The amazing technicolor dream-piano

Posted on November 8, 2010

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The course on the mechanics of the piano, which I’ve been attending every Tuesday in the basement of the Royal Conservatory of Music, will conclude in two weeks. Damon Groves, a key member of the RCM piano-tuning team, has been a valiant instructor to a band of RCM students, instrument-makers and laypeople like myself with at least three retirees and one babe in arms in our midst. In addition to taking care of the classroom pianos, Damon also tunes the grand ol’ concert beasts before performances at the Koerner Hall – in a word, the man commands a fleet.

Since, according to the syllabus, he is going to ask us in the final class to identify one thing we learned about the pianos, I thought I’d do my own rundown here.

Pianos are fantastically complicated organisms. Every addition, change and standardization to its mechanism was preceded by a bunch of trial-and-errors, both in craft and musicianship. So, what is the piano? A gajillion tightly strung strings of decreasing length and thickness, all contained in a huge resonator box. How do you get the sound out of the string? By quickly hitting it with a soft, tear-drop shaped thing called the hammer, which then as quickly as possibly escapes from the string. As you press down a key, the ‘piano action’ mechanism kick in (the elaborate construction that is tied to every single key) which sends the said hammer to the string and back. (The glorious sound of the harpsichord is produced by the plucking of the string, in comparison.)

How are the pianos related to other string instruments? Say, you are holding a viola da gamba, the only other string instrument I attempted to play. In the viols (similar to violins and cellos etc) each of the six strings, when properly tuned, is one note. So, you bow on a naked string and you get a note. If you ‘shorten’ the string by a certain length on the fretwork with your finger and bow across it again, the note is one higher. And so on. The shorter the string – the higher the pitch. If you observe a cellist in a concert, the highest notes are always produced when their hand goes so low on the fretwork that it comes close to the bridge (the lower stoppage point for the string). With the pianos, the strings are all tailored for you in advance. The bass is the domain of the longest, thickest strings, and the treble belongs to the ever shortening strings. So: you don’t have to search your note every time you play. The note is under the proper key, provided the piano is tuned.

Ah yes: the shamanism tuning. The registered piano technicians know every cog of that Rolls Royce of instruments and know how to check all the possible variables that affect the tone. They hear the sound differently (A key is pressed. “Do you hear that Wauw, waughw, waughw, waughw? It  should sound more like “wah, wah, wah”.” We all nod, pretending to hear the difference.) Their pitch is reliable. (They identify the note just by listening! Mad business.) They’ll always have a music degree in addition to the tuning certificate. They’ll have mastered the physics of the sound, the frequencies and hertz and decibels, the works.

The history of the piano is also the history of composing.

~ Only after the invention of something called the ‘second escapement’ in the piano action, which allows repeat notes at great speeds, the kind of piano composing that Liszt and Chopin did was able to exist. (The pianists attending the course always have good stories about this kind of stuff)

~ Before people agreed that there should be such thing as equal temperament, there were pianos which had two black keys sitting next to each other. C flat and D sharp were not the same (for instance). People tuned as they saw fit, as long the semitone scale of 12 fit within an octave. “How to squeeze these notes delicately into the octave became a European obsession from Pythagoras on,” as Oliver Condy, the editor of the BBC Music Magazine put it (Nov 2010 issue, the editorial). I am nowhere near understanding this fully, but what I can grasp looks fascinating. Only in the Classical period and later, we have compositions in a certain key (the “sparkling” D major (D-Dur), the “tragic” G minor (G-moll) and so on). The piano as an object was at the centre of all these goings on, and was changing simultaneously.

Finally, the importance of the old elephant for the performing arts. Why is it that the rehearsals always happen with the piano accompaniment first? Why not the cello, for instance? Is it that the piano covers the diapason of the entire orchestra? Whatever the reason, the rehearsals happen with the piano. The opera singers practice their roles with the piano (I think the singer’s score contains only the piano line along with their own, voice line?) The importance of the dazzler cannot be overstated.

PS: Thanks Damon and the RCM.

Here’s a video of how the pianos are made. There’s only ONE remaining piano factory in the whole of North America: this one.

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Posted in: Piano