d5d835ff5fe062d9effead61d8e348f6Keys….. The word “keys” has a dual meaning for pianists as it refers to both the keys of the piano, which we touch to set in motion a mechanism which produces the sound, and the musical keys (C major, D minor etc).

The modern piano has 88 keys – 52 white keys and 36 black keys for a total of 88 keys. Many older pianos only have 85 keys and some piano manufacturers extend the range further in one or both directions (the Bosendorfer ‘225’ and ‘290 Imperial’ models, for example, have 92 and 95 keys respectively). Today keys are usually made of spruce or basswood (spruce is typically used in high-quality pianos). Black keys were traditionally made of ebony, and the white keys were covered with strips of ivory, but during the 1950s makers such as Steinway decided to cease using ivory on financial and moral grounds. Now that elephants and other ivory-yielding species are designated as endangered and protected by treaty, piano makers use plastics almost exclusively (“legal ivory” can still be obtained in very limited quantities). Also, ivory tends to chip more easily than plastic.  The Yamaha piano company invented a plastic called Ivorite, that they claim mimics the look and feel of ivory.  This has been taken up by other piano manufacturers.


The key is the point of contact between the pianist’s fingers and the mechanism within the piano and a huge amount of information can be transmitted from key via the pad of the finger to the rest of the pianist’s body. This information is then rapidly processed to make decisions regarding arm weight, articulation, tone control…. all of which have a bearing on the type and quality of sound produced.

More about the mechanism (“action”) of the piano here

For many musicians, each musical key has distinct characteristics or “personality”(and I am sure I am not alone in having “favourite” keys). For some of us, A major is warm, D major is bright and cheerful (Mozart apparently described it as “the happiest key”), while C minor is dark and stormy and E minor is deeply serious and melancholy. Christian Shubart, a German poet, composer and organist, assigned specific characteristics to each key. (Read his descriptions here.) And for some of us, each key comes with its own distinctive colour as well as a personality – this form of synaesthesia is shared by certain musicians and composers, including Franz Liszt, Gyorgy Ligeti, Olivier Messiaen, Leonard Bernstein, Itzhak Perlman and Stevie Wonder, and also the author of this blog.

Frances Wilson



Learning any new piece of music is a journey. When you embark upon this journey there is a starting point and a destination, if not in plain sight, certainly in the mind’s eye (or ear!). Let’s imagine this destination is at the top of a challenging climb. Whether it’s Ben Nevis or Mount Everest depends on the length of your legs – or your fingers!

Once we have chosen the destination, the first step is ‘making a start’. It features tentative baby steps, a little sight reading as you weave a path through the challenges ahead, working out notes, phrases, rhythms and fingerings slowly, hands separately and in small sections.

Younger pianists find this phase frustrating. Playing hands separately is boring and looking at key signatures, time signatures and counting is what beginners do! They need to stop to rest often despite the slow pace. Experienced pianists know it is imperative this stage is not rushed as bad habits are hard to break. They pace themselves, find footholds and secure ropes. It’s an exciting time, a voyage of discovery and identifying the challenges to come.

Step two is about ‘making progress’. Gradually the piece starts to take shape, phrases make more sense and the pianist develops a greater awareness of how the music fits together as a whole.

Younger pianists are excited now because they are allowed to play hands together and feel they are playing real music. Notes are mostly secure (no need to keep checking the key signature) and rhythms are ingrained (rightly or wrongly). The view is good from here, and given the choice they might not climb further, but they will probably run in circles as fast as they can!

For experienced players this is a time of uncertainty; the end goal is glittering somewhere on the distant horizon but there’s still a long way to go. And yet, they have come too far to turn back! The twists and turns of the path ahead are clearer. The trouble spots have been identified and need more work but the easier passages are falling into place. A few ambitious sprints are quickly abandoned for a more measured pace.

The last stage is ‘crafting the music’. You are taking the final steps towards your destination.

Young pianists think they’ve made it, but the teacher is still nagging about dynamics, pedalling and giving the last note its full value! They don’t care about the destination anymore; they are ready to start a new journey (having already forgotten how frustrated they were at the outset!). For experienced pianists, it’s a steep climb at the end; the most technically challenging parts remain elusive on occasion (and despite the best of intentions, some bad habits were formed along the way).

Finally, you are there; it’s performance day – an exam, a concert or something more informal. Now you’ve reached those heady heights, all you can do is hold on tight, enjoy the view and hope you don’t fall off!

My friend and piano teaching colleague Rob Foster notes that for some pieces you will make the journey many times in your life and, like a favourite city, experience them differently every time you return to them.

Why not take a moment to reflect on the music you are playing now: where are you on the journey?

