I had one of the best piano technicians in the area come and tune my piano. There is really no comparison. The unisons are essentially perfect, and the whole instrument is much better than I did. It now sparkles the way a piano should and there is no chorusing on unisons. Interestingly, he did comment that he agreed with the stretch tuning, but that it had just fallen about 3 cents flat. So, the software is quite good. But it also confirmed that my skill at using the tuning hammer is just not there.
So, my brief stint as a piano tuner is over. I can’t say that I’m interested in doing it again. In every way it is better to let the pro do the job. He is faster, less expensive (when my time is considered), and of substantially higher quality. And, by using him regularly, I build relationship with someone who can help me when the instrument requires regulation, which it undoubtedly will at some point.
In the end, fine motor skill is fine motor skill and there is no replacement for experience and practice. It is true in front of the keyboard whether playing or wielding a tuning hammer.
Since my new piano has now settled into its new home, the bass was a bit wonky. Knowing that I am going to get it tuned professionally, I thought it would be a perfect time to experiment with my tuning hammer. Pianos cannot be tuned properly with just a normal chromatic tuner. Due to the inharmonicity of the metal strings, adjustments must be made on the bass and treble ends of the piano. Typically the bass is tuned progressively flatter and the treble is tuned progressively sharper. This creates the normal “piano” sound we are used to. Professional tuners do this by ear, counting beat frequencies against certain intervals.
I am not a professional, but the Internet is a wonderful place and there are lots of piano tuning aids. The one that seemed most interesting to me was The Entropy Piano Tuner. This is an open source project by several very learned German piano technicians. Having a laptop, and a very flat measurement microphone, I was in business.
The software is interesting because it uses a mathematical formula to compute the best deviation from standard tuning for each string. Instead of using a smooth curve, each string is individually considered. The workflow is simple. First, I recorded each string into the software.
This process takes about 20 minutes. The blue marks indicate where the current tuning falls. The rough shape of the stretch tuning is clearly visible. After recording, the next step is to let the software run its algorithm to calculate the ideal tuning for each string, taking the inharmonicity into account. Basically, the metal strings do not vibrate purely as strings, like on a violin. Their mass and stiffness also cause them to behave a bit like rods. This alters the normally pure harmonics produced by a vibrating string. The software’s job is to figure out the best tuning for the string that puts its harmonics in the best relationship.
Now it is easy to see where the present tuning deviates from the ideal calculated by the software.
The final step is to tune the piano to the green lines. There is a special tune mode that makes this fairly straight-forward. So, tuning hammer and mute strip in hand, I started at A0 and worked my way up. The software is very accurate, and it turns out that tuning a piano is a very subtle affair. Very small movements of the tuning hammer make a significant difference where a few cents are concerned. In the past, I haven’t done much outside of touching up unisons. The single strings went without much difficulty, but the double and triple strings gave me more hassle, as I learned the best way to tune unisons the hard way.
The piano is now in tune, and I like the results. The low bass strings are now very resonant and sound much better, particularly the ones that I nailed within one cent of the calculated value. The very highest octave of the treble was a bit bright, so I let the very highest notes down a few cents. Their theory seems to work as advertised, and, as they suggest, a bit of fine-tuning by ear can be important. It was a very time consuming process, due to my inexperience with the physical mechanics of operating the hammer. I improved a LOT over the course of the exercise. All total, I probably spent 10 hours getting it right. That said, it was a great experience, and one that I probably won’t repeat.
The software is excellent, and works as advertised. It does nothing to endow one with skill using the tuning hammer, however! I am not fast enough to make it worthwhile financially, and it is as interesting as playing to me. It was a solid learning experience, and it was interesting to play with the beat frequencies. They are quite easy to count. It also made me able to hear the stretch and its musical effect. I am glad there are professionals who do this every day, and outside of perhaps re-running this software to inspect a tuning job, I will return to playing the instrument vs. inspecting it.
The piano has been a largely static instrument for the last 100 years. Steinway produced an 88-note model in the late 1880’s and that more or less standardized the instrument. There are very minor differences between makers in agraffes, rim composition, etc. All these add up to perceptible tonal variation, and musicians develop preferences based on these. It must also be mentioned that much of what is paid for in a piano is luxury work – fine (and increasingly rare) tone woods, luxury veneers, hand craftsmanship vs. automation, etc. Much of piano marketing is more akin to the kind of marketing done for pure luxury goods like leather, perfume, etc.
The last two decades have seen a marked rise in the quality of all pianos, even very inexpensive “stencil” pianos from factories in the far east. While they do not have the cachet of European and American brands like Steinway, Bosendorfer, etc, the quality is improving rapidly, as one would expect. When piano technology is 100-150 years old, it is mostly manufacturing prowess to learn how to make a better piano. With modern factory practices and intent engineering, a rise in quality is all but inevitable.
