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A Pianist's Means of Expression

Tobias Matthay
A pianist's means of expression are the tools that allow them to communicate their feelings about a piece of music to the listener. If you have these tools, then you are a pianist.

You may be filled with music in your soul, and have a great feeling for all music. But unless you can communicate those feelings through the piano, you are not a pianist.

A lack of physical knowledge about the piano and the pianist's own physical equipment limits the means of expression. One great piano teacher who saw this truth was Tobias Matthay. 

He taught piano at the Royal Academy of Music from 1876 to 1925. I was a student of one of his assistants and protege, Denise Lassimonne.

Cause And Effect

I spent many a happy hour in Denise Lassimonne's music library.  As a young piano student I studied Matthay's private manuscripts. I explored, through them, the great sonic secret that Matthay had unearthed.

Matthay’s motto was, “Every effect must have a cause.” Thus, if a pianist seeks expression of a certain feeling, they must have the means and tools to make this a reality.

He saw pianists attributing a great sound at the piano to what were almost “occult influences.” This "mystery" was offensive to Matthay, who saw everything as a problem that had an actual solution, separate from "supernatural" influences." Everything at the piano has a cogent explanation. There is no mystique.

Matthay's Discovery

There were many "schools" of thought about how to produce a beautiful sound at the piano. Some held the hand high. Others, Glenn Gould and Horowitz among them, held the hand flat, in contradiction to every basic rule of the piano.

Pianists had no idea how they were producing the myriad of sounds at the piano. It was Matthay who first tried to scientifically determine how a pianist makes various sounds at the piano.

The first revelation was the source of tone quality, or volume. Most had speculated that it came from the weight of the hand or fingers on the keys. The reason for this was that most pianists had the sensation of weight and variations in that weight when playing the piano.

A loud sound felt heavier than a soft sound, and a soft sound felt lighter in the “weight” of the hand. A pianist may have the sensation of weight, but the operative factor that determines the tone quality of a key is the velocity with which it is depressed.

The Loose Wrist And Arm

The wrist must be help loosely, not clamped and tight. This loose "grip"  allows the pianist to feel the velocity of each stroke of the fingers, this controlling the volume and tone. Matthay recognized that almost all good pianists arrived at the right personal piano technique by a process of trial and error. His life’s work was to codify and make logical the physical steps one must take.

Matthay wanted the widest possible palette of color and sound, saving the pianist those needless years of trial and error. Matthay’s observations were physical, and are easy to verify. He is an historic figure in the lore of piano pedagogy.

A part of his legacy is a group of simple physical formulae for attaining the greatest possible expression at the piano. But as to being a great musical artist, Uncle Tobs is said to have remarked, “The rest is up to you.”  


We've turned notes into numbers for happy beginners at the piano!


Our PLAY ALONG SONGS are produced by Grammy Award winner Joe Castellon of Sesame Street. They're such an important element in making the piano fun for kids!



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