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The Sostenuto Pedal

Piano Price ~ November 2017
Chapter Index

The Sostenuto Pedal

Sostenuto-piano-pedalThere has never been said any words in the piano industry that are more divisive than “But does it have a middle pedal?” Why are these words divisive? Because the middle pedal on the piano is the least used and yet most focused on in the piano industry. I’ve often told the story about one of the greatest jazz pianists in my city, when he was just signing the papers to purchase a beautiful grand piano, he stopped and turned to me and said, “Glen, I’ve just got to ask… What does the middle pedal do? I get asked because I’m viewed as the professional and yet I don’t even know and I’m too embarrassed to ask! Can you please tell me?” We both had a bit of a laugh because he’s an incredible professional musician who has existed for decades without even knowing what it does. After technically showing him he then said “When would anyone use that?” Precisely my point.

The middle pedal on the piano, if you would break it down into frequency of use might possibly be 98% for the right pedal, 1.9% for the left pedal and maybe (if you’re lucky) 0.01% for the middle pedal. The right pedal, the sustain (also known as the damper pedal) is used with every musician and every player because it lifts the felt dampers and sustains the notes and keeps the strings resonating even after we have lifted our fingers. In essence it “fills in” the sound. The left pedal, the “una corda” pedal changes the dynamic (volume) level of the piano and/or the timbre of the tone – making it the soft pedal. But the middle pedal… ahhh yes the infamous middle pedal has been known to have 5 different usages.

In this article, we’ll take a look at the advantages of the middle pedal and why it’s not the best decision to judge a piano based on this non-standard device.


Pianos equipped with the sostenuto function are what I would call “selective sustain”. While the right pedal sustains all the notes, the sostenuto, in essence holds down selective notes you wish to sustain. I love how this chap in the U.K. both demonstrates and performs on the piano utilizing the sostenuto pedal (video to the right). He beautifully shows both the function and form of the sostenuto.

Bass Damper
As you could see in the sostenuto video, most of the time, the sostenuto pedal is used to sustain the bass notes. So why not make a pedal that just sustains the bottom notes? Some manufacturers decided instead of offering a sostenuto pedal (which is more labour intensive in manufacturing) they would offer a type of split sustain. The middle pedal would then act like the a sustain pedal for just the bass notes.

Practice – Mute – Celeste

Herein lies the big departure for the middle pedal as it has absolutely nothing to do with sustain at all and yet can be found in most modern upright pianos today. It is called the practice pedal, the practice mute or the “celeste”. The purpose on this middle pedal is to reduce the volume of the piano by sandwiching a thin layer of felt between the hammers and the strings. Take a look at this 10 second video and you’ll get the idea. This is neither a sostenuto nor a bass damper. It doesn’t function like the above pedals. It simply is meant to mute the entire piano (much more than the soft pedal).

Silent Pedal
With modern manufacturing, the middle pedal has also been used as the silent pedal while simultaneously engaging an electronic device to allow you to listen to your piano with headphones. Known as “silent” or quiet option, the middle pedal blocks the hammer from striking the strings. What you will hear then is a slight knocking from the hammer shanks (the “handle” of the hammer) against the silencing rail. Underneath each of the keys are infrared sensors that determine what notes are being played and transmit signals to an electronic device which makes the digital piano sound come out of headphones. For night time playing or extreme privacy, these pianos are brilliant.

Steinway-diary-1874Novelty or Nothing?
I have to admit (and am thankful to say this) but I haven’t seen a “novelty” brass tack rail for many years. Similar to the practice mute pedal, the novelty rail lowers a series of brass tacks in between the hammers and the strings and makes the piano sound like a honky-tonk piano. Alternatively, I’ve also seen pianos that are connected to… nothing. Nothing? Yes nothing. Why would a piano have a middle pedal connected to nothing? The answer is simply that customers wanted a third pedal. Cosmetically, it may have satisfied some consumers but opening up the piano I have on more than one occasion seen pedals with no function whatsoever. They’re pretty rare though, but provide a bit of a laugh when you’re asked to fix the middle pedal.

Steinway-patent-1875Today’s manufacturing world mainly has evolved to having a standard sostenuto pedal on grand pianos and a practice mute pedal on upright pianos. Regardless, it’s probably not the best choice to base a piano decision on the middle pedal. As a friend of mine once said “it’s like buying a car based on the radio antenna”… referring to the obscurity of use.

History of the Sostenuto Pedal
According to Fred Sturm in his paper “The Invention of the Sostenuto Pedal”, he writes that pianos used to have many pedals (upwards of 7!) during the early 1800’s when there was more experimentation around the piano. The sostenuto pedal was patented in France by the Boisselot brothers in 1843-1844. “Sons soutenus” simply translated means “sounds sustained”. After another piano maker, Montal exhibited pianos with this pedal function in the mid 1800’s World Expositions, this invention was given more exposure. Fast forward to 1874, a patent was presented in the U.S.A. by Mr. Waldo Hanchett. In his diary (shown above), William Steinway commented after viewing this invention that it was splendid. After some legal and patent disputes, Steinway re-designed the pedal and forwarded a patent in 1875 for the sostenuto mechanism as we know it today. If you have the time, check out Fred Sturm’s paper – a fascinating read.

Practical Application of the Sostenuto Pedal
As previously mentioned, the main idea is usually to sustain lower notes while changing chords in the upper register. When you depress lower keys and then press the sostenuto pedal, they create a foundation of sound from which you can then superimpose other chords on top of without affecting the selected lower notes. But what happens if you don’t have a sostenuto pedal? What if you have an upright piano with a practice mute? The work around is that you can get a similar effect by half pedalling the sustain (right pedal). Since the lower notes vibrate with greater energy than higher notes, if you half pedal – meaning that after you depress the sustain pedal, Victor-Borgeyou only come up until the dampers slightly touch – you can still keep the energy of the bass strings and clear the top notes. It’s not a true sostenuto but it accomplishes a similar effect for the rare times that it is needed.

To conclude, I’ll leave you with my all-time favourite quote about the middle pedal which comes from the comedian/piano performer Victor Borge who said “You know, some people have asked me why there are three pedals on these grand pianos..Well, the pedal in the middle is there to separate the two other pedals…which might be bad news for people with three feet.”

What’s a Piano Cloud? QRS Music

Piano Price ~ October 2017
Chapter Index

What’s a Piano Cloud? QRS Music

QRS-Music-Teacher-StudentYou get your cup of coffee and log in to your computer. “Hmmm… not a lot of practicing from these students this week. Looks like Rachel is having problems with that new scale. Braden is having trouble with timing.” This is the new look of piano teaching in the 21st century.

You get off work late and think to yourself, “All I want to do is relax on the couch and watch a movie like The Legend of 1900 or hear Billy Joel on the big screen and listen to it through my piano”. This too is the new look of piano concerts in the 21st century.

You’re having a dinner party and say to your guests “I thought it would be nice to have a little jazz piano playing in the background”. You pick up your phone, press start and instantly your piano starts playing. This is the new look for piano performance in the 21st century.

You have 3 children in piano lessons and you would like to do a recording and share with it their grandparents. This is the new look for piano connectivity in the 21st century.