What has been lacking is actual innovation in the instrument itself. Wayne Stuart of Stuart and Sons Pianos in Australia is definitely taking this head on. He has produced a new agraffe that lowers the soundboard pressure, as well as extended the key range to 97 and 102 key instruments. His instruments have a substantially elevated sustain and tonal compass and produce some of the finest piano tone I have heard. Wayne is firmly committed to extending the art of piano making.
I have just become aware of another maker seeking to improve the art of piano making: Gergely Bogányi. His pianos are visually stunning:
They incorporate a carbon fiber soundboard, and a very curvaceious case that cantilevers the case over two legs. Interestingly, Steingraber & Sohne also produce a piano with a carbon fiber soundboard, but maintain a traditional wood case. So while the core innovation of the Boganyi is not “new”, it is still radical in the traditional world of piano manufacture. I would expect that a certain number of these Boganyi instruments will be purchased just as objets d’art.
I believe that carbon fiber will become more and more accepted as time passes. We already have carbon fiber stringed instruments that compete with professional quality wood violins. As research into material science accelerates, it will be possible to make resonant surfaces and cavities that are much more controlled and consistent than wood. For much of the world, the ambient humidity is not conducive to wood instrument longevity. Carbon fibre is not a limited resource in the same way as fine tone wood, and can be manufactured in large quantity. Once the layup recipe and composition are stabilized around a given tonal goal, manufacture can be be quite efficient, leading to higher quality at lower cost. This is sure to be a good thing for most musicians. It will not be the end of wood instruments, but will surely be a good thing for musicianship and allowing more people to access instruments on a global basis.
I was tired today from a very long day of running around the greater London area yesterday. Nevertheless, I had made an appointment to visit the Bluthner shop here in London to practice. Bluthner is a manufacturer of Tier One pianos, and they compete with Bosendorfer, Fazioli, Bechstein, etc.
I arrived for my appointment and was shown to a small room with a sub 6′ Irmler grand in it. Irmler is one of the two less expensive brands made by the Bluthner house. The instrument was decently in tune, and the action was in fine shape, so I set to practicing, and soon finished my two hours work. This was not an aspirational instrument, but quite functional for what I needed to do.
I then wandered downstairs to the main showroom and glanced at the various instruments. A 6’11” instrument was sold, but they also had a “Model 1″ (280cm – 9’2”) concert grand. As it turns out, this particular instrument is in their rental pool, and is used regularly at various concert venues. The patient sales manager explained to me how they keep several actions on hand, each individually tuned to the preferences of concert artists who regularly request the instrument. It is more cost-effective to store customized actions per signature artist, than to re-regulate the entire instrument every time someone wants to rent it. He also showed me some diagrams of a historic Bluthner patented action that works on a very different principle that they typical action. It uses springs instead of the knuckle and repetition system in a modern grand. Apparently it works fantastically well, but is very fussy to adjust. Very few technicians know how to work on it outside of Bluther themselves so they replace these actions with standard ones.
The piano was excellent, and shared that “special” touch that concert grands seem to universally possess. I asked why 9′ pianos feel so different than 7′ pianos – both with a lighter touch, and yet have more control. I learned that it is because the keys are longer on the bigger pianos. This improves the leverage of the action. I had been wondering if perhaps the angle of the action was different between different piano lengths, but I learned that is constant and doesn’t change. I was assured that what I experience on the longer grands is due to the length of the keys. This difference is quite noticeable, and quite welcome as a player. Even if the sound was the same as a 7′ piano, the better feel and control of the action would be notable.
Like other 9′ pianos I have played, the bass was rich and full. It had power, but didn’t growl as much as a Steinway would. This particular piano was in good, but not perfect tune, and my favorite 10ths played low were not as magical as I’ve experienced on the Fazioli. Bluthner uses four strings instead of the usual three in the high treble to improve tone. The very highest octave was quite nice, and not at all “plinky” the way some pianos are – very nice singing tone. Whether it was nicer than Fazioli, Bosendorfer, or Bechstein is hard to say. I would have to play them closer together in time. Certainly there was nothing that was disagreeable. At this level pianos are different from each other, but not really “better or worse”. This one was £97,000 (about $165,00) USD before tax.
I was tired, and so would definitely revisit this piano before making up my mind, but it did not grab me as viscerally as the Fazioli always has, and make me say, “This has to be the BEST piano EVER!”. This piano was also under a low ceiling and pushed up against a wall, so it really wasn’t well situated for best acoustics. It would be important to hear it in another setting before making any meaningful judgements.
