1. Tone, Rhythm, Legato, Staccato

a. What is “Good Tone”?

The Basic Keystroke: The basic keystroke must be learned by every pianist. Without it, nothing else will make a meaningful difference – you can’t build a Taj Mahal out of mud-bricks and straw. The keystroke consists of 3 main components, the downstroke, the hold, and the lift. This might sound like a trivially simple thing to learn, but it is not, and most piano teachers struggle to teach their students the correct keystroke. The difficulties arise mostly because the mechanics of the keystroke have not been adequately explained anywhere; therefore, those explanations will be the major topics of these paragraphs.

The downstroke is what creates the piano sound initially; in the correct motion, it must be as quick as possible, yet with control of the volume. This control is not easy because we found out in the gravity drop section that faster downstroke generally means louder sound. The quickness gives the note its precise timing; without this quickness, the timing of the note start becomes a sloppy affair. Therefore, whether the music is slow or fast, the downstroke must be basically fast. These requirements of fast stroke, control of volume, and many others we will shortly encounter, bring us to a most important principle of learning piano – finger sensitivity. The finger must be able to sense and execute many requirements before you can master the basic keystroke. In order to control volume, the downstroke should consist of 2 parts; an initial strong component to break the friction/inertia of the key and start its motion, and a second component with the appropriate strength for the desired volume. The suggestion to “play deeply into the keys” is a good one in the sense that the downstroke must not slow down; it must accelerate as you reach the bottom so that you never lose control over the hammer.

This 2-part motion is especially important when playing pianissimo. In a well regulated concert grand, friction is nearly zero and the inertia of the system is low. In all other pianos (which comprises 99% of all pianos) there is friction that must be overcome, especially when you first start the downstroke (friction is highest when the motion is zero), and there are numerous imbalances in the system that produce inertia. Assuming that the piano is properly voiced, you can play very soft pianissimo by first breaking the friction/inertia and then making the soft stroke. These 2 components must join seamlessly so that to an observer, it looks like a single motion, with the flesh of the fingers acting like shock absorbers. The required fast downstroke means that the finger muscle must have a high proportion of fast muscles (see a. Introduction: Intrinsic, Limbering, and Conditioning Exercises). This is achieved by fast motion practice over extended periods of time (about a year) and avoiding strength exercises; therefore, the statement that piano technique requires finger strength is absolutely wrong. We need to cultivate finger speed and sensitivity.

The hold component of the keystroke is necessary to hold the hammer using the backcheck and to accurately control the note duration. Without the hold, the hammer can flop around, producing extraneous sounds, cause problems with repeated notes, trills, etc. Beginners will have difficulty with making a smooth transition between the downstroke and hold. Do not push down on the key during the hold in an attempt to “push deeply into the piano”; gravity is sufficient to hold the key down. The length of the hold is what controls color and expression; therefore it is an important part of the music.

The lift causes the damper to fall onto the strings and terminate the sound. Together with the hold, it determines the note duration. Similarly to the downstroke, the lift must be fast in order to control the note duration accurately. Therefore, the pianist must make a conscious effort to grow fast muscles in the extensor muscles, just as we did with the flexor muscles for the downstroke. Especially when playing fast, many students will forget about the lift entirely, resulting in sloppy play. A run may end up consisting of staccato, legato, and overlapping notes. Fast parallel sets may end up sounding as if they were being played with the pedal.