Liz Giannopoulos, Music Tutor and Mentor


I’d love to say I was one of those people who could sit down and practise for hours on end. Sometimes simply getting behind the piano can seem like a lot of effort. Life has an amazing way of getting in the way!

So how do you keep inspired to keep practising and keep your bum on the piano stool? Here are a few tips to help you keep the music flowing.

  1. Go live! Nothing beats live music to give you the drive to practise more. A good performance is electrifying. You don’t have to spend a fortune travelling to the large concert halls all the time – why not check out what’s happening in your local area? Remember that a perfect performance is very rare, but it’s the essence of joy that you get from a live performance that you want to recreate when you play.
  2. Listen. If you’re working on the same piece for a long time (perhaps for an exam) try to find different recordings of it and see if you can spot the difference between performances. Altering the tempo, phrasing or interpretation by the smallest amount can turn a piece from a trudge into a joy.
  3. Try something new. I do have a slight music buying problem, but when I’m lacking the drive to focus on one piece I can guarantee a look through a new book will keep me glued to the piano.  Again, it doesn’t need to cost the earth, why not check your local charity shops? This is also a great sight-reading exercise that doesn’t feel like work.
  4. Play what you love. There’s no point tearing your hair out with pieces that you absolutely hate. I do give students pieces that I would describe as being ‘good for them’, and it is always great to challenge yourself, but if you can’t find something interesting or rewarding about the piece, or if you find you’re avoiding the piano completely because you hate it, then stop.
  5. Get a great teacher. No matter what level of playing you’re at, we could all do with a guiding hand from time to time. A good teacher is worth their weight in gold and a great teacher can make the world of difference. Tutors get you thinking about pieces in a different way and often offer suggestions for difficult pieces that you might not have thought about.
  6. Turn off your phone. Will something interesting happen in the next 30 minutes? Probably not. Will someone post a picture of their lunch? Probably.
  7. Go outside. A breath of fresh air is perfect for refreshing the mind and a change of scenery can be great to let your thoughts flow around any difficult music problems
  8. Put the music away. For me, inspiration to play often comes through noodling and trying out new things on the piano. Let your hands go for it and see what happens.

Rachael Forsyth

Born and raised in York, Rachael now works as a full time composer, music teacher and performer based in Hertford. Over the years she has written a broad range of pieces in a broad range of styles for ensembles of all shapes and sizes. As a tutor she loves to write works that are educational and challenging yet build up on the foundations of musical knowledge that most possess. Her works always encapsulate emotive figures and many piece contain visual elements during the performance as well.

The highlight of her career so far has been premièring a new work for solo saxophone on a tour around Italy and discussing her work as a female composer. Rachael’s style could be described as a fusion of musical genres. She brings together her musical passions for classical, jazz, ska and folk to create new music that is widely accessible as well as hauntingly beautiful.

Website: www.rachaelforsyth.co.uk

Twitter: @rachaelcomposes


“D” is for Duet, a piece for two players. In the case of piano duets the players share the instrument and enjoy closer physical proximity than was generally allowed between bourgeoisie young ladies and horny composers. Mozart and Schubert delighted in the possibilities of the form, but the next generation seriously dropped the ball – Chopin and Schumann were undoubtedly too gauche, and Liszt simply wanted the whole piano to himself. Subsequently, the duet was particularly popular with French composers, with Bizet, Fauré, Debussy, Ravel, Poulenc and Messiaen all contributing to its survival.

There are many great composers with names starting with the letter “D”, not least Jan Ladislav Dussek (1760-1812), a Czeck composer who made the mistake of not settling in Vienna at the height of the Classical Era. Instead his career ranged freely across Europe from London to St Petersburg, but subsequently his music largely dropped off the radar. He wrote 34 Piano Sonatas, which vary in style from easy-going melodic writing through to crazy experimentation. Worthy of rediscovery…

Ernő Dohnányi (1877-1960) was hailed early on in his career as Hungary’s best hope since Liszt. His works include the ridiculously gorgeous Piano Quintet in C minor Op.1, two criminally neglected Piano Concertos, about four hours worth of brilliant solo piano music and a couple of Symphonies. However, he is best remembered for the rather more facile “Variations on a Nursery Song Op.25” for piano and orchestra, and (with less affection) for his “Essential Finger Exercises”. Between composing and touring as a virtuoso pianist and conductor, Dohnanyi became perhaps the most successful piano teacher in history, with students including György Cziffra, Annie Fischer, Andor Földes, Géza Anda, Sir Georg Solti, Istvan Kantor and Joseph Weingarten (my own teacher).