After being in the city for the last few days, I moved locations this afternoon to a town called Lingfield, which is near Gatwick Airport south of London. We have an early AM flight to the Isle of Jersey, so it makes sense to be close. Here’s the view from my window – much better than the side of an office building that I had all weekend.
I have been told that the weather here is entirely uncharacteristic, but we’ve enjoyed lovely weather – really quite close to the North Bay. I bought a cheap umbrella as insurance, and haven’t had to use it at all.
It is very quiet and restful here compared to the bustle of the city. I had dinner tonight in a 500 yr old pub! It used to be the town jail. Very interesting being in buildings that were built when Shakespeare was writing! For one, I have to walk around hunched over – the ceilings are maybe 5’8″ tall in the short sections!
Before leaving the city, I was able to grab a quick hour of practice on a Steinway D (9′ concert grand model). It was a delightful instrument. There is something about the longer key length, increased sound board area, and relaxed string windings in the bass that just make magic happen on grand pianos.
The combination produces an instrument that is superior in every way to shorter pianos. Even 7′ to 9′ is quite noticeable, though less so on instruments as nice as the Fazioli. As with the F278 Fazioli, repetition was effortless, the dynamics supremely easy to control, and the tone lovely. The action felt heavier or stiffer than the Fazioli, but again, we are talking small differences, that likely could be taken care of with a first rate regulation effort. I quite enjoyed the instrument, and am certain that moving to a 9′ instrument at some point is right move. Everything is easier, better, faster, and more sonorous. I can’t find anything not to like except too little time playing it! I only took 5 minutes to improvise, but throughly enjoyed it in that capacity – the clarity in the lower octaves is wonderful.
If you are a frequent flier, you know that United’s in-flight magazine always has a feature called “Three Perfect Days”. Usually with the help of a celebrity of some sort, the author lays out three full days of activities in one of the cities serviced by United Airlines. Food, shopping, entertainment, and sight-seeing tips are included in enough detail that you could retrace their steps and have three very full (and expensive) days in the city of their choosing.
I have a weekend in London, not three days, but with with a nod to United, here’s the first day of what is a perfect day for me! I woke up fully rested around 7:30AM, which was wonderful – I am finally on UK time! After breakfast at the hotel and getting my laundry sent off, I jumped on the subway and went from Trafalgar Square to Marble Arch. Just a few blocks north, I went to Jacques Samuel Pianos to practice. They have eleven practice rooms, most of them equipped with Kawai grands. I didn’t have an appointment, but was there when they opened and booked myself for two hours. It was glorious to practice again, especially on a grand that was correctly tuned!
The piano was around 6′ long, but I didn’t take time to look at the plate and sort it out – I wanted to practice! It was a lot of piano for the room, and the bass/midrange was quite boomy due to being in too small a room for the sound to fully develop. They had hung a curtain, no doubt to provide some acoustic dampening, but proper bass traps would be needed to optimize the piano in the room. The piano was fairly new, and in excellent condition. The two hours went by very quickly.
Before leaving the store, I slid aside the glass door separating the lobby from the Fazioli showroom. Jacques Samuel is the Fazioli dealer for London, a delightful convenience. Having just sampled both a 228 and a 278 last month, I was delighted that they had a black F228 sitting next to a smaller Fazioli resplendent in Pyramid Mahogany. Here’s what this expensive finish looks like on a much larger concert grand:
This is the third F228 that I have played, and like the others, it was delightful in every way. The action, tone, responsiveness, were impeccable, and I was again impressed with how the Fazioli action is lightning fast, but still fully controllable at ppp volumes – amazing. Any day that I can play a Fazioli F228 is a great day – I really must get one of these! I improvised for about 5 minutes to top off a very satisfying morning, thanked the staff, and went to find some lunch.
The area just north of Marble Arch is a predominantly middle-eastern neighborhood. Restaurants seemed to be predominantly Lebanese, with one Moroccan restaurant. While women in burquas pushed strollers with small children in them, men of all ages sat outside at cafe tables, smoking hookahs together. Every restaurant had rows of them in the window, clearly part of their advertising. The strangest thing I saw was a young woman – probably 16-18 – with her head covered, but face exposed sitting on the sidewalk begging coins. It was particularly conspicuous since there was no one else begging anywhere that I walked in about 10 blocks. She was clean and neat, and seemed very out of place. Wanting to have a quick, rather than a long lunch, I found a sandwich shop and sat outside to enjoy my lunch.