How much does your piano get played? Be honest. If you’re a teacher or student, the time on the keys might be substantial. But how about when you’re listening to a performance? How often do you or someone else perform on your piano? It’s a bit of a dream of mine to be able to cook dinner in the kitchen and have someone play the piano for me. Despite having taught for 30 years and have a piano performance degree and diploma behind me, I still tire of listening to my own playing. I guess it’s a little like listening to yourself talk. I was thinking that if I could hire a professional jazz pianist to show up every day that would be delightful. Or possibly I could have my favourite concert artist perform some brilliant concerto. It’s somehow really different to hear real piano being played than just listening to a CD. With real strings and soundboard, the tone emanates from everywhere. It’s multi-dimensional. The frequencies and overtones – it’s something like a camera – you simply can’t capture with a lens what you can see with the naked eye. So too, live piano embodies the full range of colour, timbre, of tone and articulation.

These dreams are now a reality with modern technology. You can listen to jazz piano or a concert in your living room (and you don’t even have to feed them dinner!) But there are more possibilities than simply playing back songs. Although we did an article back in February of an overview of player piano systems, this month I had the wonderful opportunity of flying to Pennsylvania to shadow Mark Baughmann from QRS who teaches the class on PNOmation installation. PNOmation in a nutshell allows you to have a piano that plays by itself and is controlled wirelessly from any smart device (iPad, tablet, android, iPhone, computer, etc). You can literally push a play button on your phone from your kitchen and your piano will start playing.

Solenoid-Rail-Side-ViewHow does it all work? When you play any piano, like a see-saw, when you push the keys down, the other end of the key stick goes up and engages the piano action, pushing the piano hammers towards the strings. Now what would happen if, instead of pushing down the keys, they were lifted underneath from the back? The exact same motion of the piano key stroke would happen. Metal “pistons” called solenoids (See how solenoids work) magnetically push each of the keys with incredible accuracy. Take a look at the diagram below. If you have a song file, it can then be accessed by a smart device. The smart device software communicates with the computer “brains” of the player system. This translates signals to driver boards which in turn activates the appropriate solenoids to play the piano keys. The concept is actually quite simple, the execution is extensive.


But take this a step further. CEO of QRS Music, Thomas Dolan challenged me to think bigger. In his words, “if your player piano is not cloud connected going forward, you won’t have the potential of a complete acoustic player experience”. What he means is that there are bigger possibilities now available.

A Piano Cloud
What is a “cloud” anyway? A cloud is a connected collection of data – connected because it can be accessed via various devices and various users. Let’s say a student is working on a homework group project. You can upload the project to a cloud and it can be edited by various people who have permission to do so. The cloud is a virtual storage space for information that can be accessed by different users. But the cloud also has a different application. I could have my own private cloud of information and simply access it through different devices like my phone, computer or tablet. Businesses are now using clouds for users to access a collection of data.

Piano Cloud
So how does this relate to the piano? What if a song could be uploaded to a cloud? What if a teacher could listen to and evaluate a student’s performance or practice session? Both the student and the teacher would be users of this piano cloud. How about sharing recordings and performances with family members? This too could be part of a cloud. QRS Music has their own cloud of more than 7,500 songs and concerts in their cloud for users to listen to. This theme of connectivity, according to Thomas Dolan will unfold as the new movement for the acoustic piano in the 21st century.
QRS Music LogoWhat’s the Catch?
Ok to be fair, player systems represent a substantial investment (into the thousands of dollars). But this year marks a game changer. At the next trade show (NAMM 2018), QRS will be releasing some really exciting cost effective communication tools that can be used by teachers and students or for family members to QRS-Signuse with existing acoustic pianos with no installation required. And the possibilities will be outstanding! These new tools could be revolutionary to even the way we learn the piano. QRS Music has partnered with PianoMarvel. Take a quick look at this short video to see how it will work. While PianoMarvel has addressed the teaching component, QRS will be unveiling new hardware to connect teacher and student cost effectively on your existing piano. This makes it accessible to everyone.

I believe that it’s important to continue to strive to stay relevant in the piano industry. With continual competition of computers and games vying for attention, I believe that in the music industry, it’s important to use technology to integrate to win the favour of this next generation. Kudos to QRS Music in leading the way of this pursuit.

A special thanks to QRS for allowing me to spend some time with them. It was a pleasure hanging out with the crew. It’s also good to know that in small town Pennsylvania, they also haven’t lost their sense of humor. They even caught on to the fact that I’m Canadian, eh?

Who is Grotrian?

Piano Price ~ September 2017
Chapter Index

Who is Grotrian?

grotrian-piano-factoryThe World Fair became The World Exposition which became Expo as we know it. I stumbled upon a book about the musical instruments from the world fair in the late 1800’s. It was said of Grotrian “There is no effort to produce them in great numbers, but rather to create in every one, as it passes through the factory, an instrument fit for the inspiration of great artists who have long accorded to its makers the highest place.” Of their experience, “It is said that nowhere in the world are there more veteran employees than in the factory of Grotrian.” Grotrian has been, and continues to be a piano manufacturer where 80 percent of the manufacturing is still hand made. (Grotrian Website FAQ)

bvk_d_signet-246x300Who is Grotrian? Grotrian has always been a luxury piano manufacturer based in Braunschweig/Germany. Founded in 1835, Grotrian bought in with Theodor Steinweg (Son of Heinrich Steinweg, Americanized Henry Steinway). The company was then known as Grotrian-Steinweg. Less than a decade later, Theodor was called to help with operations at Steinway, New York. In 1865 Grotrian eventually acquired all remaining shares and the company has continued building high quality pianos to this day. They are part of BVK (Bundesverband Klavier = German Association of Piano Manufacturers).
Fast forward to this century, I have had the delight to sit down and play these pianos at the NAMM show and speak personally with Burkhard Stein (former CEO and now Senior Associate). I’m always curious to know what’s happening behind the scenes in companies. Recently, the Grotrian Company was sold out of family hands to Parsons in China. And while many could view this as detrimental, I see this as an opportunity to secure the future for this German company.

Grotrian-Cast-IronWhat does Parsons have to offer? Parsons is a piano manufacturer and retail giant in China. They have 100 of their own stores and partner with over 500 more retailers of pianos in mainland China. They employ over 5000 people and export to over 24 countries of the world. I recently found out that they own their own soundboard forest of Alaskan spruce in northern Canada, they own their own sawmills and cast iron foundries for building pianos. With a dozen manufacturing facilities, Parsons Music has been propelled to the world stage. They manufacture pianos and piano parts for many companies globally. But their interest isn’t simply in manufacturing. Believe it or not, Parsons had humble beginnings as a piano teaching studio that soon became a piano retailer and eventually a manufacturer. Those roots in music subsequently have led to annual education of 35,000 students, master classes, multiple music festivals and even the Hong Kong Music Teachers Union. They have established a music foundation and scholarships for musical education. They are substantially invested in the advancement of music.

Friedrich-Grotrian-FG275And so what does this acquisition mean for Grotrian? Firstly, they are committed to continuing with German manufacturing. So often people believe that if a piano company gets sold, it is in name only. Not so with Grotrian. They are continuing to blossom with this new-found partner. Parsons also connects maker to market – having a direct audience and buyers in China, who, I might add appreciate the fine craftsmanship of German piano making, Grotrian is a perfect fit for their retail outlets. Like most piano companies today, they also have started releasing sub-lines of pianos that are more cost effective. In the 21st century, there is a theme: fill in all of the price points and provide something for everyone. At the NAMM show in 2017, they released the Friedrich Grotrian piano and coming this fall will be the Wilhelm Grotrian (named after the first two generations of Grotrians). Pianos designs are fully Grotrian with sub lines made more cost effective in the areas listed below.

