The Secret to Expressive Piano Playing

(and other Keyboard Instruments)

The Secret to musical Piano and Klavier Playing

Have you ever struggled as a pianist, a clavichord, harpsichord or any type of keyboard player, to play a piece exactly with the expression you’d wished, or are you kind of frustrated that your hours and hours of practicing do not always result in a constant interpretation of the music you play?

Well, if that’s the case, then the video above is for you!

The text below is the basic script for that video, in which I try to describe at my best what I’d like you to teach here.

So reading is a possibility as well. The video shows you of course what I’m describing here.

Why does my playing not always sound as I wish it did?

A lot of the questions I receive from you could be bundled into one big question: what is the “secret” or, if you will, what is the fundamental principle to convert your musical ideas into an expressive way of playing.

Well, I have learned through the years that there are a lot of elements involved in the processes that enable humans to connect emotionally through music, but it all starts with three parts of your body – finger-wrist-arm (I call that the f.w.a principle)- that need to cooperate very well to turn any musical ideas into an expressive sound. So instead of focusing on aspects of phrasing, tempo choice, articulations, rubato, … you should first and foremost work on some basic technical principles. You will be surprised what a gigantic impact.

The f.a.w. principle : fingers – arm – wrist

I’m talking here on the way your fingers, wrist and arm work together. Let me demonstrate you at the keyboard what exactly I mean with this and how you can easily practice this for yourself.

The ‘f.a.w.’ principle basically consist out of:

  1. positioning your fingers (hand) on the keyboard
  2. have your arm relaxed in a way that allows your arm weight proportionally enter the keys
  3. use your wrist to connect your fingers, make a unity of your hand and ensure both the right amount of weight and movement.

It sounds complex, but the foundation is really simple. Let’s start with the fingers.

Fingers

The ideal position of your fingers on the keys is obtained when you align your fingers n°2 to 5 with your thumb, or, depending on the shape of your hand and the length or your fingers, have the tips of your four fingers come just in front of your thumb. Now, that’s the basic hand position for all types of music you play –it was even advocated by Chopin- to start with. In real life so to speak, to play compositions, you won’t escape opening your hand more than this, the later music you play the more. But start here. Just aside: the basic position at the keyboard is to have your fingers slightly lower than your arm, so that you get a nice straight line from your elbow over your wrist to your hand.

Put your fingers in this way on the keyboard and practice each finger individually. Try to be as relaxed (in every part of your body) as possible. This exercise is not about making a beautiful sound –on a clavichord creating a clear attack or on a piano making sound at all – but connecting to your fingers individually. With each movement, try to avoid movements of your other fingers as much as possible, but with one condition, all you do should be within an overall relaxation that needs to be as big as possible.

Arm

Secondly, relax your arm as much as you can. Leave it hang next to you as a starting point, feeling how heavy it is. Once you feel that, take that weight and position your hand in the same way as you did before. Only difference now is that you should feel your arm hanging heavy on your shoulder. When you feel both elements: your fingers on holding on on the keyboard and your arm hanging, keep that feeling for a moment, because that is the foundation of all playing. It really is: if your name is Glenn Gould or Langlang, or even Wim Winters, without these two elements, there is no expression possible, and for sure not what we would call virtuosity.

Wrist: your musical toolbox

Now comes the third element of our f.a.w.. principle, the one that will turn out to be the bridge between your finger movement and your arm weight: your wrist.

To start with : the wrist should ALWAYS be relaxed. The old piano teacher’s trick, of lifting a student’s wrist while playing and see if the hand hangs loose, is a very good one. You can try it with yourself, or have someone help you out with it.

Arm weight divider

Now comes the interesting part. You will notice that if you relax all three elements: fingers, arm and wrist, that your arm will drop of the keyboard. So some tension is needed. You will need to keep your arm up, your fingers on the keyboard. Well, it is your wrist who is the actual weight and tension divider. The higher the wrist, the less weight is coming through, the lower, the heavier your fingers will feel, and so the more power they have.

See the wrist as the transmission of your car, it’s nothing on its own, but without your car is not able to drive anymore.

Constant motion

Once you feel this arm weight and the function of the wrist in this, a last but important principle needs to be applied: movement of your wrist.

Two reasons for constantly moving your wrist, from microscopic small movements –mostly- to larger movements:

  1. Compensating the tension that’s being built up.
  2. Important: moving the wrist in the right way will glue all the notes you play together in a way that will make your keyboard sing by itself

Try this basic movement where you play each of your five fingers and keep your wrist slowly turning in the pattern of circles. When the hand goes up, down, when it returns, up. It will take you some time to exercise this, but  experiment with it for a while. Turning your wrist faster, will allow your fingers to play faster, making larger circles will make you play louder (or more legato). And so on. The combinations are endless. And in all cases you will rapidly feel the power of connecting two notes this way: they will sound as if you have sung them.

And playing cantabile is the biggest secret – and the most difficult thing- of playing expressively on any type of keyboard instrument.

Online Course: Basic Keyboard Techniques

Of course there are lots of other important elements and even on this principle we could continue for a while. If you would like to dive deeper into all of this, it might be interesting for you to know that I produced a 2 hours long video course on so-called basic keyboard principles. You can click here to learn more on that.

I really hope this was helpful to you!