Archive for November, 2009
Quite a number of years ago a friend of mine watched a show on TV about beauty. What was interesting to note was that they took a number of pictures (i hate to say it…sorry i’m not sexist but…) pictures of women of all different shapes, colours, kinds and sizes and showed them to different cultures asking “Point out the most beautiful”. The statistics were interesting… that regardless of culture there is a general sense of ‘beauty’. And before you get your nickers in a knot, let me just say that in North America, they’ve manipulated that concept to the NINES! to the point of disgusting. It’s created a weird box that women are somehow supposed to fit into – regardless of the fact that most do NOT.
I was tuning a piano this morning – thinking of the concept of beauty in tone; how 8 out of 10 of my customers listen for a similar type of tone. I was contemplating what the ‘averages’ were in piano sound – that if you were to play a number of pianos, what most people would find pleasing. Ok follow the rabbit trail here… i was then thinking about connecting a spectrograph (an electronic device that displays a breakdown of frequencies) to pianos that are considered ‘beautiful’ and analysing the correlations of tone. (i know, i know…piano tuning is boring…lol… i have such thoughts when i’m tuning for better part of 2 hours…lol). So after the tone is ‘visible’, then look at the physical makeup of the piano – the felt, the strings, the make and model etc and try and reverse engineer the formula. Why? Well, there’s this thing called VOICING. Voicing is the art of manipulating the piano hammers in such a way as to enhance frequencies or remove unwanted frequencies. When i was young, i thot that each piano company had a certain tone. Yamaha had a tone, Baldwin had a tone, Kawai had a tone, Steinway had a tone… etc… and to a degree, that concept is true. But what MANY people don’t know is that the tone can be altered almost up to 50%. What that means is that you can have an extremely mellow sounding Yamaha – which typically is a brassy bright instrument. Through voicing, you can change the way the fibres of the hammer strike the string. Once this is accomplished, pianos can go from very mediocre to dazzling!
Well… my time is up. I’ll write another blog about voicing some time…promise. And there you’ll understand the basics how-to’s of the process of voicing.
Did you know that you can spell the word pedalling with two L’s or one? huh… the things you learn… i learned early on in teaching that you can either practice or practise. ANYWAY… i was on the phone with my sister the other day (piano teacher extraordinaire) and i was telling her about my piano blog… she said “For goodness sakes – do one on pedalling!!!” And so here it is… (shout out to my sister lol).
Just to clear up any misconceptions; the pedals on a piano are not GAS, BRAKE and CLUTCH. They’re also not LOUD, MEDIUM and SOFT(which is usually the 2nd guess). The 3 pedals are 3 S’s: SUSTAIN, SOSTENUTO and SOFT or alternatively: DAMPER, BASS SUSTAIN and UNA CORDA. Either works really. Today, however, we’re just going to look at one pedal – the most used by FAR, which is the right pedal known as the sustain/damper. If you ever see someone playing an electronic piano and they have a cord down to the floor with one pedal, it’s gonna be this one. The percentage of use for sustain vs. the other two is probably around 95% sustain, 4% soft and about 1% sostenuto. So the sustain/damper does it all really. To piano playing i call this pedal the ‘mortar to the bricks’. This pedal practically ‘fills the cracks’ when you play the piano. It is used to connect what your fingers can’t hold on to. So imagine you’re at the piano, you’re playing lots of notes at one time – you then need to almost instantaneously move to another group of notes. Most times you will audibly hear a gap in between those two sets of notes. You can, however give the impression that notes are somehow ‘connected’ by moving quickly from one to the next. Quite a lot of the time though, you just can’t change positions that quickly and thus the need for the sustain pedal. The sustain pedal keeps the strings ‘live’ by sustaining the notes. This is accomplished through the dampers (thus both names for this pedal). When the dampers are not sitting on the strings, they are allowed to resonate freely. So while your fingers are moving to the next notes, the sustained tones from the last chord will continue to resonate until you arrive at the keys. Make sense? Then when you come to the next chord, the damper pedal is released, effectively bridging the gap between the notes. The most difficult part of this pedal is the timing because you need to think ‘bridge’ ALL the time. After a while though it becomes second nature.
I was at a home recently where i was tuning. The lady called me a day later and commented on how her piano didn’t sound that good after i left. I was thinking to myself that i had somehow done an inadequate tuning and promised to stop in. When i sat at the piano, i rattled off an old song i knew by heart and she said “How come it doesn’t sound like that when i play?” lol… it was because she had yet to learn about the damper pedal. I must say that the damper DOES make you sound more professional… but only when executed properly. Give it a try. You’ll like it. Promise.
