas:

YouTube Video describing Kepler and the Harmony of the Spheres for the layman:

YouTube Video with a musical example of literally transcribing the orbital motions of the planets into music:

The book then goes on to describe the musical background of many subsequent ground-breaking scientists and how study of music and musical theory influenced and helped advance their scientific achievements. For example, the greatest of the Natural Philosophers, Isaac Newton, used musical theory in his optical writings, as he relied on a musical analogy to compare the seven notes of the diatonic (western music’s major scale) scale to the seven colors of the light spectrum (the rainbow). The famous mathematician, Leonhard Euler, studied music as a part of mathematics and tried to describe whether music was consonant or dissonant based on study of numeric ratios and equations. Max Planck was a pianist of considerable skill and actually considered pursuing a career in music instead of physics. His study of the joys of an equal temperament scale as opposed to the “natural” scale evidently helped free him from devotion to absolute laws of thermodynamics and open his mind to new possibilities.

The last chapter, “Unheard Harmonies” discusses how many scientists in more modern generations are musical enthusiasts, but that the study of music seems to no longer be directly related to their scientific achievements. For example, Einstein was famously loyal to his violin and to Mozart, yet wrote that “music does not influence research work, but both are nourished by the same sort of longing, and that they complement each other in the satisfaction they offer.”  However, playing music did seem to facilitate his breakthroughs as his sister explained that Einstein’s musical reveries “put him in a peaceful state of mind, which facilitated his reflection. For later on, when great problems preoccupied him, he often suddenly stood up and declared: “There, now I’ve got it.””

This book isn’t for everyone, it is very technical and some understanding of the relevant scientific concepts is essential. I think only people who have a strong love of music, history, and science would find this book fun. However, for those people, it is a book that reminds us that love and study of music inspires scientists and all of us in ways that are not normally acknowledged.

Good Piano Posture

Having good piano posture and an ability to move freely at the keyboard without tension is fundamental to piano playing. The goal is to play without tension and in harmony with our body structure.

“Have the body supple right to the tips of the toes” – Chopin

  1. Sit tall
    Sit on front half of bench.
  2. Feet Flat on floor
    Feel some weight in your feet.
  3. Adjust bench distance from piano
    With your arms stretched out, your knuckles should read the fallboard.
  4. Center your body with the piano
    Your belly button should be roughly opposite “middle C”.
  5. Arms support hands
    Adjust bench height so forearms are parallel to floor.
  6. Release tension
    Shoulders should be “down” and relaxed.
  7. Balance
    Lean slightly forward.

Release Tension:
* Stretch or shake your arms and hands.
* Inhale deeply through your nose while tensing up, exhale through your mouth while releasing tension.
* Smile

Side to side movement:
The head leads (like a snake).
* Movement is distributed over the entire spine. The spine extends from the base of the head all the way down to the pelvis.
* Torso movements originate at the hip joint.

* Legs bend at the hip joints and weight is delivered through the sit bones to the bench allowing freedom of movement to the legs.
* A pianist should feel three points of contact for balance, the sitting bones and the two feet.
* The goal is to sit in balance to eliminate tension and have maximum freedom for our arms.

Bench placement and height:
The optimum bench height is whatever height leaves the forearm level. Most benches are too low and don’t allow the pianist to sit at the right height. With the hand in a natural curved position, the forearm should be level with the tip of the elbow being at the same height as the top of the white keys.
* Most beginning pianists sit too close to the piano and restrict their arm movement. The bench needs to be placed so the pianist can easily reach the entire keyboard.

Basic movement of the arm at the piano is typically combinations of:
* Up and Down
* In and Out
* Swiveling left and right
* Rotation left and right
All of these arm movements require movement and support from the upper torso to varying degrees. Your arms should be envisioned as structures connected to your core, not just the shoulder.

The Eight Directions of Arm Movement by Dr. Robert Henry, Piano Department Chair, Kennesaw State University MTNA Webinar.

“What Every Pianist Needs to Know About the Body” by Thomas Mark

Good Piano Posture pdf

My Favorite Chopin Pedagogy Book

“Chopin: pianist and teacher as seen by his pupils” by Jean-Jacques Eigeldinger, translated by Naomi Shohet with Krysia Osostowicz, and Roy Howat. Edited by Roy Howat.

