Posts tagged sustain
There 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.
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).
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.
Novelty 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.
Today’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, you 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.”
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”
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). Ergonomically, 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. Lifting 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.
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.”
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