After-touch lies in the shadow of touch. Perhaps this is why so many pianists remain oblivious to it. And yet it’s nearly as important as touch itself. Just as the pedal can be lifted sharply and abruptly, or slowly and lazily, so individual notes can be raised quickly or slowly, depending on the effect desired. It sometimes helps, as with pedaling, to envision the dampers raising and lowering.
This subject has been dealt with indirectly in the Essay on Talea, but it’s important to address it head-on. This is both an artistic and a physical question. Let’s look first at the physical side.
Every muscle or muscle group tends to have a complimentary muscle or muscle group. The biceps and triceps are a simple example of this; one without the other is virtually useless, and they work most efficiently when they’re used in a balanced way.
Good runners will tell you that it’s healthiest to raise your feet off the pavement and not simply trod along with minimal effort. If you get in the habit of lifting your feet up higher, you’ll gain incredible speed and agility, and at the same time avoid injury.
The fingers work the same way. When you actively lift them after attacking the keys, the pressing muscles and the lifting muscles balance each other out, and even energize one another! I was slow to realize this. It seemed to me that all excess movement should be eliminated and that since the key itself will lift the finger up if you simply stop pressing against it, using the piano’s energy is the most efficient way to engage Tao-like circular energy. The effect is not Tao-like though; it’s simply lazy! This passive approach occasionally works effectively when the color desired requires a natural matte release precisely the speed that a given key raises a given finger, but generally it’s physically and artistically wiser to balance depressing and releasing the keys actively.
The greater question is the artistic one.
The release (after-touch), just like the attack, can have a matte finish or glossy finish. On the piano, the release is much more complex than the attack because of the mysterious qualities of the pedal, discussed in several other Essays (Pedaling, Finger-Pedaling, Talea).
The pedaling affects the after-touch and the after-touch effects the pedaling
In effect, when pedal is used, a touch can have two after-touches, the release of the finger - giving the tone and its overtones over to the pedal – and the release or change of the pedal, which actually ends or significantly tapers the sound.
Again, the ear shouldn’t be able to hear whether the finger actually holds a note in the hand or not when the pedal is fully depressed, but it usually can.
An important aspect of after-touch is how the proceeding attack is perceived. If a note has a high-gloss after-touch, the following note will be attacked more clearly, or be perceived as having been attacked more clearly.
This is one of the reasons that Horowitz’ non-legato approach is so crystal clear and convincing. Every single note is attacked with a relatively clean slate of sound and physical energy. The clean release of attack, even if not of sound, creates a negative space on which to attack the next note or chord. You have to experience it to understand it.
Return to our Prelude and try out several different styles of after-touch. Discover on your own how after-touch affects both the sound of the present note and the sound of the next.