To the Key-bottom or Beyond?

To the Key-bottom or Beyond?


As a student, you often hear, Play to the key-bottom.  This is generally good advice, although many ghostly echoes can be achieved by skimming the surface of the key or descending only partway down.  After all, who plays glissandos to key bottom!  (It only takes a few of those to draw blood…)  Glissandos float and enchant us – why shouldn’t such ethereal sounds be part of a virtuoso pianist’s tonal palette?  But that’s the subject for another Essay…

I return to Rachmaninoff’s advice about playing the piano, “Don’t play to the key-bottom, play beyond it.”

Your first reaction might be, But isn’t that wasted energy?

Perhaps, but some of the most spectacular and stunning effects on the piano are achieved by expending a sliver more energy than absolutely required.  I don’t mean to knead the key-bed or add finger-vibrato to the sound, as some colleagues teach.  It has more to do with hitting a baseball.  (What did Yogi Berra say about this . . . it’s ninety percent mental and the other half physical…?)  To hit a homerun, or even a double, you have to follow through with your swing.  Even after making contact with the ball, you have to keep swinging.  It’s as if the ball, at the moment of contact, senses what you will from it.  There are many such mysteries in Physics. 

Once I became conscious of following through with my stroke, I began imagining, even measuring exactly how far my finger penetrated beyond the key-bottom, from just below the surface all the way down to my toes.  Forte and fortissimo begin to feel a bit like chopping multiple pieces of wood in half with your bare fingers.  If your timing’s off even slightly, or you lack faith, you might experience a forced sound and a tight arm, but with a little practice, you gain the ability to throw your energy beyond the key-bed and gradually attain subtle control over the depth.


What is firmly rooted cannot be pulled out.

~ Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching


Applying Depth Vertically

Let’s turn to our Prelude and experiment with this technique.  First, begin each attack from the key-surface so that you can isolate the sensation of depth separate from height.  It helps me to think of Bruce Lee’s famed Short Punch.  He could concentrate his energy so powerfully that he could seriously wound a man from only one inch away.  Careful!  This is not a Level 1 touch (from the fingers) – it’s Level 3 or 4.  The fingertip needs to be set and used as a mallet by the forearm or upper arm.

Play through the first page a few times, everything mf or f, and imagine punching beyond the key-bottom.  How far can you reach before you begin over-exerting yourself?  Be careful not to let your elbows lock, and allow your wrists to remain flexible but supported.  Now play through it again with the dynamics as marked, in a more relaxed way, simply being aware of your fingers piercing beyond the key-bed.  You may likely have just discovered a new way to perceive of touch and acquired a new orchestration tool, because by varying the depth of a note’s sound, you can change not only its volume, but also its color, or both.

Try now playing the Red layer and its two supporting layers with a 3-inch-below-the-key-bed punch.  On the remaining 6 layers, use a one-inch-below-the-key-bed punch.  Play through the first page a few times like this until you gain a certain degree of control over it.  Now try it again with a more relaxed approach (more sinkingly penetrating than punched) and open your ears to the sounds coming at you.  Do you feel a foot taller?  There’s something gigantic about the sensation, as if your hands have grown to the size and strength of a 7’6” basketball player’s.  And the sounds are big and spectacular, as if the Red layer were played by an entire full orchestra String Section and the other six layers by the Winds.

Try now adding in a third degree of depth for the Dark Green layer and two supporting layers.  The Royal Blue layer and two supporting layers will remain at one inch, the Red and supporting layers at 3 inches, but play the Dark Green and supporting layers at one centimeter.  Play it through a few times until you gain comfort and conscious command.  Now relax and play it again with more passive command and greater sensitivity to what you’re hearing and feeling.  Can you hear the effect of three distinct orchestral sections, each with body and mass?

If the Red triple layer is the Strings and the Royal Blue triple-layer the Winds, let’s call the Green triple layer a Trio of French Horns, the hybrid section between Winds and Brass.  Now let’s add in Brass.  Keeping everything else as is, change the single Red Layer from three inches to six inches, giving it the effect of three or four Trombones.  Play it through this way several times now until you become comfortable.  Can you hear a massive Brucknerian Orchestra singing Rachmaninoff?

If you’re brain isn’t spinning from this exercise, try now substituting the basso profondo line, the Dark Blue, with a 6-inch attack and the Red Line with an as-deep-as-you-can-go-without-over-forcing attack.  If over time you manage to achieve this, you’ll be walking among giants without needing to look up.


Applying Depth Horizontally

Applying Depth Horizontally works in virtually the same way and to very similar results as applying Height horizontally.  Follow the instructions in the previous Essay, step by step. 


Combining and Contrasting Height and Depth

As with many of these filters, it took me many years, even decades to understand how they connect and inter-relate.  Some of the most obvious links eluded me and I wish I’d had this manual in my hands from the age of nine or ten to guide me and spare me countless hours chasing fruitless shadows.  One of these simple truths is the ying-yang bond between Height and Depth.

Simply, the most complete touch begins with great height and descends to great depth.  All other touches are contained within this single long stroke.  When I was a teenager, I viewed height as superficial and frivolous, and depth as wasted energy.  Indeed, when you try either of them for the first time, like jogging, they feel wrong.  It takes getting used to before they feel comfortable and right.

Awe-inspiring orchestral effects can be obtained by contrasting height, depth and height+depth touches.  I’ll leave you now to your own experimentation.