Chopin never finished his much-promised piano method book, but he loved teaching and for quite some time divided his time equally between composing and teaching. He evidently didn’t enjoy committing his ideas to paper and explained “The pen burns my fingers”. However, his students wrote quite a few letters to others about him as a teacher and it is surprising how much knowledge we can gain about him, his music, and his teaching methods from these letters.  This book uses those letters and many other sources to document how Chopin taught his music as well as insight into the man himself and his environment. I find it hard to imagine how much work it was to write this book, but the result is worthy of the efforts as it is a reliable and insightful reference for any piano teacher or serious student.

I call this book a pedagogy book because it really is a reference book consisting of an introduction to Chopin’s teaching methods along with historical context followed by a section on Chopin’s technique and style, then information on how to interpret specific Chopin pieces and finally the appendices including Chopin’s “Sketch for a method”, annotated scores, and Chopin’s playing as described by his contemporaries. There are also plenty of informative footnotes as is appropriate to such a scholarly work.

I have highlighted so many sections of this book and when I return to this book again and again, it seems like I have to highlight additional sections as I keep discovering new nuggets of wisdom from its pages. However, here are some of my current favorite quotes from the book:

“It seems to me that you don’t dare to express yourself as you feel. Be bolder, let yourself go more. Imagine you’re at the Conservatoire, listening to the most beautiful performance in the world. Make yourself want to hear it, and then you’ll hear yourself playing it right here. Have full confidence in yourself; make yourself want to sing like Rubini, and you’ll succeed in doing so. Forget you’re being listened to, and always listen to yourself. I see that timidity and lack of self-confidence form a kind of armour around you, but through this armour I perceive something else that you don’t always dare to express, and so you deprive us all. When you’re at the piano, I give you full authority to do whatever you want; follow freely the ideal you’ve set for yourself and which you must feel within you; be bold and confident in your own powers and strength, and whatever you say will always be good. It would give me so much pleasure to hear you play with complete abandon that I’d find the shameless confidence of the “vulgaires” unbearable by comparison.”

“For Chopin, singing constituted the alpha and omega of music; it formed the basis of all instrumental training, and the more piano playing drew its inspiration from vocal models, the more convincing it became.”

“A well-formed technique, it seems to me, [is one] that can control and vary [bien nuancer] a beautiful sound quality. This is really the fundamental article of Chopin’s pianistic credo, illustrated equally well by an axiom attributed to Liszt: ‘All technique originates in the art of touch and returns to it’”

“Chopin cultivated the fingers’ individual characteristics , prizing their natural inequality as a source of variety in sound: ’As many different sounds as there are fingers’”

“Everything is a matter of knowing good fingering […]. Just as we need to use the conformation of the fingers, we need no less to use the rest of the hand, the wrist, the forearm, and the upper arm. One cannot try to play everything from the wrist, as Kalkbrenner claims”.

“Have the body supple right to the tips of the toes.”

“Suppleness was his great object. He repeated, without ceasing, during the lessons: ‘easily, easily’. Stiffness exasperated him.”

“The arms should be the slaves of the fingers, yet the opposite always tend to occur; one should keep one’s mind off the arms and just use them as naturally as possible: fingers elongated for singing passages and closely bent for that special couldy fluency of ornaments or apoggiaturas.”

“The fingers should sink, immerse themselves somehow in the depths of the piano – in piano as well as in forte playing – drawing from it that sustained melancholy sound which – the fingers reluctant to leave the keys – is able to bring out from even the least melodious instrument a singing quality close to that of the Italian singers whom Chopin recommended as models.”

“’Caress the key, never bash it!’ Chopin would say. And his pupil Georges Mathias would add, repeating Chopin’s advice, that ‘You should, so to speak, mold the keyboard with a velvet hand and feel the key rather than striking it!’”

“He made me practice first of all constantly varying the attack of one single note, and showed me how he could obtain diverse sonorities from the same key, by striking it in twenty different ways.”

“He recommended daily work on scales and arpeggios played with regularity and set great store by scales lightly accented in groups of three or four, or even played three against four and vice versa.”

“We use sounds to make music just as we use words to make a language.”

“A long note is stronger, as is also a high note. A dissonant is likewise stronger, and equally so a syncopated note. The ending of a phrase, before a comma, or a stop is always weak. If the melody ascends, one plays crescendo, if it descends, decrescendo. Moreover, notice must be taken of natural accents. For instance, in a bar of two, the first note is strong, the second weak, in a bar of three the first strong and the two others weak. To the smaller parts of the bar the same direction will apply. Such then are the rules: the exceptions are always indicated by the authors themselves.”

