As the Sydney International Piano Competition is fast approaching, I wanted to reflect on one of the things that makes a great pianist great – the ‘sound’. Of course there is the mind-bending virtuosity, attention to detail, historically informed interpretation, intellectual and emotional depth and understanding beyond the mere physical playing…but ultimately, this is all conveyed through sound!
What makes a sound different? What makes a sound special?
I like to think of sounds in terms of shapes and colours because it is often difficult to describe each drop in the ocean of sound possibilities. This can range from a bright, yellow, piercing sound with a sharp point and a hard edge that drives itself through your body – to a warm, golden-bronze sound with a fuzzy round edge that wraps itself around you! The fact is there are so many other variables like pitch, volume, the type of piano (brand and age) and how it has been voiced to take into consideration too. Some pianos naturally give a round, mellow tone, while others can be brittle and sharp.
However, there is no denying that two different pianists can play the exact same piano and make it sound completely different! Use of body weight, amount of muscle tension, the finger height, the angle of finger execution, method and speed of key release – all plays a part in the individual sound of a pianist. Evgeny Kissin says ‘every great pianist has a sound of his or her own’ – a unique tonal colour individual to the pianist.
A good pianist can dazzle you with a kaleidoscope of orchestral colours and make you ‘see’ the image that they are painting for your ears. They can take you on a journey down a rabbit hole and make you feel what they feel along the way. They can tell an old story from the past in a voice that you’ve never heard before! At this point they are not just pianists…they are aural magicians using wood, steel and felt to cast spells on you and pull at your heart strings in a way that only music can.
M.Mus, B.Mus(hons), DipABRSM, AMusA