Securing a Good Tone

By Lucille Pratt

To produce a good tone is a most important factor in the art of pianoforte playing and at the same time is very necessary in order to give pleasure to one’s listeners. It is something that is not beyond reach and given only to the gifted few, but can be acquired by anyone who is willing to strive for it.

But how can this tone be acquired? First, there must be individual finger strength or it is impossible to produce a good tone. We would not think of talking to a beginner about how to produce a good tone, for even if by merest chance he could understand it, his fingers would not be properly developed to carry it out. Strength acquired after hard labor on finger exercises, scales, etudes, etc., is absolutely necessary. It may seem odd that it needs strength to produce a good tone, but it does, nevertheless, for good tone is produced by the proper resistance put into each finger as it plays and it always requires strength to make resistance.


For instance, in giving a legato singing /one the hand, arm and fingers are held loosely on the keys without any effort whatever and each individual finger as it plays pulls down the key, down to its very depth,by an impulse in the loosely-held forearm, which pulls down the key, making one tone blend or glide into the next. But it is in the pulling down of the keys that the resistance is necessary. The keys are not “struck down,” so to speak, with as much force as one possesses, for if one were to strike down directly into the key, there would be nothing but a big harsh tone utterly devoid of beauty: but the keys are pulled down, and there must be that resistance in each finger which keeps it from producing too big a tone, although there is as much strength employed to produce a small singing tone as a big one.

With the portamento touch there is perfect relaxation of the arm, hand and fingers. The fingers almost lay on the keys, there is such perfect relaxation. Each finger as it plays pulls down the key as in the legato touch, but not with so much force; the greater difference lies in the finishing off of the tone. With the legato touch the hand is not raised after each tone, each tone glides into the next, there is no break between the tones, but with the portamento touch each tone is sung separately or finished, rounded off, so to speak, before the playing of the next tone; one tone does not glide or blend into the next.

This rounding off of the tone is done by first elevating the wrist, which simultaneously draws the arm forward and the linger on its very tip (the linger having formerly been farther down on its cushion where it was obliged to strike in the process of pulling down the key), and then the linger is raised from the key. But in raising up the finger it must not be raised up quickly, with a jerk, so as to break off the tone, but raised slowly so as to round off the tone and not cause it to stop suddenly. It is a sort of semi-staccato touch, inasmuch as each tone is finished before the striking of the next one, but with the staccato touch the hand is raised up sharply from the wrist (unless it is a finger staccato), thus giving a quick, concise tone. In the finger-staccato each note stands out by itself as in the wrist staccato, but the hand is raised from the wrist only as high as the rapidity of the passage will permit (finger-staccato only being used in rapid passages).


The crisp legato touch is produced by raising the fingers high and playing from the knuckles, the arm, hand and fingers being held in their proper and ordinary position, loose wrist, fingers curved, etc. If the passage to be played is exceedingly fast, the fingers, of course, cannot be raised so high, but should always be raised as high as possible.

But as to the resistance required of each finger, this is guided by the brain, ear and eye. The eye takes in the expression marks, seeing that fortissimo or pianissimo or whatever it may be is played when it is marked on the music and not any kind of expression that one may happen to use. The ear receives the sounds produced and sends its impulse to the brain, thus the necessity for each finger to be so developed as to be able to produce the desired tone, for if they are not in a good condition then the tone cannot be good. The muscles must all be in good condition to carry out what the brain wishes without any further trouble, for the brain must give its whole and undivided attention to the proper rendering of the composition and not be troubled with any petty conditions, such as having weak fingers, to contend with. All must be there in the fingers ready to carry out what the brain directs. Now we see the important part the brain plays, so it, too, must be developed, as well as the ear and eye, in order that a good conception of compositions may be given, that the tone will be in the right compass (not big and grand when in some compositions such as many nocturnes or songs without words a smaller, gentler tone is wanted), but that the right idea or conception of tone and spirit may be had of all compositions.

This conception is not obtained in a day, nor a month, nor even in a year, it is the gradual adding, little by little, to our present stock of knowledge. Reading the works of the poets and books .on music, looking into the arts of others, not only our own, cultivating an appreciation of nature and making ourselves more observant of the beautiful, more sympathetic and cultured, this it is that would make us give good musical conceptions of compositions and make us feel and appreciate them, for if we can appreciate the beautiful in other things, surely we can appreciate the beauty in the master’s compositions. It is through this very appreciation of beaut3′ in other things that one is enabled to see the lack of beauty in one’s own work. If one’s own work does not stand on the same level of beauty with someone’s else, he will strive for the same level, he will have a goal and know what he is working for. If his own tone is not beautiful, then he will strive to make it better, working hard by himself and listening to different artists whenever the opportunity presents itself, for no greater gain can be made than to compare one’s own work with that of others and take the best from each home to oneself. Thus, the best of tones have been secured and can still be by all who will strive to reach the goal.