Becoming a Virtuoso Musician Part 1 – Introduction

 

I have been asked how to become a virtuoso musician many times and plan on doing a series on the subject. This is an introduction to the topic for you.

 

You probably assume that to become a virtuoso it will take hours and hours of practice of scales, arpeggios, repertoire, playing with other musicians, sight reading, and everything else that is involved in becoming an expert in your field; but there is more.

 

When it comes to the mechanics of playing an instrument and really mastering it, there is one similarity that all virtuoso musicians share. And this doesn’t just apply to musicians – it applies to any field from athletics to architecture, the absolute experts in their fields all share this similar quality.

 

At one point in their lives they immersed themselves so completely in their craft for an extended period of time that they developed a mastery that put them on a new level.

 

What does this entail for musicians? It means taking the time and effort to immerse themselves in their craft and even if they don’t always practice intensely every day for the rest of their lives, they have gone through a sustained period of time in their lives when they practiced nearly every available waking hour developing an extremely high degree of mastery of their instrument.

 

One parallel concept is what it takes to launch a craft into space. You need to travel a certain speed in order to break through the atmosphere and escape earth’s gravitational pull. If you continue to travel at a constant speed, you could travel forever but you would never escape earth’s atmosphere. You must hit a certain speed to break through that plane and get yourself out of the earth’s orbit. The same principle applies to becoming a virtuoso; at some point you have to dedicate a significant amount of time in your life perfecting your craft and by the end of it you will have emerged as a different caliber of player.

 

It isn’t just a matter of how many years you practice, there also has to be an extended time in your life dedicated to absolute mastery of your field. I have spoken with countless virtuoso musicians, artists, and people in many different fields who have great accomplishment, and they all have this exact same thing in common. If you have any similar stories I would love to share them.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729.

  I have been asked how to become a virtuoso musician many times and plan on doing a series on the subject. This is an introduction to the topic for you.   You probably assume that to become a virtuoso it will take hours and hours of practice of scales, arpeggios, repertoire, playing with other musicians, sight reading, and everything […]

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Wood Piano Actions Vs. Plastic Piano Actions

 

This is a very interesting topic and one that is relevant to the reality of modern day piano building. There was a time when piano actions were made entirely of wood parts but with advances in technology come newer and cheaper alternatives. Today we are going to discuss whether or not plastic actions are as good – or better – than their wooden counterparts.

 

If you’ve ever looked at a piano action you notice the sheer complexity of it – there are literally thousands of parts. For centuries, piano actions were made out of wood. As time went on and plastics became better, some piano companies began experimenting with putting plastic into their actions in order to cut down on costs.

 

Early attempts at incorporating plastic parts in actions in the 1950s and 1960s – were wrought with problems because the plastic would become brittle and break over time. These piano actions can be a nightmare to work on and generally should be avoided.

 

In recent years plastics have come a long way. In fact, Wessel, Nickel & Gross have invented a carbon fiber action that has no wooden parts at all! These actions play differently from traditional actions and are very high quality and can be found in new Mason & Hamlin pianos.

 

Generally, companies started to rely on plastic parts in their actions because they are easier and cheaper to mass produce. This is not technically a bad thing but most of the companies that are cutting costs are using plastic for some parts of their actions and not all of them. This can cause problems because wood will expand and contract with changes in the weather and room climate – yet plastic will not. This can create problems in some situations with notes hanging up. If you live in a place with widely different temperatures sometimes an all wood or all synthetic action will be a better choice for you.

 

Another issue with plastic actions are new designs and technologies that require new skill sets to work with. A wood action has been the standard for so long that any reputable piano technician should be able to work with them. When it comes to plastic actions or carbon fiber actions, you might have to search for someone who is familiar with those particular actions and possibly have access to spare parts if necessary.

 

There are many great companies like Kawai and Mason & Hamlin that utilize plastic and synthetics in their piano actions and they have had great results. However, the vast majority of great pianos in the world still utilize wooden actions – such as Hamburg Steinway and Bösendorfer (which both use Renner Actions made entirely out of wood).

 

More than anything, it’s finding the right piano and action for you. You should certainly be wary of actions that mix wood and plastic in more extreme climates but overall there are new technologies available that are worth your consideration.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

  This is a very interesting topic and one that is relevant to the reality of modern day piano building. There was a time when piano actions were made entirely of wood parts but with advances in technology come newer and cheaper alternatives. Today we are going to discuss whether or not plastic actions are as good – or better […]

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Can You Replace Just one Piano String?

