Myths Die Hard

It’s human nature to look skeptically at information that contradicts something we believe. Once we become anchored to untruths, reality is an annoying intrusion. Psychology has terms for the defenses used to hang onto false beliefs.

  • Confirmation bias: seeking only information that conforms to the belief, dismissing new information;
  • Assimilation: reshaping new information in an effort to make it conform with the belief;
  • Accommodation: changing our belief to accept the new information.

The Arts offer plenty of room for subjective judgments, personal preferences and opinions of all kinds. However, we can’t muse away math, science, or principles of physics; because as a matter of fact, there are matters of fact. Educational pseudoscience is but one example of the lure of myths posing as deep wisdom. Others are more specific to music and/or movement.

Apologies in advance for tipping any sacred cows, but a recent experience has motivated me to write another truth, which is this: it is a myth that special ways of depressing piano keys — proper hand shapes, drops of arm weight, strokes along the key one way or another —  produce any affect on sonority, tone, color or resonance.

Before you say I am simply uneducated in the fine art of finger finesse, allow me to agree. Just as I never learned about etiquette for tea parties or proper attire for cotillions, I never learned the fine art of massaging keys and twirling elbows. I inherited the general philosophy that if it doesn’t makes the crops grow, it’s snake oil. If it doesn’t make a difference to the music, it’s a superfluous affectation.

This is distinct from piano technique, which addresses efficiency, range and control. Centuries of philosophies, methods and exercises have expounded on velocity, finger independence, wrist rotation/flexion, carriage of arm weight for even tone, etc. Those are tools for controlling sound as music,in horizontal (phrasing) and vertical (voicing) relationships among and within sounds, while mitigating injury and expanding a pianist’s expressive means.

The myth that any one “approach” to the keys can change the qualityof individual sounds is pervasive. We’ve all heard of “rounded tone” vs. “harsh tone,” “resonant sound” vs. “flat sound,” etc., all due to how keys are depressed, and it is an enduring misunderstanding (if one that makes a lot of teachers money).

In walks Science without a welcome to remind us of the inner workings of the piano. If you have forgotten the escapement action, it is well demonstrated in this video (start about 1:50) :

At the point where you feel a “click” in the key, the hammer shank flies on its own momentum. It doesn’t care how your hand looks – the sound is the same. As Charles Rosen wrote:

You push a piano key down, and it is louder and softer, and longer and shorter. There is nothing else you can do to an individual note that makes the slightest difference to the music. It is the way the notes are combined by the pianist that makes a beautiful tone. (I would put this last sentence in capitals but it would be vulgar to do so.)

Perhaps it’s a matter of envy. Pianists enjoy an instrument that offers a full breadth of music elements, but essentially we are percussionists. We can’t bend and shape sounds through their duration. Even more, we don’t carry our instruments with us. We play what we get. Kurt Knecht makes the point:

Your piano technician and the state of your hammers has more to do with the “tone” of your instrument than you do by some sort of nonsensical way of pressing the key.

Weirdly, even though there is a similar amount of distance between the sound and the playing mechanism, no one ever talks about an organist’s “tone”. You never hear someone say, “Oh, she got such a great tone out of that 8′ flute stop” because everyone knows that it would be balderdash.

Piano voodoo mixes up tone, technique and musicianship, with a heavy dose of concern for hand movements on top of it all. Each critic of “tone” seems to own the one perfect solution, but they share in common a basis of judgment: lookingat, not listeningto, hands at the keyboard.

(This is an especially popular “teaching” technique when there is no context of composed music – just improvisation under white-light scrutiny. It goes like this: Say, “Just play anything. Anything at all.” Then inhale deeply in preparation for yelling “NO!” the instant your subject touches the keys.)

My favorite teacher told me in the first lesson that he might walk around the room or look out the window as I played, and I should know it meant he was listening intently. It was a prevalent theme: “Listen to your playing.” How to bring out the subject of a fugue when it’s in the inner voice? “Listen for it.”

Techniques, exercises and specific fixes came into play as needed, in musical context. A range of repertoire across style periods brings up infinite details of “how to” – fingering patterns, avoiding tension, keeping the melody voiced seamlessly between hands, making trills make sense – all in service of the music.

You might be certain you can hear a difference in piano tone depending on the way the key was struck. If the mechanism of the piano action doesn’t convince you that you’re imagining it, perhaps studies going back nearly a century will.

Stay tuned for Part 2.