[In keeping with this month’s jazz-piano theme, we’ve excerpted a classic column by one of Keyboard’s earliest columnists.]
Within an unusually varied week of freelancing, I encountered such different types of pianos, each with its own playing or tonal characteristics, that I feel envious when I think of all the musicians in the world who perform on their own instruments. It must be great to bring your own axe to a gig and know that you can count on it. Something like a good marriage, I imagine.
We pianists, however, have a different destiny. Much as we may yearn for a stable relationship with some deserving instrument, we must expect only an endless series of quick flings with a motley assortment of partners. We must be prepared for hard or easy action, dull or bright tone, quick or slow response, predominant treble or bass emphasis, fast or slow decay, consistent or uneven action, and any degree or combination of the above. Furthermore, we may have to play on an instrument which is out of tune or which suffers from some mechanical malfunction such as a faulty pedal mechanism or a broken hammer.
There is only one technique I know which is helpful for adapting to the various characteristics of pianos. It is known as practicing. Remarkably, all the pianos in town, even the acknowledged dogs, seem to play just fine after you’ve worked out on scales and exercises for a few hours. Conversely, you are less likely to come to terms easily with a strange instrument if you are not in shape. You need a reserve pool of technique in order to adjust and compensate so that an unfamiliar instrument can be persuaded to work with you.
To sum up, pianists need to have great flexibility in dealing with different instruments. Listening to one’s instrument and judging its capabilities are all important. But most important, I think, is to have practiced enough so that unexpected problems can be dealt with as they come up with a minimum of tension.