“He advised his pupil not to fragment the musical idea, but rather to carry it to the listener in one long breath.”

“In keeping time Chopin was inexorable, and some readers will be surprised to learn that the metronome never left his piano. Even in his much maligned tempo rubato, the hand responsible for the accompaniment would keep strict time, while the other hand, singing the melody, would free the essence of the musical thought from all rhythmic fetters, either by lingering hesitantly or by early anticipating the movement with a certain impatient vehemence akin to passionate speech.”

“We know Chopin was generally quite strict about the exact comprehension and performance of his works, and it required no less than the genial personality of the young Filtsch to make him admit: ‘We each understand this differently, but go your own way, do as you feel, it can also be played like that.”

“Use the pedal with the greatest economy.”

“Learn to make a diminuendo without the help of the [una corda] pedal; you can add it later.”

“’Look at these trees!’ [Liszt] said, ‘the wind plays in the leaves, stirs up life among them, the tree remains the same, that is Chopinesque rubato.’”

“It recalls Debussy’s phrase: ‘Above all, make me forget as I listen to you, that the piano has hammers.’”

Another favorite quote of mine by Chopin was not found in this book, but I particularly love it: “Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes, it is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art.”

One more thing…..I also love how you can look up individual works by Chopin and see if happens to be advice on how to learn or play the piece. I have often looked up works by Chopin in this book and am always pleased if there is specific information about how to learn or play his work.

Music and the Brain

I always like to give my adult students some reasons to learn to play the piano (and practice). Number one is you simply need to want to learn to play, because learning how to play the piano is hard work. However, another motivation is that there is plenty of evidence as to why learning to play the piano is good for your brain.

Music researchers are finding correlations between music making and some of the deepest workings of the human brain. Research has linked active music making with increased language discrimination and development, math ability, better-adjusted social behavior, and improvements in “spatial-temporal reasoning,” – a cornerstone for problem solving. Here’s some science based reasons why people should learn to play the piano at any age.

Effects of music learning and piano practice on cognitive function, mood and quality of life in older adults.
Reading music and playing a musical instrument is a complex activity that comprises motor and multisensory (auditory, visual, and somatosensory) integration in a unique way. Music has also a well-known impact on the emotional state, while it can be a motivating activity. For those reasons, musical training has become a useful framework to study brain plasticity. Our results suggest that playing piano and learning to read music can be a useful intervention in older adults to promote cognitive reserve (CR) and improve subjective well-being.

Why Play Music?
Adults age 60 to 85 without previous musical experience exhibited improved processing speed and memory after just three months of weekly 30-minute piano lessons and three hours a week of practice, whereas the control group showed no changes in these abilities. Involvement in participatory arts programs has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, physical health, and social functioning in older adults, regardless of their ability.

Music And The Brain
In recent years we have begun to gain a firmer understanding of where and how music is processed in the brain, which should lay a foundation for answering evolutionary questions. Collectively, studies of patients with brain injuries and imaging of healthy individuals have unexpectedly uncovered no specialized brain center for music. Rather music engages many areas distributed throughout the brain, including those that are usually involved in other kinds of cognition.

Individualized Piano Instruction enhances executive functioning and working memory in older adults.
Active music making promotes cognitive skill and concept development directly influencing memory formation and retrieval. Music instruction has improved cognitive abilities among other demographic populations. Individualized music instruction has been directly correlated with higher verbal memory task performance among children and college students.

Music and the Brain Graphic
This famous graphic was created by Encore Music Lessons in 2014, the infographic cites several scientific studies which point towards music lessons being good for your cognitive development.
Here’s a cropped version of my favorite part of the graphic:

Some Recommended Books on Music and the Brain
Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain By Oliver Sacks
This Is Your Brain On Music: The Science of a Human Obsession By Daniel J. Levitin

DawnTM Piano Music and the Brain pdf

How To Improve Sight Reading

One of the reasons that I love teaching adults is because they always challenge me as a teacher, which makes piano lessons interesting. Recently, I had an adult student who already played the piano well, but wanted to improve their sight reading. So, I made a list of skills that I think are the most important for a good sight reader which allowed us to tailor her lessons to work specifically on her sight reading skills.

