This is what my teacher said to me at my recent lesson, during which we worked on Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 no. 2, the last Nocturne published in his lifetime. In bars 20-22 the left hand plays descending sustained minims, achieved by silently changing from a thumb to a fifth finger. I’d got the fingering right, but I could not sing those sustained notes. As a result, they were lost amid all the other sounds and textures in this passage. Once I’d sung the notes, I found I could sound them easily, and a little extra weight in the finger added a warmth and resonance which was obvious, but not overpowering, under the gorgeous treble line.
It sounds obvious, that we should listen all the time when we are playing, whether in practice or performance, but it is quite common for us not to listen, and to allow the mind – and ears – to wander as we work, and thus not take in fully what we are doing at the keyboard. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.
My piano lesson last week was mostly concerned with listening as both pieces I presented have a strong melodic line which needs to sing out over the bass (the other piece was the slow movement from Bach’s D minor Concerto after Marcello, BWV 947). As I listened to myself playing, striving always for the most beautiful cantabile sound, I learnt to adjust my arm weight, lightening it to produce a better sound. In the Chopin, even where a passage is marked crescendo, leading to forte (for example, from bar 12), one should not allow the arm to become heavy: the sound one is aiming for here is increased warmth rather than volume. At this point, my teacher and I paused to discuss first-hand accounts of Chopin playing: it is said that he never played louder than mezzo-forte (even if he had written forte in the score). ‘Warming up’ the sound can create the effect of an increase in volume, without losing a beautiful tone.
I find it hard to persuade my students to listen. Too often they want to gallop through their pieces, get the notes right and not bother too much about producing a good tone. Yet, the production of beautiful tone is what pianists strive for above anything else: even the most spiky passages of Prokofiev or Stockhausen should be played with careful attention to tone. Be critical as you play: listen all the time and if you don’t like the sound you are hearing, find ways to adjust it to make it better by experimenting with arm weight (lightening the arm will usually produce a better tone), and by ‘visualising’ the sound you want to achieve before you play it (it’s amazing how different your tone will be if you spend a few moments before you play imagining the sound). We should keep our ears open and attuned to what we are doing, to allow us to make minor adjustments to our playing and sound production. If you like the sound you are producing in a particular passage, try and remember that sound for next time, and what it felt like as you were playing it. Were your arms light, your wrists soft? What else were you doing with your body to create that sound?
Recording yourself playing is another invaluable aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams fairly imminently, and sending them a soundclip to listen to. I ask them to listen critically, not for errors and slips, but for an ‘overview’ of the sound. I ask them to make notes (to bring to the next lesson for discussion with me) about what they liked and disliked about the sound, and to think about how they can improve it or change it.
If you do record yourself playing, don’t listen to the recording as soon as you’ve made it. You are likely to be far more critical at this point and may not listen in the right way. Leave it a few days, and then listen to your recording. Review it carefully and note what you like and dislike about your playing. Compare recordings of the same piece, made at different times and in different circumstances (for example, in practice, in performance, on a different instrument etc.).
Another aspect of listening is of course hearing other people play, live and on disc. Go to concerts, listen to recordings and note what you enjoy about the sounds other pianists make. Remember that they are probably employing the same techniques as you to create that sound!
Here is Richter