More Thoughts on Creating a Singing Tone: Special Guest Q&A with Sharon How

This week we invited our followers to submit questions for Sharon How about creating a singing tone. Today, Sharon is answering those questions!

We encourage you to read Sharon’s article in the Autumn 2022 issue of Piano Magazine, “Creating a Singing Tone at the Piano“, for her foundational thoughts on teaching a singing tone.

Join us on social media for the opportunity to have your questions on a variety of interesting topics answered by additional experts in the coming weeks.

Sharon How

Do you have specific words you use when communicating about playing with a singing tone to students? Are there specific words or phrases to avoid?

There is certainly nothing wrong with asking a student, “Can you add more expressivity?” or saying “I think you could do better with singing this phrase!” The real problem arises when the student has little or no clue how to do it! A lot of times, a student may think that he or she is making a good melodic shape, yet it takes good ears and intentional listening to truly hear the quality of tone and the shape of phrases that are being produced. I think the issue at hand is not about the specific words or phrases to use or to avoid but about identifying the actual problem.

For instance, if a pianist already has the technique to produce a good singing tone but is oblivious or careless about the melodic shape, it is helpful to pinpoint small details in phrasing. A reminder like, “I think you could create a more singing phrase” might even suffice for this particular pianist! But if you are dealing with a student who lacks the technique to produce a good singing tone, it becomes a whole different problem. In the latter case, the obstacle which needs to be dealt with is the lack of technique (the “how to”), instead of the idea of the result/goal (what this passage is supposed to sound like). The technique is required for the refinement of singing tone.

In your article, you talk about how curved fingers are better for articulated work and flat fingers are better for “singing” work. With that in mind, would you say that a beginner should first learn their technique playing unconnected (with curved fingers), and that a solid singing tone can only be taught after that has been mastered?

I think a beginner can be introduced to either or both ways at the same time. What is more important here concerns the strength of fingers with a flexible and relaxed wrist, because both articulated work and “singing” work requires firm fingers, yet a flexible and relaxed wrist. Another concept that can be introduced is arm weight versus finger action. I have seen too many cases where Czerny is used to “train and strengthen the fingers,” yet produces “typewriter” playing, which sounds completely mechanical and unmusical. Unfortunately, some technical exercises have even led to hand or wrist injury. Done in the right manner, the building up of strength in the fingers should lead to better shaping of musical phrases.

At what level of study do you introduce “singing tone”? Why? 

I emphasize a singing tone as soon as possible, even at the beginning level. Much discretion is needed though. I think the first task is to expose students to “a good singing tone.” Start with the beginner pieces that they are working on. Demonstrate to them, and guide their listening. I will keep playing singing phrases and encourage them to create their own musical phrases. Ideally, I want the concept of “singing tone” to come naturally to them as much as possible — it’s a good habit to instill as soon as possible.

What method series do you feel does a good job of introducing singing tone to beginning students?

What are the best ways to enhance a student’s “inner conception of sound”?

One of the most helpful activities we can do is to have our students record their lessons! If the student is young, I would normally encourage one of the parents to observe the lesson as well. When students listen to the recording of their lessons, they can hear the difference between the “before” and “after.” The “before” refers to their playing before any instruction by the teacher is given, while the “after” refers to the improvements they made during the lesson. This also helps them remember what and how to practice at home.
There are also times when a student is careless about musical phrases. I might ask, “Did you listen to your phrasing? Sometimes, they realize—and I will gently encourage them, “Let’s create a more legato phrase.” Other times, they might not realize and, depending on my discretion, I would either let them play the phrase again so that they can listen more carefully, or I’d simply demonstrate on the piano and mention areas of improvement. If students record their lessons, they will get to hear it for themselves too! That being said, it is equally important to comment when the tone is good!

Good ears need to be developed—they provide us with the ability to hear details in musical phrasing, which in turn allows us to be our own critic and make consistent progress. This is where “inner conception of sound” comes into play. “Inner conception of sound” means the sound we are striving to achieve—are we going for a true legato singing line? Are we aiming for a percussive sound? Are we conjuring the image of the boat on the ocean? With regards to “inner conception of sound,” a lot more factors come into play, including our life experiences, our musical knowledge of composers and their works, our general knowledge of philosophy, art, history. This foundational knowledge helps us know the artistic image that we want to communicate. One time, I had a marvelous opportunity to play Schubert on a historic Viennese Graf fortepiano (it has five pedals!), and that experience forced me to rethink my techniques and interpretative capability—in other words, how the modern piano may be better persuaded to represent Schubert’s conception of the music.

Can you share some strategies for practicing singing tone with older transfer students who are not experienced with the concept?

With transfer students, it tends to be a little tricky. I think the first task is to expose them (best by demonstration) to what a good singing tone sounds like in the piece they are working on. From there, hopefully they begin to desire to play with that good singing tone. For me, I need that as an entry point as a teacher because I know that the work I will begin to do with them is going to be a lot of hard work.

At one point, I had a young student (early-advanced level) who came to me as a student and played a few pieces during our first lesson. I demonstrated for him with a singing tone, and he immediately wanted to create a better tone. However, his technique could not support his artistic conception. I put his pieces aside and started teaching him to play the major scales that he knows but with true legato and singing tone, changing his touch and technique during the lesson. He was playing good cantabile singing lines during the lesson. Even his mum could notice the difference.

Long story short, his desire to play with a good singing tone and to improve his piano technique was greater than his reluctance to start from ground zero. In this process, I also involved his mum, who helped me keep an eye on him at home. After a year of working, this student played Schubert’s Impromptu Op. 90 no. 3, as well as a few RCM level 6 pieces, and won first place in a piano competition.

In the end, their desire for a good singing tone needs to overcome any reluctance that a student may have. Can you come up with ways in which you can convince the student of the need to practice good singing tone? Or might there be some reluctance because of the work involved? In the latter, you could still introduce a singing tone, but you might need to work just as much on building trust and rapport with the student.

I have a student who has fairly good technique (posture, position, etc.), but is very hesitant to be expressive. How can I help them?

How do you encourage reluctant students to play with musicality?

I think these are rather subjective questions that require much experience and discretion on the teacher’s part. If there is any hesitance or reluctance, are you able to find out the reason why they are reluctant? Here, I have listed down all the possible scenarios that I can think of or have come across:

  • Some students might be taking up piano only as a leisure activity, and are interested in playing their favorite pop songs. In this case, I would go with the flow and make the lessons more about fun and creativity.
  • Hesitance to be expressive might stem from psychological factors too—what are they afraid or fearful of? Perhaps they might be afraid of being mocked for their expressivity? I would try my best to see if I can try to find out the root cause or trauma, even if it’s not related to playing the piano.
  • Some are not convinced of the importance of it or need more time to grasp the importance of being expressive or musical. In this instance, I will keep persevering in exposing them to a good singing tone, while using discretion about how much I demand from them.
  • I have also encountered serious and diligent students for whom emotions and expressivity are not a huge part of their being. Because of that, instead of simply advising them to be more expressive, a more beneficial approach might be intellectual, explaining the principles involved in musicality (eg. how harmonic tension and release and trajectory of the phrase helps in shaping a phrase) and/or a detail-oriented approach where you can notate the intricate details in phrasing and encourage them to apply it to similar passages.
  • The last case might be that they simply do not have the tools in their toolbox to know how to be expressive at the piano.

What are your thoughts on very “dramatic” players? You know, the performers who use a LOT of extra body motion to show their expressivity. Do you think it’s producing a more singing sound? Is it truly effective?

Flexibility in body movement is required in playing (which means we should never feel like we are locked into a fixed position), and there will certainly be some body movement involved. Yet, ‘extra’ body movement does nothing to contribute to a more singing sound, and in some instances, it can be a hindrance if it gets in the way of the necessary body movements needed to produce the sound. When the upper body has too much unnecessary motion, it can cause frequent interruption or disruption to the position of the arm, which in turn affects the phrasing or, in the case of difficult chordal leaps, it decreases the efficiency and accuracy! I have a real-life example where I was practicing the  “Paganini” movement from Schumann’s Carnaval op. 9. As the music is rather staccato and jumpy at the start, I was subconsciously “jumping along” with the music in my upper body and I struggled with both speed and precision. When I decided to see what would happen if I were to sit straight and completely grounded but just allowed my arms and fingers to take charge, my technical issues in this “Paganini” movement were solved almost right away. And the only reason why I say ‘almost’ was because I had to curb my natural inclination to “jump along” with the music, and it took me a while to get used to sitting grounded! This case is an example of how these extra body motion might be an expression of what I feel internally, but it was an obstacle that needed to be removed. 

Ultimately, expressivity and singing tone has to do with the touch and distribution of arm weight and finger action into the keys. Facial expressions and extra body motion might make one feel like one is expressing the music, and in most cases, they are also expressions of what the pianist feels internally. Yet, they do not affect the sound produced. The inner feeling or inner conception needs to be communicated through necessary physical motions (arm weight, type of touch etc.), which in turn affects the tone and the phrasing that comes out from the piano.

Any tips or tricks for practically transferring the expressivity heard when a student sings a phrase into expressivity of physically playing the piano?

Singing a phrase is the outcome of what a student wants, which is definitely an important goal. Yet, technique is the factor that influences how much one can practically transfer the expressivity heard into keys, through the physical facilities of the body. From my personal experience, the best way is to learn it from a teacher who is able to teach the “how to.”

What do you do for students who do not have regular access to an instrument that allows for various tone qualities?

I think the minimum that students need is a good upright piano. I teach on grand pianos which will then allow them to access a grand piano at least once a week. Using my discretion about their level, upcoming piano exam, or concert, I have provided additional grand piano access to my students in the past, during the hours that tend to be free, in my university or my church.

Don’t forget! Read Sharon’s article about creating a singing tone by clicking here.

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