Ok maybe i’m a product of the 60’s… but the saying “no sweat” was a common one. Well in pianos, hand moisture IS a problem! When you’re feeling nervous and performing in front of others the last thing you need is to slip and slide around on the keytops. Enter ivory. Ivory is a very interesting substance in that it actually is porous. It absorbs hand moisture. I asked someone the other day if they had ivory keys – the answer “i dunno… how can you tell?” Well, that’s the simple part – 2 ways – one is that every piano i’ve seen made out of ivory has a very faint seam line where the whites meet the blacks and second, you’ll usually be able to see the grain of the ivory, much like you would with wood.
Due to the necessary ivory ban in 1970, piano makers have made their keytops out of plastic. Only problem is… there’s no accounting for the hand moisture. Innovative companies have actually made realistic simulations – called ivorine. As well, Kawai builds an antiseptic into the makeup of their keys. Both of these substances look and feel more like the real McCoy. Unfortunately, they only make these keytops on their very high end models. Subsequently, plastic has become the benchmark for pianos. Now don’t get me wrong, i don’t condone the killing of innocent elephants for their ivory but i must say that ivory is a very interesting substance and part of piano manufacturing history. If you ever get a chance to, feel the keys on some old upright piano. It’s unmistakable.
I was 22 years of age when i was hired by the local Baldwin piano store. The owner was a technician and the first words out of his mouth were “Glen, you may be educated in performance but i just want to tell you that because you know how to DRIVE the car, don’t presume that you know how the car works”. He then proceeded to tell me that the mechanic is not the driver in the Formula1. And so i took his advice to heart. I began to learn about the insides of the piano. I will say however, that being a driver and a mechanic both have distinct advantages. I remember this boss calling me to his workshop to try out a newly rebuilt piano. He’s all smiles and with big outstretched arms he points to the piano… “VOILA!” He asks me to play. I remember not being impressed by the piano and how put off he was because i couldn’t properly articulate what it was i didn’t like about the piano. And then it occurred to me that regardless of what your thoughts are re: the makeup of the instrument, it’s the driver still that counts – they’re the ones who are going to play this instrument.
So how do you properly test drive an instrument? It’s funny because i get lots of students through my doors looking for pianos and who do they get to preview the piano? Why, the teacher no less. But again, teachers are drivers and usually have very little understanding of what is going on in the piano. They walk around the instrument and give the ol’ inspection “mmm hmmm’s” but don’t really know what to say. LOL…ok this is funny – so you know the grand lid on a piano? It’s the 45 degree angled part held up by what is called a prop stick. After previewing a Steinway grand for her client… she finally said. “SOooooo, this is one of those ‘one-stick’ pianos”. (most pianos have 2 or 3) OK ok ok… i thot it was funny… kinda like judging the car by the antennae. Anyway… here are some tricks and tips on testing pianos:
- Test the piano at different volume levels. My trumpet teacher used to say “any 2 year old can blat a horn – it takes a master to play it quietly”. Much is the same at the piano. If a piano is ever going to misfire, it will be at soft volumes
- Play each key – find out if there are any sticking or problem notes – listen especially for buzzes and rattles
- Find the crossover. The crossover is the spot where the bass copper coloured strings change to steel strings. This is usually a problematic place on most pianos for consistency. Great pianos will have a very gradual change in tone.
- Sustain. Sustain is your friend. Take one note – moderate volume – play it and listen to how long it takes to die away. If it’s short lived, quite often the soundboard (the amplifier) is dead.
- Excessively loose or heavy action. Take one key – depress the notes on either side then grab hold of the sides of the key and wiggle it back and forth – left to right. Does it ‘knock’? Worn out pianos usually will have a notable ‘click’ here. As well, lift the very front of the key by the overhang – ever so slightly (you don’t want to rip off the keytop!) It should rise only about 1/16″ but it should also fall on it’s own weight. Newer pianos quite often are tight and if there’s too much friction here, they won’t fall back to rest position.
- Finally, test the workings of the pedals. Make sure the damper blocks lift simultaneously and in a comfortable manner.
Oh there are many many other tests you can do… but these will cover the basics. Enjoy!
