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I've noticed, that many people are hitting keys, instead of just pressing them. It kinda looks like that before they press the note, they lift the finger a little bit, same as if you tried to hit a nail with a hammer.

Is this correct? Should I try to practice this, or instead just try to leave my fingers lying on the keys and just pressing them?

This looks a little bit like the exact opposite of typing on a keyboard, where I'm trying to just move around the keys and press them, without hitting too hard, which makes me type pretty fast (450-600 characters per minute). But I guess piano might require a different technique.

One funnny thing worth noting, after I finish playing the piano, I find myself typing on a keyboard much faster :)

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Pianos are like mechanical typewriters: there are lighter and heavier ones, but (unless your name is Horowitz) all require the application of a certain amount of force. –  reinierpost Dec 10 '11 at 20:50
    
The computer keyboard analogy doesn't work, as it's digital: the output space is 0 or 1. Hitting a piano key is analog: the force of the hammer determines the resulting sound. –  ash Jun 22 '12 at 5:23
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7 Answers

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The important thing is consistency. If you are playing the same style and volume, you should hit the keys the same way. When you move a finger from one key to another, you have to lift it a little. So when you play the same key twice, you should lift it a similar amount.

If you want to play loud, accented notes, it may help to lift your fingers a little farther. In a slow, smooth piece you may be able to rest your fingers on the keys and press the keys a little slowly.

Some players will get a little theatrical (or emotional?) and lift their hands and fingers inches above the keys before they hit a keys. But they don't usually do this all the time.

I think the most important thing to practice is precision -- hitting the key exactly at the right time and with consistent force. Bending your fingers helps. After you are precise, experiment with the different styles of hammering the keys.

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On most instruments, including the piano, economy of movement is important. What is the least movement you can use, to get the sound you desire? Because using the least movement possible, is the least fatiguing, and by not wasting movement, you have the opportunity to play faster figures when you want to.

On a piano, the only variable (ignoring pedals) that affects the sound coming from the strings, is the velocity of the hammer when it strikes the string. The only influence you have on this, is the velocity of the key at a certain moment in its travel.

It's likely that you can achieve that velocity without letting go of the key -- but whatever feels comfortable is likely to be best for you.

It will also depend on the piano. Some pianos give you a long travel during which your finger and the key can gain velocity, others have less. Some pianos offer more resistance than others.

Use your ears. If it makes the sound you want, you're doing the right thing.

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The attack is just as important as the release. Depending on the type of sound you want to come out, you need to have a correct attack, which may involve distance above the keys. For example, to play very quietly, height above a key is useful, since you can put your hand into a slow motion before the keys is pressed, and then retain that same motion after contact with the key.

The release is connected to the attack. Consider the difference between pressing a key and releasing it (something like using the accelerator pedal of a car), and pushing off of a key as the release (something like doing a standing long jump). The latter can provide awesome intensity in your music, much more than the former. Pushing off leaves your hands in the air, with great position to attack the next notes.

Some have called this type of movement emotional or theatrical. Sure. But it's real purpose is to put life into your instrument. To make the piano sing, you must let it become a part of your performance. How can you do this by keeping your hands solidly on the keys? You cannot. The reason professional pianists do this is not for theatrical value, it is to make you involved enough in your music so that others can understand it. Take, for example, Yakov Kasman, who won 2nd place in the Van Cliburn competition. In this video he lifts his hands all the time. I saw him in concert stand up multiple times while he was playing because that is what the emotion called for.

So, yes, lift those hands if you want. But always hit the right notes.