Grotrian: 100% Made in Germany. Renner action parts, Renner or Abel hammers, Roslau wire, Kluge or Laukhuff keys

Friedrich Grotrian: Rim, cast iron plate and Alaskan spruce soundboard made in China. Assembly, action and finishing are in Germany. Still meets requirements for Made in Germany because so much of the piano is manufactured in Braunschweig.

Wilhelm Grotrian: Completely made in China with Renner hammers, Roslau strings

Grotrian-Damper-InstallIn 1954, Grotrian established a piano competition in Germany to foster piano performance and excellence. Now over 60 years later, this competition is still thriving. Perhaps it was this love of music that was a common thread to their new found partner, Parsons. Regardless, it is good to know that strategic alliances like Parsons with Grotrian will solidify the future for such a high end niche company. If you can spend a few moments, watch their company video below and you will be able to more closely see and hear what goes into making a Grotrian piano.

The Una Corda Pedal – The Soft Pedal

Piano Price ~ August 2017
Chapter Index

The Una Corda Pedal and How It Works

A few months ago we examined the mechanical and musical basics of the damper pedal. This month we’re going to look at how the una corda, also known as the soft pedal, works.

Manual-typesettingI was speaking with an older gentleman recently who used to be a typesetter for a newspaper, meaning that he would manually place letters in rows each day for the daily newspaper (pre-computer and pre-typewriter). Each of the letters in the alphabet was grouped together and were called “sorts”.

As the day progressed, depending on what the typesetting would require, you might run out of a certain letter, like a letter E or letter A, for example. And so if you were “out of sorts”, meaning that you had run out of that particular letter, you would go into the storage room of letters and get more sorts, another container of that character. The insinuation is that if you’re “out of sorts”, all production stops until you remove yourself from your work, restock and regroup and then continue on. I love these kinds of stories that reveal the story behind the phrase.

The soft pedal on the piano also has not-so-quaint a story but interesting nonetheless. Cristofori, credited with the invention of the earliest pianos in the 1700’s also installed the “una corda” pedal into his pianos. Being Italian, the phrase “una corda” can be translated “one string”. How does “one string” translate into a pedal we also know as the soft pedal? We’ll look at that in just a moment but first, let’s take a look at the structure of the left pedal on the piano called the soft pedal or una corda.

First of all, grand pianos and upright pianos have very different functioning soft pedals. The grand piano shifts all of the keys from left to right slightly. As you can see in the top picture, the keys move away from the rim at the left. This, in turn makes the hammers off center from the strings they are striking. What’s happening below the surface is that the soft pedal (the left pedal on any piano) is connected to a rod which eventually joins to a lever that swivels. This swivel piece sits under the entire keyboard frame and moves all of the keys from left to right. Why shift all of the keys? On the majority of the keys on the piano there are 3 strings. When you shift the keys using the soft pedal, the piano hammers strike only 2 strings (pictured in the second frame) instead of 3 and thus, the piano becomes softer. But what is also simultaneously happening is that the hammers, being shifted out of their usual strike pattern, are also hitting on fresh felt. When the hammers are aligned to strike at the normal position, they will, over time, have small grooves in the felt. When the soft pedal is engaged, shifting from left to right, the hammer is no longer striking those same grooves. The effect then is that the tone is usually quieter but also softer and warmer in timbre.

Mechanically, upright pianos operate very differently and the soft pedal on any upright is not really any kind of “una corda” since it does not shift the keys. Rather, it pushes the hammers on a single rail forward towards the strings (pictured below). How do closer hammers make the piano softer? It simply gives you a bit more control bridging the smaller gap between the hammers and strings. Hammers on an upright piano travel the full distance to the strings under normal conditions. When they are moved closer, the idea is that with less distance to travel, it will be easier to control. Try this as an example: if you wanted to clap your hands loudly, it is our natural inclination to first separate our hands a fair distance to make the impact greater.

What happens if you move your hands only a foot apart and aren’t allowed to move back before you clap? The result is that the lower distance only allows for lower impact and thus lower volume. Upright pianos work the same way. When the pedal is depressed, a rod simply engages a rail that moves all of the hammers closer to the strings in hopes of limiting the loud playing and making a closer strike distance. The result is quite often negligible and the tone, unaffected compared to a grand piano moving the hammers onto fresh felt.

So where does the term “una corda” come from? Back in the day of Cristofori (early 1700’s), each note on this primitive piano had only 2 strings. Using the “una corda” shifted the keys so that they would only strike 1 string. How different the piano would sound if you would only strike one string at a time. It would sound not only quieter but also thinner. Our ears are so accustomed to hearing 3 strings simultaneously, it would actually be odd to hear a single string resonate at a time. It would be more akin to a guitar. Over the years, however, the term “una corda” has become an anachronism. Although it’s outdated, the term implies quiet and more intimate playing. I guess we could start a quiet revolution and call it Due Corde (2 strings)… but then again, the initials DC are already taken meaning Da Cappo. Piano nerd humour. Hahaa.
As an aside, if you ever get a chance to visit the keyboard museum in Vienna, Austria (Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien), the instruments dating from the 1700’s are completely fascinating and being able to see the historical developments up close is incredible. I highly recommend it!


Why Upgrade to a Professional Level Piano?

Piano Price ~ June 2017
Chapter Index

Why Upgrade to a Professional Level Piano?

Last month we looked at why upgrading happens from an electronic keyboard to a real piano. This month, we delve into the concept of why it is sometimes necessary to upgrade from one acoustic piano to another. Having been in sales, I’ve discussed this concept many times with parents shopping for a piano. The teacher has said, “your son/daughter is advancing and you need to consider upgrading your piano to something better”. This begs the question, “Why do we need to upgrade? And what’s inferior about my existing piano that makes it inadequate?”

These are both valid questions. I need to go on record by saying that there is a lot of misinformation about upgrading. Parents are often told they need to upgrade without even really knowing why. In this article, we will address common issues and reasons for upgrading from one piano to a better piano.

The number one reason to upgrade your piano revolves around touch. Let’s face it; if your piano sounds bad, while that’s unfortunate, it’s less critical than inadequate touch. We’ll get to the concept of sound later but let’s first look at the idea of upgrading touch. Piano touch has to do with weight, friction, depth and dynamic response.

Touch weight refers to the resistance you feel when you depress a key on a piano. The focus of upgrading revolves primarily around the development of the student to build dexterity and feel various graduations of dynamic response. What does that mean exactly? It means that there is a certain succinct feeling of having your fingers apply a certain pressure to the keys and have the piano reply with the appropriate volume and tonal colour. The lighter the touch, in my experience, the narrower the volume range which brings about expression. The heavier the feel of the keys, the wider the expression. Too light of a feeling, although easy on the fingers, doesn’t produce strength required to play on most pianos and unless you’re a very accomplished pianist, it’s difficult to obtain a wider expression range because there is inadequate weight to the action. If a piano touch is too light, playing on any other piano will feel laborious. If the piano touch is too heavy, it can become cumbersome to play loudly or quickly. Recently I had the opportunity to sit at a concert grand with a fellow professional player and it was interesting to talk in these abstract terms and yet know exactly what the other was feeling. It takes time and experience to know what the right weight should be on a piano. When it comes to upgrading, weight of the keys is the primary consideration.

