The most difficult thing

Once someone has studied an instrument for at least 2 or 3 years, they can usually play a few songs well, they understand what a tempo is, what a metronome is, they know how to read a few written notes, they can deal with an accompaniment, a song structure and a few other things that spices up her playing. Now, let’s make that clear: these concepts are not easy. They all require studies, concentration, guidance (I know an excellent piano and drum teacher). The upside of these hardship is that they make you sound like a real musician, like you really know what you’re doing, you can lean on that kind of knowledge, maybe not build a cathedral on top of that foundation, but a shack with few fishing lines, yes, definitely.

Then, slowly but surely, you come to understand what the biggest challenge is in playing an instrument. Oh, it doesn’t come suddenly. It emerges, on the contrary, with ceremony and pomp, out of the routine of your everyday practice (Are you practicing every day? No! You should, it’s good for the mind AND the body!). The most difficult thing is to play soft. Yes, that’s it! Just that! Play softly. I have rarely met a beginner that can do it. Or an intermediate student for that matter. Some play delicately from the start, but it is not controlled, not consistent, not mastered. If they have a discreet personality in music, it doesn’t mean they know how to play soft.

It took me years to understand that concept. It is the same as playing loud: it has no bottom. One can play loud, very loud, super loud, keep on bashing the drums or the keys, add some amps, pile up the speakers, louder and louder. It’s the same for the soft side of things. Gently touch the surface, caress the piano, breathe on the drums, it is bottomless. With one difference: playing loud is cathartic, therapeutic, chaotic (and many other words finishing with “ic”) and playing soft is not, it’s meditative, accurate, it has to be done properly, the ear will pick up any subtle difference from one note to the next. Playing loud is freeing. Playing soft is maddening.

I remember watching a video of Victor Borge, the Danish comedian concert pianist. He’s not only very funny, he’s also a master on the piano. And I’ve always been surprised how soft he can play the 12 foot grand piano. Here, I’ll include a video of his: