The Art of Speaking the Piano

Austrian-American pianist and composer Artur Schnabel was reportedly told by his teacher, Theodor Leschetitzky, that he ‘must learn to speak the piano’.  When I first heard this story, it surprised me. Why? Because when I was a child learning the piano, my piano teachers exhorted me to ‘Sing!’ when I played – not meaning ‘use your voice’, but rather ‘make a singing sound on the piano’. The word ‘sing’ or the Italian term ‘cantabile’ was pencilled all over my sheet music in relevant places. Cultivating a ‘singing tone’ was considered a vital aspect of piano technique. People meant it as a great compliment when they said that such-and-such a pianist had a lovely singing tone.  

But a singing tone on the piano is, in essence, an illusion. When you press down a piano key and the string is struck by a little felt-covered hammer in the piano’s mechanism, the sound dies away quite quickly, even if you hold the key down. Each note starts to decay from the moment it is struck, and the next note will produce a little spike in volume. Thus there is no truly continuous stream of sound such as can be produced on a string or wind instrument. But many people will swear that they hear a continuous stream of sound on the piano, and producing this effect is one of the arts of the pianist.  

If ‘singing’ is so important for the pianist, why was Artur Schnabel not told that he must learn to sing the piano? Why was he told to ‘speak’ it? He himself gave an answer when he described the piano as the most expressive instrument because it can articulate so well. By ‘articulate’ he meant ‘pronounce’, I think, making it clear where words (or notes) begin and end, where phrases begin and end. Actors and singers strive for clear diction – so that the audience can understand not just the individual words but also the sense as one word connects to another.  For the pianist, diction in music is an art – knowing how to pronounce the notes without separating them from one another as if there are little full stops between them. If you get it just right, the listener will hear all the individual notes, but will also find their attention carried forward through the notes with persuasive momentum. 

You may ask: but isn’t singing more expressive than speaking? When we think of a soprano or tenor singing a great opera aria or a wonderful song, isn’t that inevitably more captivating and overwhelming than a pianist playing the piano, no matter how well they articulate? But actually, the matter is complex. 

If you imagine the most meaningful phrases that have ever been uttered to you – ‘I love you’, for example – they probably weren’t declaimed in glorious vocal technicolour in the style of Verdi or Puccini. They were probably spoken quietly and distinctly, because the message is meant to be understood by you and you alone. Indeed, if someone told you they loved you by singing you an aria, you might feel that the moment lacked a certain intimacy. This is why an instrument that can conjure up the art of speaking is as powerful as one which can easily evoke the singing voice.  

© Susan Tomes, 2023 

SUSAN TOMES is a multi-award-winning pianist whose career encompasses solo, duo and chamber music playing; she has been at the heart of the internationally admired ensembles Domus, the Gaudier Ensemble and the Florestan Trio. Tomes’ lecture-recitals have enabled many listeners to engage with the classics on a new level.

Speaking the Piano, will appeal to a wide range of readers – pianists of every level from beginner to professional, piano teachers, musicians of all kinds, and the broader community of music-lovers. It is available in hardback and as an ebook.

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