Applying and Removing Gloss
For the love of God,
unless you’re prepping for Rigoletto at the Met,
go easy on the eyeliner.
~ Cheryl Cory
This may sound like makeup or nail polish terminology, but what I refer to as gloss in sound is more related to photos. Do you want glossy or matte finish? Most people choose glossy but there’s an old-world beauty to matte finish. Tone production employs every degree of finish, from extreme matte to ultra-glossy. Essentially the finish of the tone-production of a note affects primarily the surface of the sound, but the surface often leaves a stronger impression than the body of the sound itself. The picture underneath remains unaltered, but the effect of the substance changes entirely.
Few pianists or critics distinguish between the three basic aspects of tone production: the attack, the body, and the release. We will later go into some detail about each of these aspects, but Gloss refers specifically to the attack, both to the quality and speed of the attack, and to the mallet (i.e. which finger and which specific part of the finger – ball of the finger, side of the finger, point of the finger, fingernail – is employed.
What is not obvious to most pianists is the distinction between the surface (the initial attack) and the body. As a result, they take on the same expression/color. The body of the sound depends on the predisposition of the hand and arm and how the attack is released into the hand and arm, even shoulders and torso. The attack, for instance, might be rather bright, and if the arm is held tightly at the point of release, the body of the sound will also be bright, creating a brash, uncultivated sound. There are places for such an effect, such as an occasional note in Stravinsky’s Petroushka. The puppet’s vulgar wit translates into an artful, peasant-like expression.
Another note might be played with the same bright attack, but be backed up instantaneously by a weightless, very expressive arm that smoothly absorbs any tension. The tone will speak with expressive clarity.
Or perhaps a crystalline, shimmering, watery effect is desired. The same bright attack will give way instantaneously to a weightless hand and arm, creating an effortless, ringing and glistening sound color.
Or do you desire a bright sound that will sink into the earth and take root? Then begin with the same bright attack, but then instantaneously release that sound from the finger into a relaxed, dropping arm, with a relaxed elbow. The moment of release of energy from the finger into the weighted arm is split-second, because as the arm then sinks down, its weight pulls immediately down on the fingertip and must be effortlessly sustained, almost solely by the first joint.
There are piano pedagogues out there here and there who teach vibrato on the piano. Their students swear that if you listen carefully, you can actually hear the vibrato. One such teacher came to my University to give a recital, and I watched the beautiful vibrato for two hours, and admit that my sensitivities were not keen enough to decipher any. Still, there was an expressive warmth to the sound, and a penetrating expression. What at first seemed laughable began to intrigue me.
There were lively discussions among piano majors during the next several weeks. The general consensus was that since the hammer escapes contact with the key before it hits the string, there’s no possible way to affect the sound after that point. It defies physics!
But I argued that that’s like telling the batter that the home-run ball won’t know whether you stopped swinging or not, so why not relax the bat immediately after contact?
How the ball knows and how the hammer knows is beyond my meager comprehension, but they know. That’s not to say that I’ve come around to the notion of creating the illusion of vibrato with a single note, but I do know that whatever happens in your arm within about a second of the attack will necessarily alter the color of the body of the sound. Learn to listen to the two distinct qualities of sound that the attack and the body produce — listen both with your ears and your body.
(The third part of tone production, its release, will be discussed in depth later on.)
The notion of Gloss refers to the brightness or shininess of the surface of tone. But how to achieve it? How can I add or subtract gloss from the surface of the sound?
The primary agent of Gloss is perhaps the speed of the attack. A faster attack from the finger creates both increased volume and increased brightness, but the increased volume can be negated by the quality of the body of the sound.
The second agent of Gloss is the mallet employed. Just as a piano with brittle felts on the hammer tips sounds brighter, the sharper or pointier the point of contact of the key to your finger or fingertip, the brighter the sound. We will discuss this at length later as well. In the meantime, experiment with your fingers, fingertips, fingernails, etc., and see how the gloss changes.
Gloss can be applied to great effect vertically and horizontally, and again, the two often contradict one another. Many pianists apply it to every single note, leaving a shiny, superficial, shadowless impression. Apply with care! Like make-up, less is more, provided it’s applied in the right places and in the right degree.
Returning to our Prelude, begin by applying gloss vertically. Apply an ultra-shiny gloss to every single note in the red line, leaving the rest of the colors in a dull matte finish. Remember that the surface gloss should not affect the body of the sound, its basic color and weight. Gloss attaches itself to the front side of the sound, to its surface, as an effect. Remember also that the most basic form of gloss is achieved by speeding up the finger’s descent into the key.
After you achieve a degree of proficiency applying gloss to the red line, begin again by applying gloss ONLY to the royal blue line. Then the dark green line, etc. The process by now should be familiar.
Once you’ve worked through all nine colors and with gloss, you will have begun to know where you’d like to finally put it. Generally, high gloss applies most effectively to the principal line. In the level or two below that, lesser degrees of gloss are still effective, but below that, beware of using too much gloss because its shininess will distract the listener from the primary material. Exceptions, of course, abound and sometimes the most stunning effects defy logic. Experiment and take note when you happen upon something unexpectedly beautiful.
Now let’s approach gloss from the horizontal perspective.
Because gloss attracts the listener’s attention and makes the object seem more important, gloss can be applied quite effectively to highlight points of emphasis. Try playing through the excerpt below, applying high gloss to each of the red pillar notes. You’ll notice that without altering the volume, weight or the level of compression, the movement of the line will become crystal clear to the listener.
Now try the same thing, but gradually alter the level of gloss as you approach and move away from the energy centers. Even without changing the actual color, every note will seem to have a slightly different color because of the effect of the everchanging gloss. And the phrase will have real persuasive power.
So which approach to gloss should I apply, horizontal or vertical?!
I can only tell you to master both and never stop experimenting. The two approaches are equally effective. Ultimately I find myself alternating between them and combining them in every imaginable combination.
And we’ve been looking just now at gloss as an isolated event. When gloss is employed with the possibility of changing dynamic levels or the colors themselves, the ground rules change and gloss can and must be recalibrated. But alas, this is true with every aspect of orchestration at the keyboard.