After eating, I went back to Jacques Samuel and rented a practice room for another hour, so that I could get in my full three hours. I still had more Bach to practice! I did some scale velocity work, and then settled into Bach’s Invention #2, a piece I find deeply satisfying to play. The theme is somewhat angular, and not at all predictable, but I find it compelling. The practice room I got this time had a smaller grand than the first room, but actually sounded better due to better matching the room acoustics.
After finishing my practice, I returned to the Marble Arch subway station, and realized that I’d misplaced my day pass for the “tube” as they call it here. My next destination was only about a mile away, so I elected to just walk. It was a gorgeous day in London – the sun was out, about 65 degrees, and the sidewalks were packed with people. I have long legs, and generally walk quickly, but not today. The British are not a tall people, and I suspect I stuck out rather conspicuously as I weaved my way through the foot traffic. Anyone who thinks America has a lock on personal consuption hasn’t walked a mile on Oxford Street – wall to wall stores of every variety, brand, and description. But I was after something much more focused than expensive t-shirts and ripped jeans.
My next stop was at the largest music store in London, Chappell of Bond Street. They have been selling sheet music and pianos since 1811. Beethoven sent them some of his scores to publish. Ironically, they are no longer on Bond Street, but their three story facility is a must stop for the serious musician in London. The ground floor has a whole range of digital pianos, band instruments, etc. Chappell is wholly owned by Yamaha now, and this is their flagship store in the UK, so you can guess who manufacturers these instruments. The third floor houses their acoustic pianos. Because Yamaha also owns Bosendorfer, I went upstairs to see what they had. They had two small Bosendorfer instruments, both under 6′, though one was the “Chopin” edition in a fancy case. They clearly didn’t want anyone to touch them (big signs saying so) and there were no benches. I wasn’t interested in any of the numerous Yamaha pianos crowding the floors (it is not a tone I desire, though they are well-made instruments), so I went down to the basement.
The basement is a massive sheet music store, and a veritable treasure trove of Western civilization. One wall is piano scores from the Rennaissance through modern day. Every top publisher, urtext edition, and composer is fully represented, often their entire catalog! For an example of the level of selection they offer, I spotted a hardcover edition of all of Shostakovich’s work by a Russian publisher (50 volumes), plus facsimile editions of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven works (fascimile editions are full-sized copies of the actual autograph score – you see every mark the composer put on the page in his own hand). These fascimile scores are quite expensive, ~ 350 pounds ($560 US), but what an amazing study tool. Another wall was dedicated to opera music, and huge cases of chamber music, instrumental concertos, etc. abounded. Many of the publishers that first published Beethoven, Mendelssohn, and other greats are still printing music, and were well-represented in the bins. There were several large racks of clearance Henle urtexts at half off! (An urtext is a scholarly edition that is believed to be as accurate as possible to the autograph score, typically printed with a very high-quality process – they are vastly preferred to cheap anthologies and reprints). It took me the better part of two hours to survey the store. Like a kid in a candy store, I could have spent thousands of pounds without blinking. The place is like a library of western art music, but you can take EVERYTHING home! Amazing.
ABRSM is one of the neat things about the UK. It is an educational institution that has graded instructional materials for all the instruments. Their materials are vastly superior to the typical Hal Leonard and Mel Bay books that flood American music stores. But ABRSM also produces top-quality urtext editions of many significant works in their “Signature Series”. Because they have to be imported to the US, these are not cheap and you have to wait for them to be shipped. For some time, I have had my eye on their recent boxed-set edition of Beethoven’s 32 Piano sonatas. It is exceptionally well printed and has outstanding performance notes from the pre-eminent Beethoven scholar of the modern age, Barry Cooper. I just finished reading his excellent biography of Beethoven on the plane ride over here. There are certainly other significant Beethoven editions, but this may be the best one available. As you might guess, I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to get it at substantial savings. I also added their edition of Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier, vol 2. I have a Henle Urtext of vol. 1, but prefer this ABRSM edition for its excellent performance notes which combine several leading voices. While there are many, many worthy works for the piano, Bach’s Well-Temered Clavier, and Beethoven’s piano sonatas are going to form the backbone of my piano studies over the next several years.
On the walk back to the hotel, I realized that I should have bought scores for the Shostakovich and Tchaikovsky works that I will be attending at the London Symphony Orchestra next Thursday. So after relieving myself of an entirely too-heavy backpack of camera equipment, and pausing to work out some counterpoint exercises from Fux’s Gradus und Parnassum, I walked back to Chappell’s and bought some miniature study scores. For the Tchaikovsky Symphony No. 3, I really didn’t want the Dover edition with symphonies #1-3 in one volume, so I asked if they had any with No.3 only. They had all the other Tchaikovsky symphonies in miniature study scores on the shelf, but not No. 3. Happily, they had a Eulenbug miniature study score in the back! These smaller scores would be awful to play from, but are perfect for overviewing the work and following along in the concert hall. When I am trapped in hotel rooms this week, unable to practice, I will use these scores to identify the major themes and structure of the pieces so that I can be familiar with them at the concert and better enjoy the performance. I also picked up a sale Henle edition of eight Mozart minuets, so that will be fun to sample when I get home.