By controlling all 3 components of the basic key stroke accurately, you maintain complete control over the piano; specifically, over the hammer and the damper, and this control is needed for authoritative play. These components determine the nature of each note. You can now see why a fast downstroke and equally fast lift is so important, especially during slow play. In normal play, the lift of the previous note coincides with the downstroke of the following note. In staccato and legato (c. Legato, Staccato) and fast play (i. Practicing for Speed), we need to modify all these components, and they will be discussed separately. If you had never practiced these components before, start practice with all 5 fingers, C to G, as you do when playing a scale and apply the components to each finger, HS. If you want to exercise the extensor muscles, you can exaggerate the quick lift stroke. Try to keep all the non-playing fingers on the keys, lightly. As you try to speed up the down and lift strokes, playing about one note per second, you may start to build stress; in that case, practice until you can eliminate the stress. The most important thing to remember about the hold component is that you must instantly relax during the hold after the quick downstroke. In other words, you need to practice both stroke speed and relaxation speed. Then gradually speed up the play; there is no need to play fast at this time. Just get up to some comfortable speed. Now do the same with any slow music you can play, such as the 1st movement of Beethoven’s Moonlight, HS. If you had never done this before, HT will be initially very awkward because you now need to coordinate so many components in both hands. However, with practice, the music will come out better, you will gain much more control over the expression, and should get the feeling that you can now play more musically. There should be no missed or wrong notes, all the notes should be more even, and you can execute all the expression marks with greater precision. The performances will be consistent from day to day, and technique will progress more rapidly. Without a good basic keystroke, you can get into trouble when you play different pianos, or pianos that are not in good regulation, and the music can often come out worse as you practice more because you can acquire bad habits such as inaccurate timing. Of course, the whole process described in this one paragraph may take weeks or even months to complete.

Tone: Single versus Multiple Notes, Pianissimo, Fortissimo. Tone is the quality of the sound; whether the sum total of all the properties of the sound is appropriate for the music. There is controversy over whether a pianist can control the “tone” of a single note on the piano. If you were to sit at the piano and play one note, it seems nearly impossible to alter the tone except for things like staccato, legato, loud, soft, etc. On the other hand, there is no question that different pianists produce differing tones. Two pianists can play the same composition on the same piano and produce music with very different tonal quality. Most of this apparent contradiction can be resolved by carefully defining what “tone” means. For example, a large part of the tonal differences among pianists can be attributed to the particular pianos they use, and the way those pianos are regulated or tuned. Controlling the tone of a single note is probably just one aspect of a multi-faceted, complex issue. Therefore, the most important distinction we must make initially is whether we are talking about a single note or a group of notes. Most of the time, when we hear different tones, we are listening to a group of notes. In that case, tone differences are easier to explain. Tone is mostly produced by the control of the notes relative to each other. This almost always comes down to precision, control and musical content. Therefore, tone is mainly a property of a group of notes and depends on the musical sensitivity of the pianist.

However, it is also clear that we can control the tone of a single note in several ways. We can control it by use of the soft and damper pedals. We can also change the harmonic content (the number of overtones) by playing louder or softer. The soft pedal changes the tone, or timbre, by reducing the prompt sound relative to the after-sound. When a string is struck with a greater force, more harmonics are generated. Thus when we play softly, we produce sound containing stronger fundamentals. However, below a certain loudness, there is insufficient energy to excite the fundamental and you mostly excite some higher frequency traveling waves, somewhat similar to the flautando in the violin (the inertia of the piano string acts like the finger in the flautando). Therefore, somewhere between PP and FF, there is an optimum strike force that maximizes the fundamental. The damper pedal also changes the timbre by allowing vibrations at the non-struck strings.

The tone or timbre can be controlled by the tuner by voicing the hammer or by tuning differently. A harder hammer produces a more brilliant tone (larger harmonic content) and a hammer with a flat striking area produces a harsher tone (more high frequency harmonics). The tuner can change the stretch or control the amount of detuning among the unisons. Up to a point, larger stretch tends to produce brighter music and insufficient stretch can produce a piano with unexciting sound. When detuned within the sympathetic vibration frequency range, all strings of a note will be in perfect tune (vibrate at the same frequency), but will interact differently with each other. For example, the note can be made to “sing” which is an after-sound whose volume wavers. No two strings are ever identical, so that the option of tuning identically simply does not exist.