I once attended a seminar on piano – i’m surrounded by teachers and the guest lecturer posed the question “What is the definition of a professional?” Many answers were thrown out on the floor like “one who is accomplished in their field” or another added “if you have enough skill to be compensated monetarily for your abilities”. I’m thinkin’ to myself…if that’s the case, i woulda been a pro at age 5 when the senior in the old folks home tossed me a quarter for playing the piano. lol. Still others thought that it was the amount of years in the discipline. Others suggested degrees etc. Finally, the clinician offered, “In music, amateurs practice until they get it right. Professionals practice until they can’t get it WRONG”. Hmmm interesting. I understand the concept – i understand the intention of practicing until there is a ‘safety net’ of instinct to fall back on. But more than that, despite my best efforts in preparation, i believe that the inevitable happens and things go terribly wrong; the slip of a finger, a distraction, a technical difficulty – and it’s that split second decision, that moment when you feel utter panic and then figure out on the fly what you’re going to do that in my books makes a professional. As far as i know, the term “on the fly” refers to a flywheel which is a wheel that in the mechanical world moderates change in torque. Quite often it’s constantly spinning but has the durability to withstand change. In music, playing on the fly refers to making changes instantaneously. So, to me, the definition of a professional is one who can play on the fly – one who can respond. I’ve many a time heard people exclaim “oh that music is so easy… i could do that”. Oh really? I read a book once called “The Inner Game of Music” where he asked “if you had to play happy birthday on the piano… could you do it? And now play that same song in front of 100,000 people. Would that be different for you?” My answer is YES!!! I’d be way more nervous. I’d be rehearsed – i’d know the song upside down and inside out. Why? To ensure that i would be able to handle the situation. Despite the difficulty level of music, it’s the preparation for ‘what-ifs’ that counts – it’s the ability to play on the fly. Recently i was playing a gig in a band and my entire keyboard setup went up in smoke. Split second of panic. Split second to regain composure. Split second to make a plan of action all the while i’m continuing to perform. The music didn’t change, but the situation surely did. It’s the multitasking and the reaction that makes the pro. I absolutely LOVE what Oscar Peterson said once “there’s no such thing as wrong notes – just bad recoveries”. Aye there’s the rub.
I don’t know why i was chosen, but i was the ‘lucky’ canditate to have been called to tune a piano recently. I have to say though that this was no ordinary piano; this one was better part of a 100 years old. I touched my hands to the keys. What came out sounded like a steamship! I politely asked the elderly lady “Sooooo….when did you have it tuned last?” “Well” she replied “my husband passed away 3 years ago and we had been married for 53 years and never had it tuned” OH MY! i’m thinking to myself (thus i’m the ‘lucky’ one who gets to deal with this..lol). She was a sweet older lady but the piano sounded simply bad – it sounded DULL. Many people do not know that piano wire comes in about 24 different sizes for the treble. Each size is about a paper thickness different. What’s interesting to note – quite often if a piano is not ‘up to pitch’ – meaning that the instrument is not tuned for the frequency it was designed for, it sounds lackluster. Each note on the piano was designed for a certain gauge of wire. If the pitch doesn’t match the guage, it sounds simply dull. There’s no sparkle. In my mind i hear the vowel sound “oh”, but in tune it quite quickly turns it into an “ee” – just like a smile. You see… pianos can smile! Take that out of tune instrument and with a bit of work it is transformed into a singing, resonating piano. So before you pass judgement on a piano always remember: it won’t shine until it’s in tune. Oh and BTW, that old piano, after tuning the lady remarked “I’ve never heard that piano sound so good!” “Yep… that’s because it’s smiling”
Ever since i can remember, i’ve had a fascination with outer space – with a world we will most likely never be able to see, feel or touch. I am fascinated with the magnitude of the planets. Did you know that you can fit 1,382 Earths into Jupiter? And then there’s the distance – Saturn is 1.3 billion kilometers away from Earth. If our moon has a pull of gravity on Earth, just imagine the force from the orbit of the planets around the sun… simply mind boggling. A friend who is a teacher, when she found out that i was writing educational books exclaimed “Oh you should write a book on the planets”. Immediately that struck a chord with me (pardon the pun :D). And so this book is about ethereal soundscapes at the piano. It combines the mystery, the intrigue and some loose associations with manmade concepts (Mars-war, Venus-love etc).