On the way back to the hotel, I capped off my first perfect day with some tasty Vietnamese food for dinner. Of all the Asian cuisines, I think Vietnamese is my favorite because it always tastes so fresh. Stopping at a magazine store to peruse the European music magazines, I picked out the latest issue of Sound on Sound for their review of the new Korg Kronos synthesizer and some German chocolate with hazelnuts. I have been a fan of Rittersport since first having it in Germany 15 years ago!
Having just received my laundry back, I am now going to settle into some score reading!
Tune in tomorrow for the next installment.
A few years ago, I was an avid motocyclist. One of my favorite things to do was to ride my motorcycle on a racetrack. I was never a racer, and never entered a race. But with a trackday organization, I could take my motorcycle out to the track and safely ride as fast as i wanted to on some of the best courses in California. But before getting out on the track, I had to attend track school. It turns out that our visual system is designed for 0-35 mph (about as fast as an Olympic sprinter can run). In driver’s education, we learn that to drive on the highway we have to look further ahead due to the increased speed. On a racetrack, where 55mph would be a slow turn, it becomes necessary to look even farther ahead. This is not natural, and so, the instructors repeated over and over again that “speed is learned”. In fact, they stated that as we practiced our brains would increase the speed at which they processed what was in front of us. This would allow us to go faster without falling over.
It turns out that the brain is VERY conditioned to certain speeds and has a definite comfort zone. This comfort zone is so narrowly defined on a racetrack that 2mph faster feels extremely fast and uncomfortable! Unless conscious effort is applied, our brains have us lapping at very close to a constant time, lap after lap. Going faster is not comfortable, despite being safe! Despite being more than 60 seconds a off the race pace, my brain was convinced that if I went any faster, I would crash for sure. Now, although going much faster than legal highway speeds, I was nowhere near the safe limits of my motorcycle. On turns the racers would take at 130+ mph, I was only going 90mph and feeling like it was as fast I could go without falling over. Despite being highly skeptical of the claim that my brain was sensitive to 2mph differences, it turned out to be true.
At the end of track school, the instructors staged a “mini race”. There were no trophies, and it was only three laps. We gridded up like the start of a real race and took off. My first track school I came in at the back of the pack, having lost a pitched battle for 2nd to last. At the same time, I had lapped over 15 seconds faster than my best time. (15 seconds is an eternity on the racetrack). The competition had distracted my brain and so it processed the track faster than it was used to by a significant margin.
The same thing tends to happen in music making. Left to our own devices, without a metronome, we will tend to practice in a very narrow tempo band. At the beginning, this will be very slow. Our brains are convinced that going faster is hard, uncomfortable and confusing. Yet, the reality is that our bodies are capable of extremely precise and quick movements. You can demonstrate this by simply rolling your fingers sequentially on the piano or fretboard. Just roll from the pinky to the thumb: 5-4-3-2-1. See how fast you can do it. Even as a first-day beginner, this movement can be done faster than is ever needed to play great masterworks. It is an easy movement, natural for the hand, and one that we don’t even need to practice to execute at very high rates of speed.
The issue is not our playing mechanism. Our bodies are capable of fast precise movements all the time. Our brains, however, struggle at first with the complex new patterns we want to execute with our fingers. The issue is not our muscles, though they grow in strength over time. Effortless speed comes when our brains know exactly what to do and how to direct very small movements with precision. As the speed increases, our brain must “look” further and further ahead, as it has less and less time to coordinate each action. Because these patterns of movement are new and unfamiliar, our brain struggles to figure out how to tell our bodies what to do. With repetition at comfortable speeds, our brains gain confidence and learn how to control all the fine muscles needed to play with subtle expression, speed and power.
In the next installment, we’ll discuss several procedures for increasing speed.
My father-in-law is a master woodworker. He has a special relationship with his tools, and is always looking at new and better ones, maintaining his existing tools, or devising new ways to use them. As a musician, I’m not particularly interested in woodworking tools, but have a ongoing passion for the instruments I play. When you spend hundreds and thousands of hours using the same instrument, you become very, very familiar with it. Its strengths and limitations become very well known. As with tools, the lowest quality instruments are not really suitable for fine work – they can be good for one time, or disposable use, but generally are not useful for artist-grade efforts. Then, there is the level of “professional” tools. These are well-made, well-designed tools that will last a lifetime if well-cared for. They aren’t cheap, but represent solid value, and a worthwhile investment. At the very highest end, though, are fine, generally hand-made tools, put out in small quantities by passionate people. In the tool trade, these items are often exquisitely finished, and yet they retain all the usefulness and durability of standard tools. They are a pleasure to use, and for the woodworker, give pleasure each time they are used.