One of the benefits of being a good sight reader is an ability to open a new piano book and play through the music. Adding some sight reading to your practice can be a fun way to increase your practice time, improve your general music skills, and develop familiarity with a broader range of piano literature.

So, what is sight reading? I like Keith Snell’s definition of sightreading from his and Diane Hidy’s sight reading book series, “Sight Reading – Piano Music for Sight Reading and Short Study”:
“Sight reading” means playing music you have never seen before. In other words, reading music “at first sight.” A good sight reader can play accurate notes, rhythms, dynamics and articulations at, or near, the given tempo.”
Even better, Keith Snell also gives a very handy definition of the difference between “short study” and “sight reading”:
“Short study” is about the amount of time you spend on a piece (for example, 5 minutes a day for one week), whereas “sight reading” is about the number of times you play a piece (no more than three).
This definition is great for determining the music level for improving sight reading because if you can play the music nearly perfect after the third time through, the music is at the right level for improving sight reading.

Denis Agay in his wonderful book, “The Art of Teaching Piano” has a chapter on sight reading and describes sight reading in this way:
“Reading music utilizes a similar eye function to reading words. The eye does not focus on each individual note. Notes form recognizable visual patterns and musical units much like a group of letters form words.   To enable the mind to group individual notes into meaningful patterns, a knowledge of various musical elements, such as notation, harmony, and form, is necessary. A keen ear, quick perception, good muscle coordination, and an intuitive understanding of the logic in the organization of musical materials are assets in achieving sight reading fluency.”

So, you need lots of different musical skills to be a good sight reader. Below is a list of sight reading skills that I think are the most important.

  • Quick Note Identification
    • Flashcards
  • Quick Rhythm Identification
    • Flashcards
    • Use of metronome
    • Rhythm worksheets
  • Quick Identification of common musical idioms (this can vary with style of music being played)
    • Scales in all keys
    • Interval Identification
    • Chords and typical chord progressions
    • Arpeggios
    • Typical left hand accompaniments for piano music
  • Ability to Read Ahead
    • Concentrate on looking ahead of where you are currently playing
  • Improvisation Skills
    • Ability to read common musical idioms and make substitutions
    • Ability to simplify the music by picking out bass lines, melody, and chords and only playing the most important parts
  • Familiarity with music ahead of time can help immensely
    • Identify the key and time signature
    • Identify dynamics and tempo
    • Check any other important musical information from the composer
    • Look for the musical form of the piece
    • Identifying the melody and harmony to have good aural awareness of correct pitches

Simply doing a lot of sight reading will help with all these skills naturally, but being aware of which skills you are using will also help with improvement.

Finally, if you have an audience listening to you sight read, they will notice errors in tempo and rhythm more than wrong notes. Samantha Coates has a fantastic write-up of the seven deadly performance sins discussing this issue. So, keep going at all costs during your sight reading practice and your sight reading will definitely improve.

How To Improve Piano Sight Reading pdf

Music Note Flashcards

Flashcards are my favorite tool for my students to learn to read music notes. Years ago, I downloaded a set of free printable music note flashcards and have been printing them off for my students for both testing student’s note reading ability and for them to use during the home practice. However, I often like students to learn to read notes in a certain order, so I have been sorting the flashcards into groups of notes and handwriting the group on the back of the card. Now, I have created my own set of slightly smaller note reading cards (8 per page instead of 6) that have my note reading groups printed on the card to make my studio life easier.