- Pluto (even though it’s now officially not a planet)
- Planet X
About six years ago i called a local double bass maker. I’m not up on my double bass makers… but apparently he’s known across north america for building some of the finest. I called him because i wanted some sitka spruce for repairing a soundboard on an old Bechstein grand piano i was working on. Because the piano was over 100 years of age, i wanted to put in cured spruce and not just ‘green’ lumber from the local hardware store. As well, ideally i would like clear grain wood – no wavy grain lines and no knots. When he answered the phone, we spoke for a bit and then he invited me to his workshop, an amazing place to say the least. After the small tour he queried me about how i was going to shim the soundboard. For those who don’t know, the soundboard is an actual board – like a giant sheet which acts as a resonator. But more than that, it’s the amplifier to the tone on the piano. They are pressure fit in the piano from the factory and quite frequently i’ll see cracks in those soundboards after decades. Ok… back to the bass man… he asked me “would you like to know how i repair cracks in guitars and basses?” “I’d love that”… i’m always up on learning new tricks of the trade. “OK so i open up the crack to about a millimeter or less (.039″) and i take a piece of the spruce and cut it slightly thicker than the crack. I then crush it in the vise – stripe each side with hide glue. After it dries i insert it into the crack until i’m happy with it. Then i take my steamer and shoot it with steam. The wood swells back up to normal size after being crushed and the glue re-amalgamtes simultaneously. It is then pressure fit back into the board. Trim excess and VOILA!” Wow… what a clever concept. So i decided to change my ways of putting 1/8″ pieces in – similar to Spurlock method and try this instead. I’m all excited and can hardly wait to try this method. BTW, his spruce was not only clear grain, but also 30 years old – a perfect fit for my old Bechstein. I get back to my shop – ready to give it a go and then it ocurred to me: double basses and guitars are about 1/8″ thick… piano soundboards are about 3/8″ thick. Problem: what sort of saw cuts through with any precision 3/8″ material? The hunt was on. I researched routers, jigsaws, gizmos and gadgets. Finally finally finally i came to this tool – called the Fein multimaster. It did EXACTLY what i wanted. A brilliant (and i might add fairly expensive) tool. And so i started this new method of shimming taught to me by my friend in the guitar world. Ok check out this picture – one grain thickness and absolutely straight.
I have this motto when i buy foods “if i can’t pronounce the ingredients on the label, i don’t eat it”. Sometimes i see chemical products on cans and boxes that leave me scratching my head (like propylene glycol alginate that thickens foods like icecream). Changing gears for a moment… the other day i’m talking with a friend of mine. He’s a printer and copier specialist. We’re talking about dry lubricants. Dry lubricants are powders that are used to reduce friction of parts but don’t have any liquids or solutions attached to them. In pianos, there are parts all over the place that have friction, especially the contact of what is called the knuckle. It interacts with a rotating reset lever called the whippen or jack. (For those of you who have never heard of that part before… then apparently you don’t know jack! lol). ANYWAY… i digress. So the most common substance for this lubrication has been teflon (or as i commonly like to call it… polytetrafluoroethylene). Only problem is… and i’ve discussed this with other techs… it appears that the no-stick doesn’t stick to the intended part it was stuck on. Enter printer repair friend. “Well why not use methuselah padding powder” to which my response was… “say wha?” He shuffled around in his kit and gave me a sample. Unbelievable! What is this? So i looked at the specs sheet. It’s mere mica powder ground REAAAALLY fine. The lubricity however is excellent! So… next time you’re thinking about whippen assemblies… or for that matter reading labels on soup cans and you remember polytetraflouroethylene… remember – it may be good for no stick pans and possibly pianos, but maybe i’m just an old fashioned guy. Maybe i like my glue – the same kind they used 200 years ago… and leather… and steel… and cast iron… and wood… maybe friction reduction should be just as simple – ground up mica powder.
James Brown on one of his recordings said when asked for the next tune “i don’t know…but whatever it is, it’s jes gotta be funk-ay”. I tend to like songs that are not only fun to listen to but also fun to play. There’s just something about swing, funk & blues that bring a smile to my face. Sometimes when i play, the pure mechanical feeling at the piano is exciting. It’s almost like a musical puzzle – a tongue twister but once accomplished, it’s most satisfying. This collection of songs is a sampler of various genres from the 1920’s to the 1970’s. It contains laid back jazz, dixieland and even a bit of boogie woogie. If fun is what you’re after, it doesn’t get more entertaining than this!
- Just in Time
- Dig It!
- Out Walkin’
- In Such a Flap!
- Riff Raff Blues
- The Moon and Back
- Cherries on Top
- Bullfrog Blues
- Afro & Bellbottoms