Posts tagged keys
You 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.
How 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.
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.
What’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 use 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?
Earlier this year at NAMM I interacted with Mr. Hailun Chen – truly a privilege and honour to connect with such a humble visionary who has influenced and supplied more piano parts than we’re probably aware of. I greatly respect individuals who state “I have put my name on my pianos and on my company”. Mr. Hailun Chen is the real McCoy where his name is his guarantee.
Working with a translator, he showed me different concepts in his pianos. What caught my eye was this silver looking gleam under the keys on one of their upright pianos. As seen in the picture, the key “bed” is the horizontal frame that the keys rest on. It’s imperative to have a solid key bed without which the piano touch would be compromised in evenness and functionality. Normally made out of wood, frames will sag or warp over time. It’s a common problem.
Aluminum however, prevents this problem and ensures both structural integrity but also alignment for a life-time. It is completely warp resistant. So if the strings run vertically in an upright piano, the key bed is perpendicular to the frame. If there is any sagging or warping in a wooden key bed, even by a few millimetres (1/16th of an inch), the problem is compounded in the vertical alignment of the strings.
So what are the implications of integrating aluminum? (See? I knew you would be as excited about this innovation as I am. This innovation BTW is exclusive to Hailun pianos and is officially called PAS system – Permanency- Accuracy- Stability). Well to keep any piano completely in ‘check’ and performing optimally, regulation (fine adjustments) are done. Quite often, as pianos age and get worn, piano technicians are making these adjustments to compensate for worn parts but also for a sagging key bed. What happens then if key bed issues were taken out of the equation? Indeed, the regulation would be a much easier task. Speaking with Basilios Strmec, CEO of Hailun Distribution for North America, it gets even better. Let’s say you are an avid pianist working hard on a performance degree and you used one of the Hailun pianos as a workhorse. You would expect to see substantial wear and tear, correct? Over years, when pianos start to feel and sound worn, if you had an aluminum key bed, you could simply swap actions and renew the instrument to its original condition.
That means in essence you would have a mechanically NEW piano – with new joints, hammers and parts. It would feel new but also the fresh felt on the hammers would make it sound new. Historically during construction of a piano, one instrument’s parts were fitted to just one piano – meaning they’re not interchangeable. Even if it’s the same make, same model, same brand, same year, you would usually not be able to change out parts readily. With modern computer based CNC (Computer Numerically Controlled – in other words carving out parts by computer control), the precision is such that you could actually swap out the ‘engine’ of the piano with 4 bolts in a few minutes. In essence then, we’ve reached an age in manufacturing where not only are you investing in the present piano but saving on the rebuilding costs for years to come. That’s amazing! Kudos to Hailun for the innovation in the industry. Special thanks to Basilios Strmec for taking the time to discuss this with me and providing information.
Haven’t heard of Hailun? They have over 430,000 square feet of manufacturing space and employ over 1,100 people and one of only 2 Chinese made piano companies listed on the Shenzhen stock exchange.
I have to admit, I’m a duck to water when it comes to playing the piano. If I see a piano, I’m always curious as to how it sounds and plays. Recently someone said to me “y’know you really should do a blog about how to test pianos… I don’t have the slightest clue how to go about that”. It’s one thing I do instinctively and it made me stop and think about my procedure.
Going back just over 20 years, I was a new upstart that just got hired by the local piano store. With 2 Classical degrees behind me I felt confident I knew my way around the keyboard. Fortunately my boss at the time – now a designer and consultant for Samick Music Corporation put me in my place. I’ll never forget his words “Glen” he stated, “for years you’ve played the piano but don’t presume that you know how the piano works. You’re a race car driver but don’t make the mistake in thinking you’re a mechanic. Drivers are not mechanics”. Thankfully I had enough sense at the time to heed his words.
Over the years, I’ve literally played thousands of pianos. I must say that now knowing cause and effect – what mechanical processes and components creates a certain touch or tone – is a huge asset. And so I’ve compiled my thoughts from the ‘front end’ – from the keyboard side to try and explain a little of what is going on ‘under the hood’ and what tests are fundamental to any piano. I’ve reduced these to 5 steps for newbies (I know… I know… it’s what my kids call me… “Dad you’re such a noob”)
1. Sustain – A piano that sings speaks to its ability to sustain the tone and not disappear after a few short seconds. One thing that I listen for is a piano that sings. Sustain, means that when you depress a key the tone continues to resonate. This sustain speaks to great manufacturing techniques and great components.
