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Hearing everything in staccato.

Posted by on May 21, 2012. 3 comments

Playing the piano is easy: you press a key and a note comes out. Toddlers can play the piano, cats can play the piano… you can drop a shoe on the keyboard and it will play the piano. This is what makes the piano so universal: anyone can play it immediately.

It’s easy to forget that other instruments aren’t as welcoming. Other instruments need pushing, pulling, blowing, and squeezing in order to produce and maintain sound. String players spend weeks learning how to hold their instruments properly and most people can’t get a clean musical note out of a wind instrument on their first try.

Duck playing piano

Anyone, or anything, can play the piano.

However, the fact that the piano is easy to play can work against us. For any other instrument, holding a musical note takes effort; there is air or bow movement that must be maintained until the note ends. Pianists can fall into the trap of just hitting the note and forgetting it. After all, you press a key and a note comes out.

Many piano teachers try to solve this by having students follow through with their arms after pressing a key or pressing down on the keyboard in a kneading motion (one of my teachers called this “chewing on the keys”) — some even recommend shaking the finger on the key in a bizarre imitation of vibrato. While these movements can help, exaggerating them can lead to problems with technique. Furthermore, mechanically none of this makes sense; that is simply not how pianos work.

The problem boils down to a bad habit present in many pianists: hearing everything in staccato. When notes don’t require an effort to sustain, our minds can become lazy. We stop following the notes in our minds. We stop singing along with them, leading them and releasing them properly. We end up only listening to the note’s attack, resulting in typewriter pianism.

There is no set of movements that can cure hearing everything in staccato. While they can be helpful in teaching children, the goal should be to teach that a piano can sing, that notes don’t stop after you press the key. Often, we mistake this for teaching the movements themselves rather than what they are for. To make the piano sing, the change begins in our heads, not in our hands. You will never make the piano sing if you hear everything in staccato.