Finally, we come to the difficult question: can you vary the tone of a single note by controlling the downstroke? Most of the arguments over tone control center on the free flight property of the hammer before it strikes the strings. Opponents (of single note tone control) argue that, because the hammer is in free flight, only its velocity matters and therefore tone is not controllable for a note played at a specified loudness. But the assumption of free flight has never been proven, as we shall now see. One factor affecting tone is the flex of the hammer shank. For a loud note, the shank may be significantly flexed as the hammer is launched into free flight. In that case, the hammer can have a larger effective mass than its original mass when it hits the strings. This is because the force, F, of the hammer on the strings, is given by F = -Ma where M is the mass of the hammer and a is its deceleration upon impact with the strings. Positive flex adds an extra force because, as the flex recovers after the jack is released, it pushes the hammer forwards; when F increases, it doesn’t matter if M or a increases, the effect is the same. However, a is more difficult to measure than M (for example you can easily simulate a larger M by using a heavier hammer) so we usually say, in this case, that the “effective mass” has increased, to make it easier to visualize the effect of the larger F on how the strings respond. In reality, however, positive flex increases a. For a note played staccato, the flex may be negative by the time the hammer strikes the strings, so that the tone difference between “deep” playing and staccato may be considerable. These changes in effective mass will certainly change the distribution of overtones and affect the tone we hear. Since the shank is not 100% rigid, we know that there is always a finite flex. The only question is whether it is sufficient to affect tone as we hear it. It almost certainly is because the hammer shank is a relatively flexible piece of wood. If this is true, then the tone of the lower notes, with the heavier hammers, should be more controllable because the heavier hammers will cause a larger flex. Although one might expect the flex to be negligible because the hammer is so light, the knuckle is very close to the hammer flange bushing, creating a tremendous leverage. The argument that the hammer is too light to induce flex is not valid because the hammer is sufficiently massive to hold all of the kinetic energy required to make even the loudest sounds. That is a lot of energy!

Note that the hammer let-off is only several millimeters and this distance is extremely critical for tone. Such a small let-off suggests that the hammer is designed to be in acceleration when it hits the string. The hammer is not in free flight after the jack releases because for the first few millimeters after release the hammer is being accelerated by the recovery of the shank flex. The let-off is the smallest controllable distance that can maintain the acceleration without any chance of locking the hammer onto the strings because the jack could not release. This flex explains four otherwise mysterious facts:

  1. The tremendous energy that such a light hammer can transfer to the strings

  2. The decrease in tone quality (or control) when the let-off is too large

  3. The critical dependence of the sound output and tone control on hammer weight and size

  4. The clicking sound that the piano makes when the hammer shank bushing deteriorates (a classic example is the clicking Teflon bushing)

The clicking is the sound of the bushing snapping back when the jack releases and the shank flex takes over – without the flex unwinding, there is no force to snap the busing back; therefore, without flex, there will be no click. Since the clicking can be heard even for moderately soft sounds, the shank is flexed for all except the softest sounds.

This scenario also has important implications for the pianist (not only for the piano tuner). It means that the tone of a single note can be controlled. It also tells us how to control it. First of all, for PPP sounds, there is negligible flex and we are dealing with a different tone from louder sounds. Pianists know that, to play PP, you press down with a constant velocity - note that this minimizes flex because there is no acceleration at release. When playing pianissimo, you want to minimize flex in order to minimize the effective mass of the hammer. Secondly, for maximum flex, the downstroke should accelerate at the bottom. This makes a lot of sense: “deep tone” is produced by leaning into the piano and pressing firmly, even with soft sounds. That is exactly how you maximize flex, which is equivalent to using a larger hammer. This information is also critical for the piano technician. It means that the optimum hammer size is one which is sufficiently small so that flex is zero somewhere around PP, but sufficiently large so that flex is significant starting around mf. This is a very clever mechanical arrangement that allows the use of relatively small hammers that enable rapid repetitions and can still transmit a maximum amount of energy to the strings. It means that it is a mistake to go to larger hammers to produce more sound because you will lose repetition speed and tone control. The existence of hammer shank flex is now well known (“Five Lectures on the Acoustics of the Piano”).

