Introduction by Bruce Berr
here is no sound more magical to a music lover than that of a piano singing. It is a unique kind of singing of course, since a piano cannot sustain a tone continuously once it has been played. But when cantabile playing is present, the illusion of singing is complete, and we are drawn into the texture and flow of the melodic line with the same fervor as if we were listening to a human voice. The illusion is sometimes so convincing that you can almost hear some held notes crescendo!
Our early level students can begin to acquire the playing and listening skills needed to produce cantabile effects in their very first lessons, layer by layer. Legato is usually first taught as mainly a key connection activity, but once that rudimentary skill is reliable, then increasingly sophisticated aspects of legato can be exposed. Ultimately, the finest cantabile playing requires skills that take a lifetime to refine- the ability to blend and listen to tonal colors from note to note, small-scale and large-scale, horizontally and vertically.
As our students become more advanced, it is impossible for us as teachers not to notice the close interplay between tone quality, technique, and rhythm; hence the inclusion of this question in the Rhythm Department.
The author of this month's article is Craig Sale, also the
editor of KEYBOARD COMPANION's Reading Department. Over the past
years, I have had the privilege of hearing Craig perform in various
recital and concert venues, and I have been repeatedly struck
by how convincing and beautifully expressive his playing is, particularly
his cantabile "voice." Here is one of Craig's other
voices as he shares with us how he passes on this gift to his
Please note: This article is presented in its entirety on this website to provide a context for the audio clips. The score excerpts shown here are in low resolution in order to keep the download time of the article as short as possible. To see more clear versions of the score excerpts, please consult the print magazine.
Article by Craig Sale
antabile playing is a skill that demands the highest artistry. The absolute tonal control of the instrument that is at the heart of cantabile playing requires performers to develop control over their own "instrument"- their playing mechanism. They must also develop a keen awareness of sound-the ability to imagine sounds before they are heard, and the ability to listen intensely as they create those sounds. Like so many other areas of piano playing, the cantabile style can and should be developed in our students from the beginning of their musical experience.
One of my primary goals with students is to give them the means by which they can express themselves at the piano. I have always defined technique as simply that- the means by which we are able to be expressive in sound. Therefore, any discussion of cantabile playing is largely a discussion of technique. Because the end result of technique is sound, our discussion also includes the ear. It is the ear that makes us aware of the rhythmic demands and implications of cantabile playing.
The bulk of my students' technical work is done in the form of warm-ups-brief technical patterns that are learned by rote and practiced from memory. This is so that students can focus their attention on how the pattern feels, how their hands look, and how the playing sounds. During the first two years these warm-ups come from The Music Tree by Frances Clark, Louise Goss and Sam Holland (Summy-Birchard/Warner Bros.); during the intermediate years they come from Musical Fingers by the same authors. Because students are interested in technique only insofar as it helps them play pieces, it is essential to highlight the role of the technique studied in their repertoire.
In developing students' cantabile playing, I find three basic areas of continual focus: fingertips, arm and ear. The fingers provide clarity and focus, the equivalent to a singer's articulation. The firm finger-end is an integral part of playing because it supports the freely suspended weight of the arm. But the finger by itself is not all that is involved in playing the piano. It is the careful use of arm weight and movement that gives our tone its singing quality and helps to shape musical lines. Guiding the whole process is, of course, the ear.
From the beginning of their study, my students work on control of their hands. We work and watch to avoid two basic things:
Students need to develop a firmness in the first joint of their finger, as well as the ability to play that finger while keeping the rest of their hand relaxed. The daily warm-ups are the place to really focus on this, with eventual transfer of this work to their repertoire. It is hard work and it needs to be administered in small doses. At first, I ask students to focus on this only in their warm-ups. As their control grows, I challenge them to apply the same technical standards in one or two of their pieces. Eventually this leads to a consistent use of a controlled hand.
My students begin playing the piano using a full arm motion to produce f and p tones with finger 2 or 3. Beginning students' first legato experiences also involve the same two fingers. Legato (key connection) is, of course, the cornerstone of cantabile playing. By way of the ear and demonstration, students learn to physically connect tones creating their first legato. Students play brief legato phrases in several octaves.
Playing in different octaves ensures more freedom in the arms. During the first year of study, control of all ten fingers is developed in various combinations and patterns. By the end of that first year, I know we have been successful if asking a student to press more firmly and deeply into the keys results in a richer tone.
In addition to legato, another skill required for cantabile playing is balance. My students' first experiences with balance come in pieces like "Herman the Hippo" from Music Tree 2A (Summy-Birchard, Inc. Exclusively distributed by Warner Bros. Publications. Reprinted by permission).
hear a performance of this example, click below:
174k, WAV sound file
Notice that simultaneous balancing is not required here. With the exception of the final note, I ask students to play the RH accompaniment p and the LH melody ff.
When students need to balance simultaneous parts we use a process we call "pretend-playing." The student first plays the melody alone with a big, full tone despite any dynamic markings. Next, the student plays the melody again but also pantomimes, or "pretend-plays," the accompaniment without letting any of the keys sound. In the third step of the process, the student plays both hands together letting the accompaniment hand press just enough to let it sound. The result is rather exaggerated, but the process teaches the physical demands of balancing while engaging the student's ears. (Editor's note: To read about even more techniques for teaching balance, see the Technique Department in the Spring 1994 issue of KBC, "How do you teach your students to play loud in one hand and soft in the other?")
Most of my attentions regarding the arm in the first year are spent on checking for good posture, relaxed shoulders and free elbows. This is so that my students can free these large muscles and use a full arm motion to produce tone right from the very beginning. I want students' elbows to hang loosely from the shoulders and not be held tightly against the body. I encourage students to look down at their arms as they prepare to play to see if the arms form a rectangular or a preferred circular shape.
A great vehicle for the exploration of arm use is the playing of triads.
Three-note chords require firm fingers in order for the tones to sound absolutely together. They also require an immediate release of arm weight into the keys. In response to this downward motion the arm then floats upward from the elbow. The sound of chordal playing that uses arm is strikingly different from that which does not. Students need to hear for themselves that tone produced without arm is sometimes harsh and edgy, and tone produced with arm is usually rich and round. This technique continues to be studied over the years with triads and inversions, diminished 7th chords and chord progressions.
All this attention to the arm also involves a loose wrist. Not only is vertical flexibility in the wrist required, but students also need to develop horizontal flexibility in the wrist. Students' fingers need to stay "in line" with the forearm. This ensures that the arm weight is evenly centered behind the finger, and is thus a more relaxed way of playing. This technique can be focused on in Hanon-type and broken chord patterns.
Students also apply the use of arm weight and its free release through a series of warm-ups found in Musical Fingers 2 (Summy-Birchard, Inc. Exclusively distributed by Warner Bros. Publications. Reprinted by permission). I am very fond of these warm-ups because the melodic phrases cry out for expressive shaping.
To hear this played with very clear shaping, click below
449k, WAV sound file
In this example, the student plays in Gb, then F, and then Gb again so that the experience is felt in contrasting keyboard geographies. The warm-up consists of three slurs, each initiated by a drop into the first note. The weight remains in the keys until the end of each slur when the arm lifts with a loose wrist, removing the weight and creating a decrescendo.
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