Test: Play any note on the piano with medium pressure and listen to the sound as it gradually dies away. How long did it take? What was the sound like as it decays? Carefully listen to low and high notes doing the same. In every octave (every 8 white notes) you’ll hear differences of the ‘decay’ (don’t worry… it’s not the same as tooth decay. It’s the more technical term of ADSR – Attack Decay Sustain Release)
Technical: The strings resonate with just the correct amount of pressure (called down-bearing) onto the bridge where the vibrations are transferred to the amplifier we know as the soundboard. Working properly, the materials should not be ‘inhibiting’ the tone from freely singing. The piano is a transducer, converting the energy of touch to string vibrations and then into sound waves. All three of these elements must be working in sync to produce tone. A piano that sings – that’s a thing of beauty. I’ve played many a piano that has a ‘sweet spot’ in a certain range or octave but to get a piano to sustain from top to bottom, that requires excellence in manufacturing and design. While a good technician can alter some elements of the piano to bring out tone, sustain is a tough one that in my mind either ‘you got it or you don’t’.
2. Evenness – My piano teacher (when I was 13) asked me to play a scale “like a string of pearls – each one should be matched in color and size”. That’s a great lesson in musicality but also for testing pianos. What happens though when you apply the same amount of pressure but neighboring notes don’t respond the same way on the piano? It’s REALLY difficult to express a melody when the piano parts are not manufactured or prepped so that all 88 notes respond with evenness. Often notes ‘jump out’ at you – either in volume or brilliance.
Test: Play a series of adjacent notes with even pressure and see if the volume or brilliance changes. Quite often it is better to strike each note with the same finger if you’re not accomplished at the piano. People unversed with piano technique will unknowingly play heavily with a thumb or finger and think it’s the piano not responding correctly.
Technical: There are approximately 6,000 parts in a piano action. The action is the ‘engine under the hood’. When pianos don’t respond evenly, this could be one of many adjustments (also called regulation). I’ve played pianos that once regulated, you wouldn’t know they’re the same instrument. In addition to adjustments, too much friction, not enough friction, action design, quality of parts, execution in manufacturing, balanced keys – all of these play a part in making all 88 keys function to make the piano play smoothly.
3. Control – Aside from evenness, there is an aspect called control. This is by far the most difficult aspect to explain and most difficult to test. While evenness speaks to neighbouring note difference, control refers to the feel of the keys moving through varying degrees of pressure. This is not referring to the sound of the piano but rather the correlation of key pressure sensitivity to piano tone. What you’re wanting is a piano where the keys feel like an ‘extension of your fingers’. I’ve played many pianos that feel hard to control. This refers to the subtleties of touch. For example, sometimes you’ll be trying to play quietly but the keys feel inordinately heavy and when the tone comes out, it’s not the whisper you’re looking for. At other times you’re looking for power but the piano doesn’t deliver. Making your softs soft and your louds loud – control is vital to satisfaction.
Test: Test one key at a time. First depress a key in slow motion so that the note makes no sound: pay attention to how the key feels. Does it feel succinct at the beginning stage? Does it feel loose or does it feel heavy at the top? How about halfway through the key stroke? Can you feel more pressure? And the ‘click’ at the end of the key stroke – every piano has one – that’s the reset of the key. And finally the cushion of the felt at the bottom – is it too spongy or hard? Play the same note repeatedly getting louder all the while paying attention to the feel. At maximum pressure, how does it feel? The best test for this is to A/B compare different pianos in this process and determine which one feels most ‘natural’. I’ve often said that everyone should play a concert grand at some point in their lives. The most expensive grand pianos usually have been given the most attention at the factory. Sometimes it’s great to get a reference point of a piano that you may not be able to afford… but to try it to see what excellence feels like. Then… reality check – match your budget with the closest piano you can afford. If you’re new to the piano, test the best benchmark you can find.
Technical: Intrinsic to piano design is the geometry of the action. Action design – the weight of a hammer, the degree of the whippen, the placement of the capston, and the quality of all of these parts – all of these small seemingly insignificant parts play a vital role when we attempt to control the piano through varying degrees of pressure.