Can the difference in tone of a single note be heard on the piano by playing only one note? Usually not; most people are not sensitive enough to hear this difference with most pianos. You will need a Steinway B or better piano, and you may start to hear this difference (if you test this with several pianos of progressively higher quality) with the lower notes. However, when actual music is played, the human ear is amazingly sensitive to how the hammer impacts the strings, and the difference in tone can be easily heard. This is similar to tuning: most people (including most pianists) will be hard pressed to hear the difference between a super tuning and an ordinary tuning by playing single notes or even testing intervals. However, practically any pianist can hear the difference in tuning quality by playing a piece of their favorite music. You can demonstrate this yourself. Play an easy piece twice, in an identical way except for touch. First, play with arm weight and “pressing deeply” into the piano, making sure that the key drop accelerates all the way down (correct basic keystroke). Then compare this to the music when you press shallowly so that there is complete key drop, but there is no acceleration at the bottom. You may need to practice a little to make sure that the first time is not louder than the second. You should hear an inferior tone quality for the second mode of play. In the hands of great pianists, this difference can be quite large. Of course, we discussed above that tone is controlled most strongly by how you play successive notes, so that playing music to test the effect of single notes is clearly not the best way. However, it is the most sensitive test.

Pianissimo: We saw that for PPP, you need an accurate basic key stroke, and rapid relaxation. Feeling the keys with the pads of the fingers is important. In general, you should always practice with a soft touch until the passage is mastered, then add mf or FF or whatever is needed, because playing with a soft touch is the most difficult skill to develop. There is no acceleration of the downstroke and no hammer shank flex, but the backcheck must be controlled (key down and held). The most important factors for PPP are proper regulation (especially minimum let-off, hammer voicing, and correct hammer weight). Trying to cultivate PPP technique without proper piano maintenance is futile. In an emergency (during a performance with unsatisfactory piano) you might try the soft pedal with an upright or a very slight partial soft pedal with a grand. PPP is difficult on most digitals because the key action is inferior and deteriorates quickly after about 5 years of use. But an acoustic that was not maintained can be much worse.

Fortissimo is a matter of transferring weight into the piano. This means body leaning forward so that the center of gravity is closer to the keyboard and playing from the shoulders. Do not use only hands or arms for FF. Again, relaxation is important so that you do not waste energy, you enable maximum downstroke speed, and the proper force can be directed only where it is needed. For a passage to be played FF, practice without the FF until the passage is mastered, then add FF.

In summary, tone is primarily a result of uniformity and control of playing and depends on the musical sensitivity of the player. Tone control is a complex issue involving every factor that changes the nature of the sound and we have seen that there are many ways to change the piano sound. It all starts with how the piano is regulated. Each pianist can control the tone by numerous means, such as by playing loudly or softly, or by varying the speed. For example, by playing louder and faster, we can produce music consisting mainly of the prompt sound; conversely, a slower and softer play will produce a subdued effect, using more after-sound. And there are innumerable ways in which to incorporate the pedal into your playing. We saw that the tone of a single note can be controlled because the hammer shank has flex. The large number of variables ensures that every pianist will produce a different tone.

b. What is Rhythm? (Beethoven’s Tempest, Op. 31, #2, Appassionata, Op. 57)

Rhythm is the (repetitive) timing framework of music. When you read about rhythm (see Whiteside), it often seems like a mysterious aspect of music that only “inborn talent” can express. Or perhaps you need to practice it all your life, like drummers. Most frequently, however, correct rhythm is simply a matter of accurate counting, of correctly reading the music, especially the time signatures. This is not as easy as it sounds; difficulties often arise because most indications for rhythm are not explicitly spelled out everywhere on the music score since it is part of things like the time signature that appears only once at the beginning (there are too many such “things” to be listed here, such as the difference between a waltz and a mazurka. Another example: without looking at the music, some would think that the beat in the Happy Birthday song is on “happy”, but it is actually on “birth”; this song is a waltz). In many instances, the music is created mainly by manipulating these rhythmic variations so that rhythm is one of the most important elements of music. In short, most rhythmic difficulties arise from not reading the music correctly. This often happens when you try to read the music HT; there is too much information for the brain to process and it can’t be bothered with rhythm, especially if the music involves new technical skills. That initial reading mistake then becomes incorporated into the final music from repeated practice.