Why I like to use music note flashcards

  • Flashcards can duplicate the note reading experience exactly. You have to read the note, then move your hand (body) to play the note, and then you hear the note being played. This accesses the multiple learning paths of visual, kinesthetic, and aural, just like when actually reading music. While note reading apps on your phone or tablet might be fun and engaging, they often don’t actually translate reading the note to identifying the location of the associated piano key very well. Sometimes, you are just learning the letter name of the note, which although useful, doesn’t actually matter when learning to translate written music to the playing of a particular piano key. For example, it doesn’t really matter if the note is an “A”, what matters is how that particular staff note associates with a piano key location.
  • These flashcards only have one clef for each note. I like that because I like to have my students learn to associate the Treble clef with the right hand and the Bass clef with the left hand when they are beginning to read music. In fact, I make them switch their hand use depending on which card is being displayed. Brent Hugh has a wonderful page on teaching note reading skills with flashcards. On his page, he does say that he thinks all piano note flashcards should have the grand staff on each card, because it can be confusing to the student to have only one clef. However, I haven’t had this experience with my students.
  • Music note flashcards can be easily arranged into strings of cards to check random note reading, steps, skips, intervals, etc. Music note flashcards are very flexible and the piano teacher can organize them in many different ways to promote different types of learning. I particularly like random ordering of the music note cards as a way of testing note recognition because that means that a student has no context for the upcoming note and has to recognize that note solely based on the staff position. In Tara Gaertner’s post about Flashcards and the Musical Brain, she mentions that flashcards actually test a student’s recall of a note and that you shouldn’t remove cards once they are learned well, especially as a beginning piano student.
  • Notecards can travel easily with a music student. I have some adult students who would simply keep their note cards with them at all times and go over the cards while waiting at the Doctor’s office, etc. So, I have also created a paper keyboard that student’s can take with them so they keep the physical act of locating a key to a certain extent for my flashcard Groups 1 and 2.
  • Notecards can facilitate a certain music note learning order. I like to teach beginning music students their note names in particular groups. I’m particularly fond of landmark notes and therefore try to make my students learn these important notes first. In fact, I like having my note name card groups so much that it was the main driving factor to me making my own note name cards. Having groups also mean that I can simple tell my students to only work on Group 1 and 2 for example, etc.
    Group 1: First Landmark notes – This is middle “C” for both hands plus treble clef “G” and bass clef “F”. Working on these notes first also allows me to introduce the clefs and discuss the history of the “G” clef and the “F” clef.
    Group 2: C pentascale notes – These are the in-between notes from bass clef “F” to treble clef “G”. I often find that these notes need to be introduced after the first landmark notes because then my students can use all the music in their beginning piano books.
    Group 3: Extended Landmark notes – I really like the idea of extended landmark notes. I love the rather mathematical symmetry of the extended landmark notes as mentioned in Igino Vaccari’s Landmark System post and think that only having the three landmark notes as mentioned in many method books is really not enough for intervallic music reading. Regardless of how well an intervallic approach to reading music works, it still makes a nice division for deciding the order of learning your notes.
    Group 4: Staff notes – This group includes all the staff notes that haven’t been learned in a previous group.
    Group 5: Leger notes – This group includes some commonly used notes that extend beyond the grand staff via leger lines.

Note Name Cards and Paper Keyboard for printing at home using card stock

DawnTM Piano Note Name Cards
(Make sure to print at actual size and not “fit on page” for your home printer or disproportionate scaling may occur) These cards designed for 8 1/2 x 11 inch card stock.

DawnTM Piano Paper Keyboard for Note Name Cards Group 1 and 2

Learn To Love Your Practice

“The glory is being happy. The glory is not winning here or winning there. The glory is enjoying practicing, enjoy every day, enjoying to work hard, trying to be a better player than before.” – Rafael Nadal, Professional Tennis Player

In order to learn to play the piano and perform, you must practice. In my experience, there are no short-cuts and the ability to play the piano well is the direct result of the quantity and quality of practice. Consequently, I believe the only route to success at the piano over the long term is to “Learn To Love Your Practice”.

Here are some of the ideas that I use personally to enjoy my practice:

  • Choose your music wisely and play pieces that you love.
    Piano students are extraordinarily blessed with the every conceivable type of piano music. The piano has been around for a long time (since at least the early 1700s – and other instruments with keys before then), so there is lots of music. It can be valuable technically to play certain types of piano music to develop certain piano techniques, but in general students should spend their practice time on pieces that they enjoy and have a desire to learn. Thinking about what genre of music you enjoy most can also help you enjoy both your lessons and your practice.
  • Make Piano Practice a Voyage of Self-Discovery.
    You should expect to figure our something new about your music and/or yourself every time you practice. Maybe that means that you just figured out to play a musical phrase just a little better by starting the phrase in a certain hand position, maybe it means that you tried a new practice technique and it helped, maybe it means that you visualized a setting and emotional mood for your piano piece, etc. etc. I often like to think of my music and sometimes technical exercises as a special puzzle that I figure out little by little through small moments of self-discovery.
  • Know why and what you want to learn on the piano.
    Adult and young adult students should understand their goals in learning to play music on the piano. Thinking about and understanding your personal motivation can help you want to practice. For instance, let’s say you want to learn how to play a specific piece on the piano like Alan Rusbridger in his book, “Play It Again” where he tries to learn the difficult Chopin Ballade No. 1 in G minor. His journey to learn that piece allowed him to write an entire book about his experience. Taking some time to carefully craft your goals and understand what you want to accomplish is very worthwhile and will shape what and how you practice.
  • Appreciate that you are building your “technique toolbox”
    In order to meet specific piano goals, you may need to learn certain piano techniques which can include scales, chords, arpeggios, etc. Learning to appreciate that you are building certain technical skills which will help you reach your piano goals makes technique practice seem worthwhile.
  • Figure out what time of day is best for your practice and make it your routine.
    Practice can be a very demanding mentally, and if you are tired or rushed, your practice will seem less enjoyable. I like to practice first thing in the morning (after my coffee) so I have the most brain power and patience possible. I do practice at other times of day when necessary, however, my routine is to practice before starting other projects during my day. Having a routine means I don’t think too much about whether or not I practice, I just know that it is my normal practice time.
  • Discover your successful learning strategies for music.
    Part of your “Voyage of Self-Discovery” should include paying attention to the best ways you learn to play music. For instance, maybe you are a “aural learner” and learn best by hearing a piece played before trying to learn it yourself, or maybe you have learned that helps if you memorize your left hand, or you like to flag the hardest parts of your music and learn those first so the rest of the piece seems easier. All of these are learning strategies that make your practice easier and faster, so your practice becomes more successful and more enjoyable.
  • Devote part of your practice to creativity and fun.
    A way to make practice fun is to incorporate sightreading new music, composing your own music, or learning to improvise into your practice. Sightreading new music can be very fun, help you develop specific sightreading skills, and help you develop familiarity with repertoire. Composing or improvising allows you to experience the joy of creating music all your own. I often find that when I spend a little bit of time learning to improvise that time seems to vanish because it is so absorbing and satisfying.
  • Find a piano teacher that matches your learning style and makes lessons enjoyable.
    It can be difficult to find a piano teacher that listens to what and how you want to learn and also makes lessons fun. However, it is worth the search to find such piano teachers that meet your needs and you will be more willing to practice for a teacher that makes learning fun. Don’t be afraid to change teachers if they aren’t a good fit for you.
  • Notice the small things that happen in your practice.
    Awareness and noticing small things that happen in your successful practice can make your practice more enjoyable. For instance, you noticed that if you put small accents in your scales every four beats, then your thumb doesn’t press too hard on the keys, or perhaps you noticed that if you count out loud slowly a difficult rhythm, then it is easier to learn. Noticing small improvements or even failures means that you are figuring out which learning strategies work best for you and will help you have a more successful practice session.
  • Have some days where you don’t practice to refresh yourself.
    It can be difficult for anyone to practice every single day. It is OK to take some time off to refresh yourself or get some other important task finished during your practice time. As long as you are practicing regularly, a day off will just help you be more ready when you do have time to practice.
  • Know that you are the only person that will play a piano piece quite like this.
    Everyone plays the piano slightly differently. There are physical differences between pianists hands and bodies as well as different artistic conceptions of the music. Music is an aural art and even though everyone reads the same music, no one actually plays it exactly the same. Developing your own vision for how a piece should be played in your practice can be very rewarding.
  • Make sure to congratulate yourself when you have achievements.
    Celebrating both small and large achievements are necessary and will help motivate practice. I like to give my piano students a little piano sticker on their music page if they play something particularly well in a lesson as a way to give them a “small” achievement”. Finding a way to celebrate your personal achievements both large and small in learning to play the piano will help you “keep the faith” that you will learn to play well.
  • Some amount of practice is always better than no practice at all.
    Sometimes, it can be difficult to block out enough time for your practice or your normal practice time was unavailable. At those times, it can be helpful to have some ways that you can just do a little bit of learning for that day. I sometimes like to just practice the beginning or ending of a piece as a small practice or maybe I just play the piece through once slowly as a short practice. Either way, I’ve sat down at the piano and thought about my music which is a way to practice even if I didn’t have time for a full practice session.
  • Record your practice time especially when you are first making practice a habit.
    Writing down your time spent practicing, just like writing down what you have eaten while dieting, can be eye-opening. Sometimes you feel like you have done a lot of practice, but when you look at your practice time record, you realize that it wasn’t quite as much as you thought. On the other hand, it can be satisfying to look at when you were able to have quite a lot of practice in a week.

Practice Time Log pdf
Learn to love your practice pdf