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Hmm, this is a good answer, though I disagree that the primary purpose of the release is adding emotional intensity. In my opinion, keyboard choreography needs to serve the purpose of positioning you ideally for the following passages as well as allowing you to "reset" technical debt you've accumulated while playing. (though ideally there would be none.) Contrast Yakov Kasman with Jon Nakamatsu (1997 winner.) By comparison, his style is extremely conservative, though undoubtedly intense. –  Josh Infiesto Dec 8 '11 at 0:13
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I still remember one of my professors telling me once, when we were looking for a particularly sharp sound on a note in a piece (I think it was somewhere in Copland's "Variations for Piano"), holding his thumb and third finger together and banging down on the key from about eight inches. "That's your 'weapon'!" he grinned.

You would be well served by looking carefully at some of the videos of great pianists. You'll notice that there's a good deal of variety in their approach to finger technique, indeed, whole schools of study are built around different approaches to it. The Russians tend to like to hold the fingers up some from the keys and sort of plop the down flat-fingered (look at Shura Cherkassky for a representative example); Americans (who haven't studied with Russians, perhaps) tend to have a more curved hand position. You'll notice that Horowitz appears to do this, but careful inspection will show that while he often holds his fingers out flat, he pulls them in when hitting notes in a sort of plucking motion. You also might notice that his very rapid finger passage work is rather non legato; the notes get his trademark clarity by slightly disconnecting them one from the next. I think that plucking motion rather assists in getting that sound. You'll also notice that he is very still from the shoulders down, getting a lot of his volume from very rapid and percussive arm movements.

If you compare Rubinstein, you'll notice that there's a lot more moving around of the arms, but the arm technique is less percussive than Horowitz's. He gets a softer sound with bigger movements. You'll also notice that his finger passage work has less up-and-down movement of the fingers; the fingers start closer to the keys. Look especially at, say, a quick run of notes in a Chopin piece.

A lot of how far you raise your fingers when hitting a note has to do with the level of volume that you want. You can get a lot of volume without raising the fingers at all, by putting body weight into it, it is true, but you can't play very fast that way. And, you can also do it by raising the fingers higher and still get a great deal of speed.

So, the short answer to your question is that you have all kinds of tools in the box, and each has its place.

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You definitely want to press the keys, not hit them. Your goal is to smoothly accelerate the key down. Ideally you should move from motionless contact with the keys into a downward press.

Of course, it may not be possible to make contact with the keys without also striking them depending on the speed of the piece and so on. However, if you feel the keys bounce off your fingers, that's a problem. The keys should never accelerate faster than your fingers, except perhaps when playing staccato.

After you've built your strength sufficiently, you should be able to produce fortissimo quite easily without "hitting" the keys. If you need to use the weight or inertia of your arms/hands then something isn't right. I totally agree with slim about the economy of movement as well, and playing some pieces requires extremely efficient motions that leave no room for lifting your hands more than necessary.

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Do whatever is more comfortable for you and what produces the sound you're after. If it's a rather slow piece it really doesn't matter, and you can play-around and try out playing things differently.

For a fast piece you might not have much choice, so it's important that whatever-technique and approach you are choosing, it must scale well with increasing speed.

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Yes and no. There's not really a good answer to this question. If you have a musical reason to strike keys, by all means do so.

However, an overly finger-y technique will quickly lead to repetitive motion injuries. You need to learn to incorporate wrist, arm and shoulder action to organize the motion of your fingers properly. Unless you learn this, you will have difficulty playing fast passage work with any kind of consistency. Also, your musical expression will suffer if you only use your fingers.

The best resource for elementary piano technique, other than a qualified teacher, is by far Barbara Lister Sink's "Freeing the caged bird." It discusses basic technique in excruciating detail. It's also a steal.

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Good stuff. A "fingery" technique as Josh is describing means that you are locking the arms and wrists as an artificial means of gaining control. The arms and wrists need to make movements to compensate for the inherent unevenness of the fingers (since they are each shaped differently, you need to present each finger to the keys in a slightly different position). An obvious example of this is when you see a pianist play a rapid run of notes upwards, and raise the arm in the air with the hand turned outwards. This is (or often is) because the last note is on the little finger. –  BobRodes Mar 27 at 13:09
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