Definition of Rhythm: Rhythm consists of 2 parts: timing and accents, and they come in 2 forms, formal and logical. The mysteries surrounding rhythm and the difficulties encountered in defining rhythm arise from the “logical” part, which is at once the key element and the most elusive. So let’s tackle the simpler formal rhythms first. They are simpler but they aren’t less important; too many students make mistakes with these elements which can render the music unrecognizable.

Formal Timing: The formal timing rhythm is given by the time signature, and is indicated at the very beginning of the music score. The major time signatures are waltz (3/4), common time (4/4), “cut time” (2/2, also alla breve), and 2/4. The waltz has 3 beats per bar (measure), etc.; the number of beats per bar is indicated by the numerator. 4/4 is the most common and is often not even indicated, although it should be indicated by a “C” at the beginning (you can remember it as “C stands for common”). Cut time is indicated by the same “C”, but with a vertical line down the center (cuts the “C” in half). The reference note is indicated by the denominator, so that the 3/4 waltz has 3 quarter-notes per bar, and 2/4 is, in principle, twice as fast as 2/2 cut time. The meter is the number of beats in a measure, and almost every meter is constructed from duples or triples, although exceptions have been used for special effects (5, 7, or 9 beats).

Formal Accents: Each time signature has its own formal accent (louder or softer beats). If we use the convention that 1 is the loudest, 2 is softer, etc., then the (Viennese) waltz has the formal accent 133 (the famous oom-pha-pha); the first beat gets the accent; the Mazurka can be 313 or 331. Common time has the formal accent 1323, and cut time and 2/4 have the accent 1212. A syncopation is a rhythm in which the accent is placed at a location different from the formal accent; for example a syncopated 4/4 might be 2313 or 2331. Note that the 2331 rhythm is fixed throughout the composition, but the 1 is at an unconventional location.

Logical Timing and Accents: This is where the composer injects his music. It is a change in timing and loudness from the formal rhythm. Although rhythmic logic is not necessary, it is almost always there. Common examples of timing rhythmic logic are accel. (to make things more exciting), decel. (perhaps to indicate an ending) or rubato. Examples of dynamic rhythmic logic are increasing or decreasing loudness, forte, PP, etc.

Beethoven’s Tempest Sonata (Op. 31, #2), illustrates the formal and logical rhythms. For example, in the 3rd movement, the first 3 bars are 3 repetitions of the same structure, and they simply follow the formal rhythm. However, in bars 43-46, there are 6 repetitions of the same structure in the RH, but they must be squeezed into 4 formal rhythmic bars! If you make 6 identical repetitions in the RH, you are wrong! In addition, in bar 47, there is an unexpected “sf” that has nothing to do with the formal rhythm, but is an absolutely essential logical rhythm.