Aye, there’s the rub. Every piano requires it. Why? There are several joints in piano actions. Each joint requires precise movement. If the joints are loose, not only do they work incorrectly, but they are also prone to making noise. Incorrect friction comes from poor materials, worn parts or corrosion. With usually at least 5 bushing points per key and 88 keys, old pianos or poorly built pianos will not be consistent in touch. Most often, if you have a piano that is more than half a century old, friction will be substantially different than a newer piano. This is also a substantial reason for upgrading from one piano to another.

The depth of a piano key speaks to how far down the keys go before they hit the bottom felt. I feel that this has become less of a problem over time as key depth has become more consolidated in manufacturing. It may not sound like a lot, but less than a 1/16″ or 2 millimeters is very apparent in piano key depth. Old pianos and some early pianos had either too shallow or too deep of key dip and Piano-key-dipsubsequently, the piano did not match today’s standard of touch which is generally around 10 millimeters down (about 3/8”+). Modern manufacturing has consolidated key dip and so upgrading for this reason is less critical on newer pianos than on older ones. I’ve seen various levels of key dip especially on older upright pianos.

Piano Size
Remember in last month’s blog we looked at the different balance points between electronic keyboard and traditional piano? Another vital concept with upgrading from one piano to another is the dynamic response created by 2 elements: the hammer shank and the key stick. Here’s the quick rundown: small pianos (shorter than 45” tall or 112cm) usually have shorter key sticks and shorter hammer shanks. By necessity, the parts are smaller to fit inside a smaller cabinet. Larger pianos and grand pianos have longer keys and longer hammer shanks. The difference this size makes is not the weight of the keys but rather the acceleration of the hammer. With shorter, smaller parts, expression is substantially inferior on a shorter piano than on a professional level piano.Pro-versus-console-piano

In short, upgrading the touch comes from:
Weight of the keys – too light or too heavy
Friction – inadequate or too much
Depth – too shallow or too deep
Size – small pianos have miniaturized parts

These four concepts address dexterity and control on the part of the student without which it is difficult to pursue higher level playing. Upgrading is strongly encouraged if you have one or more of these areas.

The sound of a piano is also one to consider, although I deem it less of a necessity than touch. We discussed the concept of touch, but tone is the other area to consider when upgrading.

This voice of the piano is constantly communicating with every key stroke and in reality, we adjust our playing to match the feedback the piano is giving to us. In essence, we play to the piano. We alter the way we play to match the response we hear from the instrument. But what if the piano is a poor communicator? What if the sound of the piano is brassy and shrill? What if it sounds mushy or muted? You then compensate in your playing. And that’s a problem. If the tool you are using limits this expression, rather than changing your piano technique, it would be better to upgrade the piano.

There’s a magic line in musical expression that I like to call crossover. When playing quietly, I really enjoy a felty tone. I’m not only talking about quiet volume level but a warm timbre as well. When the music denotes small and intimate feeling, I like expressing that with a piano that can achieve those results. As I turn up the heat, when I play louder, I want the sound to cross over into a more strident and bold sound. This can only happen with good quality piano hammers which have a certain elasticity to change tone. With time, however, hammers lose that resilience and become expressionless. You can change volume, yes, but that magic crossover is worth considering. A piano that matches the expression you envision is the icing to the cake. While touch produces the foundational elements for finger dexterity and control, piano tone gives opportunity to express creatively. It’s with the combined effect of both touch and tone that teachers recognize that upgrading your existing instrument is necessary.

Old-car-tiresI recently changed the tires on my vehicle. Being the curious sort, I started to discuss the wear of tires with the guy doing the installation. There was a massive pile of tires ready to be recycled and it seemed odd to me that many of them looked in good condition. I queried him as we were waiting about what he looks for. “See this here? These tires have a slight arc. They’re cupped – you’ll hear that on the highway. These ones, the walls have cracks. That’s a safety issue. These ones, too close to the tread line here. See this one? There’s a slight bulge.”
To the untrained eye, without close inspection and shown what to look for, the tires all appeared the same. It’s only under more careful examination that you begin to understand the subtleties, which can make all the difference in the world.
As it relates to pianos, it’s the details and the refinement that in both touch and tone that are needed as the years of experience require it. Here are some questions, some of the details that might help determine whether an upgrade is in order:

1. Does your piano feel loose or heavy?
2. Does it play evenly on every key?
3. Do the keys play similarly from the front of the key to the back?
4. Is the experience of playing on other pianos vastly different?
5. Do the keys make noise, not work or otherwise slow to respond?
6. Is the tone of the piano too bright or mellow?
7. Is the sound “thunky”?
8. Is there very little crossover from soft to loud?

If your answer is yes to any of these questions, you may need to consider upgrading. HOWEVER, before you do that, contact your local piano technician. There are times when piano adjustments can be made, and parts can be transformed to improve the quality of your piano playing experience. But ask the technician directly, “Is this piano suitable for advanced playing?”

… which leads me to one final thought. If you enjoy your piano, if you’re not striving for performance at Carnegie Hall any time soon, if it’s the piano you have sentimental attachment to… keep it. Upgrading an instrument is for those students who are pushing towards professionalism and need to feel every graduation of touch and tone under their fingers tips. Upgrading is not always necessary if you simply enjoy making music with the piano you already have.

Check out our other blog on touch with David Stanwood.

Why Upgrade from a Digital Piano?

Piano Price ~ June 2017
Chapter Index

Why Upgrade from a Digital Piano?

The teacher has said “It’s time you start looking for a real piano and move up from a keyboard. You’ve outgrown this one”. Really? How does that happen? Just 2 years ago you bought this brand new 88 key weighted digital piano and now you’re being told that it will not suffice. They both have the same amount of keys and it has the same touch as a piano. Why do we need to upgrade? In order to answer that question, we need to look at the differences between acoustic piano (traditional piano with strings and hammers) and digital piano (electronic keyboard that you plug into the wall). The two main areas that substantially divide these two types of pianos are dynamic touch and dynamic tone.

