Suzuki Sunday: Tone

Today I thought I'd talk about a slightly-mysterious thing called tone.  You've probably heard the word before, but you may not know what it means or how to integrate it into your playing.

The easiest way to explain it is through an example: imagine singing Happy Birthday with a group of your friends.  Unless you were all in the school glee club, you probably just sang it with your "head voice," simply and with shallow breathing, not paying much attention to the musicality of your voice.

Now imagine a soloist singing the National Anthem before a sporting event.  Her singing would almost certainly be tonal: she would be singing with her "chest voice," a rich, deep, velvety sound.  That's the difference between poor and mature tone.

I try to introduce the concept of tonality from the beginning, but with young students I wait until they have enough technical skill to allow them to focus on other things.  Once they have learned to play with curved fingers, to differentiate between staccato and legato, and to execute most of the notes and rhythm correctly, I will ask them to think about tone.  I always begin by asking them to imagine they're singing the piece.  Your voice naturally gets louder in the higher parts of the piece and softer in the lower parts, but there may be times when the opposite is true.  Mainly, when you're singing, you're paying attention to the musical aspects of the piece -- you're trying to make it beautiful, not just correct.  Even a very young child can understand a request to "play beautifully."

How do we play with beautiful tone?  There are a number of things we can do to encourage it, although ultimately it comes only with maturity and sustained commitment to the instrument.

  1. Pretend you're singing. Especially for younger children, this provides a clear aural image that they can apply to their playing.

  2. Keep a somewhat-contemplative tempo. It's not impossible to have beautiful tone when you're rushing, but it's a lot harder.  (Playing fast has plenty of drawbacks of its own, too!)

  3. Add an element of formality to the practice. Imagine you're playing it for an audience.  You'd slow down and try to make it more musical than if your only audience was your living room furniture.

  4. Try to hit each note in the center of the key, with plenty of arm weight behind it. This is also a visualization exercise: if you imagine the key is actually much lower than it really is, you'll strike with a much richer, deeper tone than if you're just dabbling around the top of the keys.

  5. Keep your hand position curved and firm. This is one more reason why I'm so fanatical about fingernail length: it's almost impossible to play with rich, deep tone when your fingernails are clicking away, causing your fingers to slide around on the keys.

  6. Be aware of beauty. This may be the hardest to remember during daily practice, but its importance can't be overestimated.  Point out things of beauty to your child with regularity and discuss why they are beautiful -- visual (paintings, photos, real-life scenes) as well as aural (songs, sounds, his own playing.)  This is one of the best things he can learn from piano lessons -- an understanding and appreciation of beauty in all areas of his life.