The Four Principle Mallets
If you use a hammer to brush your teeth,
or a toothbrush to drive nails,
you are not likely to meet with great success.
~ John Daishin Buksbazen
The Piano is ultra-sensitive to touch. Even though the finger doesn’t have anything close to direct contact with the strings because of its complex mechanism, the piano somehow senses the exact material with which it’s touched and responds honestly. No two fingers are alike and no two points on the same finger produce the exact same sound. So there are an infinite number of mallets to choose from, but they can be grouped into 4 basic types and a few added special-effect mallets.
The most common part of the fingertip used to produce sound is the somewhat hard tip, just beneath the fingertips. It’s a hard and firm and produces a direct, no-nonsense sound.
The second-most common and more oft praised mallet used is the soft fleshy ball of the finger, which produces a more rounded, felt-like singing sound.
But less commonly used are the sides of the fingertip and the fingernail itself, all of which produce clearer, brighter, more translucent sounds.
It’s also generally preferred to have a very defined contact point with the keys, such that a small focused point of flesh has contact with the key. But it’s also possible to use a larger piece of flesh to touch the keys, resulting in many new color possibilities.
The thumb usually plays from the outside edge, just below the fingernail, but there are other contact points that also occasionally produce special colors, for example, the side of the boney first joint of the thumb, which is wonderful for bell-like effects. The pointed ball of the thumb is great for powerful, penetrating single notes.
My point … get to know your mallets and how the quality and color of their sounds change in every possible dynamic level. Don’t be afraid to occasionally use your fingernails from the key surface for icy or glasslike melodies and textures. The fingernails elegantly pierce a warm, hazy texture. The slightest turn of a finger can lend it a slender, pointed quality through mf or a pointed, forceful but not heavy quality in f and ff.
And clear your mind of the adolescent notion that the fingers must always be curved! There’s nothing wrong with teaching beginners to gently curve their fingers when playing, but when you become an adult, do away with childish things. The curved finger played on point sound is but one of countless color possibilities.
Let’s experiment with our Prelude:
First lay out your fingers flat and give no concern as to whether the first joint turns back occasionally. Play the first page trying to make full contact with every note from the fleshy ball of the finger. Play it through a few times. Does it sound less edgy, more rounded? You may also notice that the sound is slightly softer. This is because the indirectness of the attack and the soft material of the mallet waste some of your energy. But this wasted energy is the recipe for a warmer sound. Simply feed in a little more energy and you’ll achieve the same volume you started out with. I would recommend that you use this mallet as your principal one, and not as an exception, but that’s a decision that you have to make on your own, depending on your personality and real preferences.
Next, switching extremes, play the entire first page using only the fingernails. This may be awkward for some of you in the larger chords, but do your best. The first time through, you may be too busy curving your fingers to hear the sound that’s coming out. Play it through a few times this way. Do you hear how crystal clear and ringing the sound is! It’s an amazing color that virtually NO ONE uses. It’s verboten. Again, I think of it as ice or glass.
Next, turn both hands slightly outwards toward the pinkies and play from the sides of the fingers, just next to the fingernails. Play it through a few times like this and notice the colors you’re producing. There’s a clearness and a brightness that gently pierces the ear. It’s a very special color with countless shades. It requires less relative energy than playing from the point of the finger or from the fleshy ball of the finger because it’s more pointed and direct a mallet. The flesh is harder, more compressed, and the angle of the attack more direct from the forearm.
Most pianists use a single type of mallet – now you’ve accumulated four – let’s begin to mix them. First apply the fleshy-ball-of-the –finger mallets to the Red line and its two supporting colors, using a lot of weight and pressure. For the remaining six levels, turn your hands out slightly and use your sides-of-the-fingers mallets, with less weight and pressure. Try it a few times. The contrast between these two colors is fantastic.
Try now the opposite – turn your hands out using the sides-of-the-fingertips mallets for the Red level and two supporting levels (again using a lot of pressure and weight), and flatten out your hand using the fleshy-ball-of-the-finger mallets for the remaining six layers. Try it a few times. The effect is equally orchestral and no less beautiful.
Now let’s try inserting a third color. Returning to our initial fleshy-ball-of-the-finger Red, side-of-the-finger Royal Blue, play the Dark Green level from the lh thumb’s fingernail. Try it a few times. The effect is haunting and translucent! Using but little weight, because of the directness and piercing clarity of the thumb’s fingernail, the Dark Green levels shimmers out without overcoming the Royal Blue or the Red.
Now let’s insert our fourth primary mallet, the traditional tip-of-the-finger mallet. Using the same trio of colors we’ve just attained, substitute the tip-of-the-finger mallet on ONLY the Red line, keeping the sides-of-the-fingertip mallets in its two supporting layers. Try it a few times. You’ll notice that the mood of the Red line is more solid and serious, without becoming pedantic.
In a short amount time, you’ve created the effect of a full orchestra simply by slightly altering the angles of your fingertips! The piano is a wondrous instrument.