 

Last week we talked about how long piano strings last, today we are going to discuss whether or not it’s possible to replace only a single string. This is something I deal with on a regular basis. I have very intense practice sessions and I regularly break strings on my Baldwin SD-10 concert grand piano.

 

When it comes to piano, you should always have an experienced tuner or technician replace the string for you – unless you are well versed in servicing pianos. You must install the correct gauge string properly so it matches the other strings – you will want to make sure it’s wound tightly and that the becket (the part of the string that points out from the hole) is flush, among other issues that must be addressed when replacing a string. It’s not a job for an amateur.

 

If you’re familiar with other string instruments, like guitar for example, you know that replacing a single string can be a bit problematic. In the case of a guitar, replacing one string will cause that string to stand out from the older ones on the instrument. It will have a brighter sound and it will go out of tune much more easily than the strings you already have on there until it stabilizes. When it comes to piano, you will find similar problems.

 

Replacing a single string on a piano will cause that string to go out tune quite regularly. It will need to be touched up regularly – possibly eight to ten times before it holds a tuning. What a lot of piano tuners will do is to stretch the string a little sharp and insert a small rubber wedge to avoid hearing the out of tune string. The next time they come to tune the piano the string will probably hold pitch better and they can hopefully get the piano back to normal.

 

What I suggest for serious players is to become somewhat competent in touching up the tuning of your piano. I own a tuning hammer and a set of wedges and I constantly touch up the tuning of my piano. This enables you to enjoy your piano without having to constantly have a technician or tuner come over to tune your new strings. It’s worth learning if you find yourself breaking strings regularly. Not only that, but you can keep your piano in tune longer by touching up the tuning between piano technician visits.

 

When it comes to copper wound bass strings, there is a bit more involved. These strings are very specific and it may require you to send in the string to the manufacturer and have them send you a replication. Mapes is a great string manufacturer that provides this service. If the piano is very old and the bass strings are a bit tarnished, a new bass string could be significantly brighter than the others. At this point you might consider replacing the whole set of bass strings which could really brighten up the sound giving new life to your piano.

 

It’s not the end of the world breaking piano strings, but it requires some work and the help of an experienced tuner to remedy the situation. If you find yourself breaking strings regularly, you should consider learning how to touch up the tuning on your piano. You may also consult with your piano technician to see if there are issues with your piano that are causing strings to break.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com

  Last week we talked about how long piano strings last, today we are going to discuss whether or not it’s possible to replace only a single string. This is something I deal with on a regular basis. I have very intense practice sessions and I regularly break strings on my Baldwin SD-10 concert grand piano.   When it comes […]

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Why are Instruments in Different Keys?

 

When you think about all instruments being in different keys it can be confusing. You have clarinet in B-flat, saxophone in E-flat, and French horn in F: why are they pitched in different keys? It seems it would be better to just write everything in concert pitch, wouldn’t it? Believe it or not, it makes a lot more sense to have some instruments in different keys.

 

When you look at the family of saxophones you may realize that all the different types of saxophones are pitched differently – yet they all have roughly the same fingerings. This enables a saxophone player to move from instrument to instrument seamlessly. The saxophone is also a transposing instrument. This means that a saxophone pitched in E- flat playing a C will sound an E-flat on the piano which is in concert pitch. Many instruments are transposing instruments which do not play in concert pitch.

 

This is where it can become confusing because a conductor will have to transpose many parts of the score because an orchestral score is not written in concert pitch. He or she must know what key the instruments are in and be able to transpose the notes instantly to ensure they are correct.

 

For instrumentalists it’s much easier. They only have to play the notes as written and everything will sound correct. However, there are some instrumentalists that do have to transpose. For example, I am also a French hornist and often there are pieces written in different keys from one-another. Even though the horn is an F instrument, you will find parts that are written in D or C or E-flat or other keys, and they are forced to transpose. This happens because the horn traditionally did not have valves so the composers wrote the parts in different keys to accommodate the music. The horn player would have to add additional pipes (or crooks) to pitch the horn differently for different pieces or different movements within the same piece. These parts were written so long ago that they must be transposed today with the modern valved French horn which is pitched in F (and B-flat with a double-horn, but that’s a story for another time!)

