performance blog

The Pianissimo Challenge

If you're anything like me, soft dynamics just are a huge challenge. I have a very hard time maintaining the appropriate core, supported sound when playing in soft dynamics, especially in the upper register. 

In a post a few weeks ago, Sorting Out Discomfort In the Practice Room, I began experimenting with ideas from Emmanuel Pahud's master class videos - specifically ideas about the point of resonance that is necessary for maintaining support at a soft dynamic. 

He notes that we rely too much on the lips to shape the sound with dynamics, and it can really compress notes, adding an undesirable, clenched sound. Ultimately we should we redirecting our focus to allowing the airstream to resonate via the wasabi point.

The Pianissimo Challenge

  • Quite simply, play every etude and exercise a second time, but at a very soft dynamic. 
  • Go slowly to watch tendencies in lip compression, and attempt to shift focus to the airstream and the sensation of resonance.

In doing this, I was able to notice these things right away:

  • I noticed my tendency to squeeze the lips, especially while ascending high into the register.
  • When I shifted my focus to air, I noticed I had to remind myself to feel resonance in the sinuses. It almost felt as though I was breathing through my nose while playing (which isn't actually happening.) Try simulating the experience of inhaling or exhaling through the nose while playing in the upper register. Pahud also suggests releasing some air through the nose after inhalation to start support before the sound. 

Although unable to make this happen every time, tapering high notes and feeling a longer line of phrasing was made much easier when feeling that "wasabi" sinus sensation while avoiding lip compression. 

In addition to practice long tones and etudes at a soft dynamic, I'm also practicing my typical Taffanel & Gaubert exercises differently:

  • Taffanel & Gaubert No. 1
    • Play the exercise at mp, holding the last note and tapering to silence.
  • Taffanel & Gaubert No. 4 / 6 / 9 / 12
    • Play the entire exercise at pp, slowly, paying special attention to changes that occur (in the embouchure) while ascending to the upper register.
    • Add a decrescendo while ascending, and a slight crescendo during each descent. 

3 Lessons In Teaching Awareness


In a recent lesson with one of my students, we spent a great deal of time playing simple arpeggios followed by questioning: 

"Did you notice what your cheeks felt like that time?" 

 "Is one side more tense than the other?"

When I first ask students questions of this nature, they sometimes smile and say, "What are you talking about?!" 

Others feel discouraged that they aren't sure how to answer, since they've never been asked to consider such questions. 

With this question, the student is given the opportunity to say "I don't know," free of judgement, to which I respond, "Great! Let's try it now!" 

In our lesson, I asked the student to play her simple arpeggio as many times as needed to articulate a clear picture the shape and location of her tongue while slurring, and any tendencies to move during the arpeggio. Each time she played, she was able to add in more detail about the exact location and shape of the tongue in her mouth. 

I asked her if she'd ever thought about it before and she said she had not. 

This reminded me of several things.



First, not everyone has the same experience with self-perception. A similar exercise with another student, regardless of age or experience level, might look very different. The degree of detail and quickness to respond is not something available to everyone, but can improve with practice. 


A Clearer Basis For Teaching


What else did I realize? As a teacher, I cannot see what is going on inside the mouth of another musician. We can see shifts visible on the outside and make assumptions about changes our student can make to improve, but asking the student what her current set-up is like before offering a suggestion for improvement can provide great clarity for both the student and teacher. We were both on the same page and speaking the same language. I could speak in very specific terms knowing the student would understand.

We Are Not Clones

I also tried to mimic her set-up myself to gain more insight into her experience, but the shape of our mouths are not the same. The size and width of our tongues and spacing of our teeth prevent us from creating the exact same experience. (Another important realization: our differences provide an even greater opportunity to express our individuality. No one else sounds or plays like you, and that is exciting to remember.)

The Takeaway

Everyone is different. Guiding students to explore and patiently observe can lead to greater understanding from both parties.

Perhaps the inside of the mouth is difficult to perceive at first, but the fingers or the feet are easier for the student. Gauging self-perception in the student is key.

The student is an important part of the lesson! It's my job to help them improve. I always aim to lead my students to improve the foundations of their playing by finding easy, natural movement, but the specifics of this do not translate exactly from student to student. Once awareness is accessible, more is possible, and more exacting and specific instructions can replace vague ones. The entire experience is more vivid for the student, and exploration and experimentation become a tool available to them at any time.

Intention and Curiosity

Many of our challenges as musicians involve overcoming mental barriers. When something goes wrong while practicing, it can be easy to repeat over and over, judging each repetition as good or bad.


Mindless, repetitive practice has been outed as potentially destructive and sometimes harmful, and can be a source of anxiety versus learning. In its place, mindfulness and intention open us up to opportunities for discovery and help us learn with greater efficiency.


Setting an intention changes our mental state, allowing us to refocus on a simple musical or physical idea. Unlike a goal with an ending or point of achievement, an intention is on-going. If we stray from our intention, we can always come back at any time, reducing the pressure of perfection that can be associated with goal-setting.


An intention can be a simple word that we choose to embody or experience as we play. We can also phrase an idea as a question of curiosity to deflect anxiety and reduce self-judgement.


Here are some examples:


- What is it like to experience awareness of the entire room while I play?

- Why is so easy to play beautifully?

- I intend to embody brilliance.

- Feet Grounded

- Smoky Color

- Easy Fingers

- Why is is to easy to play pianissimo?

- I intend to continually release my jaw as I play.

- Brilliance

- Like a Violin 

- Openness 

- Listening to the sound in the room

- I intend to see and feel color as I play.

- Softness of Limbs 

- What is it like to listen and experience each moment?

- What is it like to play as if I composed the piece myself?

- Play Gracefully

- I have plenty of breath. (Even if I feel I don't, I always tell myself this in the last phrase of the Mendelssohn Scherzo excerpt and it works!)


See more on the benefits of intention for overcoming performance anxiety in this post from The Bulletproof Musician: