Pound Cake and Piano?

What does a good pound cake and learning to play the piano have to do with each other? Absolutely nothing, until I had a piano student that reminded me a lot of myself growing up.

Just tell me how to do it right, and I will do it. Before I actually do do it, let me tell you all the ways I’m already aware of where I know I won’t execute it perfectly. Then, as I actually do it and make mistakes, I will show my displeasure so that you know that I know that I made a mistake.

As I listened to this student play each week, I found a button of hers. She did not like to play forte (loud). She said it was too harsh on her ears, and just didn’t feel good. When I listened to her play, she had a very nice soft sound. It was all so nice, so soft, and so uneventful.

For some music, like George Winston in a dentist office, that is exactly the atmosphere you want. You want people to relax and fall asleep. You want to ease their anxiety. She had this sound down pat, plus another layer on top of being very careful and timid, trying so hard not to make a mistake. In the meantime the full life of the music was gasping for breath.

I thought if I could just encourage her to throw off this box of not liking to play loud perhaps she could breath some vitality into this piece.

After she played I said, “Play the whole piece forte.”

I wanted her to throw caution to the wind, take a chance and not try so hard to do it perfectly. If anything, play some wrong notes boldly.

She cringed at that thought, but dutifully complied. The resulting sound was harsh, unmusical, and unpleasant to listen to. At times she added the appropriate arm gestures, but they were an after-thought of “Oh, I should do this too.”

After she played I thought a moment and then said, “Play the whole piece with a gentle forte.”

She looked at me in disbelief and replied, “I have no idea how to do that.”

In her mind, gentle and forte did not belong together. I told her, “That’s perfect. Just make it up.”

She gave it a try and came up with something. The harshness and awkward gestures were gone, and the tone was more pleasant and full.

I knew she liked to bake, so after she played I attempted to explain what I was looking for.

“The majority of your playing is like angel food cake. It’s light and fluffy. I’m looking for pound cake with more density. That is what I mean by forte. In music you want the contrast co-existing between the angel food light and fluffy sound and the pound cake dense sound. It’s the contrast that makes music interesting.”

There was no way she could argue with a good pound cake. After all, she was the expert baker.

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