“D” is also for Dampers, the little felt things inside a piano that stop a string vibrating when you release the key. The Damper Pedal lifts these across the full range of the piano so that the strings continue to sound until they fade or the pedal is released. Strings not struck are also free to vibrate “sympathetically”. With care, artistry and sophistication, use of the damper pedal can transform the instrument into an infinite magical sonic colour machine.

Claude Debussy (1862-1918), the French composer and notorious bounder, knew a thing of two about sonic magic, and although he supposedly hated the term “impressionism” it appears to have stuck to his music like superglue. Several of his pieces have established themselves in the hearts of music lovers all over the world, in spite of a temporary setback when the Japanese synthesizer freak Isao Tomita released his electronic renditions on the hit LP “Snowflakes are Dancing”, which soiled several of Debussy’s most popular works.

On the subject of French keyboard composers, Jean-Henri d’Anglebert (1629-1691), whose music nicely bridges the transition between Chambonnières and Rameau, deserves an honorable mention. Judging from contemporary portraits, had he lived a few more years he might have become the original “Cross-eyed pianist”.

Andrew Eales is a pianist, writer and teacher based in Milton Keynes UK, where he runs his independent teaching practice Keyquest Music www.keyquestmusic.com. An active social networker, Andrew founded and ran “The Piano Cloud” (2011-15), the Piano Network UK Facebook group (2014- ) and his latest project Pianodao www.pianodao.com


There’s flaming strings and smoke

From a dance at a village inn

Mephistopheles made an appearance

Grasping Faust amidst the din

There’s Prokofiev’s suggestion

And there’s Dante’s dark crevasse

There are witches, whims, and fancies

At a candle-lit Black Mass

There’s a shooting for a soul

Which Weber bravely traversed

There’s a sabbath and a bonfire

That’s Idée Fixe immersed

There’s a night atop a mountain

Where a Russian mist grows thick

“There’s Totentanz and Danse Macabre”

Chime in Saint Saens and Liszt

There’s a horseride that ends horribly

The face of death stares back

There’s destruction from an ancient bird

Who leaves an amber track


There’s walking to the gallows

As bells ring death and sin

There’s an eater of young children

You’ve mistakenly let in

So, before you sit and listen

With your headphones blasting sound

Lock your doors and bolt your windows

You’re going under ground

To a place that’s dark and evil

Where the devil tempts your soul

Where tritones, dims, and augs reside

Where music pays your toll

Daniel Johnson

Daniel Johnson is an Australian pianist, composer and writer. Find out more at danieljohnsonpianist.com


I am delighted to launch this new series A Pianist’s Alphabet

A what?

A is a beginning word, an adventure. Not knowing what will come next.

A is for a moment in time – how long should it last?

A is for all those Italian musical terms for tempo or expression, so hard to distinguish at first: Andante, Allegro, Adagio, Andantino, Allegretto, Amoroso.

A is for the space before, between, and around the notes, the ether that connects them, the breath of vitality and rhythm.

A is for Anacrusis, the anticipation, the article before a noun, leading to things new and unexplored.

A is for Acciaccatura, the fleeting sound that brushes or crushes into something else, making it pretty or cool, somehow different from the plain note that was there before.

A is for Appoggiatura, the note that makes us wait for resolution, but for how long.

A is for a world of possibilities at the piano

Jane Lakey, pianist and piano teacher


Dietrich Fischer Dieskau and Gerald Moore

A is for Accompanying

You will all, I’m sure, be familiar with the saying “those who can do; those who can’t teach”. I expect this attitude is as familiar to piano accompanists as it is to piano teachers. In many ways, piano accompanists are the unsung heroes of the music world. Often thought of as failed performers, they are in fact the backbone of so many concerts and recitals, not to mention millions of graded examinations and diplomas.

Being a piano accompanist requires a great degree of skill and patience; as with teaching, being a brilliant concert pianist doesn’t necessarily make you a great accompanist. Accompanists need to be as quick-witted, with the ability to react in the moment: a necessary skill when your soloist skips two verses of a song, six bars of sonata, or one beat in every bar of a sonatina. Only recently, I read of the accompanist whose soloist had managed to convert the time signature from 4/4 to 5/8 for the entire musical theatre song!

Perhaps the greatest quality of a good accompanist is the ability to be sensitive, not just to the soloist, but to the music too. A good accompanist should enhance and support a performance, not drown it out. Above all, teamwork is a necessity. Both soloist and accompanist have to work together to support and help each other.

So let’s sing the praises of the millions of piano accompanists, so often the general dogsbodies and unsung heroes of the music world.

David Barton, Music Teacher | Composer & Arranger | Freelance Writer | Piano Accompanist