If rhythm is so important, what guidance can one use, in order to cultivate it? Obviously, you must treat rhythm as a separate subject of practice for which you need a specific program of attack. Therefore, during the initial learning of a new piece, set aside some time for working on the rhythm. A metronome, especially one with advanced features, can be helpful here. First, you must double check that your rhythm is consistent with the time signature. This can’t be done in your mind even after you can play the piece – you must revisit the sheet music and check every note. Too many students play a piece a certain way “because it sounds right”; you can’t do that. You must check with the score to see if the correct notes carry the correct accent strictly according to the time signature. Only then, can you decide which rhythmic interpretation is the best way to play and where the composer has inserted violations of the basic rules (very rare); more often the rhythm indicated by the time signature is strictly correct but sounds counter-intuitive. An example of this is the mysterious “arpeggio” at the beginning of Beethoven’s Appassionata (Op. 57). A normal arpeggio (such as C E G) would start with the first note (C), which should carry the accent (downbeat). However, Beethoven starts each bar at the third note of the arpeggio (the first bar is incomplete and carries the first two notes of the “arpeggio”); this forces you to accent the third note (G), not the first note, if you follow the time signature correctly. We find out the reason for this odd “arpeggio” when the main theme is introduced in bar 35. Note that this “arpeggio” is an inverted, schematized (simplified) form of the main theme. Beethoven had psychologically prepared us for the main theme by giving us only its rhythm! This is why he repeats it, after raising it by a curious interval – he wanted to make sure that we recognized the unusual rhythm (he used the same device at the beginning of his 5th symphony, where he repeated the 4-note motif at a lower pitch). Another example is Chopin’s Fantaisie-Impromptu. The first note of the RH (bar 5) must be softer than the second. Can you find at least one reason why? Although this piece is in double time, it may be instructive to practice the RH as 4/4 to make sure that the wrong notes are not emphasized.

Check the rhythm carefully when you start HS. Then check again when you start HT. When the rhythm is wrong, the music usually becomes impossible to play at speed. Thus, if you have unusual difficulty in getting up to speed, it is a good idea to check the rhythm. In fact, incorrect rhythmic interpretation is one of the most common causes of speed walls and why you have trouble HT. When you make an rhythmic error, no amount of practice will enable you to get up to speed! This is one of the reasons why outlining works: it can simplify the job of correctly reading the rhythm. Therefore, when outlining, concentrate on rhythm. Also, when you first start HT, you may have more success by exaggerating the rhythm. Rhythm is another reason why you should not attempt pieces that are too difficult for you. If you don’t have sufficient technique, you will not be able to control the rhythm. What can happen is that the lack of technique will impose an incorrect rhythm into your playing, thus creating a speed wall.

Next, look for the special rhythmic markings, such as “sf” or accent marks. Finally, there are situations in which there are no indications on the music and you simply have to know what to do, or listen to a recording in order to pick up special rhythmic variations. Therefore, as part of the practice routine, you should experiment with rhythm, accenting unexpected notes, etc., to see what might happen.

Rhythm is also intimately associated with speed. This is why you need to play most Beethoven compositions above certain speeds; otherwise, the emotions associated with the rhythm and even the melodic lines can be lost. Beethoven was a master of rhythm; thus you cannot play Beethoven successfully without paying special attention to rhythm. He usually gives you at least two things simultaneously:

  1. An easy-to-follow melody that the audience hears

  2. A rhythmic/harmonic device that controls what the audience feels

Thus in the first movement of his Pathetique (Op. 13), the agitated LH tremolo controls the emotions while the audience is preoccupied with listening to the curious RH. Therefore a mere technical ability to handle the fast LH tremolo is insufficient – you must be able to control the emotional content with this tremolo. Once you understand and can execute the rhythmic concept, it becomes much easier to bring out the musical content of the entire movement, and the stark contrast with the Grave section becomes obvious.

There is one class of rhythmic difficulties that can be solved using a simple trick. This is the class of complex rhythms with missing notes. A good example of this can be found in the 2nd movement of Beethoven’s Pathetique. The 2/4 time signature is easy to play in bars 17 to 21 because of the repeated chords of the LH that maintain the rhythm. However, in bar 22, the most important accented notes of the LH are missing, making it difficult to pick up the somewhat complex play in the RH. The solution to this problem is to simply fill in the missing notes of the LH! In this way, you can easily practice the correct rhythm in the RH.

