A Conversation with Mrs. Maria Pereira
TONE IS THE SOUL OF MUSIC – Mrs. Maria Pereira, Piano Faculty
When we think of a beautiful person we are really thinking of a complete human being, and it includes the soul, that third dimension that we all have. Music also has a soul, and the soul of music is tone.
One might think rhythm is the soul of music, but to me rhythm is not the soul, rather it is the backbone of music. Without rhythm we cannot put music upright. What about sound? Doesn’t music happen through sound? Yes, it does. But not every sound has a musical tone.
In order to recognize tone we need to develop a powerful and discerning ear. Once we recognize the tone we can attempt to reproduce it in an instrument. This is not easy
to explain. On the piano the touch of the keys breathes life into the instrument and sound is produced. For the sound to be beautiful the tone has to be present, embellishing it. This is what makes us love some performances more than others. Most of the time it is because the tone is amazing. Tone is the aura that surrounds the sound. It has the power to take our ears to another level of listening and to transport us to a totally different dimension of experiencing music.
It is very diﬃcult to describe tone because it is so subtle. It is like working with our own individual soul. It needs silence, thinking and concentration. Without being able to ﬁrst listen to silence we cannot start to listen to the tone that needs to come from inside of us. It starts in our imagination. It is very inner to us, the performer. Only when we have it already within us we can unearth it from the instrument.
As we learn to play an instrument, we train our body to bring the tone to life. If we just go through the motions while playing, something will come out. It might be a very good, very proper sound, but it might just be generic. The tone adds a quality to the sound and it makes the listener feel that the performance was truly special.
The tone is also speciﬁc to each composer, to different styles and types of music, as not every piece of music requires the same tone. For example, the tone in Chopin is very different from the tone in Prokoﬁev.
I have always thought much about tone, both as a teacher and as a performer. These thoughts inevitably bring me back to my childhood and my ﬁrst memories of discovering tone. It started on Day One when I met my ﬁrst teacher. She had such an enormous inﬂuence on my life. She was an unusual teacher because she was a Singer and a Singing Teacher, yet she played the piano exceptionally well. She only took on two or three piano students in her whole life. She approached playing the piano through her experience in singing.
My father was a dentist. When I was growing up, he had his oﬃce in the front of the house and our living quarters were in the back. We lived in a small seaport town in the South of Brazil, and in those years there was no television, just two radio stations in the whole area. In those days I was playing piano all day long, and I loved it. I would listen to songs on the radio, and I would play them with both hands on the piano, to the extent that my family would be dancing to my piano playing.
I was about ﬁve years old when this lady, who became my teacher, had a toothache and had to come to my father to ﬁx her tooth. While she was being treated she overheard me playing in the house and asked to see me. I played a few pieces and she immediately turned to my parents and said that she needed to start teaching me right away because what I was doing on the piano would ruin my ﬁngers. I was playing with my ﬁngers all over the place, with no technique.
I was so excited the ﬁrst day I went to my teacher’s house! She had an aura about herself and was a very important person in the context of our little town. She was married to an engineer from Germany who came to run a local factory. She had the most amazing Steinway Grand piano that I ever played on. She had brought it brand new from Germany, and she treated it like her own child. From Day One she allowed me to play on that piano. She saw in me something that made her decide she was going to teach me how to handle this piano as an artist.
She started by showing me how to take a nice sound out of the piano with just one ﬁnger. This lesson was repeated on each ﬁnger for the next six months. One ﬁnger at a time, she was teaching me about tone. She would tell me, “Listen, listen. Touch and listen.”
There are only two things we can do on the piano that are responsible for making a good sound: the way we approach the key and the way we get out of the key. It’s not like a string instrument where you can change the sound by the way you move the bow. On the piano, we are limited. Once we touch the key, we cannot change the sound. We can only change the way we come out of it. So, she really took a long time in teaching me to listen. At the same time, she was teaching me from the beginning how to round the hand, go up and down with a ﬂexible wrist and play with wonderful weight in the arm. The touch has to start from the ﬁngertip and go deep down into the ﬂesh. That was the fall that created the tone. Those six months were very interesting. For a ﬁve-year-old it was not easy to live through it, but during that time I learned to listen!
When I was fourteen years old my teacher started giving me singing lessons. As I was learning to sing I started getting a deeper understanding about tone, and eventually I started looking at it the way my teacher did – tone through singing and through voice. I then began to look for ways to transfer the singing tone to the piano. What I didn’t understand about tone while only playing piano, I understood after I started singing.
My life then took a big turn! When I was twenty-two years old I received a scholarship to study music in Buenos Aires, Argentina. I had great teachers for both singing and piano. After three years I moved to Sao Paulo, where I met my husband and eventually we came to New York. When my oldest daughter was 3 years old, she came home one day from nursery school telling me that she wanted to learn the violin. From that day on my life changed! I came to The School for Strings.
I met Miss Behrend who was the violin teacher of First Year Parents’ Class. I also started accompanying some of her students during lessons. I listened to her teaching, and it amazed me that she was saying the exact same things that my ﬁrst teacher taught me when I was a little girl. Then I met Miss Keats, and she was also saying those same things. They never stopped talking about beautiful tone, colors, phrases and lines. Miss Behrend always said that the tone in the violin comes from the human voice. Whatever we do when we sing, that is the tone we want to discover in the violin. She would sing opera to her students just like my ﬁrst teacher did. It was amazing! What Ms. Behrend and Ms. Keats said reinforced everything I had learned with my ﬁrst teacher.
I felt that at The School for Strings I ﬁnally had come around full circle. Here I found my beginnings and all the things I was brought up to believe in – the beauty that is within the musical context.
Go the extra mile, go for the tone! It is the magic about music. It comes from within us and changes from note to note and from phrase to phrase to create colors and beauty. It is the soul of music. It’s what makes music transcend itself and be close to the gods.