See-sawThe concept of touch for any keyboard is fairly straightforward: they all have black and white keys. You push one down, it makes sound. But in reality, the constructs of touch are much more complicated. Remember going to the playground when you were a kid? The see-saw was one of my favourites (especially when your brother or sister is on the other end and you decide at last moment to let it crash to the ground seeing them slightly propel off the end in mid air). Anyway, the idea of balance is realized fairly quickly. We all experimented by moving closer and farther from the middle. It took substantial weight to push down the see-saw if you were really close to the center. Piano keys are exactly like that. When it comes to upgrading from digital piano to acoustic, one of the most significant changes is a better balance point. What do I mean by that? When you play the piano, the ideal is to have consistency moving from one note to another. But you also want to achieve consistency from the front of the key to the back. Take a look at the diagram with the two different pressure points marked in red. As the demands for piano proficiency increase, you end up using the entire key surface and not just the fronts. Piano-Keyboard-Touch-PointsWhen you look at the cutaway of both digital and acoustic pianos (on the next diagram), Digital-and-acoustic-touchyou will see that digital pianos have balance points that are too close to the keyboard. It’s like the see-saw principle: the closer you move to the center, the more difficult it is to depress a key. Here’s a test to try: depress a key on a digital piano similar to the red marks on the diagram. Take note to the variance in touch. Digital pianos, by nature of the balance point placement usually have significant touch discrepancy. With acoustic pianos, the balance point distance is substantially further. This creates a more even touch weight from front to back of the key. One sign of a great piano is low variation between the front and back of the keyboard.
Another significant distinction between acoustic and digital is the idea of dynamic touch weight. Have you ever gone camping? Good, because it’ll help with this next analogy. Chopping wood requires rotational inertia. The axe handle pivots in your hand while the weight at the end gathers momentum and chops the wood. Due to the multiplying effect of the rotation of the axe head, the power increases substantially. Any seasoned pianist will be able to tell you that acoustic pianos somehow feel different than any electronic or digital piano. The reason for this is due to this rotational inertia of the piano hammer causing dynamic touch. Take a look at the side cutaway of the upright piano. Labelled is the hammer which rotates towards the string. This rotational inertia, similar to a hammer or an axe – gives a very different sensation than the static weight of a digital piano. A digital piano simply raises or lowers lead weight up and down. It doesn’t have a multiplied force when played louder and subsequently, there is no dynamic force on a digital piano.
There are many other subtle differences that we could consider regarding touch, but the last one we’ll look at is spring assists. Ever so slight Piano-Action-Cutawayand yet perceptible is the idea of resistance in part by springs in the action. In an upright piano, for example, the pivot point of the hammer we just spoke of not only has rotational inertia but it’s also spring loaded. The spring resists the hammer and at low pressure, low volume, you can feel the spring engaged. As the hammer moves closer to the piano strings, the tension of the spring also increases, causing more pressure to return the hammer to reset.

So why upgrade? Longer keys mean better balance from front to back of the piano keys. The rotational inertia gives dynamic touch changing the feel as you play soft to loud. And finally, the spring loaded joints aid the reset. All of these work collectively to define the touch of a piano. When you compare that to a digital piano where the touch weight is simply raising or lowering a lead weight on a see-saw, the difference is significant. In addition to these touch elements, traditional pianos also have adjustable parts to refine the touch components as well.

Final considerations regarding touch: dexterity and injury. After nearly 30 years of teaching, I could tell as soon as I heard a student who had been practicing on a digital piano. How? They have not developed anywhere near the right amount of finger dexterity. You can “hear” that their technique is weak. Dynamic touch brings about correct dexterity. You can especially hear it on quick staccato passages. But the more important consideration is injury. Extended practice time on digital pianos have the propensity towards injury. I’m not a kinesiologist but I think it has something to do with repetitive loud playing on the digital piano. I believe that the force is somehow not absorbed the same way because digital pianos do not have dynamic key weight. When you come crashing down on the keys, if the static weight doesn’t change, the next absorption point is the hands and arms. The dynamic nature of the acoustic piano changes the resistance when you play and for whatever reason, I find it more forgiving.

When it comes to upgrading from a digital piano to an acoustic piano, there are also 2 sound concepts to be mindful of: The first is the continuous flow of sound which we commonly refer to as analog. The second is dynamic timbre referring to how the sound quality changes with dynamics and volume.
Digital-or-Analog-WaveFirst, let’s look at the comparison between acoustic sound and digital sound. The acoustic piano creates sound by a hammer striking a string. The subsequent vibration is amplified by the soundboard into audible tones. How do digital pianos make sound? Digital pianos don’t actually create sound. They simply play back a digital recording of a real piano. But digital sound and live string resonance are different. Digital sound is made up of many frames per second to give the illusion of continuous sound. Natural vibration of a string is a continuous waveform that we perceive differently. I remember the first time I used Skype to speak with my parents a thousand miles away. My aging father found the technology almost baffling. It was great to see their faces and connect but is it the same as being there in person? No of course not. Both methods communicate effectively but the live version brings about a closer heart connection. A picture of a garden or being in the garden, a filmed version of a Shakespearean play or experiencing live theatre, hearing a recorded version of your favourite artist or seeing them live in concert ~ live is simply more than the digital representation. And yes I’m well aware of the fact that there are incredible creative moments that can only be achieved in the digital realm. It’s not that it lacks expression as its own form. My point is that digital piano will always and only be a facsimile of a real piano. And as it relates to acoustic analog continuous sound waves versus a digital recording of a piano transmitted through speakers, natural sound will always be the better choice.

CrayolaThe second concept of sound is the idea of dynamic timbre. Just as acoustic piano touch is dynamic and changes with volume, so too piano tone or timbre changes character with volume. As the hammer strikes the string at soft to loud volume levels, the piano hammer felt is compressed differently. The subsequent tones often go from felty and warm to strident and bright. Depending on volume, other sympathetic tones of the piano also ring. An acoustic piano is not a matter of simply raising or lowering volume but rather, the piano tone changes color with dynamic touch.
Crayola crayons – remember the new boxes you would get at the beginning of the school year? Digital pianos are a little like that small box of 8 colors. In the recordings of digital pianos (called samples) manufacturers have attempted to capture these dynamic timbres. What this means is that when you play from soft to loud on a digital piano, it transitions through the various colors of samples. But when it comes to upgrading, advanced students need to move beyond the 8 Crayola colors. Advanced playing requires shading, nuances and a wider color palette. You simply cannot hand a student a box of crayons and say “Paint me a masterpiece”. It’s physically not possible. You think I’m being facetious but most manufacturers use less than 4 “colors” per note. Conversely, traditional pianos have an infinite number of colors. And that’s just in one note! When you strike more notes simultaneously, the color possibilities and frequencies increase exponentially. Quite often I think back to the famous pianist Glenn Gould. I read that his parents had to lock the piano after 14 hours a day of playing when he was a child. Obviously he was genius and radical in his approach to piano playing but in reading about his life, it’s apparent that he was completely smitten by the tone of the piano. Glenn-GouldI fear that we don’t give students the capacity to LOVE the piano for its sound. I wonder if we as parents do a disservice to children by giving them the incorrect tools to begin with. There’s this common school of thought “Let’s get a keyboard and if they stick with it, we’ll get them a real piano”. Do children learning the piano ever fall in love with the tone of a keyboard? Have we lost the connection to analog – this continuous vibration of the strings? Does it resonate with us the same way? Have we given them a handful of colours and limit the pure enjoyment of limitless expression?

I believe these are the thoughts and intentions behind teachers wanting more for their students. When they speak to parents about upgrading, it’s not about some high-brow approach to narrow minded Classical performance. It’s the desire to connect with a more fundamental, more organic way of expression in music – one that is beautiful and lovely. So the next time the teacher encourages you to look at a traditional piano, they’re really saying ‘Let’s go deeper, let’s create music, and let’s experiment with touch, with tone and experience music to its fullest extent.”

Visiting Pearl River Piano Factory

Piano Price ~ May 2017
Chapter Index

Pearl River Piano Factory Tour

On this latest trip to China, I managed to catch a glimpse into the transformation of Pearl River Piano. Already the largest piano company in the world manufacturing more than 130,000 pianos annually, Pearl River Piano has its sights set on even greater advancement.