The parallels to instruments fall pretty neatly to hand. The very lowest quality instruments at local music stores are more of a frustration than a help to diligent study, but there is a wide range of well-made instruments that offer excellent value and long-term playability. This post, however, concerns the high-end, and the very high-est end, at that. Most musicians retain a certain pragmatism about instruments – good professional quality instruments are expensive: good guitars are $2-5k, and pianos are $20-50k for quality grands. Concert-grade instruments are far more expensive, but any of these instruments will support advanced work, and represent a substantial investment. Most people will sacrifice to purchase an instrument at the “professional” level and then use it for a lifetime. Concert instruments are generally reserved for day-dreaming. In fact, if one is thinking “rationally”, it would be hard to justify buying a better instrument as it isn’t necessary to keep improving one’s own abilities.
The piano in my office certainly falls into this category. It is a delightful instrument. When playing it, I have no sense of lack (except that I need to have the action regulated at present, which is no reflection on the overall quality of the instrument). Truthfully, I could work on the most advanced pieces in the canon of piano music and not find the instrument holding me back. But, that said, there are still nicer pianos….much, much nicer pianos. This piano is my second, and a big upgrade from the piano I inherited from my grandfather. But I have played many high-end pianos, so I know that it is possible to upgrade yet again.
This past weekend, we were on the Oakland side of the Bay, and i remembered that there was a high-end piano dealer there. It turns out it was only 2 miles from where we were, so off to Piedmont Piano, we went! Piedmont is the San Francisco area dealer for Fazioli and C. Bechstein, both “Tier One” piano’s in Larry Fine’s ranking system. Both are handmade in small quantities to an absolutely exceptional standard of quality. They are as expensive as exotic sports cars like Porsche, or Ferrari. You could buy a house or apartment for the cost of these pianos in most areas of the country. But the sound, the touch, the finish – everything is magnificent. There are different pianos, but not better at this level. These are among the finest pianos in the world.
Previously, when living in the New York City area, I have played Steiways, Mason & Hamlin, Bosendorfer and Fazioli, among others. The Bosendorfer and Fazioli were both amazing instruments, and left a lasting impression. When looking at pianos in this league, I prefer instruments 7′ (200cm) and larger as the tonal quality shifts dramatically to the upside around this length. After all, who wants a 4 cylinder Ferrari? The real choices are V8 vs. V12 for enthusiasts of the marque! Instruments at 7’6″ (228cm) and above are my main interest in a high-end piano. These are considered “semi-concert grands”, since the full-sized versions are 9′ (278cm) or longer. The extra length improves the bass substantially vs. smaller grands, and the much larger soundboards increase resonance across the range of the instrument.
I sat down first at a C. Bechstein C 234, a roughly 7’6″ grand, second in their line only to the 9′ instrument. It was exceptional in every way. The sound was rich and full, the action was magnificent (pointing out that I really do need to get my piano regulated). It was effortless to play quietly, and evenly – the action was delightful. The piano had a strong singing treble, and seemed particularly resonant in the 5th and 6th octaves, though there may have been something going on with the piano’s position in the room that made it seem that way. I doubt there is any actual resonance difference from top to bottom in an instrument of this quality. While having no complaints about my piano, the C234 was ample proof that much better instruments are available. Taking the Bechstein C234 home would cost $135,000 USD at the sticker price.
Next, I sat down at the Fazioli F278 (9′) concert grand which was placed on a small raised stage in the showroom. I believe this to be the finest piano that I have ever played. At a list price of $180,000 USD, it is also the most expensive I have played. This instrument was simply stunning in every regard. The action was light, but fully controllable, it was effortless to play. No matter how slowly I depressed the key, I could never feel the knuckle of the action. The sound ranged from gentle to thunderous, with a deep, rich, toneful bass. Harmonies two octaves below middle C were rich and sonorous, not boomy and muddy. The treble sparkled and resonance extended to the very highest notes.
