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Jan 21

Stuff You Didn’t Know About The Piano

Piano

 

As I am a pianist, and the piano in Los Zocos needs a bit of attention, I thought that I’d give myself a refresher and re-read the piano tuners bible, unimaginatively called PIANO TUNING‘ by J. Cree Fischer.

It really is the bible on the subject as well, having been written in the 1800s and not revised since 1907, apart from the removal, in 1975, of Mr Fischer’s views and ideas on the profession itself as a vocation and some out-of-mode ideas about how to promote yourself as a tuner. That’s understandable really as time and tech have certainly moved on in that respect. In 1907, there were barely any telephones, less than a million in the whole world, so clearly a different marketing approach was needed to that of today.

In terms of the mechanics and complexities of the piano nothing much has changed in the last century or more either. Of course, it is now scorned upon to have ivory covering the white keys these days, so good quality and harder wearing plastic is used instead plus it stays whiter than its elephantine alternative. I think I am correct in saying that the same goes for the black keys where Ebony was used exclusively.

Going back to the book, it’s written in a lovely old manner quite lost to us now. I hope I’m not infringing too many rights by sharing some small parts of the book I find quite quirky, but it’s a joy to read once you get the hang of it, and can very easily be read imagining the slow southern American drawl of a 1950’s film narrator setting the scene for a black and white film about the drought.

In his preface, Mr Fischer mentions that;

nearly every well-to-do household has a piano

Obviously a status symbol then. He goes on;

When, finally, they [the pianos] take up their permanent abode in the homes of the purchasers, they should be given the attention of the tuner at least twice a year

 

The piano was really revered in the early days and quite rightly so. There are over 12,000 parts to a grand piano, and 10,000 of those have to move freely and efficiently over and over again as the ivories are tickled and the pedals stomped on. The modern grand piano has not changed much since the middle of Beethoven’s life and career, although it was invented almost a couple of hundred years before that.

The Master Harpsichord builder Bartolomeo Cristofori (1655–1731) is credited with its conception but the actual keyboard part of the piano had already existed in many previous forms. Harpsichords have a tiny plectrum where a pianos hammer would be, originally made from a birds feather, and they pluck the string when the key is played. The note has a very short duration so composers of the day used many ornaments such as trills and acciaccatura, very distinctive of baroque music. Its interesting to note that this floral ornamented style is also reflected in the furniture and clothing of the time.

Its easy to see the transition from plucking to hitting being the way forward, the harpsichord is a lovely instrument but the sound is very sharp and treble heavy. It was a few years more until the whole action, with sustain pedals and soft pedals added and duplication of the higher strings to increase their dynamic range.

Johann Sebastian Bach was actually very much not a fan of the first piano he was introduced to, in the early part of the 1700’s. He felt it was not a completed instrument due to lack of dynamics. Although by the time the maker of that piano, Gottfried Silbermann had refined it Bach was sold and even acted as an agent selling pianos bearing the Silbermann name. He went on to write hundreds of piano pieces.

The tension needed to tune a middle C, that’s the C note closest to the keyhole, is almost 160lb and as there are about 230 strings spread over 88 notes on a piano, that’s an astonishing 18 tonnes of pressure – up to 30 tonnes on a full sized Concert Grand.

The action needed to get a tone from a piano string is also very complicated. When the key is struck, if the hammer was just on the other end of a see-saw action in a single piece of wood, the hammer would strike and dampen the string at the same time, unless you played very, very staccato.  Instead, a complicated mechanism allows the key to be struck and held down whilst the hammer jumps up and strikes the key before falling immediately back into position ready for another bash at the string if necessary. If you remove your finger from the key, a damper drops down and rests on the key until you play it again, or press the sustain pedal, which keeps the dampers raised and allows all the strings to ring on without need for touching the keys.

One thing about the piano is that each and every one of them sounds slightly different. Whilst modern manufacturing has ironed out a lot of the inconsistencies along with high quality woods, felt and other materials, the tuning is very much down to the skill of the tuner. The Wikipedia page on piano tuning states;

Fine piano tuning requires an assessment of the interaction among notes, which is different for every piano, thus in practice requiring slightly different pitches from any theoretical standard. Pianos are usually tuned to a modified version of the system called equal temperament

 

My personal favourite composer of piano music is Frederick Chopin. He was a virtuoso and was born just at the right time. The piano as an invention was mature by the mid 1800s. He takes dynamics and range to a whole new level for me and as with many composers of yesteryear, has been copied and borrowed from many times. His digital prowess is truly magical and it takes real dedication to master his works. His ‘studies’ or études are really just exercises to strengthen the fingers but so melodic was he that they are listened to as stand alone pieces these days.

Beethoven also took full advantage of the dynamics of the modern piano, although, having “played” one of his own personal instruments in the British Museum, (an act that set off all the alarms and got me thrown out I’m not ashamed to say) I have to say there is still a vast difference between his piano and a truly up to date modern grand. That said,  you can hear in his piano sonatas, he wasn’t afraid to give it some welly, as we say up north.

I find it very sad to see so many pianos for sale or being given away for nothing because of the space they take up. I can’t bear the thought of a musical instrument not having a value, especially one with so many parts that go together in just the right way to give that lovely tone that still takes the breath from my lungs. There are some lovely old examples in existence that are not really wanted, or hardly ever used. If the most beaten up could be given just a fraction of the care we take of our smartphones..well, that’s not going to happen is it, because there’s a ‘piano app’ now so your smartphone is a piano.

Modern digital pianos are now very close to the sound and feel of a grand, in fact they are a recording of a real piano triggered by a switch – the key. In mine, a lump of lead is placed at the other end of the key which, along with strips of felt and rubber switches, gives a feel very similar to a real piano, this is called a “weighted action”. The best thing about them is they never need tuning, and are very portable and they sound and feel fine for a short gig.  But the one thing they can’t do is, when you play a big two handed chord, send that vibration from the strings, through the sound board and right up your arms to your shoulders. It’s a magical feeling.  It’s a piano moment that I wish more could experience.  It’s not a surprise to me that after gigs, one of the most common thing said to me is “I used to play the piano when I was a kid, but I gave it up.” Don’t. Don’t give it up, get a piano and get stuck in again, you will more or less be where you were when you left it so go and get behind a piano and have some fun.  We don’t all need to play at Lang Langs standards you can just play for pleasure. Thats what I do, and sometimes I get paid for it as a bonus.

2costa-calero
Photo Taken by the excellent James Mitchell at a wedding in Costa Calero Hotel
Thanks to J Cree Fischer and Wikipedia for information gathered for this piece

 

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