Your touch matters

If I am going to be honest, I am going to be a little slow posting lessons through the summer.  I am traveling a lot and very busy.  I have about three months to finish arranging the music for my next CD, and am feeling that pressure.  Not only does the music have to be arranged but I need to be able to play it at least moderately well in order to get a demo to Steve Mauldin, who will begin writing the orchestration.  I am also working on a myriad of other music unrelated to that project.I wanted to take a lesson and talk about your “touch.”  I have not talked about this yet, but probably should have, because it is extremely important.

A few days ago, I went to what we call a “Sing” here in the deep south.  A Sing is a concert consisting of a set of southern gospel groups who perform for an unbelievably long period of time.  I do not go to many of these events–Southern Gospel is not my favorite music, but I enjoy some of it.  I did decide to go to this one because I knew one of the groups pretty well and knew that they were quite good.

Most of the top groups in Southern Gospel travel with a piano/keyboard player that plays along with the soundtracks they sing to.  The style they play is normally pretty routine at times and very flashy at other times (Think Anthony Burger).  Normally, the groups allow their piano players to play a song or two by themselves (usually with a soundtrack).

If you want to know how good a professional piano player is, take away their soundtracks and see how they sound.  It is one thing to play with a loud track that covers your mistakes.  It is quite another to play by yourself.  So, when one of the pianists said he was going to just sit down and play a medley of old songs, I sat up and started listening a bit closer.

I am not going to name the pianist or his group, but the group is one of the more popular ones in Southern Gospel music.  But as I sat there listening to his music, I was surprised.  While his music had some technical brilliance to it, it had absolutely no real musicality.  Basically, he sounded like a machine pounding on a keyboard.  There were no dynamics, no rubato, and no expression of any kind.

It would be one thing if he was playing certain types of songs.  But, he was playing slow, tender hymns.  Finally, he flew through a huge, bombastic ending and got a standing ovation.

I have been thinking about that ever since.  For instance, I wonder if he is actually better than he sounded but just played what he knew would get a reaction from the crowd.  Or, has he has relied on soundtracks as a crutch for so long that he has forgotten how to play without them?  Or perhaps, he has just made it this far as a Christian piano player without really understanding how to play musically?

My guess is the answer is some combination of the above.  I don’t want to take anything away from him–he is technically brilliant and very creative.  I also do not want to paint a broad brush of all Southern Gospel music–there are great Christian instrumental artists in that genre.  Nor does the problem I am discussing exist only in Southern Gospel; in fact, it is probably even more common in conservative circles–especially the ones that minimize the role of emotion in music.

There is a take away though.  If you can learn to be musical on the piano, you are immediately going to be in a pretty small group that even many professionals never join.

What is commonly called your “touch” is a huge factor in how musical you sound.  I am not referring to how you actually strike the keys but rather the way your sound “feels” when it leaves the piano.  There are experts who can discuss such issues as hand weight, where the force should come from when you strike keys and the presence or absence of tension, and much more.  Pianists have different opinions on those concepts, but in the end of the day, the actual sound you achieve is the most important scorecard.

When I was younger, I was a “banger.”  I played loud fast stuff and played it faster and louder than most other people.  As a result, most people thought I was good (and so did I).  Eventually, I started getting some feedback from good musicians that was disturbing–how my music was percussive and ugly.  I did not believe them.

People told me to “listen to myself” but I had no idea what they meant.  I thought I was listening to myself.  I thought that loud meant powerful, never understanding that my loud actually was uncomfortable.

Eventually, I came across a special teacher in college who went out of his way to work on my touch.  I remember him spending his Saturdays (for free) with me in the studio playing one note time after time trying to get my hand weight right.  When I left college, my sound was completely different and so was my mindset.  I no longer thought I was obligated to play something loud and fast every time I played in public.

As a high school piano judge, I know that most talented pianists struggle with the same issue I had–a percussive, uncomfortable sound full of tension that is impressive but not musical.  If you are reading this and know deep down that I am describing you, the good news is that you at least recognize the problem.

In general, a listener should not detect a certain kind of tension in your music.  I am not referring to the healthy tension that comes from dissonance and rhythm.  Instead, I am referring to a tension that comes from not quite being in control of the instrument you are playing.  Sometimes, it shows itself by an
abrasive loudness, and often from a feeling that the pianist is playing just a tad faster than he/she can really handle.

So, when discussing a way to improve your “touch”, here is my best advice–back off.  Don’t play your loud music as loud as you can–play it loud but not so loud that it sounds harsh.  Don’t play as fast as you can either–play it fast but at a comfortable speed where you can make it sound like you are hardly trying.

When you play, your goal is to wring the music out of the music.  Does that make sense?  You should never be trying to just get through a piece.  Rather, you want to do your best to create the mood that the piece is designed to create–take your time and make that happen. If the audience detects tenseness in your
playing, that will get in the way of this.

Remember that musicality is a skill just like technique is and is something you have to grow in.  As I have said many times before, listen to good pianists and more importantly, listen to yourself.

I am anxious to get your feedback on this lesson.  It is very hard for me to articulate this principle.  Email me if you have questions.