One hundred thirty thousand pianos annually equates into about 400 pianos being manufactured per day. Imagine though what it must be like to produce 400 pianos daily. With roughly 225 tuning pins per piano, that’s 90,000 coils per day. Conservatively a piano contains 200 pounds of iron for each frame. That would be 80,000 lbs of iron plates per day, 35,200 hammers and piano keys per day, 2.4 million action parts per day… you get the picture. These are staggering numbers. And behind these numbers are equally massive storehouses of wood, machinery, and a company employing thousands of people.

Touring the existing facility, as you will see, many processes are done either by hand or mechanically. In the new facility, millions of dollars are being invested into state of the art CNC and robotic equipment for even more efficient, more refined piano making.

We started the tour in the lumber yard. If you scroll below, you will get a sense of just how vast the warehouses are. If you are a woodworker, you will appreciate how much material is here. Stockpiled are high quality woods from around the world – enough wood for 5 years worth of pianos. Visible are spruce beams for keys, soundboards and ribs, walnut and beech for rims, maple for bridges, pins and action parts. All wood is kiln dried and then moved indoors for further storage and rotation.

Below is a panoramic image of the lumber yard. You can “grab” the image by pressing and holding the mouse button down and then moving the mouse. Alternatively, you can use the arrows in the image.

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Without question my favorite part of the tour was the foundry where cast iron frames are pulled out of beds of sand. This is the traditional way of making the frame of the piano without which the piano would not be able to withstand the 19 tons of string tension. Molds of piano frames are pneumatically pressed into the sand. Once the sand holds the impression, molten iron is poured into the relief to create the cast. The frames are then processed and painted vibrant gold and silver, ready for installation in the piano. Again, it’s hard to get your mind around seeing hundreds of frames all to be used up within days.

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The traditional way of making a grand piano rim is to clamp layers of wood around a form. Pearl River has automated this process with a massive press applying thousands of pounds of pressure to ensure the wood is tightly glued together. It looks effortless when these steel machines press together.

In theory, how do you individualize a piano on an assembly line when there are anomalies in wood and metal as raw materials? Pearl River has a brilliant solution to this. Each piano undergoes “electric eye scans” that take readings on variances. These variances are then printed out onto a card which accompanies the piano throughout the assembly process. It allows for subtle changes to be made to each piano to optimize and accommodate so that it’s not just a “one size fits all” approach to piano making. They actually alter the assembly to individualize the piano.

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isoAs you can see, there are lines upon lines of pianos being assembled simultaneously. One main difference between small manufacturers and large is the amount of tasks each worker is responsible for. Whereas small piano manufacturing requires workers to perform various tasks, large scale manufacturing like Pearl River has workers focusing on just one or two tasks. You get good at something when you’re single-minded. Quantity necessitates efficiency. And if that is true, it could also be said that sales require proficiency. Pearl River has in recent years become the world’s best selling piano because of great designs but also brilliant implementation in manufacturing.

What is also impressive is that Pearl River Piano has also achieved ISO14001 certification for environmental management systems. These are International Standards that have been set as recent as 2014.

Where are all of these pianos going? I thought you might ask that. When you think of a population of 1 billion people in China alone,

130,000 pianos only represents 0.01% of their population. And while they are the dominant manufacturer in China, they also export to 120 other countries around the world.

If you haven’t heard of Pearl River before, you might want to remember this name. They have already achieved world status and once the new facility is in full production, their presence in the music industry will be formidable.

So how was China? It was brilliant. Pearl River Piano did an incredible job hosting. Thank you. At the end of the tour, we sat and listened to a performance in their recital hall and it struck me that where music is involved, we speak the same language.

Pearl River and Schimmel Alliance

Piano Price ~ April 2017
Chapter Index

Pearl River and Schimmel Alliance

June Wang

June Wang

Rob Slayman

Rob Slayman

Recently I sat down with June Wang from Pearl River Piano Group and corresponded with Rob Slayman from Schimmel Piano to discuss their strategic alliance as I was curious how it had affected both companies. It was announced at NAMM 2016 that Pearl River had purchased a controlling interest in the Schimmel company.

Why do piano companies purchase other piano companies? We hear of company mergers in the news all the time. What is the impetus – the driving force for one piano company to acquire another piano company? If we paint with large brush strokes, on one side there is massive demand to be fulfilled in China. Nearly 80% of the world’s piano purchases occur in China. Alternatively, Germany, Japan and the USA have decades (if not centuries) worth of experience manufacturing pianos but have a “mature” market that could really only be described as “slow and steady”. While European and North American companies have struggled to stay competitive and make inroads into distribution in China, China has become the world’s leader in volume for manufacturing. Back to the question of why? Let’s hear from the words of June Wang, representative from Pearl River’s Foreign Trade department:

June Wang: Collaborations must be mutually beneficial. Pearl River had it’s beginnings in China approximately 60 years ago and has had cooperation with Yamaha and Steinway as well as partners in Europe for training and quality. Some of these ventures (like Yamaha) lasted more than a decade. When looking to expand our company, it seemed appropriate to look for a company with like-minded philosophy of piano making. When I met Nikolaus Schimmel, the way he described piano making… he was like a new mother with a child – excited, passionate – even though he was more than 80 years old. It’s this kind of enthusiasm that we were looking for.

Schimmel_NikolausClick on the image to take a quick look at the NAMM oral project of a 2 minute interview with Nikolaus Schimmel. In his words “piano making is really fun. It must be something that you like – that you love to do. My father loved it, my grandfather loved it and so did I. I’m sure the next generation will as well.”

JW: Schimmel has 130 year history (established in 1885). Pearl River has been operating for more than 60 years. Our companies share common elements and yet are different. Together, we benefit in technology and market share. We will continue to operate as separate manufacturers (Schimmel in Germany and Poland while Pearl River manufactures in China) but we will benefit together. Pearl River has a very competitive share in Asia and North America having just won the Dealer’s Choice Award for 2015 and 2016. Schimmel has a dominant presence in Europe & America. This will compliment our business because our companies have strengths in different parts of the globe.

Rob Slayman: The Alliance between Schimmel and Pearl River has strengthened Schimmel and opened a unique perspective for growth in the Chinese market, the biggest market for pianos in the world. At the factory in Germany and in U.S. distribution, virtually nothing has changed in the year since the alliance was announced. The Schimmel brand will remain 100% made in Braunschweig, Germany and the Wilhelm Schimmel brand will remain 100% made in Kalisz (Poland). We will continue to fulfill the very strict criteria of the BVK-Certificate for “Made in Germany.”

Hannes-Schimmel-VogelGB: And 4th generation Hannes Schimmel-Vogel will still be at the helm. What do you see in the future working together?
JW: I like to think of this somewhat like a marriage. As partners, you first of all need to understand each other, then grow together and finally benefit together. You remain independent yet together. To be successful, both parties need to be happy.
RS: For Schimmel, this alliance brings the stability of solid financial backing and the chance to successfully grow our business in China with support from Pearl River, the country’s market leader. In accordance with this aim, production for Schimmel will grow and continuous investments in Schimmel’s facilities will continue. As allies, both companies have their strengths in different areas. For both brands that results in being able to offer the best quality and value in the piano industry. As a side note, it can be challenging to build a brand in China without a strong partner already there. Pearl River is the strongest partner we could have and we anticipate much better market representation and more opportunities in China as a result.

