Posts tagged soft
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.
I 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!
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 subsequently, 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.
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.
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.
I 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.
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