At the suggestion of Ross Gualco, the friendly and professional salesman assisting me, I then went to the Fazioli F228, their 7’6″ instrument. He indicated that for his money, it was just as good in a home environment and possessed a more intimate sound. I had played a F228 in NYC probably 10 years ago, and enjoyed an almost trancendental experience on it, matched only by a Bosendorfer of the same length in Philadelphia, so I happily sat down at the bench. The piano was tremendous, superlative, and over-the-top excellent in every way. Action and tone were identical to the F278 except in the very lowest octaves. But just as when Ferrari aficionados debate V8 vs V12 engine configurations, there are differences beyond the size and price. The larger soundboard and string length do provide an audible difference. In fairness, this is a subtle difference. The F228 has a lovely, rich bass, and would not disappoint in any way, and is far superior to my 6′ Steinway. But where the F228 is excellent in every way, the F278 possessed magical properties in the lower register. Playing soft 10ths in the bass of the F278 is something that I don’t think would ever grow old. The additional price of exercising this level of discrimination? $50,000 USD. The F228 lists for $130,000 USD vs. the $180k of the F278.
Overall, on this day, with these instruments, in the particular location in the showroom they were placed, I preferred both Fazioli instruments to the C. Bechstein. This is in no way a slight to the Bechstein. At this level there are no bad pianos – this is the choice between having a day at the racetrack with a brand new Ferrari or a Lamborghini – there is no bad choice, but individuals will have preferences based on largely personal factors. The Fazioli action felt faster and more controllable to me, but I can easily see where another pianist would prefer the Bechstein. I suspect that if both were weighed off, the touch-weight might well be identical, but I preferred the Fazioli to a significant degree as it seemed lighter, yet with the same control. Another pianist might well prefer what felt like an ever-so-slightly heavier action on the Bechstein. Understand that we are discussing very small differences, so small that adjustment by a qualified technician might equalize the difference, making a final determination tricky indeed. Between the Fazioli’s, I choose the V12 – make mine a F278, gloss black will do nicely! I have always bought instruments for how they sound, and apparently my ear has little interest in commercial matters (not a new discovery).
The reality is that all these pianos are well past the point of diminishing returns. They are constructed to a standard of excellence, not to meet some cost-benefit ratio in an accounting department. The piano I currently own is an exceptional value. It is worth as much or more than I paid for it because of the deal I obtained on it. But the Fazioli and the Bechstein don’t have to be measured on a value scale, they are good enough to measure on the scale of absolute excellence. Shopping at this level must not be about price, but about refinement, personal preference, and superlative execution.
Given that the median income in the United States is currently about $50,000, why even discuss this? These pianos cost several years of income for all but our wealthiest citizens, and that doesn’t count living expenses or a big enough room. If practicality and affordability are the primary concerns, this is indeed a moot discussion. The reality is though, that if it was important enough many could eventually afford an instrument in this range. Compound interest is an amazing thing, but for me, the primary benefit of looking at the “ne plus ultra” of instruments is a personal matter.
Bechsteins, Fazioli’s, Bosendorfers, and other top brands are for me, aspirational instruments. You see, I aspire to play as well as these instruments are made. I want to play so well that these instruments are the logical instruments to play on. In every human endeavor, the finest artisans use the finest tools. While anyone with the money can purchase the instruments, they still won’t deliver their ultimate potential outside of matching skill. Just like a $60,000 medium-format digital camera will take bad snapshots just as easily as a cell-phone, it is capable of the highest quality photographic artistry in skilled hands. If you know how to to use them, there can be a lot of joy in working with the finest tools. That is the experience I want – to be the artist able to exercise such a tool. Though my present instrument can “say” all the things written in the score with proper training and practice, a better instrument will allow it to be “said” better at every level of technical development.
Ultimately, however, there is not some magical level of development where one “deserves” a Fazioli, or a Bosendorfer. One simply affords them. As magnificent as they are, they are still just pianos, sold in dealerships like many other goods. They will wear out and need rebuilding under heavy use just like all other pianos. If the money is available, it is only a decision as to whether or not to buy and enjoy one. There is no artistic merit committee that hands these out to “deserving” artists. If there were, it is unlikely I’d receive a phone call, but that is not the point. The dealership auditions bank accounts, not musicianship. In fact, truly deserving artists often buy their own simply because it is the right tool for their personal practice and expression and they don’t want to be beholden to a marketing department where their art is concerned. Certainly, some wealthy people buy them as status symbols or as interior decorations, which is perfectly acceptable, and takes nothing from their musical value. From my view, this keeps these fine manufacturers in business producing the finest instruments in the world, so that I can aspire to own and play one.
Some musicians will find this to be just absurd, like a teenage boy fantasizing about the hard choice between buying a Ferrari or a Lamborghini while surviving a shift at the local fast-food restaurant. But just like the boy can develop a career or business and someday buy that Lamborghini, so a musician can aspire to play and ultimately purchase a Fazioli F278, or a $180,000 violin. Whether that is worth it for any particular person, I can’t say, but for me, I aspire to the big, black, V-12 Fazioli. It is an instrument to enjoy for a lifetime, not only for what it is, but also for the world-class excellence it represents. I fully understand that having the piano won’t make me a world-class player, but I’m quite sure it won’t hurt my enthusiasm for practicing!