GB: Although remaining separate, this last year has seen a joint venture between the 2 companies, namely Fridolin Schimmel. Fridolin Schimmel is a line that will be manufactured by Pearl River and designed by Schimmel. Can you tell us a little about that, Rob?
RS: The Fridolin Schimmel line was launched a couple of years ago as a conventional effort to expand the market and to increase name recognition for the Schimmel brand. Schimmel-crest-cast-ironNow, with the Schimmel and Pearl River alliance, there are unique possibilities for a world-premiere entry level piano developed as a true joint-effort between Schimmel and Pearl River. For the first time ever, a piano line made in China is designed and developed by a German company without any restrictions. As of April 2017, the all new Fridolin Schimmel models will be available. These instruments are completely designed by Schimmel. Pearl River adjusted its production facilities and processes to match our specifications. They will be distributed and warrantied by Schimmel. The first models are three uprights, F123, F121, and F116. At a future date there will be grand piano models and a taller upright.

GB: What’s the current line-up of pianos for Schimmel?
RS: The three Schimmel-produced lines are Konzert, Classic and Wilhelm Schimmel. They each fall in a different price range to fill various needs of players and budgets.The fourth line is the Fridolin Schimmel by Pearl River. Here is a brief summary of each line.

The Konzert Series represents the pinnacle of Schimmel’s 130 years of piano building. They are designed and meticulously built for the most discerning players and artists. There are no compromises. As such, these are in the upper price level. There are 6 grand piano models from 5’9” to 9’2” and three uprights. All grands since 2013 feature the exact same action and key length as the 9’2 concert grand by way of a Schimmel- designed and patented process. Only these models go through a special voicing department in the factory (created just for the K Series) and they have several unique features as well.

Schimmel-keys-and-logo The Classic Series is also made 100% in Germany and is geared towards professional pianists and those who appreciate German quality. The line consists of three grands 5’7”, 6’3” and 7’ and several vertical models up to 130 cm. These are models that have been in the Schimmel line since before the current Konzert Series and have been tried and proven for many years. The three grand models are based on the same scale designs as the three small Konzert Series grands.

The Wilhelm Schimmel Series is a high-quality European piano in a moderate price range. This series is built in the Schimmel factory in Kalisz, the oldest city in Poland. After acquiring this factory in the early 2000s, Schimmel modernized it and expanded it with new buildings and equipment. This factory produced the Vogel brand which underwent the name change to Wilhelm Schimmel in 2013.

SchimmelFactoryThe Fridolin Schimmel line as mentioned above fills a niche for the entry level buyer who wants a quality Schimmel German design. They are made by the Pearl River Company to Schimmel’s specifications exclusively for Schimmel dealers.

GB: What elements of design are historical and timeless with Schimmel and what areas are forging forward with technology and being modified?

RS: Schimmel is somewhat unique in how they combine traditional piano building with technology and the creation of new designs. Being a major training center for apprentice piano technicians, they employ many master craftsmen, a title which takes many years to attain through schooling, work and certification. So, Schimmel has a long history of traditional piano building with an emphasis on quality and attention to detail. Schimmel tone is clear and expressive with long and even sustain qualities. Schimmel uses technology when it can improve the quality and consistency of certain parts and operations. They pioneered sophisticated software called CAPE (Computer-Assisted Piano Engineering) which enormously shortens the time and expense of building many prototypes. Through this technology Schimmel was able to completely redesign and improve their grand pianos starting in the year 2000, making the sides taper outward, creating space for larger soundboards. They also came out with a 9’2” concert grand which was not previously in the line. In visiting different piano factories over the years, I’ve noticed that some in Asia are very modern, clean, and highly-automated while others in Europe are old-school with much less machinery and more old-fashioned handcraftsmanship. The Schimmel factory is a unique juxtaposition of both of these, using the best practices from each and even designing and inventing their own equipment. In production, tone-related operations are still accomplished by hand while steps that require great precision and accuracy are accomplished by computer-driven machines to increase quality and consistency. Schimmel exists to craft fine pianos first, and to maintain a profit to ensure continued viability second. This art-over- profit approach may strike some as risky but as Hannes Schimmel-Vogel has said, “If we don’t have the skills to build a fine piano, we have no reason to exist.”

Nikolaus Schimmel, now retired from active management has stated, “We can never be the cheapest piano maker, but if we keep our skills, we can build the best pianos. As long as there are people interested in a fine piano, there will be a place for Schimmel.”

Thank you to both June Wang and Rob Slayman for shedding some light on your new strategic alliance. It is both helpful and informative to know how your piano companies are moving forward into the future. Next month Piano Price Point will be in China visiting the Pearl River factory. Be sure to join us and see the pictures from what is now the world’s largest piano factory. I leave you with an excellent video of the Schimmel Company which depicts piano making in Braunschweig, Germany.

Musical and Mechanical Basics of the Sustain Pedal

Piano Price ~ March 2017
Chapter Index

Musical and Mechanical Basics of the Sustain Pedal

I remember teaching my kids how to drive a car. At first it’s a bit daunting putting a young adult in a 2 ton vehicle controlled primarily by a gas pedal. Over time, the confidence and competence increase. What remains somewhat of an accepted disconnect, however is HOW that process works. You put your foot on a small pedal and ‘magically’ the vehicle moves. Similarly, piano pedals are like that: if you step on the sustain pedal (the right pedal), the sound of the piano is transformed. Today, we’re going to delve into a bit more of the mechanical side of the damper pedal in hopes that awareness will clarify what happens when it is being incorporated into piano playing.

Arthur Rubenstein describes the sustain pedal as “the soul of the piano”
Blue tooth player piano
The use of pedals to add expression dates back as far as the late 1700’s. The question is: how does the sustain pedal bring about this expression or as Rubenstein called it, the soul? What were the makers of the piano searching for to make this percussive instrument more lyrical? Interesting are some of the earliest renditions of levers controlled both by hand (see picture) or knee (placed under the keyboard). Blue tooth player pianoErgonomically, neither of these methods proved successful or efficient. While it’s difficult to attribute the sustain pedal to one maker (as the piano was being developed simultaneously by several makers in different countries), probably the most renowned maker to create a standard foot controlled pedal was John Broadwood. Composers such as Beethoven started pedal markings in their manuscripts to translate the concept of sustain pedal. Historically, when we look back on piano makers and composers, they were attempting to make an effect that would ‘smooth out’ or connect notes played by percussive hammers.

