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The Foundation of Touch

By Henry G. Hanchett
Touch influenced by many considerations.
Very few effects can be traced to a single invariable cause. Nearly always some side influence comes in and must be reckoned if we are to take account of all that leads up to the result. We say that the crop comes from the seed; but many men use the same seed, the best of its kind, and get harvests differing at least in amount if not in quality. One sows on inferior soil; another neglects his plowing, or harrowing, or weeds; another sows too early or too late; another sows in too high a latitude; while for another too much or too little rain stands in the way of the best yield. It doesn't all depend upon the seed. Touch is that action upon the part of a pianist by which he produces tone from his instrument; but it is far from being the only cause of the sounds. Much of the tonal effect depends upon the maker and the scale of the instrument. Again much depends upon the room in which the instrument is heard. Many a piano has been purchased in a large bare room that when heard later in the small carpeted parlor has seemed like another instrument, yet the difference was not due to any point in structure or to the touch of the player. The tone of the piano is influenced by as many considerations as the crop of the farmer; yet as surely as the crop comes from the seed so surely does the tone come from the touch.
The foundation of touch.
It has been said many times that a pianist is given his touch by the grace of his Creator, and of course this is perfectly true. The vibrating powers of steel strings and spruce sounding- boards, the contractile power of muscles, and the stimulating powers of nerves are all gifts of the Creator; but if the expression is intended to mean that no one need pray for or try to acquire this gift of touch if he be not born with it, it conveys a foolish idea. Although it is superlatively difficult to teach touch to one who does not easily acquire it— that is to say touch comes either with very little or with very great effort as a rule—yet that is not because the touch itself is such a difficult matter, but because the foundation of touch is either present or absent. For the foundation of touch is in a discriminating hearing of the tonal result of touch. He who is blessed with a good musical ear quickly learns to distinguish minute differences of tone, and when the teacher puts into his mind the thought that such differences depend in part upon touch and shows him how to produce the several touches, the acquirement of a good touch is quickly attained.
Points to bediscriminated.
The points which must be discriminated by the ear are those due to the construction of the instrument, those due to its condition especially as to tuning, those due to the effect of sympathetic vibration (pedal), those due to associated vibration (other tones sounded simultaneously by the keys), those due to force, those due to length, and those due to quality or character of touch.
Musicians are pretty well agreed Importance of that early practice by young a good piano. students of music should be upon a good piano. In assigning discriminating hearing as the foundation of touch it is implied that the training of the ear should be considered a fundamental necessity, and of course it is to be trained to know the good. A piano with a fine quality of tone for the ear and a pliable, dependable action for the finger will undoubtedly have a large, helpful influence in producing a pianist with a beautiful touch; but the ear training ought to go far enough to enable one to distinguish how much of a good tone is to be credited to the instrument and how much to the touch. Many a fine pianist has had his effects marred by having to play upon a "tin pan." If your piano sounds badly have it tuned; and then see if you cannot restrain and discipline your touch so as to effect an amelioration of the tonal results obtained from it. If you cannot you probably need a new piano. The piano must be in tune or the natural overtones (which are always present in vibrating strings) will find an insufficient reinforcement, and thus the whole tone of the instrument will be harmed.
The pedal.
Everybody acknowledges the great effect upon the tone produced by the pedal—in fact the greatest modification in the color of the piano tone that can be made by the player is effected by the use of the pedal. The resonance of the instrument is vastly increased while the pedal is pressed, and the great enhancement of the beauty of piano tone under the influence of this resonance is a constant temptation to an over use of the pedal with consequent damage to clearness. A prime necessity for the cultivation of a good touch is a careful study of the production and use of pedal effects.
Effects of touch not traceable directly to technic.
