Can you practice tone / touch / "sound" directly?

Hi PianoGroovers,

When I was a young violist in high school, I was fortunate enough to be able to play in a really excellent symphony orchestra and an equally excellent chamber ensemble. I was good enough to keep up – I could learn the pieces, play all the notes, nail the rhythms, coordinate with the rest of the ensemble. Admittedly, however, I wasn’t much for practice habits, and so I never got nearly as good as some of my classmates. In particular, the one aspect of playing that always seemed to elude me (my instructor even said as much) was capturing a really proper tone.

Over ten years later, I’m a few years into my jazz piano journey, and I’m struck by how, even with a remarkably different instrument from a viola, creating the right tone still seems to stifle me. I really enjoy learning harmonic concepts, different voicings, different rhythms. But often I reach the end of one of Hayden’s standard lessons having learned all those aspects of the arrangement and thinking I know how to play the song, but still hearing a world of difference in the overall sound of my playing and the lesson. I think I’ve gotten a bit better as I’ve gone along, but ideally I’d love to have a more regimented approach to tackle what I feel is one of the weakest elements of my playing.

I imagine it’s tough because it’s a bit of an amorphous concept with high variability due to different instruments (I have a Yamaha DGX-660). Some elements of it, though, feel like they are able to be isolated, particularly dynamics and pedal control. For example, a couple specific problems I have related to these concepts are melody notes being buried underneath the chord, or awkward/uncertain pedal control playing over broken chords or when playing with more uptempo swing rhythms.

So, what I’m in search of is the answer to the title question: Can you practice tone directly? Do you? Should you? I’m curious to hear some different thoughts on this, from beginners to experts. Thanks in advance!

P.S. Feel free to post any viola jokes you may know – it’s been a while.

@TactfulCactus , that’s an excellent question, and definitely something we all should be thinking of!

You are right, different pianos sound a bit different, however, every piano player has their own “signature” tone (for example I’ve heard a bootleg recording of Bill Evans with an out-of-tune upright, still sounding 100% Bill!).

Here are few tips how to practice tone/related subjects.

  1. Tone - Getting Good Sound Out Of The Instrument

Practicing tone is actually easier that it seems, all you have to do is to take transcriptions of piano players, learn to play them, then listen the original recording, and try to imitate every aspect of the piano sound from the recording. I would suggest to start with Red Garland, his sound and touch is warm and sophisticated, definitely worth checking out. Here’s a transcription exercise for you to start with (you don’t necessarily need to transcribe the solo, you can download the full transcription and start learning it right away if you prefer):

Bye Bye Blackbird - Transcription Exercise

  1. Melody Notes -

A good trick to practice bringing out the melody note is to take any chord on the right hand, then playing all the chord tones in staccato except the melody note:

Do this for few minutes, then try to play the same thing normally, and try to focus on bringing the melody note out, should be easier :slight_smile:

  1. Pedal -

With pedal problems I would suggest two things:
First, always evaluate the situation, how much pedal you need, if any. Very often I notice that solving a musical problem is only about reducing the pedal use, and every now and then leaving the pedal out completely makes the music remarkably better.

Secondly, you can practice pedal control by playing things slower, and focusing on the hand-foot connection, to get the switch just right, clear and clean.

I hope this helped, let me know if you have any further questions!

-Tuomo

PS. Here’s a viola joke:

What is the definition of a cluster chord?
-A viola section playing on the C string.

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Tuomo,

Thanks for the advice, especially about the melody notes.

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