The limitation of a percussive instrument: Strike a bell with a mallet and it resounds until the natural vibration decays and it is inaudible or alternatively you stop the vibration with your hand. Piano strings are the same – strike them with a felt mallet (called the hammer) and they would continue to resound if it weren’t for damper felts (see the article with Laoureux on the making of damper felt). Dampers sit snugly against piano strings until a key is depressed. Upon playing a key, an individual damper is raised from the string, allowing it to sing. Blue tooth player pianoLifting your finger, the damper returns to the string and terminates the sound. So what’s the limitation? It’s not so much the piano as it is a factor of human inability to depress notes quickly in succession. When you try to play without pedal, there remain small gaps between the notes when we play. The sustain pedal then is the mortar to the bricks. (Thank you… no applause necessary. That’s my own illustration of how the sustain pedal works). Think about a brick wall – the substance is the bricks. They represent the notes being played by our fingers. In between, is the cement we know as mortar which fills the gaps and connects one brick to another. In slow motion what is happening is that when we depress a key on the piano, the damper (felt) block comes off the string. When we need to move to the next series of notes, our fingers start to move but we need the note to… (wait for it)… sustain a little longer while we transition. The addition of the sustain pedal (also known as the damper pedal) then allows complete lyrical freedom to move our hands without the compromise of the tone escaping. The sustain pedal holds those notes until a new series of notes are played.

The sustain pedal is so much more, however. When all of the dampers lift, the sympathetic vibrations of all of the strings also resound. As an experiment, depress the sustain pedal and sing a note. What happens? The piano “echoes” or excites the vibration of the frequencies on all the strings. When the sustain pedal is played, it connects one note to another, yes but it also adds the fullness of tone. You can play a chord on the piano as loud as you can but when you add the sustain, it sounds thunderous. At other times, special effects such as flutter or half pedal shade or color the tone like an impressionist painter blurring the lines.

How does the sustain pedal work? How does the gas pedal make the car go? First let’s define the parts and then we’ll

explore how each part is integrated into the system. As previously mentioned, the dampers are the felt (and blocks) that rest on the strings. Pictured to the right you can see the dampers moving up and down against the strings.

In the up position, the felts allow the strings to vibrate freely. When they go down, the damper felts mute the strings and stop them from resonating. Second, (pictured in the middle) the dampers are resting on a common rail (also called a damper tray in grand pianos). What’s shown here is the inside of a grand piano. At the top of the picture, you can see the dampers from underneath the strings and the dampers lifting. Upright pianos have a rail but the principle is the same. Third, the trapwork (pictured at the bottom) is the lever system that simply joins the rods to the pedal lyre (on a grand) or the pedals at the base of the piano (on an upright). When your foot depresses the pedal, it pivots on a fulcrum like a teeter totter or an office stapler. Did I just lose you there? On a grand piano, when you press your foot down, the pedal pivots like a teeter totter – the front goes down and the back end of the pedal goes up. Upright pianos also emulate that OR they have an alternate stapler approach – the pedal fulcrum or pivot point is at the back (like an office stapler) and the pedal is simply pushed down. Either way, when the pedal is depressed, the pedal rod is pushed up. The rod engages the common tray or rail which lifts and activates ALL of the dampers so that the entire set of felt blocks move away from the strings at the same time. Gravity and springs reset the dampers to the rest position.

“In spite of the importance of the pedal and its right use . . . there is no branch of piano technique so little understood or so much neglected by both teacher and pupil” ~ Chopin

I hope that this blog serves as a little technical understanding of the pedal and will aid in the pedagogy and performance of the piano. Perhaps we’ll fulfill Chopin’s desire to make it less neglected.

Player Pianos in the 21st Century

Piano Price ~ February 2017
Chapter Index

Player Pianos in the 21st Century

A Voice from the Past
“Step right up… See the amazing piano that plays by itself!” I can just hear the man at a trade show in the 1920’s. “Just push the pedals and this paper roll will play songs like Swanee and The Entertainer and Bicycle Built for Two.”

This invention in the late 1800’s was quite remarkable. It functions similarly to a harmonica in reverse. Rather than blowing through holes in a harmonica, the player piano sucks air through a perforated tracker bar. The paper roll has a punch-out hole position for every note on the piano. Through the use of bellows and gears, the paper roll would mechanically slide over the tracker bar and when a hole would appear in the paper, air would get sent through a tube and pneumatically play the corresponding note.

While this system allowed you to hear your favourite songs, the cons far outweighed the pros: the player pianos with the extra mechanical gears and bellows were heavy, complex, required you to pump the bellows (which was quite a work out) and after every song you need to change the paper roll.

Fast forward to the 21st century, player piano systems are light-weight, simple to operate and have produced many new ideas lending themselves to new directions in education, communication and entertainment. New player pianos operate very different: Instead of bellows there are solenoids – small electronic “pistons” that operate each key. Instead of paper piano rolls, the information is simply a digital signal in the form of a file. Rather than large mechanical gears and machinery, the newest player systems are tiny and almost invisible.

This technology is not new. It’s been around for 30 years. But what has changed in recent years is the implementation of this technology. Now take those same electronic components and plug them into the internet. What are the possibilities of a player piano within the constructs of today’s technology?

Dream a little with me for a moment about the possibilities of today’s player piano systems. Want to watch a piano concert on your big screen TV? Well now you can synchronize the concert with your living room piano so that it will play exactly what the performer is playing on stage. Take a look at the video. It’s like having the performer play the notes on the piano right in front of you.

Blue tooth player pianoNow available are player piano radio stations that will play your piano. Do you want to have your piano quietly playing in the background? Dial into the player piano radio online in whatever stylistic genre you like. As of this year, bluetooth control is now available. Select songs or adjust volume from your smartwatch or phone. (QRS system)

New apps are coming out as well. Yamaha has made an incredibly easy record and play app which is set to be released in March of this year. Pianodisc has re-vamped their app for easy organization and storage of music.

But wait, there’s more… The educational component now exists where you can have a teacher on one end of the country and a student at the other end giving lessons. Imagine having 2 pianos connected so that when the student or plays, the other piano resounds halfway around the world simultaneously.

Imagine the connectivity when grandparents and grandchildren can listen and connect through a player piano system.

Yamaha has also come out with MusicCast – a way to broadcast the sound throughout the entire house for complete media implementation. Let’s say you have one of their Disklavier pianos and would like to hear the music outside on the patio. With MusicCast, you can now broadcast that signal anywhere in your house and have independent control of volume.

Someone asked me recently, “Why would you ever want one of those? You already know how to play the piano.” My answer is simple – I thoroughly enjoy listening to others play the piano. At times I tire of my own playing and it’s like a breath of fresh air not only hearing but seeing the keys move from someone else’s playing. I also love the idea of the historical component. Steinway was playing vintage music from archives of Gershwin when I was at the NAMM show (see NAMM highlights to see that recording). It’s like stepping back in time and rather than simply hearing a bad recording from the 1920’s of Gershwin playing, you can hear the recording like the day it was recorded except on your own piano.

To end off, I have to tell you about an elderly friend of mine who has never been formally trained at the piano. He’s a great player and one day he told me that his teacher was none other than the paper piano rolls. As a child he would place his fingers over the keys that were going up and down from the player piano. Although some may consider this a teaching hack, he would rewind it and repeat it until he copied the song. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Imitation is the highest form of flattery.”

Whether learning by rote, watching a televised concert in sync with your piano, listening to the radio or playing and recording yourself, the new generation of player pianos offer and even broader scope for the enjoyment of the piano. While there are 4 innovators in piano player technology (Disklavier by Yamaha, QRS by Story & Clark, Pianodisc by Mason & Hamlin, Spirio by Steinway), there are many other player systems being designed and built by several companies as add-ons to uprights and grand pianos. While prices are considerable for current technology, I believe that with time these will become more affordable and attainable so that many can enjoy the integration of a piano being played more often in the home environment.

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