4. Tonal quality – This refers to the sound of a piano. I’ve played many pianos that excel at one certain volume level but sound terrible at another. Myself? I look for versatility. Ideally I want that really felty soft tone when playing quietly and a more bold strident sound at louder volumes. What do you like? This is by far the most significant element where personal taste is involved. If, for example, the piano sounds great at soft volumes and you only intend to play quietly you may want to look for a piano that suits your ears in more of the quiet range. Some people only play loud and louder and look for a more percussive sound. Different folks, different strokes.
Test: Depress keys one at a time and listen for the color spectrum going from soft to loud playing. Does it change or does it sound the same from soft to loud playing? Does the piano excel at one volume level but not another? Sometimes a piano may seem dull at louder volumes or too bright when playing softly. The harmonics (in plain speak the “ring” or overtones) are at times clanging or distorted. Does the depth of tone feel satisfying in the bass (lowest notes) and do the highest notes (top octave) sound defined or too ‘plinky’.
Technical: As we heard in the interview with Jack Brand, resiliency and elasticity of the hammer felt are vital for the production of great piano tone. The design or ‘scale’ of the strings also plays an important part. In fact, this topic is so immense, we could discuss piano tone all day – the composition or the soundboard, the bridges, the cast iron, the placement of the hammers… the list goes on and on. The main thing is that you actually enjoy the piano you are playing. BTW, often overlooked is simply TUNING the piano! Pianos in tune or out of tune sound vastly different.
5. Touch weight – Do you know how much a nickel weighs? Most piano technicians do. Why? Because touch weight refers to the amount of weight required to set a piano hammer in motion. If the keys feel too heavy, even by the weight of a nickel a piano can often feel laborious or tough to play. (A nickel weighs approximately 5 grams and technicians will use them in a pinch for measuring key weight). But there are in fact two measurements for piano weight – static and rotational inertia. Soft playing ‘dead lifts’ the hammers while loud playing deals more with the inertia of the hammer once set in motion on a rotating axis. Sound complicated? LOL it is!! I’ve had many people ask if something can be done with the touch. The answer is yes but… it’s also complicated and costly to implement. More often than not I advise people to find a piano where the touch feels comfortable.
Test: Play a song or various keys and make mental note to the actual resistance to your fingers. This should feel comfortable. Try and remove your ears for a moment. You’re now not supposed to be listening but feeling. Too light of an action doesn’t provide proper dynamic expression while too heavy can feel tiresome.
Technically: If you look at the wooden edges of the piano keys, you’ll most likely be able to see circles of inserted lead. These weights are inserted into the keys to offset the weight of the hammers and assist in playing at quiet volumes. The weight of the hammer itself however is responsible for most of the rotational inertia at loud volumes. Pianos can play incredibly different at polarized extremes and sufficient testing should be done at different dynamic levels.
So you’ve narrowed down which piano you like? You may want to confirm your decision with a professional. Remember, drivers are not mechanics. Have a word with a local technician. For a list of local technicians in your area, see our Find-A-Tuner chapter.
I’ve often thought that it’s a shame that the new starting point for children has moved away from the piano to an electronic keyboard. We don’t ever fall in love with keyboard sound or touch. I truly believe that kids today quit piano before even being introduced to a real instrument. I remember once having a discussion with someone who had come to my house remarking that they had never seen a grand piano in a home before. They’d seen pictures on TV of grand pianos on stage but never actually come across one in real life. That was amazing to me. I hope that if you’re a newbie at the piano and you read this that you’ll take courage enough to go to a piano store and try one. You’ll be amazed at what you find. These electronic devices we call keyboards are not even a shadow of the depth and beauty of real piano tone. It’s like handing someone a box of crayons and saying “paint a masterpiece”… it simply can’t be done. The depth and richness of shading and color that can be achieved from a real piano that is properly tuned, voiced and regulated is not only a dream to play but allows full expression of tone that goes beyond words. As the great Bill Evans put it, “When you play music you discover a part of yourself that you never knew existed.”
Do you live in the USA?
Do you have a piano with ivory keys?
