Transformational Tone Technique

For the pianist who does not conceptualize tone production as foundational to their craft,

the path to acquiring the technique necessary to produce beautiful tone is transformational. An appropriate metaphor for this transformation can be found in considering the butterfly. Before exploring the results of an MRI study that looks at what happens inside the monarch butterfly’s chrysalis, Springer notes that it is commonly believed that “the caterpillar liquefies within its chrysalis and gradually the cells come back together in the form of the butterfly.”67 He goes on to say that

when confronted with the prospect of looking inside a chrysalis some people have commented, “don't spoil the magic and mystery of the butterfly. I don't want to know the secrets of the chrysalis.” This response reflects the special role that the butterfly plays in many cultures and even religions. To some, the butterfly represents the miracle of creation. (Stringer, 132)

The word for ‘chrysalis’ is derived from the Greek word for gold due to the fact that many chrysalises are shimmering­gold in colour. In a dissertation entitled Mysterious Chrysalis: a Phenomenological Study of Personal Transformation, Kenny notes that "by studying the texts of the alchemists, Jung discovered that alchemy was an apt metaphor for the process of individuation— the lifelong process of personal transformation” (Kenny, 132). The chrysalis then is a symbol of both physical and psychological transformation. For the pianist whose technique is void of beautiful tone, the development of a technique that fills this void is a physical and psychological transformation.

In my experience, the two integral components to this transformation is the willing student and the generous teacher. Through the careful guidance of a master, the student must voluntarily enter a period of chaos in which they must give up many of the assumptions of their former approach to technique to the point where they may feel that they no longer know how to play the instrument. They must have faith in their teacher that they will be seen through to the end of the transformation process as the teacher works with them to rebuild their muscular, structural, and mental habits. There are certain ways in which the metaphor of the chrysalis is particularly apt during this stage. First, chrysalises are stationary. Pianists in the chrysalis­phase often experience this stationary sensation. They feel as though they know longer know how to play the piano and have no idea of whether or not they will ever again know how to play. There is a loss of control in their art form in the sense that while they may have climbed the ladder of the Royal Conservatory of Music like a caterpillar munching its way through a juicy series of leaves, all of a sudden, they are no longer moving.

Second, the chrysalis might appear as golden to the teacher, but from the perspective of the being inside the chrysalis, the gold is invisible for the darkness within. Lastly, it is a curious fact that some butterflies remain in their chrysalis for days, weeks, or years depending on the species and environment. Similarly, the length of time that it takes for a pianist to emerge from their chrysalis as a butterfly may depend on a variety of factors. This is all to iterate that the pianist must both have faith that the teacher can lead them through the chrysalis stage and that difficulties involved in the experience will be worthwhile in the end.

I imagine that the benefits to the pianist who comes out on the other side of this transformation are similar to the experience of the butterfly flying for the first time. With respect to their experience of practice, the nature of their practice will be nourishing in a way that it had not previously been. They will experience greater patience when working out difficult passages since the need to complete the enterprise will be usurped by an absorbing curiosity in what the production of tone in this particular case requires of their body and mind. The experience of the ‘slog’ of practicing will be entirely absent because the process of practicing will plunge them into an immediate state of flow. Also, the impulse to compete with the results of others or meet performance deadlines will be acknowledged as entirely secondary to the daily process of engaging in the art of music making.

With respect to their experience of performing, the nature of their performing will also have been transformed by a focus on tone. The performer’s fear of vulnerability before the audience is tempered by and even completely usurped by collective focus on the work of art. The audience witnesses to a greater degree the artist being acted upon by the music they are engaged with. The strength of this witnessing increases the depth of the performer’s flow and concentration, opening them up to deeper experiences of their technique and sound. In this way, the audience and performer use each other to enter new levels of artistic experience. In this unique environment, the work may manifest itself in new ways, perhaps even ‘truer’ than it had previously been experienced to anyone involved.

A developed awareness of tone production produces both interpretive, physical, and artistic benefits for pianists. First, on the level of interpretation, an awareness of tone production is necessary when performing the nineteenth­century piano repertoire, for which tone production is an integral element. The colours available to Clara Schumann and Johannes Brahms are no longer available to us by virtue of the fact that our instruments are modern. Many of us have not experienced the tone colours of nineteenth­century instruments and the monopoly of the modern piano may contribute to a certain lack of awareness about tone colour possibilities. Even so, twentieth century techniques that take tone production into deep consideration demonstrate that a thoughtful approach to tone production can make up part of the difference. On the level of physicality, learning the physical processes by which beautiful sound is produced is the most effective way to ensure that the pianist develops a healthy approach to playing that is free of strain and injury. Also, with respect to the artistic manifestation of the pianist, it is through a tone­oriented approach to playing that the pianist’s experience of their body, the instrument, and the work of art are integrated. This integration supplies the pianist with the necessary tools to develop artistically, just like a painters required the supplies of canvas, tools, paints and vision. Should the painter then also have something to say about life or the human experience, the ingredients for the production of great art come together.

Today’s pervasive lack of tone production awareness is a problem. The following recommendation would contribute to a solution: first, increasing exposure to high quality nineteenth­century piano models would widen the imagination of student, teacher and public with respect to nineteenth­century tone colours and the implications they have for the performance of nineteenth­century repertoire. This experience would contribute to the awakening of the ear to the world of tone colour and its artistic implications. This awakening would enable pianists to utilize their fundamental skills to fully exploit the artistic capacities of the modern piano. Second, thoroughly integrating the physical technique of tone production into the curriculum of institutions such as the Royal Conservatory of Music would ensure that one’s musical education not only supports the development of skills but also the development of the artist and his or her approach to a personal tone.

These solutions have some inherent obstacles. Quality period instruments are simply not available in the way that quality modern pianos are. Also, developing a method by which tone production can be quantitatively evaluated might be objectively impossible. While these obstacles are real, one thing that we can learn from the evolution of the piano is that the market responds to demand. To the extent that we demand the performance of great music by great artists with great audiences who appreciate the presentation of great artistic individuality, the obstacles to these solutions might not be impossible to overcome.


Kenney, Mary Ann. "Mysterious Chrysalis: A Phenomenological Study of Personal Transformation.” ProQuest Dissertations Publishing, 2007.

Stringer, Richard P. "Watching the inside of a maturing monarch chrysalis using MRI." Metamorphosis 11, no. 3 (2000): 132­45.