The stage is a magical space. Like a magnifying glass, it has the power of amplifying all our moves, breaths or intentions. Every second on the stage – no matter if we’re acting, dancing, singing or playing piano – has to be ‘filled’ with content – otherwise it will look empty and awkward.
We all have certain predilections when it comes to the music we play. Some pianists like romantic pieces, others enjoy playing dramatic ones, while for others the most appealing are the works with a playful, sparkling character. Because of these innate preferences, most performers have a tendency to ‘imprint’ them on the music they’re playing: this is why sometimes preclassic Fugues have romantic ‘traits’ and classical Sonatas may remind us of modern songs.
Having a well-defined individuality is certainly a positive thing. Great pianists had always ‘signed’ their performance with the power of their unique personality. However, a good musician – just like a good actor – also has to know how to become one with the character he’s playing.
In playing piano, we communicate ideas, states of mind and emotions with the help of sound. But how is the sound created?
The quality of the piano sound depends on our ability to translate the music we hear in our mind to the instrument. We all know that our posture, our touché and the relaxed freedom of our well-trained hands have the power of ‘modeling’ and exploring all the infinite variables of the pianistic sound.
We could also sum all these ‘translating’ physical elements with another word – gestures.
My teacher used to tell me: ‘every gesture you make while playing should reflect the character of the music, its emotional and dramatic content’. Why is this necessary?
Our pianistic gestures influence not only the quality of our sound and the character of the objectively heard music. They also create visual illusions, providing ‘back-up’ (or canceling) the dramatic content of the performed work.
That’s why the purpose of the piano gesture is not only to enhance the quality and the character of the sound, but also to offer a convincing ‘visual support’ for the musical image you’re trying to communicate to the public.
Let’s imagine that you play Bach. Even if the audible image is well-grounded, meeting the requirements of style and character, your performance will still be flawed if your gestures are exaggerated, being totally inappropriate for the severe preclassic music. Bach’s creation is a view from above, being a musical image of wisdom, serene detachment, even enlightenment. When playing his works on the piano, we have to try to understand at least some part of the message encoded in the musical content, reflecting it with our mind, our heart and our gestures. Profoundness, severity, religiousness and a concentrated cantability (oriented towards the organ or the choral expressiveness) should be the pylons of our performance. As my teacher used to say, ‘we cannot play Bach without God in our souls, without moral values in our mind and a deep compassion in everything we do’.
Let’s analyze together a few more examples, moving chronologically from classical to modern music.
When you play Haydn or Mozart’s Piano Sonatas, the gestures your make have to be anchored in the reality of the harpsichord: grace, playfulness and a certain ‘economy of movement’ should be always a part of your interpretation, even when you play the most tensed pages of their music.
With Beethoven, everything changes. The ‘brushstrokes’ become wider, more intense, more alive. If his predecessors concentrated on reflecting universal, even transcendental philosophical problems, Beethoven brings the human being into focus – his destiny, his struggle, his indissoluble part in the tragic, mysterious yet magnificent show called life. When we play Beethoven’s works, we should remember that he had an orchestral thinking, allowing our gestures to acquire a new level of ‘flight’, to become more dramatic, tensed, majestic. We can increase the amplitude of our movements and the force of our touché, remembering that Beethoven’s last Piano Sonatas were already written for the new improved hammerklavier – or the modern piano.
The romantic era brings forward even deeper contrasts. If Schubert makes the transition between the Viennese classical school and the romantic style, then Chopin, Schumann and Liszt represent the pianistic bloom of the new movement. In their music the most delicate feelings are intertwined with dramatic explosions of fury, with tragic cries of despair, with epic narrative pages or maybe with that quiet sadness that made Chopin the greatest poet of the piano. We have to learn how to express – with our gestures and our sound – all these emotions, all these fascinating musical images.
Impressionists – Debussy and Ravel – are true musical ‘painters’, masters of color and shades, creators of wonderful games of light and shadow. When playing their pieces, we have to keep in mind that they have been inspired by the French harpsichordists of the XVII century. At the same time, their music transcends the realities of the piano, creating unexpected musical paintings, reflecting suspended moments in time, ‘catching’ an instant and exploring it. Our pianistic touché has to be both precise and diffuse, real and cloudy, opaque and transparent, imitating the sound of rain, the whisper of falling leaves and the lonely whistle of the autumn wind.
The Russian music is a separate chapter. Having the roots of their art in the wideness of the Russian land, in the mysteries of its folk music and in the complicated deepness of the famous ‘Russian soul’, assimilating at the same time the best traditions of the Western musical art, the Russian composers – especially Tchaikovsky and Rachmaninoff – have brought the pianistic art to new, unexplored levels. The expressivity of their works can be compared to an avalanche of light, open space and that unique joy that is brought only by a true understanding of life and nature. Our gestures should be wide, powerful, full of energy and life force. Our hands have to be like the wings of a big bird – free, strong, dignified.
Every stage performance should be a harmonious whole. A good pianist has to learn how to balance all the elements of his/her interpretation: there should never be a discrepancy between what the public can hear and the image it sees on the stage.
Only then the musical idea will be complete – integrating concept and realization, thoughts and feelings, sound and gestures.
Of course, it is impossible to summarize in one article all the musical images created by great composers throughout the history of the piano music, and all the gestures needed for properly expressing them. Everything I wrote above is a glimpse of my own experience, of my thoughts, feelings and impressions acquired during many years of piano practice. I hope that these insights will help you have a more meaningful performance, a deeper understanding of the dramatic content encoded in each piece you play. At the same time, you should try to explore every work on your own, to find new images, new meanings, new revelations. After all, it’s impossible to fully decipher this wonderful art of sound we call music. It is miraculous because it’s always new, because it has the ability to adapt to new eras, new realities, new rhythms of life. Learn and master the tradition, manifest your unique personality and open a new road into the future!