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@Livingpianos.com

  When you think about all instruments being in different keys it can be confusing. You have clarinet in B-flat, saxophone in E-flat, and French horn in F: why are they pitched in different keys? It seems it would be better to just write everything in concert pitch, wouldn’t it? Believe it or not, it makes a lot more sense […]

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Should You Start Learning on an Inexpensive Instrument?

 

This is an incredibly common question for many people and especially parents with younger children who are thinking about getting them music lessons.

 

The short answer – no matter if it’s for you or your child – should be to get the best possible instrument you can (and afford) at the very beginning.

 

A lot of people might look at this as being counterintuitive. Why would you want to buy something expensive and then be burdened later on with trying to sell it? The truth is, sometimes if you don’t invest in a good instrument it could lead to frustration and eventually end up in your child giving up entirely.

 

It’s important to commit to music lessons. If you don’t feel entirely committed or sure about something then you should look elsewhere. Music is something that takes a lifetime to master and if you think that you or your child is ready to embark on that journey then you should go full steam ahead.

 

However, starting with a cheaper instrument and working your way up can be a great option. As long as the instrument you are starting with is good enough to be played and won’t impede your progress or learning you will be fine. With pianos it’s a good idea to start with a high quality upright and then eventually upgrade to a baby grand or full size grand when the time is right. Just remember that you will eventually have to progress past an upright piano because the action is not the same as a grand piano – it will never be as quick and won’t be able to perform more advanced selections of music.

 

If you get the best instrument you can afford you won’t be sorry. Not only will the person learning be happier and more successful but it will actually retain its value much more than a cheaper instrument. Search around and find the instrument that’s right for you or your child.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com

  This is an incredibly common question for many people and especially parents with younger children who are thinking about getting them music lessons.   The short answer – no matter if it’s for you or your child – should be to get the best possible instrument you can (and afford) at the very beginning.   A lot of people […]

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Should You Play Famous Pieces of Music?

 

This is an interesting question because a lot of times people get into studying instruments because they are enamored with certain pieces of music. It may drive them to a certain instrument and they wish to recreate the sound and music they’ve heard before. But is it a good idea to fill your repertoire with well-known pieces?

 

There are a few things to keep in mind when learning any new piece. One of the biggest is the familiarity of famous pieces versus lesser known works. When it comes to learning a piece you’ve heard dozens or hundreds of times before it can become a crutch – you know what it sounds like and you will naturally emulate what you’ve heard in the past.

 

When it comes to pieces you haven’t heard before it may be much harder to learn them on your own. It’s actually quite an accomplishment and something you should definitely undertake in your musical development to learn music you’ve never heard before. Don’t listen to it at all while you are learning it. Simply figure out the music as written and use your knowledge as your guide. Once you feel confident with the piece and can play it well, listen to some recordings of it. You might be pleasantly surprised at different interpretations of the same piece and you will certainly be taken with how much of a unique spin you have put on your own version of the piece!

 

When it comes to public performances, is it better to play pieces the audience will be familiar with? There is such a wealth of music available and much of it is unknown to a lot of people. After all, Beethoven wrote 32 piano sonatas and only a handful of them are really well known. On the one hand, you might be worried that by playing famous pieces you will be compared to other musicians and you will be expected to perform at a certain level. This is not always the case.

 

A lot of times choosing a famous piece can be a safe bet for a performer. Orchestras constantly play the same symphonies and concertos over and over again because people really want to continue to hear the music they known. The audiences will show up time and time again to hear these pieces because they are well known and loved – just the thought of hearing them again makes them happy.

 

One of the best things you can do for your programming is to use famous pieces as a hook to get people interested and generate an audience. Once you have them there, play the famous pieces you promised but also mix in some lesser known works – you will expose them to additional music and they will love you for it. It’s a great idea to pepper your repertoire with famous pieces and lesser known ones as well.

 

Thanks again for joining me Robert Estrin Robert@LivingPianos.com (949) 244-3729

  This is an interesting question because a lot of times people get into studying instruments because they are enamored with certain pieces of music. It may drive them to a certain instrument and they wish to recreate the sound and music they’ve heard before. But is it a good idea to fill your repertoire with well-known pieces?   There […]

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