If you can’t sing it, you can’t hear it. And that means we [the audience] can’t hear it either.”
This is what my teacher said to me at my lesson last week. I was working on one of Chopin’s Nocturnes, the Opus 62 no. 2, the last 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 play. As pianist Murray McLachlan said at a recent EPTA event I attended, “use your ears: they are your fiercest critic and your best teacher”.
Playing with a beautiful tone (sound) is what pianists strive for. 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). 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 useful aspect of listening: I have routinely started recording my students, especially those who have exams coming up soon, 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 the Russian pianist Sviatoslav Richter playing Chopin’s Nocturne, Opus 62 No. 2
A longer version of this post appears on my sister blog The Cross-Eyed Pianist