You may soon be conducting illegal activity if you try to sell your piano, according to proposed changes by the Obama administration announced on Febraury 11,2014.
First of all, I want to clear the air by saying that I don’t believe in the slaughter of elephants. That age and era is closed and done regarding piano manufacturing. The piano industry neither fuels nor propagates the sale of new ivory. However, I take exception to changing the rules so drastically that many piano stores, technicians and individuals will find themselves conducting possible illegal activity simply by selling a piano that was until recently deemed legal. Do you own a piano with ivory keys? Read on…
When Grand American Piano owner, Clint Hughes, brought this to my attention a few weeks ago, he said “Glen, the effect on the piano industry would be titanic. Check out this Forbes article.” Piano Price Point, however is a website about modern piano making. The piano industry today doesn’t involve ivory of any kind since the official ban in 1989/90. CITES (Convention on the International Trade in Endangered Species) prevented further slaughter of animals for the use of materials in pianos. Since then, (25 years later) the majority of pianos have been made with plastics while others work with cattle bone, simulated synthetic ivory or mineral keytops. The reason I bring this up is that if you’re in the piano business – whether new sales or not – then you’ve run into ivory keys at some point. For those who have not seen the published article, you can read it here. (Also printed by National Geographic,Telegraph and original source US Fish & Wildlife). In short, on February 11, 2014 the Obama administration released proposed changes to American laws regarding ivory. The proposed changes are as follows according to the Forbes article:
1. NO imports are allowed even with antique status (over 100 years). In past, CITES certificates could be obtained for authentication of pianos older than the 1989 ban.
2. All exports are banned except for antiques with documentation.
3. All interstate sales are banned as are intrastate commercial transactions – prohibited except with documentation.
I’ve been in piano sales since I was 23. Occasionally, exceptional pianos (usually higher priced grands) were bought and sold between the USA and Canada and CITES certificates would be obtained for such instruments. Minimum wait times were 3 months but more realistic delays were 10 months to a year. If I’m reading this Forbes article correctly, not only is the sale of pianos with ivory keys banned between these two neighbouring countries completely, but within the United States there is also a requirement for EVERY piano newer than 100 years old to have documentation if it has ivory keys. I don’t know about you but the ramifications of this are huge.
Firstly, I really dislike the fact that now piano technicians and shops are ‘guilty unless proven innocent’. The responsibility is that the owner needs to provide proof of authenticity, without which the sale would be considered illegal. It makes this respectable industry criminal. Secondly, if the procurement of occasional CITES permits seems to presently take an eternity, try having mandatory paperwork for EVERY piano with ivory. What will happen? My guess is that the over-taxed under-staffed CITES office will be bombarded with requests and subsequent wait times will balloon into years. Conversely, people will throw up their hands in frustration and simply ignore the new rules. Trying to regulate ivory and prohibit sales of legally obtained ivory from decades ago, as it exists on pianos, will not advance the cause the Obama administration is trying to implement. The Forbes article raises valid questions – namely, will this be enforced? Will the commerce of ivory cease? Will the Fish and Wildlife agents be able to keep up to demand?
So, what’s the answer? Awareness is the first step in addressing the issue. That is why this blog and mail out are important. Piano owners in the possession of ivory need to be made aware of the implications of new ivory regulations. The next step might possibly be discussion at the local level of piano technicians and teachers. If the process of registering a piano could be simplified via accurate serial number dating and/or exceptions made for pianos as a whole, the industry might not suffer such a black eye. Finally, communication needs to happen at governmental level to express concerns.
Am I blowing this all out of proportion? Possibly. The enforcement of such laws may never be implemented. The regulations might be too poorly manned. When push comes to shove however and there is a piano in transit that gets stopped… who is going to be in the wrong? Precisely – the seller will be considered conducting illegal trade of ivory. Subtle as this may be, the new rules shift “the burden of proof for whether ivory is legal from the government to an ivory holder.” [National Geographic] Never before in the history of piano making has the yard line been so drastically altered. In my opinion, this topic needs careful consideration and requires immediate action.
There are fewer than 500,000 elephants known to exist in Africa. Poachers are killing off an estimated 35,000 per year. It is completely understandable that the illegal trade of ivory needs to stop. According to the Telegraph, the ivory business represents a 7-10 billion dollar annual trade.
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