Keyboard Journal: Adapting to Different Pianos

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[This article first appeared in Contemporary Keyboard magazine.]

Within on unusually varied week of freelancing in October, 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.

As with random romantic partners, we do our best to be polite to those that don't come up to our standards, but even when we luck into the one-and-only, the piano with marvelous tone and perfect action, we can't expect a long-term relationship, let alone a marriage. As fickle as Casanova, when the gig is over we're on our way to the next piano.

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.

The process of coming to terms with a new instrument cannot always be verbalized, but as I think about the pianos I played on during the week under consideration, some principles seem to emerge. The first encounter took place on a Tuesday morning, when I was called to play an orchestral session in which dramatic music cues by composer Sid Ramin were recorded for All Our Children, a continuing television program of the type that used to be known as soap opera. I had played the medium-sized piano in that studio often before and knew it to be an adequate instrument with a distinct problem. Literally attached to it is a plexiglass construction designed to isolate the sound of the instrument in order to gain maximum control over the recording process. A transparent cabinet thus replaces the top of the piano, completely enclosing the strings and mechanism. A music rack is attached to the exterior.

The player can see the interior of the instrument, a privilege of dubious value, but is able to hear only a faint representation of what he is playing. The audio theory is that by wearing a headset the performer can hear what he needs to as the music is being recorded. The headset will also let him hear, at the same time, the rest of the orchestra and the click track (a metronomic beat).

While this system works well enough for most of the radio and TV commercials in which the studio specializes, the pianist may be hampered at times, particularly in solo passages, by not being able to judge the true level at which he is playing or the related tonal quality which is being produced by his touch. In critical sessions in the past in this studio I have removed the plexiglass panel at the front of the piano altogether and have insisted that the engineer solve his isolation problem in some other way. The music at this morning's session was not so demanding, however, so I merely wedged an orange juice container under the panel, keeping it open a few inches, enough to be able to listen to my playing with one open ear while monitoring the recorded sound with an earphone on the other.

As important as it is to hear your instrument as you play it, it must be admitted that there are qualities of recorded sound, as you hear it through the headset, which may cause you to modify your playing. For example, you may wish to alter your touch or your phrasing according to the level at which you are being recorded. If the soundman has your instrument at a high level, you don't have to play forcefully in order to project above the rest of the orchestra. You might be able to play quite softly and still be louder than an accompanying brass section, if that is the desired balance. Listening to oneself through earphones can thus be instructive; but as I see it, this technique should be in addition to the player's basic need to hear his own playing acoustically.

As a Baldwin artist, I can request the Baldwin company to provide instruments for important occasions. Tuesday evening was one of these, a performance of two different dances with the Twyla Tharp Dance Company. Baldwin sent over a couple of equally excellent 7' F's for the series. I used one instrument on stage, playing and conducting an orchestra from the piano for the first dance. For the second dance, I played the other piano as a solo, down in the orchestra pit. Each piano was equipped with wide-area interior microphones set close to the strings, and the highly amplified sound which filled the venerable Winter Garden Theater on Broadway was quite good during the run of nine performances. I did, however, consult with the soundman once, suggesting that his level had been a bit too high, so that my loud passages caused momentary distortion in the speakers. Sound people sometimes overlook the possibility that your playing may be louder or softer from time to time.

Thursday evening was devoted to a four-hour recording session with Judy Collins, who sang two songs with a large orchestra. A piano accompaniment was featured on one piece, for which the producer had rented a special instrument. Unfortunately, I was not available to make the selection, and I found that the particular instrument chosen for me, a Steinway B, was not exactly what I might have picked.

The piano was voiced with unusual brightness. A tremendous forte was possible with a minimum of effort. Accented chords, as I struck them, seemed to create great white flashes. On the other hand, it was less easy to play softly, or to keep the bass accompaniment figure, as called for in my part, down to the necessary murmur. I would judge that this piano would be well suited to the performance of a concerto, where its ability to be heard above an orchestra would be an asset. I have read, in fact, that this is the sort of instrument on which Horowitz, with his superlative control, achieves his great gradations of color. It took me, on the other hand, a couple of readings to scale down to the desired delicacy, and to a certain extent I obtained the result by rearranging some of the running bass figures and putting them into the less stormy treble.

Friday evening I played a solo concert at Somerset College in Somerville, New Jersey. A new and very nice medium Steinway was on hand, and in the small hall it did not need amplification. This was the only situation during the week in which I did not have to deal with microphones, and it felt good simply to play acoustically.

Saturday afternoon there was another performance with the dance company, and Sunday yet another. In between, beginning at 10:00 Saturday night and ending later than I'm accustomed to these days, I subbed with the trio of an old friend, guitarist Joe Puma, at a small Upper East Side club known as Gregory's. The piano here was a Baldwin spinet, amplified and in good condition, but subject to the limitations of its size. My rule for playing a small piano is to accept its tonal range and to play more lightly than otherwise. The danger is to become anxious about the small tone and overcompensate by playing too heavily. The tone is then liable to become percussive and the key response even more sluggish than it is normally. It is better to rely on a microphone in such a situation than to try to force something from the instrument that is not there. For grand pianos that have seen better days, I try to follow the same rule by playing lightly and turning up the amplifier. A piano, which has lost its resonance, may actually sound fairly respectable through a sound system, and the action can seem faster if the performer is able to play lightly.

To sum up, then, pianists need to have great flexibility in dealing with different instruments and audio systems. Listening to one's instrument, judging its capabilities, and working with the sound system 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.