In summary, the “secret” of great rhythm is no secret – it must start with correct counting (which, I must re-emphasize, is not easy). For advanced pianists, it is of course much more; it is magic. It is what distinguishes the great from the ordinary. It is not just counting the accents in each bar but how the bars connect to create the developing musical idea – the logical component of rhythm. For example, in Beethoven’s Moonlight (Op. 27), the beginning of the 3rd movement is basically the 1st movement played at a crazy speed. This knowledge tells us how to play the 1st movement, because it means that the series of triplets in the 1st movement must be connected in such a way that they lead to the culmination with the three repeated notes. If you simply played the repeated notes independently of the preceding triplets, all these notes will lose their meaning/impact. Rhythm is also that odd or unexpected accent that our brains somehow recognize as special. Clearly, rhythm is a critical element of music to which we must pay special attention.

c. Legato, Staccato

Legato is smooth play. This is accomplished by connecting successive notes – do not lift the first note until the second one is played. Fraser recommends considerable overlap of the two notes. The first moments of a note contain a lot of “noise” so that overlapping notes are not that noticeable. Because legato is a habit that you must build into your playing, experiment with different amounts of overlap to see how much overlap gives the best legato for you. Then practice this until it becomes a habit so that you can always reproduce the same effect. Chopin considered legato as the most important skill to develop for a beginner. Chopin’s music requires special types of legato and staccato (Ballade Op. 23), so it is important to pay attention to these elements when playing his music. If you want to practice legato, play some Chopin. The basic keystroke is absolutely necessary for legato.

In staccato, the finger is bounced off the key so as to produce a brief sound with no sustain. It is somewhat astonishing that most books on learning piano discuss staccato, but never define what it is! The backcheck is not engaged for staccato and the damper cuts off the sound immediately after the note is played. Therefore, the “hold” component of the basic keystroke is absent. There are two notations for staccato, the normal (dot) and hard (filled triangle). In both, the jack is not released; in hard staccato, the finger moves down and up much more rapidly. Thus in normal staccato, the key drop may be about half way down, but in hard staccato, it can be less than half way. In this way, the damper is returned to the strings faster, resulting in a shorter note duration. Because the backcheck is not engaged, the hammer can “bounce around”, making repetitions tricky at certain speeds. Thus if you have trouble with rapidly repeated staccatos, don’t immediately blame yourself – it may be the wrong frequency at which the hammer bounces the wrong way. By changing the speed, amount of key drop, etc., you may be able to eliminate the problem. In normal staccato, gravity quickly returns the damper onto the strings. In hard staccato, the damper is actually bounced off the damper top rail, so that it returns even more quickly. At string contact, the hammer shank flex can be negative, which makes the effective mass of the hammer lighter; thus there is a considerable variety of tones that you can produce with staccato. Therefore, the motions of the hammer, backcheck, jack, and damper are all changed in staccato. Clearly, in order to play staccato well, it helps to understand how the piano works.

Staccato is generally divided into three types depending on how it is played:

  1. Finger staccato

  2. Wrist staccato

  3. Arm staccato (which includes both up-down motion and arm rotation)

#1 is played mostly with the finger, holding the hand and arm still, #2 is played mostly with wrist action, and #3 is usually played as a thrust (a. Hand Motions), with the playing action originating at the upper arm. As you progress from #1 to #3 you add more mass behind the fingers; therefore, #1 gives the lightest, fastest staccato and is useful for single, soft notes, and #3 gives the heaviest feeling and is useful for loud passages and chords with many notes, but is also the slowest. #2 is in between. In practice, most of us probably combine all three; since the wrist and arm are slower, their amplitudes must be correspondingly reduced in order to play fast staccato. Some teachers frown on the use of wrist staccato, preferring mostly arm staccato; however, it is probably better to have a choice (or combination) of all three. For example, you might be able to reduce fatigue by changing from one to the other, although the standard method of reducing fatigue is to change fingers. When practicing staccato, practice the three (finger, hand, arm) staccatos first before deciding on which one to use, or on how to combine them.

Because you cannot use the arm weight for staccato, the best reference is your steady body. Thus the body plays a major role in staccato play. Speed of staccato repetition is controlled by the amount of up-down motion: the smaller the motion, the faster the repetition rate, in exactly the same way as a basketball dribble.