Of course, Fazioli does make an F308 (10’2″)…. And there is the Bosendorfer 290 to consider…. What instrument do you aspire to? What tools do you want to work with? As a craftsman, what gives you pleasure in addition to the work itself? Do you have an aspirational instrument? Do you aspire to own the finest tools and learn how to wield them as befits their manufacture?
The title is a nod to Kaja and Phil Foglio’s outstanding graphic novel, Girl Genius. I tripped across it last week, and spent several hours catching up. Fantastic artwork, coloring, and a wildly creative storyline. If you follow the link, I can’t be responsible for the interruption to your schedule! You have been warned! Double warnings if you have a math/science/engineering background.
In this story, the main characters are all “sparks” – highly gifted intellectuals who build amazing things – the prototypical “mad scientists”. They are constantly inventing, rebuilding, repairing or improving any technological device they come in contact with.
In transporting my keyboard this week, I left the USB cable plugged in the back. This was not a smart move, as I managed to catch the cable while picking it up. This torqued the USB port sufficiently that it no longer worked. As a result, I lost 5 hours of practice time over the weekend. An expensive lesson in cable management! While on the road over the weekend, I was unable to use it for practice as that was how I was connecting it to my computer.
Once at home, however, I felt the “spark”, and knew what I needed to do. First I opened the keyboard up and removed the damaged USB jack from the circuit board. I suppose I could solder a new one on, but for now, I just wanted to be back up and working quickly. I buttoned the keyboard back up, and found a wall-wart adapter from the spare parts bin. The keyboard was marked 9V, but USB is only about 5V, so I settled on a 7.5V adapter. Sure enough, the keyboard powered right on. I also had a 12V adapter, but ran with the more conservative supply since it was doing the job. Most electronics accept a range of voltages and have compensation circuits in the power supply, so I wasn’t worried about it not being exactly 9V. Next was getting the keyboard connected back to my computer.
This keyboard has the USB port I removed as well as standard MIDI ports. I haven’t used the MIDI ports, ever, I don’t think, but rather than buy a new keyboard over a $1 jack, I dug out an old USB-Midi interface that I haven’t used in years and found some drivers on the Internet. After a quick reboot, I was back in business. Having a MIDI keyboard is important to me because it makes early morning practice a reality while the rest of the house is sleeping. I now have an extra cable and a small green box to take with me if I travel again, but the keyboard is still useful.
As electronic surgery goes, this was pretty minor, but it rescued me from my own disaster. I find it funny that it ended up on top of a Linux pocket reference, that is itself on a stack of raw hard drives. How geeky is that? Now I need to tuck it away so that it is all invisible. Sometimes it comes in handy to have a miscellaneous collection of electronic music stuff, cables, etc. When feeling sparky, sometimes it all comes together!
This week, I was scheduled to be out of the house for four days, but within driving distance, so I decided to bring my keyboard setup to keep practicing. This is the same rig that I use for my early morning practice, as I can work without disturbing a sleeping house. Here’s what it looked like in the dimly lit hotel room, courtesy of my phone:
The keyboard just fit across the backseat of the car, and was a bit of a hassle to get up to the room (elevators are small when carrying something 5′ long!). Once set up, it was quite workable. This particular keyboard is just a controller – it has no sounds built into it. The cable to my computer is a USB cable that allows me to play samples located on the computer. I use Apple’s Mainstage application for this as it is built into Logic Studio. The default Steinway grand samples are quite acceptable for practice use.
Also visible in the picture: my music (on the left), my practice notebook (on the right), metronome, audio interface, etc. Despite having metronome software on both my computer and my phone, the physical metronome is faster to adjust and use. The phone was sitting next to the metronome, and acting as my practice timer. It is certainly more than I would want to fly with, but it worked fine for this trip. The sound, touch, etc are all much less satisfying than the grand piano in my home office, but when trying to make do on the road, it was a great way to keep moving on my pieces and skills.
I do find that once a piece is headed into the “performance polishing” bin that it is not useful to practice on this rig anymore. It is great for working out fingering, and getting things to a base tempo. The action is not sufficiently responsive to work effectively on subtle interpretive details, though the outline can be put in place.
For those wondering, I have a thin rubberized keyboard overlay with all the shortcuts for Final Cut Pro printed on top. It is useful for that application, of course, but also keeps the keyboard clean. I forget about it, but people always ask what happened to my keys.