Tonal colour is a glorious and important aspect of piano playing. Irrespective of standard, all pianists need this skill which allows them alter or grade piano sound; it’s often known as shading or colouring. This adds variation to the music but it also demonstrates an understanding for the composer and a ‘feel’ for the work and style too. There is nothing quite as monotonous and dull as limited tonal contrasts in any piece of music, so it’s a good idea to experiment with sound variation from the outset.
When you start learning a piece, make a note of all the composer’s markings. Look for dynamics (how loud or soft you need to play), watch out for articulation marks (different touches) and pedalling, because they will all contribute to the overall sonority of the work. Do this from the beginning rather than waiting until you have ‘learnt the notes’, because your brain will then easily remember the feeling of playing at a certain volume or with particular articulation and phrasing. This in effect speeds up the learning process, as well as implementing character and design.
Once you have a feeling for the work and the approximate volumes of sound required, then you can really think about musical interpretation and how you wish to perform the piece. This is all tied in with the markings on the score and the form of the work. If you are playing a sonata movement, for example, you will be playing the same material twice (the form normally being that of exposition, development and recapitulation; the exposition and recap usually consisting of similar material) so you will need to consider varying the interpretation accordingly (if that is appropriate).
One technique that can be useful is to experiment with piano timbre and sonority away from playing a piece. You can do this by using studies (possibly Hanon or Czerny, or whatever your teacher recommends) or you can try it out on a Bach Chorale (anything similar to a hymn) or chord progressions. I have practised this technique simply by using the same chord over and over again.
Start off by playing as softly as you can; you will probably need to experiment depending on the type of piano or keyboard you are playing. Try to play the chord evenly i.e. taking all the notes of the chord down at the same time so each note produces the same volume of sound (the opposite of voicing a chord where certain notes need more colour and volume than others). Balancing chords in this way, making sure all the notes sound properly, takes some practice and is made easier by using a free, relaxed wrist action. Once you have got the hang of this (with the help of your teacher) then start off playing as softly as you dare, increasing the volume with each chord you play. You can stop when you reach the most powerful fortissimo possible.
To play the chords with a rich full sound, use your whole arm making certain you have a flexible upper torso. The example below is just one idea; block chords such as these provide the opportunity for a wall of sound, but there are many variations on this theme:
Resist the temptation to ‘hit’ the notes or chords as you approach the fortissimos as this will produce a forced, percussive sound. There may be works that require a harsh sound, but it’s best to start off producing a rich warm sound whilst experimenting in this way.
Begin by playing these chords without the sustaining pedal making them really legato (smooth) then add the pedal for a completely different sonority. Another idea is to practice them using the una corda (left pedal) without the sustaining (or right) pedal. The una corda changes the timbre substantially providing a different layer of sound. This technique is useful too in some works.
Not quite fifty shades, but you can work at as many chordal dynamic variations as your imagination permits! There are infinite possibilities between these markings. Practice regularly before introducing ‘shades of pianism’ into your piano pieces for a more varied and convincing performance.