When the ear is capable of assigning to the instrument    and its location or surroundings the tonal effects due to their influence it is prepared to judge fairly of the influence of touch to which is to be traced the remaining characteristics of the sound produced as to its force, length, connection, and quality. And it should be noted first that none of the effects of touch are to be traced directly to technic. Hammer touch, pressure touch, stab touch, elastic touch, hand touch, arm touch, finger touch—all these are designations of technic. They indicate "the way of doing things," the use of members muscles, and motions in accordance with the experience of the profession to produce results. The results themselves can be brought about in some other way, as by a machine of the pianola class, or a phonograph. Some pianists produce tonal effects in ways decidedly different from those adopted by other pianists, yet which cannot be distinguished by the tonal results alone. Who dare say that as light, effective, and beautiful a mild staccato cannot be produced by the hammer action of the fingers as by the drawing inward of the finger tips? Who has not heard a strong masculine player bring from the piano with fingers only a sound as voluminous as some other player could produce by a hand touch? That is not to say that the technic of the touch is a matter of no importance—it is of great importance, but its importance lies in other directions. The experience of the profession teaches that there is a best way of doing things, that results can be obtained more easily, with more economy of nerve force, more accuracy, more freedom of expression, by one plan than by another. Hence we study technic and learn to select among the possible motions and members those that best secure the desired result. One can grasp a stick in each hand and with the sticks press down piano keys so as to produce with care a very musical performance of a melody, but everybody knows that finger touch is better than stick touch and will carry one through a wider range of piano playing, even if stick touch cannot be distinguished by the ear from finger touch where the former is available. But the point here is that technic is not touch—the two are easily separable ideas.
Touch distinguished by force.
Touch is distinguished as to its force, its length, and its quality. The easiest distinction to acquire is in force, yet the dainty pianissimo is secured only by long- continued effort at refining the motions and equalizing the power at a grade of force where every least shade of difference is noticeable. And on the other hand the fortissimos give very little pleasure unless they are produced with careful attention to the quality of the blow; and that consideration will lead to study of the effects of different motions and sources of the touch, as hand, arm, elbow, or wrist.
Touch distinguished by length.
For the vast majority of students the most important   aspect of touch is its length.
Yet even in regard to length the consideration is not simple, for the quality of the touch best calculated to attain the desired length is a matter of the greatest importance. A staccatissimo tone is as short as possible. To make a good staccato at any grade of power the touch must be made more swiftly than when a legato touch is to be heard. Right there is the distinction between the semistaccato (marked by a simple round dot) and the slurred staccato (marked by a dot covered by a line, or if there are several such touches in succession by dots and a slur over the dots). The semistaccato is really staccato—produced by a quick blow, but with some length of tone, appreciable but not sufficient to allow of any connection of the tone with that next following. The slurred staccato, on the other hand, is a true legato tone as to quality. It should be produced in such a way that its connection with a following tone would be perfectly feasible with a true legato result, yet in obedience to the dot the tone should be so abbreviated as to prevent its quite connecting with the following tone.
The greatest thing for the piano student to learn with regard to touch is the distinction between the swift fall appropriate to staccato, and the steady but slower fall appropriate to legato. And this distinction must be learned in its application to both soft and loud tones, to tones produced by fingers, hands, or arms. The essence of legato touch is in the steadiness with which the finger, hand, or arm falls upon the key or keys, although legato primarily signifies connection and hence refers to length. The connection aimed at is the connection of musical tones, and implies the sustaining of any sound already in vibration till the blow of the next hammer is passed and the resulting tone is ready to take up and maintain the interest and musical impression. But the intervening hammer blow (unmusical sound necessarily produced by the touch) must be as little percussive as possible in order that no interruption to the musical flow of vibrations shall be noticed, and therefore the legato touch which best obscures the blow is a most important element in legato playing.
Touch distinguishedby quality.
The final and highest considerations of touch — those qualities which we distinguish as expressive, sympathetic, caressing, and by other vague terms—are the outgrowth of musical yearnings voiced by one who has the mastery of touches to force and length, with the technic upon which the production of touch at will depends, both so cultivated as to be perfectly automatic, ready to respond to the slightest emotional stimulus. One must be able to make either small or great differences in force between two tones produced simultaneously by the same hand, involving wide differences of condition in the muscles of adjacent fingers. One must be able to shorten one tone and lengthen another, although produced with the same hand at the same instant, and one must do all and judge of all because of the tonal results desired or effected, and then one may safely claim a mastery of touch even if execution, velocity, and technic still present some unsolved problems.

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You are reading The Foundation of Touch from the March, 1904 issue of The Etude Magazine.

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